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Categories: Features

Karlanna Lewis, writing for Raindance, lists some of the bravest and most important female filmmakers in the history of cinema.

This article was originally written by Karlanna Lewis for Raindance.org. For more of Karlanna’s work, check out her website, karlannalewis.com

From the earliest days of moving pictures, men have dominated the industry both on and off-screen, but even before women had the right to vote, a few pioneer ladies were already becoming industry leaders. Because film is traditionally more closed to women, these daring ladies have had to be even more innovative to get their pictures noticed.

Women have always created alternate paths to cinematic success, such as founding their own production studios and appealing to unions. Only a few years ago did a woman finally win the Academy Award for directing. And the recent Bechdel Test in Scandinavia has highlighted the plight of women and female characters in movies.

From director Lois Weber, one of the top dogs in the silent film era, to Dorothy Arzner, possibly the only woman to direct major features in the Hollywood Hays Code years of 1930s America, certain maverick females continue to demand movie-goers’ respect. Representing three continents and every capacity from screenwriter to cinematographer, here are a few of film’s greatest female renegades.

1. 1896—Alice Guy-Blaché


Roles: Director/Producer/Screenwriter

Nationality: French

Maverick Movie: At the outset of her quarter-century career, in 1896 Guy-Blaché made the first narrative silent film, La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy). Guy-Blaché pioneered the fiction film movement and was one of the first to combine silent recordings with on-screen images, even experimenting with special effects such as double exposure and running films in reverse.

Other Work: Guy-Blaché got her start in film as head of production for Léon Gaumont and his Gaumont Film Company, a major influence on the nascent French film industry. After moving to the United States, together with her husband she formed the largest pre-Hollywood studio in America, The Solax Company. Because of the advanced production facilities they build in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the region grew into a burgeoning film area—the first film capital in the U.S.A.

2. 1953—Ida Lupino


Roles: Producer/Director/Actress

Nationality: British

Maverick Movie: Already a successful actress and with five feature films under her director’s belt, Lupino’s biggest leap came when she directed The Hitch-Hiker in 1953, credited as the first film noir by a woman. As the steering force behind the film, she elicited the genre’s typical irrational character traits in an all-male cast, dangerous personality elements usually confined to female roles in male-directed film noir.

Other Work: Born to a performing family, Lupino was primed for a show business career from a young age—as an early Hollywood actress she played in major features such as They Drive by Night and High Sierra opposite Humphrey Bogart. After leaving Warner Bros., she founded an independent company, The Filmakers (sic). The low-budget films she directed and produced—as Hollywood’s only female director of the era—focused on feminist issues from independence to sexuality. Rape was the topic of her film Outrage (1950). Later Dick Powell, David Niven and Charles Boyer invited Lupino to become their fourth star in their Four Star Productions company.

3. 1976—Lina Wertmüller


Roles: Screenwriter/Director

Nationality: Italian (of Swiss descent)

Maverick Movie: In 1976, Wertmüller recorded history with her film Seven Beauties (Pasqualino Sette Bellezze), becoming the first woman nominated for an Academy Award for directing. The lives of low-income Southern Italians, a reoccurring theme in her work, show up in this international success.

Other Work: After Federico Fellini offered her assistant directorship on the 1962 film 8½, she directed her own film, The Lizards (I Basilischi). Through both quality and quantity in her work, she increased the opportunities available to women in film. A Wertmüller quirk is the a-traditional and verbose titles of her films. One, Un fatto di sangue nel comune di Siculiana fra due uomini per causa di una vedova. Si sospettano moventi politici. Amore-Morte-Shimmy. Lugano belle. Tarantelle. Tarallucci e vino (1979, internationally known as Blood Feud or Revenge), holds the Guinness World Record for longest film title. Her films are political but not pedantic, focusing on communist, feminist and anarchist characters and socioeconomic conflicts. Hard-edge feminists criticize her stereotypical portrayals of the female-male dichotomy.

4. 1989—Euzhan Palcy


Roles: Director/Screenwriter/(Producer)

Nationality: French West Indies

Maverick Movie: Palcy’s 1989 film A Dry White Season, which humanized the Apartheid, made her the first black female director to produce a full-length feature with a major studio. Marlon Brando was so impressed with the project’s serious subject matter and Palcy’s commitment to social change he returned to the screen after a nine-year hiatus, acting without pay. Palcy is the only woman to direct Brando.

Other Work: Her first feature, Sugar Cane Alley (1983, see clip above), was produced on a budget of less than a million dollars, portraying the hardships of a family of black sugar-cane plantation workers through a young boy’s eyes. After he saw her work, Robert Redford made himself her “American Godfather” and selected her to attend the 1984 Sundance Director’s Lab. Palcy is the first black filmmaker to win a Cesar Award (from the French Academy); she also won the “Orson Welles Award” for lifetime achievement in film. In 1994 the French President honored her with the distinction of Knight in the National Order Merit, and a movie theatre in France is named “Cinema Euzhan Palcy.” Her most recent production is a Cannes-standout short Moly, about one-legged Senagalese filmmaker Moly Kane.

5. 1993—Jane Campion


Roles: Director/Producer/Screenwriter

Nationality: New Zealander

Maverick Movie: For 1992’s The Piano, Campion became the second woman nominated for Academy Award for Best Director at the 1994 ceremony, where the film won Best Original screenplay. The protagonist is a mute pianist struggling with her position in an arranged marriage in mid-19th century New Zealand.

Other Work: One of most successful Kiwi directors of any gender, Campion was born to an actress mother and theatre-director father. Her film Peel (1982) won the 1986 Short Film Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Her work is often historical, biographical and literature-inspired.

6. 1995—Chloë Sevigny


Role: Actress

Nationality: American

Maverick Movie: Sevigny began her film career as the HIV-positive Jenny in 1995’s controversial independent film, Kids. Through her portrayal she brought attention to the Nineties’ AIDS epidemic—an attention even more glaring due to her character’s young age. Through the rest of the film she is searching for Telly, the seventeen-year-old who, as her sole partner, must have infected her. Though the explicit subject matter—offered without moral judgment—earned mixed critical reception, the film serves as a wake-up call to the world about the lifestyles of urban youth.

Other Work: Although her primary reputation is as the reigning queen of indie film, Sevigny gained mainstream recognition for her role as the girlfriend of a transgender man (Hillary Swank) in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. A rebel by nature, she’s played in such independent films as American Psycho (2000), Palmetto (1998), Melinda and Melinda (2004), Barry Munday (2010) and Mr. Nice (2010). Sevigny is unapologetic about her roles in risk-taking films. In true independent spirit, she also launched a second career as a fashion designer. In 1997’s Gummo, telling the abuse and addiction-laden stories of nihilistic characters in impoverished Midwestern America, Sevigny served as both lead actress and fashion designer.

7. 2003—Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola

Roles: Screenwriter/Director/Producer/Actress

Nationality: American

Maverick Movie: For 2003’s Lost in Translation, which won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Coppola became only the third woman to be nominated for the Best Director award—stepping far out from her father’s shadow. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, and her Best Director nomination was the first for an American woman. With her screenplay win she extended her family’s Oscar legacy, making the Coppolas the second clan to win for three generations.

Other Work: As the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola and cousin of Nicolas Cage, Sofia was born into a film career. She first appeared as the baby in her dad’s The Godfather. Like Sevigny, Sofia Coppola is another with her own clothing line. In 1989 she collaborated with her father, writing for Life Without Zoe. All of Sofia’s first three own films—Lick the Star, The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, brought attention to her as a filmmaker in her own right.

8. 2007—Diablo Cody


Roles: Screenwriter/Producer

Nationality: American

Maverick Movie: Cody’s debut, the 2007 comedy-drama Juno, won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and her oft-quoted script is renowned for its witty banter. The title character, a sharp and independent teen mom-to-be, is very much a maverick herself. Juno’s unorthodox reaction to her pregnancy drew criticism from both pro-lifers and pro-choicers; neither Cody nor her character Juno fits in anyone’s box.

Other Work: After publishing a memoir of her stripping career, Cody moved into screenwriting. Following Juno’s success, Cody has sold a number of other edgy scripts, from the horror film Jennifer’s Body (note that horror is a stereotype-defying genre for a woman to write) to the dark comedy Young Adult. Not one to rest on her laurels, Cody now has directing ambitions.

9. 2008—Ellen Kuras


Roles: Cinematographer/Director/Screenwriter/Producer

Nationality: American

Maverick Movie: Kuras’ twenty-year project, The Betrayal — Nerakhoon (2008), for which she was all of cinematographer, director, screenwriter and producer, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature as well as the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for a documentary. The weighty doc follows a Laotian family’s journey to the States after the U.S. Secret War in Laos and the cultural obstacles they encounter in their new lives.

Other Work: Because most male directors prefer to oversee male teams, women cinematographers are rare in the industry. Kuras, through her skills and creativity, has built a reputation that brought directors such as Michel Gondry and Spike Lee to recruit her for projects. She managed camera operations for Gondry in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 2008’s Be Kind Rewind, and for Lee in 2000’s Bamboozled. Kuras also has a cinematographic specialty in documenting lives and careers of free-spirited musicians who share much of her appetite for rule-breaking (for example, 2005’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and 2006’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold).

10. 2010—Kathryn Bigelow


Role: Director

Nationality: American

Maverick Movie: For her direction of the war drama The Hurt Locker (2010), Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director. Not only did she foray into a genre considered particularly masculine, there she found success. With contemporary relevance as a film about the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker earned Bigelow a spot on Time’s list of the 100 Most Influential People of the Year in 2010.

Other Work: Since her first short, The Set-Up (1978), which deconstructs movie violence, Kathryn has always adventured into territory society marks as exclusively male. From cops (Blue Steel, 1990) to robbers (Point Break, 1991) to nuclear submarines (K-19: The Widowmaker, 2002), Bigelow’s films prove she can hold her guns better than many of the boys.

Fade Out:

According to Webster, a maverick is a dissenter, one who makes her own rules. By entering into, and succeeding, in a male-dominated occupation, these fearless women craft their own games by necessity.

But the women on this list have done more than that—they have opened doors for the next generations to follow. So who will the next generation be? We look forward to the surprises they will unreel!


This article was provided by Raindance, the UK's leading independent film festival and one of Europe's top film training providers. Find more articles, videos and indie film related content on their website, www.raindance.org.

Posted on Oct 5, 2015

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