Women have been on the cinematic front lines from the start. While men took most of the credit for building the movie industry, women — on camera and off, in the executives suites and far from Hollywood — were busily, thrillingly, building it, too.
That’s the reason for our list of Movie Women You Should Know, which is not a canon or a pantheon but a celebration and an invitation to further discovery.
Here are some of the art’s other pioneers — its independents and entrepreneurs, auteurs and artisans.
She Wrote the Book on Screenwriting
“How to Write Photoplays,” 1920
One of the most prolific and powerful screenwriters of her time — with a career that began in 1912 and stretched into the late ‘50s — Anita Loos was in some ways bigger than Hollywood itself. She brought the clout and cachet of a best-selling novelist and successful Broadway playwright to the nascent movie industry, adapting her own work and those of her peers to the new medium. In 1920 she and her husband, John Emerson, published “How to Write Photoplays,” an early example of an enduring genre. This manual for aspiring movie scribes included a wealth of advice both practical (“Writing for the Camera,” “Marketing the Story”) and existential:
Above all things the scenario writer should keep alive. Just keep yourself with lively, laughing, thinking people, think about things yourself, and cultivate a respect for new ideas of any kind. Take care of these small ideas and the big plots will take care of themselves.
Good advice, then and now, and revealing of Loos’ own approach. She was protean and prolific — her credits range from D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” (1916) to George Cukor’s “The Women” (1939) — sociable and shrewd. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” her best-seller from 1925, was brought to the screen first in 1928 and then, as a musical, in 1953, with Marilyn Monroe singing about diamonds and Anita Loos laughing all the way to the bank.
— A.O. SCOTT
— Loos wrote in a memoir that “in its heyday, Hollywood reflected, if it did not actually produce, the sexual climate of our land.” She could almost have written that sentence with “I” in place of the word “Hollywood.”
MARION E. WONG
Directed the First Chinese-American Film
“The Curse of Quon Gwon,” 1916-17
In July 1917, the magazine Moving Picture World ran a brief story on Mandarin Film Co. accompanied by a photo of its president, Chinese-American filmmaker Marion E. Wong. Based in Oakland, California — a source of independent cinema even then — the company, the item read, had recently completed its first film, “The Curse of Quon Gwon” and was expected “to continue the production of films dealing with Chinese subjects.” It was “the only Chinese producing concern in this country.”
“The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles With the West,” as it is fully titled, proved to be Wong’s only film. The earliest known movie by a Chinese-American filmmaker, it was long thought lost until director Arthur Dong happened upon some surviving material while making his 2007 documentary “Hollywood Chinese.” Even in its current truncated form, Wong’s film beguiles partly because of its melodrama — a young couple, a lonely bride, cultural dissonance, the promised misfortune — and because of flourishes of beauty, like the image of a woman gazing into a mirror before her life is cleaved in two.
— MANOHLA DARGIS
Edited Gangsters So They Flew
“Bonnie and Clyde,” 1967
“Make it go faster.” That’s what director Arthur Penn told Dede Allen when she was editing “Bonnie and Clyde.” She did, brilliantly. Over a decadeslong career, she edited six films by Penn, who saw her as a true collaborator, calling Allen “an artist” and an “essential part of the creative process.” She worked hard, memorizing every frame until the footage ran in her head. Likening herself to the actors, Allen said she, too, became the roles to “viscerally, emotionally feel the way the characters feel.”
Like all of filmmaking, editing was wide open to women in cinema’s earliest years. By the 1920s, though, the regimented studio system had become divided along gender roles. Although some women had lengthy careers as studio cutters, by the late 1930s, as Allen once said, “it was not considered proper for a girl to come in and take a job from a father with children.” She and her husband moved to New York, where she edited her first notable feature in 1959 and in time helped filmmakers revolutionize the art by turning editing into energy, feeling, character.
— MANOHLA DARGIS
— Director Arthur Penn wanted to give “Bonnie and Clyde” all “this energy” Allen said. “We were able to go in with angles and close-ups and only pull back when we wanted to show what Arthur called ‘the tapestry,'” she explained, adding “I broke many of my hard and fast rules about story, character and how a scene plays.”
ALICE GUY BLACHÉ
The First Woman in the Director’s Chair
“The Cabbage Fairy,” 1896
Alice Guy Blaché helped invent cinema as we know it. The first female filmmaker and among the first to make a fiction film, she made her debut in 1896 with the one-minute “The Cabbage Fairy.” She shot this charmer — which shows a sprite smilingly plucking real babies from a cabbage patch — on a Paris patio while working as a secretary for Gaumont, which would soon be a film powerhouse. Historians ignored and even rejected that date perhaps, as theorist Jane M. Gaines has suggested, it was unthinkable that a young female secretary supporting a widowed mother could be responsible for an early-cinema milestone.
Guy Blaché is thought to have made some 1,000 films (mostly shorts) that included cowboy flicks, cross-dressing comedies and melodramas; about 150 had synchronized sound (this was before the industry widely embraced sound). She founded a film company, Solax, and built a studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where she hung a banner for her actors that read, “Be Natural.” Her last film was released in 1920 and then she was forgotten until scholars began to realize that she had been there all along.
— MANOHLA DARGIS
She Had It With Men and Made a Film About It
“Wanda,” the only feature Barbara Loden directed — she was not yet 50 when she died, in 1980 — is a movie both of and ahead of its time. Like many American films of its time, “Wanda,” made in 1970, is the story of an earnest quest for freedom set in a vividly naturalistic American landscape. But most of the rebels and seekers of the New Hollywood were men, heirs of Huck Finn in flight from social conventions and, as often as not, the demands of women.
Wanda Goronski, played by Loden herself, tells a different story. An unhappy housewife in Pennsylvania’s coal country — where Loden grew up — her prospects are defined, thwarted and betrayed by men. There is a blunt, brutal matter-of-factness in the way Loden portrays Wanda’s fate as she leaves her husband and drifts through problematic love affairs. There is also a quiet and insistent empathy.
Before turning to writing and directing, Loden appeared in “Wild River” and “Splendor in the Grass,” both directed by Elia Kazan, whom she married in 1967. The vaunted realism of Kazan’s films can seem downright sentimental compared with “Wanda,” which has an honesty about marriage, work, sex and class that still feels radical and raw.
— A.O. SCOTT
Scripted Hard-Boiled Men
“The Big Sleep,” 1946
“She wrote that like a man” — this was the gruff praise director Howard Hawks bestowed on screenwriter Leigh Brackett’s work on “The Big Sleep.” They met because Hawks had been looking for someone who could help turn the Raymond Chandler novel into a film for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Hawks thought Brackett had the right strong stuff after reading one of her crime novels. “He was somewhat shaken,” she said later, “when he discovered that it was Miss and not Mr. Brackett.”
Brackett was 28 when Hawks brought her in to write “The Big Sleep” along with William Faulkner. “He was wonderful on construction,” she said of Faulkner, “but just couldn’t write lines an actor could speak.” A prolific science-fiction author, Brackett kept writing scripts — notably Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” — and turned in the first draft of “The Empire Strikes Back” just before she died at age 62 in 1978.
— MANOHLA DARGIS
Gave Noir Its Emotion
“I don’t want to smile all the time,” Ida Lupino said in 1942. She was 24 and under contract at Warner Bros., which wanted her to be another Bette Davis. Reluctant to take Davis’ seconds, Lupino had signed a strategic short contract with the studio that allowed her to work elsewhere. She went on to make great films at Warners, but there were bad roles, too, and frustration. By 1949, she was ready to be truly independent, citing neorealist director Roberto Rossellini as inspiration. “When are you going to make pictures about ordinary people in ordinary situations?” he had asked her.
Lupino answered by founding a company, The Filmmakers, with her husband and one other. They were set to shoot their first film, “Not Wanted” — about an unwed mother — when its director fell ill. Lupino discreetly took over. Lupino kept on calling the shots, and for decades was the only female director in Hollywood. Working with low budgets and sometimes uneven casts, she turned sensation into emotion in lean, tense, tough films like “Outrage,” a shadow-strafed noir about a young woman who, after she is raped, is forced to find herself.
— MANOHLA DARGIS
“The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” 1926
More than a decade before Walt Disney released “Snow White” — often cited as the first animated feature — German animator Lotte Reiniger completed “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” which used hand-cut paper silhouettes photographed against a tinted background to tell a fanciful story of enchantment and danger. Like Disney, Reiniger mined the canon of European fairy tales to provide entertainment for children, completing more than 70 films, including versions of “Puss in Boots,” “Hansel and Gretel” and “Cinderella” in a career that began during World War I and lasted until 1980.
In Berlin in the 1920s, Reiniger was part of an international circle of artists and intellectuals that included Bertolt Brecht and Jean Renoir. She made a handful of live-action films and a series of short sound movies based on operas and classical music. Most of that work is lost, but “Prince Achmed” and the silent shorts that survive testify to the power of her technique, a haunting, painstaking and expressive form of animation with roots in ancient puppetry and shadow theater. Reiniger herself wielded the scissors, fashioning intricate backgrounds and figures that float in blue or pink light, at once eerily timeless and strikingly modern. Her blend of whimsy and spookiness, the dreamy images that seem to tap right into the collective unconscious suggest both an antidote to Disney and a precursor to Tim Burton.
— A.O. SCOTT
She Put Color in Disney’s World
“Alice in Wonderland,” 1951
“Walt said that I knew about colors he had never heard of before.”
Like many women, Mary Blair has too often been relegated to the margins in a great man’s biography, despite bringing wonder and ravishing color to Walt Disney’s world. Born in 1911, Blair began working for Disney reluctantly (her word) in 1940 as a sketch artist. She might have hesitated because she had trained as a fine artist, but she also may have known that at Disney most women worked in the ink and paint department (dubbed “the nunnery”), translating the male animators’ drawings onto celluloid.
Blair soon branched out. She helped the writers for “Dumbo,” as she put it, “create the ideas of the picture graphically right from its basic beginning.” In time, she was such a major influence on Disney himself that historian John Canemaker argued that “the stylishness and vibrant color” of the studio’s films from the early 1940s through the mid-1950s — including the at times eye-poppingly trippy “Alice in Wonderland” — came from Blair. Her flat modernist aesthetic didn’t fit the studio’s soft three-dimensional realism, but her extraordinary colors and concepts influenced its films, including “Cinderella” and “Peter Pan.”
— MANOHLA DARGIS
— Marc Davis, one of the legendary Disney animators known as the Nine Old Men, said Blair “spent most of her life misunderstood.” Her male colleagues, he said, based their designs on perspective, while Blair “did things on marvelous flat panels,” work that “tragically” never got to the screen.
Dressed Hollywood for Success
“All About Eve,” 1950
Costume designers are visible almost solely through their work, but Edith Head was an exception. A celebrity in her own right — and the author of a rigorous and highly practical 1967 “How to Dress for Success” manual — she was recognizable for her signature blue-tinted glasses, diminutive stature and dark, straight bangs. She was the inspiration for Edna Mode in Pixar’s “Incredibles” films.
But first, and more importantly, she inspired generations of men and women with dreams of glamour. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Head — along with her chief rival, the equally prolific Irene Sharaff — taught postwar moviegoers how to appreciate the seductive and semiotic power of clothes.
Head was nominated for 35 Oscars and won eight. Two of those came in a single year, 1951, when separate costume design awards were given for color and black-and-white films and Head won both: for the soigné Manhattan elegance of Joseph Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve” and for the sword-and-sandals proto-camp of Cecil B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah.” What you remember most are the two leading ladies, Bette Davis and Hedy Lamarr. They dressed not only for success but for power, grace, guile and immortality, too.
— A.O. SCOTT
Took the Shtetl to Hollywood
“Salome of the Tenements,” 1925
“Salome of the Tenements,” a melodrama from 1925, is one of thousands of “lost films” of the silent era. Luckily, its source material, Anzia Yezierska’s novel, is still around, offering insight into the life of its screenwriter, Sonya Levien.
“Salome” is a feminist potboiler, a tale of enterprise and upward mobility that follows Sonya Mendel from sweatshop seamstress to prosperous fashion designer. Levien, born Sonya Opesken in Russia in 1888, was not exactly like her fictional namesake, but her journey from shtetl to slum to the studio lots of Hollywood — where she became one of the most in-demand screenwriters of her time — stands as a quintessential early-20th-century American story.
After the 1920s vogue for immigrant stories faded, Levien applied her talents to musicals, Westerns and historical epics. Among her many credits are all three versions of “State Fair.” That movie, in its nonmusical (1933) and musical (1945 and 1962) incarnations, is a hearty helping of Iowa corn. That it’s served up partly by a daughter of Ukraine and the Lower East Side is testimony to the endlessly adaptable talents of Sonya Levien.
— A.O. SCOTT
Put the Brains in the Rom-Com
“Losing Ground,” 1982
Death robbed us too early of Kathleen Collins, a short-story writer, playwright and filmmaker who was just 46 when she died in 1988. Even so, there is much to rejoice about what she left behind, notably “Losing Ground.” A sui generis film that’s part existential rom-com, part philosophical argument, it tracks Sara (Seret Scott), a charmingly self-serious professor who’s trying to get an intellectual handle on what she terms “ecstatic experience” while her freewheeling artist husband (Bill Gunn) pursues his own understanding. (She needs to get out of her head and into her body.)
The radicalness of “Losing Ground” endures. It takes intellectual and aesthetic inquiries as seriously (and as sexily) as a European art film (Collins admired Eric Rohmer), which must have baffled distributors who had ideas about what constituted a black film: “Losing Ground” played at festivals but was never theatrically released in her lifetime. “My private audience is black people,” Collins said. “I don’t write for anybody else. But I don’t write for them in a political sense, I write for them out of my image memory because my image memory is full of black people. I write for my aunts, my cousins.”
— MANOHLA DARGIS
Shaped Fact Into Film
There is an astonishing passage in Frances Flaherty’s diary from 1915 in which she writes about the life she hoped to have with her husband, Robert Flaherty, the pioneering documentarian. She dreamed they would set off together on a great adventure and experience a “rare relationship, a wonderful passionate partnership.” Fate intervened, or perhaps pragmatism, after she became pregnant. Before her dream began, she knew she had to turn back and that, as he set off, “it was too truly a parting of the ways.”
Yet a remarkable partnership did endure. Frances collaborated on the films for which her husband is known, including “Moana,” a lush, romantic fiction-documentary hybrid shot in Samoa. After his death, she helped burnish his legend through her writings and the creation of the nonprofit Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. To read her early diaries, though, is to grasp that Frances didn’t only help turn her husband into a legend but also a filmmaker: In 1916, she wrote that she had “decided beyond doubt now in my own mind” that Robert needed to focus on his next film, one that he began shooting in 1920 and titled “Nanook of the North.”
— MANOHLA DARGIS
Made Documentaries Lyrical
“Portrait of Jason,” 1967
Shirley Clarke directed an Oscar-winning film, but no one would mistake her for a member of the Hollywood establishment. She placed herself in the aesthetic lineage of Italian neorealism, and while many of her films can be classified as documentaries, her tough, lyrical insights into the lives of real people transform the journalistic implications of that label. By the same token, her scripted features have the vivid immediacy and rough texture of life itself.
Clarke’s subjects — artists, musicians, gang members, drug addicts and perhaps most famously a gay hustler named Jason Holliday — were usually male and frequently African-American. But her films were nonetheless strongly personal, for reasons Clarke, who was white, explained once in an interview. “I identified with black people because I couldn’t deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt.” Her “Portrait of Jason” is thus also a self-portrait, an exploration of the subjectivity of the woman behind the camera as well as the man in front of it.
— A.O. SCOTT
Edited Her Way to Power at MGM
“Mutiny on the Bounty,” 1935
In the old, pre-talkie days, the people who sliced and spliced silent film were called “cutters.” Early in the sound era, Irving Thalberg, the farseeing head of production at MGM, rechristened them “film editors,” a credit first bestowed upon, and quite possibly designed for, Margaret Booth.
Booth, who died in 2002 at 104, started out cutting negatives for D.W. Griffith, and went on to master the subtle rhythms of cinematic storytelling. “It’s like the pauses and breaths you take on the stage,” she said of her craft. “It has its ups and downs and its pace.” A pioneer in adapting silent-movie techniques to sound film, she was nominated for an Oscar for “Mutiny on the Bounty,” one of the biggest critical and commercial hits of 1935 and a groundbreaking blend of star power (Charles Laughton, Clark Gable and Franchot Tone), literary prestige and sophisticated action.
By that time Booth was established as one of the most powerful people at MGM in its heyday. According to film historian Ally Acker, for three decades, no MGM film was released “without Booth’s approval.” In effect, she had final cut.
— A.O. SCOTT
VIRGINIA VAN UPP
Wrote Her Way to Power at Columbia
In 1944, Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn appointed Virginia Van Upp the studio’s executive producer, putting her in charge of its top pictures. She had proved her value to Cohn by turning “Cover Girl” into a hit for Rita Hayworth, one of the studio’s biggest stars. Van Upp went on to do the same with “Gilda,” an indelible female-centric noir with a luminous Hayworth that Van Upp not only rewrote but also produced.
A former child actress, Van Upp had grown up in the industry, working in different areas before turning to writing, explaining her career choice to one interviewer simply: “What kind of a job can a woman hold after she has gray hair and is fat?” She was a hitmaker first for Paramount and then for Columbia, where she became the rare woman in charge in that era. “My only interest in producing,” she said, “is to have freedom as a writer.”
It wasn’t always easy. She told one of Cohn’s biographers that she had been forced to rebuff her boss, telling him that she wanted a clause in her new contract prohibiting him from committing “verbal rape.” He declined, but they apparently made their peace. Even so, Van Upp soon left Columbia, periodically returning to work even as her career faded out.
— MANOHLA DARGIS
Helped Tough Guys Use Their Words
“The Big House,” 1930
There are movie legends and then there is Frances Marion, a legend’s legend. A 1925 ad for one of the films she wrote declared that she was “the greatest woman creative genius of the screen.” There was no need to qualify her achievement. She was one of the most powerful screenwriters in early Hollywood and, for a while, the highest paid of any gender.
Marion started as an actress but soon turned to writing in a career that saw the female-friendly industry become increasingly less welcoming to her sex. Her output was phenomenal — her biographer Cari Beauchamp credits her on 325 films — and included adaptations and original work.
She’s closely associated with Mary Pickford (“The Poor Little Rich Girl”), but Marion also wrote the excellent prison drama, “The Big House” — she visited San Quentin to research it — starring a machine-gun toting Wallace Beery. With that film, she became the first female writer to win an Oscar; two years later, she picked up more gold for the tear-stained boxing film “The Champ.”
The title of her Hollywood memoir — wittily, fittingly — is “Off With Their Heads.”
— MANOHLA DARGIS
Rebelled in the Cold War
Two young women — roommates at large in a big city, with high spirits and low expectation — challenge propriety, men and their own imaginations. They are both named Marie, and their friendship proves stronger than the pull of rules, responsibilities or romance.
A further summary of Vera Chytilova’s “Daisies,” made with slender means and wild ambitions, is not really possible. It’s one of the great films of the Czech New Wave, a movement that was, like other new waves, largely a boy’s rebellion.
After the Soviet invasion of 1968, Chytilova had difficulty making films, returning to form in the ‘70s with a run of documentaries, historical films, dramas and comedies. After the fall of communism, her earlier films were rediscovered, and “Daisies” has taken its place among the essential movies of the ‘60s, a bolt of liberatory lightning that illuminates future possibilities. (A.O. Scott)
Invented American Experimental Film
“Meshes of the Afternoon,” 1943
“Experimental film” can sometimes seem like a phrase in search of a definition. But at least in America its parentage is not in doubt. Whatever experimental film might be, Maya Deren is its mother and “Meshes of the Afternoon” is its founding text.
A 13-1/2-minute, 16-millimeter black-and-white suite of dreamlike images — including a shot of Deren leaning against a window pane that has achieved the status of an icon — “Meshes” was made in 1943 in Los Angeles, shortly after Deren, who was born in Kiev in 1917, had moved there with her second husband, Czech filmmaker Alexander Hammid. For all its surreal imagery, the film also has a poignant documentary value, offering a glimpse of a place, a time and an artistic sensibility that seem at once vivid and elusive.
— A.O. SCOTT
— Deren once told an interviewer that “the reason that I had not been a very good poet was because actually my mind worked in images which I had been trying to translate or describe in words; therefore, when I undertook cinema, I was relieved of the false step of translating image into words.”
Gave People of Color Starring Roles
“Claudine,” the story of a romance between a garbage collector and a single mother on welfare, is a potent, tender, unjustly neglected work of ‘70s social realism. Starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, and directed by John Berry, it was the first feature produced by Third World Films, a company founded by, among others, Ossie Davis, Rita Moreno and Hannah Weinstein.
Its goals were “to train people of color for work in the film industry and to make feature films from a minority perspective.”
For Weinstein, “Claudine” was one of several points of intersection between movies and politics. Born in 1911, she worked on the campaigns of Fiorello H. La Guardia and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, among others.
Part of the left-wing diaspora during the McCarthy era, she settled in London and started Sapphire Films, which produced scripts by blacklisted Hollywood writers, including series episodes written (under a pseudonym) by Ring Lardner Jr. Weinstein herself was designated a “concealed Communist” by the FBI.
Her activism continued until her death in 1984, and her further contributions to American movies included “Greased Lightning” and “Stir Crazy,” vehicles for Richard Pryor she produced.
— A.O. SCOTT
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott © 2018 The New York Times