A Step Forward, or a Sad Commentary?

April 17, 2015


Just two days after Warner Brothers announced that Michelle MacLaren would no longer be directing their big screen adaptation of Wonder Woman, they hired Patty Jenkins to take over the production. Within the world of Hollywood movie making, such changes of personnel are pretty routine if nerve wracking; studios worry about creating an impression of a project in trouble, lowering fans’ expectations and the potential opening week box office receipts for the movie. In this case, these anxieties were compounded by the specter of Hollywood’s dismal record of hiring women to direct any movies, let alone big budget franchise movies like Wonder Woman. The fact that the project centers on a woman superhero who has become a feminist icon made MacLaren’s departure all the more glaring. Warner Brothers had made much of the fact that MacLaren would become the first woman to direct a major comic book hero tentpole movie, one centered on a female protagonist who, despite her high profile in comic book pantheon, had never been successfully made into a major motion picture. As a result, most of the news stories reporting on Jenkins’s hiring linked her selection to Warner Brothers desire to keep a woman at the director’s helm.

Patty Jenkins
Patty Jenkins

So was Jenkins hired “because” she was a woman? And why is it such a big deal that a super hero movie be directed by a woman? Is this announcement a sign of a step forward for Hollywood, the beginnings of change in an industry where in 2014 women only directed an astonishing seven percent of the 250 top grossing movies? Or does the attention focused on this announcement only reinforce how out of balance film production is, so that the hiring of any woman to oversee a major production is seen as a newsworthy in and of itself?

Jenkins herself had found herself in a position similar to MacLaren’s just three years ago, when she lost her position as director of Thor: The Dark World and was replaced by Alan Taylor. Both MacLaren and Jenkins are experienced directors. MacLaren has a strong record in television producing and directing, including work on The X Files and Breaking Bad. Jenkins also has a strong TV background, including work on the noirish crime series The Killing. What’s more, her second feature film, Monster (2003), a dramatization of the female murderer Aileen Wuornos, received wide critical acclaim and earned the star Charlize Theron a Best Actress Oscar. These resumes easily measure up against those of many other directors of big budget comic book movies, including Taylor, whose own television background is very similar to both.

The usual reasons for Hollywood’s gender imbalance—excuses, really—have never really held much water. There’s the “women aren’t interested in directing action movies” argument, which makes no sense historically (see last week’s blog entry on car chases, featuring Lois Weber’s pioneering work in Suspense) or even in the context of contemporary Hollywood, as Scott Mendelson points out in his article from last fall about women who should be considered for Wonder Woman on the basis of their experience with action sequences (and Patty Jenkins is on the list).

More often, decision makers in the movie industry will engage in a circle of blame, with studio executives pointing to the reluctance of investors to back projects directed by women, or sending the blame down the movie making hierarchy, claiming (often on the basis of stereotypes about working class men) that crews don’t want to work for women. When women do get to direct big budget movies, they are penalized much more severely if those movies turn out to be box office disappointments than their male counterparts. Even more maddeningly, they receive much less credit for their successes. Catherine Hardwicke’s first installment of the Twilight series was a huge success, and she was largely responsible for the casting of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Yet that was the only movie in the series she directed, although she says she was responsible for turning down The Twilight Saga: New Moon.

The real issue here goes beyond women directing action movies; it has to do with the reluctance of Hollywood to develop and invest in talented new women directors. That Patty Jenkins was originally scheduled to direct Thor: The Dark World and is now signed to Wonder Woman is significant, but it can also divert us from the question of why it took over ten years for a person who directed one of the most critically-acclaimed movies of 2003, a movie that earned an Oscar for its lead actor and a movie that crossed genres, combining a psychological character study with a crime story, to be offered a major motion picture opportunity. A 2013 Variety article by Robert Abele sums up the situation for talented women in Hollywood with the question:

where is the female version of the Marc Webb story? Webb had made only one movie — the Sundance-debuted “(500) Days of Summer” — before getting a crack at a major studio franchise behemoth with “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

We could also add, “where is the female version of the Colin Trevorrow story?” He directed the charming and modestly successful science-fiction comedy Safety Not Guaranteed in 2012, with a budget of $175,000. His follow-up movie? The mega-tentpole movie Jurassic World, budgeted at over $180,000,000.

In Screen Ages, I focused on the careers of three promising women directors from the 1980s who directed some of the most famous movies of that decade: Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl 1983), Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan 1985), and Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High 1982 and later Clueless 1995). In spite of their box office and critical successes, each encountered a Hollywood unwilling to trust and invest in their talents. What does the future hold for Patty Jenkins? Will Wonder Woman be a hit? It’s too soon to tell, of course. And whether any screen experience resonates with millions of viewers or fails to find an audience has to do with so many other factors beyond the director, especially so in the case of a tentpole feature like Wonder Woman. But I do know Jenkins has demonstrated the talent and skill to make a great movie, whether or not Wonder Woman in particular lives up to box office expectations. At this stage in movie history, we should be beyond the question of a woman director needing to “prove” herself. In fact, maybe the real sign of a change in Hollywood’s history of gender bias will be when women directors are given just as much leeway to fail as the men have.