6 women directors and their groundbreaking movies


It seems to be a great time for women directors. They’re currently earning critical and/or commercial success (e.g., Kasi Lemmons’ Talk to Me and Sarah Polley‘s Away From Her). Not surprisingly, this celebration is accompanied by analysis of how little has actually changed. Women still have disproportionately few directing opportunities outside the realm of independent movies. As Terry Lawler, the executive director of New York Women in Film & Television, noted:

“While it’s wonderful to see all these women getting recognition, we have had these moments before where a door seems to open, and then it turns out that the door doesn’t lead anywhere.”

And Academy Award–nominated director Jane Campion recently voiced a similar analysis (basically, “Men control all the money”).

The subject is frustrating, but it warrants regular revisiting if things are ever going to change. And I’ll do the one thing I can do: recognize some of the great women directors and their stereotype-shattering, groundbreaking movies. This list is far from exhaustive and does not include lesbian directors of lesbian movies. So please don’t yell at me for excluding Angela Robinson and Rose Troche.

6. Ida Lupino, Not Wanted (1949)

Best known as a B-movie actress from the 1940s, Ida Lupino was also a prolific writer and director. She had already expanded from acting into production when the director of Not Wanted (aka Shame and Streets of Sin — how good does that sound?!) suffered a heart attack on the third day of filming. She took over as director and went on to a lengthy career in movie and television direction — including two episodes of Gilligan’s Island!

5. Barbara Kopple, Harlan County USA (1976)

Barbara Kopple, one of the few women directors in the 1970s, won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar for her first movie, Harlan County USA. The film told the story of the 1974 coal miner strike in Harlan County, Ky. She won a second Best Documentary Feature Oscar for 1990’s American Dream. Kopple has continued to direct documentaries and television (including Homicide: Life on the Street and OZ). Most recently, she directed Shut Up and Sing, the Dixie Chicks documentary that led me to road-trip to Nashville to see them in concert.

4. Penny Marshall, Awakenings (1990)

I’ll repeat the question that others have asked before: How does a movie get nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Adapted Screenplay and not get a Best Director nomination? Does the movie magically make itself? I’m not a huge fan of Awakenings, but I recognize that Penny Marshall is responsible for one of the most critically acclaimed movies of 1990. It would be nice if the Academy had recognized that as well.

3. Mimi Leder, The Peacemaker (1997) and Deep Impact (1998)

An Emmy-winning director for ER, Mimi Leder is notable for her direction of two commercially successful action-thrillers in the late 1990s, The Peacemaker and Deep Impact. Leder is credited with disproving the stereotype that women only make “women’s movies.” Unfortunately, she followed these successes with Pay It Forward. Blech!

2. Kimberly Peirce, Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

I know I said I wasn’t celebrating lesbian directors here, but Hillary Swank won Best Actress in a Leading Role for Boys Don’t Cry, and I simply must venerate Kimberly Peirce for just a moment. I have no choice in the matter. Boys Don’t Cry was both critically and commercially successful. It grossed 11.5 million dollars, which is pretty amazing for a story about a murdered transgender teenager. The supporting cast of Chloe Sevigny and Peter Sarsgaard certainly helped, but Kimberly Peirce deserves major credit for directing such an utterly compelling movie.

1. Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation (2003)

Sofia Coppola was only the third woman and the first American woman to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Had Lost in Translation not coincided with the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, she likely would have won. It’s easy to downplay Coppola’s accomplishments as nepotism. But she’s amazing because of her extraordinary professional redemption: Her performance in 1990’s The Godfather: Part III was universally panned, yet she came back to direct what was arguably the most critically acclaimed movie of 2003.