If you have been paying any attention to this year’s awards season and the run up to the 2019 Academy Awards, then you will know that the bulk of the intrigue and interest has been in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories rather than the male shortlists. The race between the likes of Olivia Colman, Glenn Close, and Lady Gaga has been a much harder fought and more widely covered saga than that of the Best Actor nominees like Christian Bale, Rami Malek and Viggo Mortensen, and this is a testament to the impact and hold on one’s imagination that a stellar leading actress performance can have.
Over the history of cinema, it’s fair to say that many of the names we still hold dear to our hearts, names that come to define the act of show business and the image of Hollywood, have been female. From Marlene Dietrich to Katharine Hepburn to Marilyn Monroe to Meryl Streep, is it the women of the film industry that remain longer in the hearts and minds of the movie going public. Of course, I can’t sit here and say that things are just as good behind the camera as they are in front of it.
The state of female representation in fields like directing is not nearly as high as it could and should be, but if you care to take a closer look, you will notice there has always been a spine of exceptional female talent in the movie industry. Let’s take a look at some of the most important and significant women in the history of cinema.
Margaret Booth was the first ever official film editor. That’s right, the first ever! Back in the days of the old studio system, women looking to get in to the industry were often given the low paying, low stakes job of ‘cutters’. Booth worked her up through the cutting avenue to be regarded as someone with the best eye for detail in the business, and when she moved to MGM, she was given the new title of editor by the legendary Irving Thalberg, and the rest is history! Her skills were recognized with a 1935 Oscar nomination for Mutiny on The Bounty, and she was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1978.
In similar precedent setting fashion, Alice Guy has the distinction of being the world’s first female film director. Born in Paris, France and inspired by the legendary Lumiere brothers, Guy made over 750 films for the Gaumont Film Company, punctuating her career with many ‘firsts’, the first film tied to sound, the first use of split screen, the first use of double exposure. Amazingly, she is also credited with inventing the close-up, something that would become a signature of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous works.
Melissa Mathison is a prime example of a talented woman in cinema whose achievements have been somewhat overshadowed by her association with a much more ‘famous’ and recognizable man. The first wife of star Harrison Ford, Mathison was a talented screenwriter, responsible for many films beloved by millions across the globe. She was nominated for an Academy Award in 1982 for a little movie called E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and also went in to pen the lines for many other family favorites across the years including The Indian In the Cupboard and The BFG.
There is no doubting that Martin Scorsese is a name that will live forever in the realm of cinema, but the impact of the iconic director’s back catalogue has another fingerprint on it, that of Thelma Schoonmaker. The pair met at New York University and have formed nearly five-decade partnership. Thelma has edited such classics as Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street. When people talk about true unsung heroes of cinema, Thelma Schoonmaker’s name should be top of the list. And indeed, this year, Thelma was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship (BAFTA is the UK equivalent of the Oscars). If you can, check out the amazing tribute BAFTA gave at the awards ceremony - it will be on Youtube and is the final part of the broadcast.
Dorothy Arzner was a force of nature female film director in an age when it was simply assumed that it was only a job for men. Starting as a typist for Paramount Pictures in 1919, she rose through the ranks to become the first woman to join the Director’s Guild of America. To help film stars like Clara Bow make the transition from silent to talkies, Dorothy invented what is now known as the boom mic, a piece of filmmaking equipment that is still used in pretty much every motion picture to this day. Clearly a woman with an eye for lasting talent, Dorothy Arzner is responsible for handing key early roles to icons like Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball.
One sector of the film industry that has always, and continues to be, a breeding ground for the multifaceted talents of women is the costume department. Head began her film career as a sketch artist for Paramount Studios, and by 1938 she had risen to the title of the studio’s chief designer. In a career that spanned almost sixty years, Edith Head worked on hundreds of standout films including All About Eve, Rear Window, Roman Holiday, Sabrina and The Sting. Between the years of 1949 and 1978 she received a record breaking 35 Oscar nominations, racking up eight wins in the process. With many of her designs being featured at patterns in fashion magazines of the time, along with appearances on daytime television, Edith became one of the first ‘off screen’ female film workers to become a household name.
Along with the very justified outcry for more opportunity and equality in the modern cinematic landscape, we also need to take the time to celebrate the achievements and lasting impacts of all of these amazing women from the past. All trailblazers in their own right, they should be seen as role models and sources of inspiration for the next generation of budding film makers, actresses and everything in between. The fight for equality on every rung of the film ladder is one that women are winning, and it is important to remember those who have paved the way, whilst at the same time celebrating each new success!
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