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Women Directors-- Vive La Difference?

Last in a series charting the progress of women directors

November 20, 1986|NANCY MILLS

Do women make different kinds of movies than men?

The question comes up again and again. Most recently it surfaced at Sunday's "Women in Film Festival" seminar "What I Really Want to Do Is Direct!" Panel member Randa Haines ("Children of a Lesser God") observed, "Until women directors can offer the public a much larger body of work, there is no answer to that question."

Haines sidestepped an issue that has become increasingly controversial as more women strive to join the director ranks. Will there be any difference in what the public sees as more women get to direct?

Barbra Streisand said last May at New York's "Women in Film Week" celebration: "Women have a unique vision of the world. It is our instinct to nurture, to create life, not to destroy it. We must see that vision realized. We need to believe in our own sensibilities and our own power--but we need to do more."

Not everyone agrees with Streisand's belief in a female sensibility. "Psychologists have been studying gender differences since the early 1970s," observes Carol Jacklin, USC professor of psychology. Jacklin, with co-author Eleanor Maccoby, published "The Psychology of Sex Differences" in 1974.

"Women probably do see things differently," Jacklin says, "probably because of different experiences and the different status given to women, not necessarily because they're innately looking at different things."

Many women film makers today prefer to stress their equality with men rather than their uniqueness. They fear that acknowledging the existence of differences from men could cost them work. They haven't forgotten that movies labeled "woman's picture" spelled "failure" at the box office.

Independent producer Cindy Dunne ("The Boy in the Plastic Bubble") puts it this way: 'The more genderless we get, the more cooperation and understanding we will get. Genderless does not mean making us into eunuchs. I'd like to err on the side of cooperation."

Producer-director Fern Field ("Kane and Abel") believes that "genderless is not a step backwards. We're trying to eliminate discrimination of any kind. We can't take the position that if anything is done by women, it's necessarily better. The goal of any minority has got to be that people are perceived for what they are."

"Female sensibility is not a subject women want to discuss because it gets translated into 'Women can only do love stories,' " KCET executive Phyllis Geller explains. "This has probably been one of the biggest obstacles for women."

Obstacle or not, director Lynne Littman ("Testament") says, "I don't believe in denying the natural stuff you come to material with. What I object to is no point of view.

"Nobody would ask Richard Pryor to pretend he's not black. Why should the question come up about being called a woman? It just means I'm female. It doesn't mean anything antagonistic.

"The issue may be in guiding the material. If it's a macho film, the women can be interesting. Those are differences that can be put in and identified."

"There are different artistic levels at which directors function," Littman continues. "The more skillful an artist is, the more personal and stamped the work is. Most directors don't reach that point, but it's not necessarily everybody's goal. A lot want to be anonymous and entertaining and not make statements."

"American Playhouse" executive producer Lindsay Law may be giving women a left-handed compliment when he praises them for "digging deeper into themselves--both in what they bring to the project and the subject matter. Women seem to make things they care about, as opposed to 'I can sell this.'

"If you're thinking about your first or second movie, you haven't become clever yet. By the time you do your fifth film, you think you know what will sell."

Producers and studio executives respond to passion, but they also like to think about profit.

When women directors say apologetically, "I'm drawn to difficult material" (as several said during interviews for this series), how likely is it the executive will take out the company checkbook? If a male director puts forth a similar argument, will he be more apt to get a green light?

"A man is not considered wrong for anything," director Francine Parker ("Cagney & Lacey") observes. "George Cukor made some of our best women's films," producer/director Linda Yellen ("Playing for Time") points out. Warner Bros. executive Lucy Fisher cites Roland Joffe and Jim Bridges for their "humanist" films. Joan Micklin Silver ("Hester Street") adds dryly, "Men have been directing childbirth scenes for years."

If the "male sensibility" can cover such a wide range, what's to stop the "female sensibility" from being just as wide-ranging? "I can learn anything about anything," Francine Parker says. However, those who hire directors have to be convinced of that.

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