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women who have shaped cinema

women who have shaped cinema

June 06
12:14 2018
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These are times of roiling change and reflection in the movie industry, from Cannes to Hollywood, and this month the British Film Institute is celebrating past and present women’s revolutions with a season of films by three accomplished directors: Hollywood’s Ida Lupino, France’s Agnès Varda, and indie darling-turned-blockbuster queen Ava DuVernay.

The BFI largely showcases classic film and, as its head of cinemas and events Gaylene Gould said recently, “That’s mostly the story of white, western European men.” Finding female directors with mighty bodies of work worth unearthing is not an easy task, but Lupino, Varda and DuVernay have all pushed cinema in new directions. To Gould, who took over at the BFI last year, after consulting on its Black Star project, curation is about “actively challenging the cinematic canon”.

Revisiting the work of these three directors is refreshing and surprising, since many of their back-catalogue titles have not been easily available. After 60 years behind the camera, Varda has experienced a popular renaissance, with an honorary Oscar in 2017 and an Academy nomination this year for her new documentary Faces Places. Lupino was a contemporary of Hitchcock’s, with similar melodramatic, noir tastes, and DuVernay directed the Oscar-winning Martin Luther King Jr film Selma, followed by a radical reboot of the children’s story A Wrinkle in Time.

Gould talks about the impetus behind her programming from this #MeToo moment back to the “monstrous regiment” of suffragettes: “One hundred years ago British women marched to the voting booths for the first time. One hundred years later Frances McDormand brandished a little gold man and instructed the women at the Oscars ceremony to stand up. Just like those men and women a century ago, we are witnessing a shift, and paying tribute to the women who transcended their worlds to expand ours.”

Perhaps British-born Lupino’s story is the most unexpected. She moved to Hollywood in the 1940s and found stardom as a sultry actress opposite Humphrey Bogart in They Drive by Night and High Sierra, and in The Sea Wolf with Edward G Robinson. But eventually she came to loathe being typecast, and set up her own production company, The Filmakers (sic), which made her the only mainstream woman director in Hollywood in the 1950s.

Lupino hit the big time with the muscular road movie, The Hitch-Hiker, in 1953. “This is the true story of a man, a gun and a car,” runs the opening title of this tense and beautifully shot thriller about two buddies who pick up a hitchhiking serial killer on their way from California to Mexico. But before that, she made Outrage (1950), one of the first films ever to deal with the aftermath of a rape from a woman’s point of view. The story is shot in shadows that recall an Edward Hopper painting, as tension rises in a diner where an office worker played by Mala Powers catches the roving eye of her future rapist. The stalking scene is heart-stopping. The fallout of silence and shame after the attack destroys the woman’s engagement and she runs away.

Ida Lupino, c1950
Mala Powers in Ida Lupino’s ‘Outrage’ (1950)

“I never wrote just straight women’s roles,” Lupino once said. “I liked the strong characters. I don’t mean women who have masculine qualities about them, but something that has some intestinal fortitude, some guts to it.”

The multi-talented director struggled in the male movie straitjacket, and even returned to acting in 1955 for the Hollywood satire The Big Knife, in which actor Jack Palance is reluctant to renew his contract with a scheming studio boss played by Rod Steiger. Lupino also directed comedy, with the all-female convent-school film The Trouble with Angels (1966), featuring Hayley Mills as a rebel teenager and Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior.

We shift from Hollywood to a woman who declares she has never made money from her films, the Belgian-born director Agnès Varda. “If you can’t collect money, you must collect trophies,” she says with smiling irony in The Beaches of Agnès, a charming sideways look at her own life and career, and a great place to start in a celebratory Vardafest. She won the best documentary César award for Beaches in 2009, and the Golden Lion at Venice for Vagabond in 1985.

Agnès Varda © REX/Shutterstock

But Varda’s groundbreaking and glorious gem, which rolled in on the French New Wave in 1962, is the black-and-white Cléo from 5 to 7, a film shot almost in real time as a beautiful female singer walks the streets of Paris awaiting a doctor’s diagnosis. While scenes seem light as a meringue, the star, Corinne Marchand, is filled with despair and, of course, an existential crisis. Varda’s New Wave contemporary Jean-Luc Godard even makes a cameo appearance.

Cut to 60 years later, and Godard and Varda are still on the scene, separately, and their standing still reflects the entrenched sexism of the film world. While Godard’s iffy collection of footage The Image Book played in competition at Cannes this year to so-so reviews, Varda found herself leading a demonstration on the red carpet with Cate Blanchett, as 82 women mounted the Palais steps to represent the 82 female-directed films shown in Cannes — compared with 1,688 by men. Last year, Varda’s Oscar-nominated documentary Faces Places was only offered an out-of-competition slot at the festival. Godard 1, Varda 0.

It will be interesting to see what Varda has to say about this when she comes to speak at the BFI in London on July 10, but her response is likely to be as playful as it is punchy. Invited to the Oscars lunch last year, she sent a full-size cardboard cut-out of herself instead. She turned 90 on May 30 this year, but seems unstoppable. As Varda says in Beaches, “I’m playing the role of a little old lady, pleasantly plump and talkative,” but she has a mind like a steel trap, and a piercing visual sense that is also being celebrated this year with a video installation at Liverpool’s Biennial.

Oprah Winfrey in ‘Selma’ © REX/Shutterstock
Ava DuVernay directing ‘Selma’ (2014) © REX/Shutterstock

Also protesting on the red carpet at Cannes this year was festival jury member Ava DuVernay. The director has always championed tales of women and people of colour, from her debut This is the Life (2008), about LA street poets, to her 2012 Sundance award-winner Middle of Nowhere, about a black nurse who drops out of medical school when her husband is sent to jail.

Both films are in the BFI season, but the unmissable power-watches are Selma (2014), with David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr, focusing on his campaign for equal voting rights, which led to the epic march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, plus DuVernay’s searing documentary 13th (2016), which highlights race, justice and mass incarceration in the US.

Even when DuVernay directed an adaptation of the children’s blockbuster A Wrinkle in Time, her inclusive vision meant that much of the book’s cast changed colour, and Oprah Winfrey got a starring role. “Film is a mirror,” said DuVernay. “I want to see more film-makers. We all want to see ourselves.”

Details of screenings and the ‘Woman with a Movie Camera’ all-day summit on June 16 at bfi.org.uk

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