Marshall McLuhan once wrote, “The business of the writer or filmmaker is to transfer the reader or viewer from one world, his own, to another, the world created by typography and film.” Cinema is a language in itself, and it can be every bit as powerful as the written word. In an industry dominated by young individuals with the most access to big-name production companies, these five female filmmakers have opened our eyes to other worlds while reminding us that true artistry has no age limit.
Julie Taymor (63) may be best known for her work as director of Broadway’s “The Lion King,” but this first female to receive a Tony Award for directing a musical has also made a name for herself in the film industry. Taymor’s first film, Titus, was released in 1999, when Taymor was 46; Frida followed in 2002, and Across the Universe in 2007. Taymor was widely praised for her direction of Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina in Frida, which tells the true story of Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo. Frida earned six Academy Award nominations, and won two, make-up and original score. In his New York Times review, A. O. Scott wrote that the film’s, “bursts of color, imagination, music, sex and over-the-top theatricality [honored] the artist’s brave, anarchic spirit.” Taymor’s Across the Universe, a 1960s love story set to the soundtrack of the Beatles, received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical/Comedy, and won an Academy Award for Costume Design. Taymor has also successfully bridged the gap between cinema and stage in her 2010 adaptation and direction of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Independent film director Debra Granik (53) released her first feature-length film, Down to the Bone, in 2004, at age 41. Down to the Bone centers on an upstate New York mother who inadvertently falls in love with a nurse at her drug rehab facility. Granik also wrote the original screenplay, with creative partner Anne Rosellini. The director’s second feature, Winter’s Bone (2010), tells the story of Ree Dolly—played by Jennifer Lawrence—a teenager and the caretaker of her two younger siblings and catatonic mother. The film depicts Dolly’s search for her estranged drug-dealing father, who is the family’s only hope of avoiding eviction. Granik and Rosellini again wrote the film’s screenplay, adapting it from a novel by the same name. Philip Wilding called Granik’s film, “A vivid reworking of Daniel Woodrell’s novel that brings the book’s conflicted heroine to searing life in a piece of unhurried filmmaking too rarely seen these days.” Winter’s Bone won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Film at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and received four nominations at the 2011 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor.
English film director Phyllida Lloyd (59) has received widespread praise for her work in theatre and for directing the film version of Mama Mia! (2008), and The Iron Lady (2011). Before she was offered the chance to direct her feature debut, Mama Mia!, Lloyd accumulated a wealth of experience in play directing with multiple theatre companies—the Royal Exchange Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court Theatre, and the Royal National Theatre, to name a few. Her cinematic adaptation of the ABBA musical became a worldwide hit. By the end of 2008, Mama Mia! had become the biggest grossing film at the UK box office ever, as well as its most widely sold DVD. Lloyd had the opportunity to collaborate with Meryl Streep for the second time when she directed The Iron Lady, which tells the true story of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Streep). Lloyd’s most recent accomplishments include directing Henry IV in London’s West End, as well as working for London’s Apollo Theatre and on Broadway.
Claire Denis (70) is a French film director and writer whose work embodies themes of colonial and post-colonial West Africa and issues in modern-day France. Denis studied at the French Film School and released her debut feature film, Chocolat in 1988, at age 42. Chocolat, a semi-autobiographical reflection on African colonialism, was selected for the Cannes Film Festival and widely acknowledged as a remarkable first film. Denis’ knack for putting her finger on the pulse of the continent was described by Roger Ebert: “The land seems smaller at night than during the day. The horizon draws closer, containing strange rustlings and restlessness and the coughs of wild beasts, and voices carry a great distance
—much farther than the lights from the veranda. Chocolat evokes this Africa better than any other film I have ever seen. It knows how quiet the land can be, so that thoughts can almost be heard—and how patient, so that every mistake is paid for sooner or later.” Denis’ career continued with US Go Home (1994), Nenétte et Boni (1996), Beau travail (1999), Trouble Every Day (2001), and Vendredi soir (2002). Her most recent film, White Material (2009) also took place in Africa. In 2015, Denis announced that she was collaborating with Zadie Smith for her first English-language debut, High Life, a sci-fi film starring Robert Pattinson and Patricia Arquette. Read more about the film’s anticipated 2017 release here.
Most will remember Maya Angelou as an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) was her first of seven autobiographies, and she also published three books of essays and multiple books of poetry. She has reigned in honorary degrees and awards too vast to name. Angelou was also an accomplished screenwriter: her screenplay, “Georgia Georgia,” was the first screenplay to be written by a black woman. “Georgia Georgia” follows a woman with a passionate dislike for whites who falls in love with a white American photographer. In 1972, Swedish director and film critic Stig Bjorkman adapted Angelou’s original script, while Angelou—44 at the time—wrote the film’s soundtrack. Angelou gained experience writing music and lyrics by composing numerous tracks for her previously released studio albums: “Miss Calypso” (1957) and “For the Love of Ivy” (1968). She also worked with Godfrey Cambridge to create the musical score for the play “Cabaret for Freedom” in 1960. Though Angelou did not direct “Georgia Georgia,” the film is still inarguably her artistic work on multiple creative levels.
Ally Donovan is an English major and Film & Media Studies minor at Skidmore College. She is passionate about writing, and she feels lucky to have been able to explore this passion in Italy, England, and most recently, France. In her spare time she enjoys playing the guitar, listening to Bob Dylan, and cuddling with her dog.
Homepage photo credit: byronv2 via flickr (licensed)