Last week, we lost one of the premiere female writer/directors in Hollywood. As Justin beautifully and succinctly put it in the obituary, Nora Ephron provided us with some truly iconic romantic comedies over the years. My personal favorite is Sleepless in Seattle (never much of a When Harry Met Sally fan, I have to admit). Ephron also had her fair share of flops: Bewitched, the somewhat icky update You’ve Got Mail, the subpar Michael. But she almost singlehandedly created the 1990s rom-com with the one/two punch of WHMS and Sleepless and made Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks into America’s couple. The formula may have been misused over the years, but I’m willing to bet that everyone, men and women, can name one Ephron film that they honestly love.
Beyond just the sorrowful loss of a stellar talent, what struck me in the aftermath of Ephron’s death was the fact that she’s one of the few female directors I’m aware of. It’s no secret that famous female directors have been few and far between; certainly there are few that can be named in the same breath and with the same quality of recognition as Scorsese, Coppola or Nolan. While male directors exist across the spectrum – art house favorites to experimental artistes to Hollywood heavy-weights – female ones have been typically put into genre specific categories: romantic comedies, romantic dramas. Romance in general. Y’know: chick flicks. Sophia Coppola hasn’t moved much outside the romantic drama distinction; Nancy Meyers lingers in it. And Ephron never moved outside of it either. She was perhaps the romantic comedy director and writer. When you knew it was a Nora Ephron film, you knew pretty much what to expect: a warm and fuzzy boy meets girl story with a happy ending, twists and turns and perhaps a nod to the screwball comedies and romantic melodramas of yesteryear. After all, Sleepless in Seattle is based on An Affair to Remember, an excellent romantic melodrama that always ends in tears of joy. These, dear reader, are chick flicks.
Which is all well and good, as far as it goes; everyone likes a good (emphasis, Hollywood, on GOOD) chick flick. But female directors are pigeon-holed; it is difficult for them to move outside of ‘womens’ issues’. Girls make movies about girly stuff. Boys, however, make movies about girly stuff; and about car chases, gangsters, bromances, Victorian romances, contemporary romances, wars, fantasy, sci-fi, and just about anything else they’d like to. While some directors, like J.J. Abrams or Michael Bay, might be classified as ‘action’ directors or ‘sci-fi’ directors, that classification has nothing to do with their gender.
There’s no doubt that the ladies have made some in-roads. Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for a very male-centric film The Hurt Locker; Angelina Jolie made Bosnian war pic In the Land of Blood and Honey. Julie Taymor proved herself more than capable of making one violent Shakespeare film with Titus. The problem is that we’re still talking about the fact that a woman made a movie, particular one outside the ‘chick flick’ genre, as ‘a woman made a movie.’ It’s surprising. Although I applaud this list on Media Academia of female directors and their high-grossing films, there’s still a problem: the vast majority of those films, with very few exceptions, are ‘women’s films’. I.e., they deal with issues of femininity, some of them well and some of them not quite so well. Of the three top-grossing female directors, two of them (Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron) are almost exclusively rom-com directors; Betty Thomas might be a high-grossing director, but I don’t think we’ll start speaking of her in the same breath with Scorsese any time soon.
When Bigelow made The Hurt Locker, Hollywood reeled not because someone made an excellent, suspenseful war film, but because a WOMAN made it. And really, we should have come to this a long time ago. Would you like to know who made the iconic film noir The Hitch-Hiker in 1953 (that’s almost sixty years ago)? Ida Lupino. Who revolutionized experimental filmmaking? Maya Deren. Hell, Kathryn Bigelow made Point Break, most bromantic film of all. Yet somehow we still cannot get past the idea of a female director. No one talks about male directors; there’s apparently no such thing as ‘mens’ issues’. We’re not surprised when Adam Shankman directs a musical; why the hell should we be surprised when Kathryn Bigelow directs a war film?
Last year, Hollywood discovered that women are funny. This year, they seem to be discovering that women are capable of being tough without dressing in skimpy outfits at the same time. So now perhaps it’s about time we began to believe that women are capable of making films as diverse and complex as any male; that they can make a war movie and a rom-com and a gross-out comedy and a prestige drama. Let’s stop looking at female directors as female directors. They’re just directors.