CATEGORIES Columns, Cinematical


Welcome to Girls on Film -- a Monday-night Cinematical column full of female-centric musing, rants, love and aggravation.

In 1910, during a conference of working women held in Copenhagen, German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed that there should be a yearly International Women's Day, where every country celebrated women and pressed for equal rights. In 1911, the first event was held, and tomorrow will be its centennial.

Though it was envisioned as a time to "press" -- to speak out in a time that desperately needed it, as women struggled to earn basics like the right to vote -- and certainly still has its place today, International Women's Day is an excellent opportunity to look back in time. Every success and struggle today relies upon the killer women of yesterday, when they had to climb metaphoric mountains to succeed.

Two years ago next month, this column began with Remembering Women Who Rock. Today, it's time to look back at ten women who've made cinematic history. I won't claim that this ten constitutes the "best," because to do so would immediately detract from the hundreds and thousands of women developing cinema worldwide. These are, quite simply, ten women you should be familiar with. Some have the honor of "first," while others have left an indelible impact on the industry.

Consider this your springboard to a rich history of female talent.

Alice Guy-Blaché: Pioneer Film Director
Note that there's no "female" signifier in the above title. Before D.W. Griffith became the so-called pioneer of narrative cinema with 'The Birth of a Nation,' before he'd even begun his cinematic career in 1907, Alice Guy-Blaché had already been a filmmaker for 11 years. Jumping from secretary to film director, she not only helmed hundreds of short projects, but also crafted the first narrative films, first hand-tinted color films and first sound features with the use of chromaphone technology. Unfortunately, with the rise of Griffith and the Hollywood system, cinematic sexism killed her career, and it wasn't until decades later that her work was finally recognized.



Also be sure to check out the likes of Lois Weber, who was the first woman to helm a full-length feature with 'The Merchant of Venice' in 1914, and Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker whose ties to the Nazi party killed her career, though her work remains aesthetically groundbreaking.

Lotte Reiniger: Creator of the Oldest Surviving Animated Feature
The third oldest animated feature, and oldest surviving piece since Argentina's Quirino Cristiani's work was lost, was created by German animator Lotte Reiniger. Long before Walt Disney, her work animating wooden rats for 'Pied Piper of Hamelin' in 1918 got her accepted at an experimental animation studio, and five years later she was approached to create a feature-length animated film, 'The Adventures of Prince Achmed.' Reiniger crafted the film by manipulating silhouette cutouts. Though it at first struggled, with the support of artist Jean Renoir, the feature made it to Cannes and subsequently critical and popular success. Her work also inspired the recent "The Story of the Three Brothers" animated sequence in 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One.'



Renée Jeanne Falconetti: One Lone, Iconic Film Role, 'The Passion of Joan of Arc'
It's easy to pick out the hands that crafted cinema, but one would be remiss not to mention one of the leading trailblazers of female performances. Actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti performed in exactly one film -- Carl Theodor Dreyer's 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' -- a piece that has set the standard for actors since. Without a distinct narrative and script to draw from, without words to guide most of her on-screen moments, Falconetti grips audiences to this day with the power of her facial expressions. From the bliss of faith to the terror of torture, Dreyer's unusual and insistently close shots shackle the viewer to Falconetti, whose sadness is so palpable that the film feels more like a historical document than a piece of cinematic narrative.



Mary Pickford: Co-Founder of United Artists, AMPAS and MPRF
Canadian Mary Pickford, otherwise known as "America's Sweetheart," was one of the early and leading names in Hollywood cinema. But her impact extended well beyond the 52 features that saw her in front of the camera. Pickford joined D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks to create the production company United Artists, becoming Hollywood's first female movie mogul. Along with UA, she conceived the motion picture relief fund and was one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The advent of sound in cinema hurt her career on-screen, but Pickford continued to produce films until she left United Artists in 1956.



June Mathis was another of Hollywood's powerful executives in the twenties, her career and life cut short at 38 by a fatal heart attack. Though these women helped define women behind the scenes of Tinseltown, it wasn't until decades later that women like Sherry Lansing and Dawn Steel became heads of leading Hollywood studios.

Sakane Tazuko: First Female Japanese Director
Though many have thought Kinuyo Tanaka to be Japan's first director, Japan's "Representative Actress" with a myriad of silent films and six that she directed herself, the first was actually Sakane Tazuko. Though she was only lead director on one film, 'Hatsu Sugata' at 32, she acted as an assistant director on numerous films for Kenji Mizoguchi through the 1930s. The only female film director of the pre-war period, sexism shackled her from further success and her achievements were masked by Tanaka's work in the '50s.

No prints of her directorial feature survive.

Pauline Kael: Pioneer of Female Film Criticism
Though many advancements have come from behind the curtain of film, I'd be remiss not to mention Pauline Kael, the critic who, in Roger Ebert's words, "had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades." Though a critic at the New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, Kael's forays into cinematic criticism started with the 1946 film 'Shoeshine,' in which she raved about the emotion that led her to cry blindly as she walked up the street. Never one to bow down to peer pressure, however, she was also known for her scathing opinions on popular classics like 'The Sound of Music' and 'Lawrence of Arabia.' Or, for calling Cecil B. DeMille a "sanctimonious little devil":



Brianne Murphy: First Female DOP on a Major Studio Film
Jumping forward in time, we come to Brianne Murphy. As a cinematographer, she worked mainly in television, but she also became the first female director of photography on a major studio film with 'Fatso' in 1980 -- Anne Bancroft's lone piece as a writer and director. Two years later, her work conceiving, designing and manufacturing of the MISI Camera Insert Car and Process Trailer with Donald Schisler earned her a Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy.



Cinematography is an area women are still fighting their way into. No woman has ever been nominated for one at the Oscars. In recent years, Maryse Alberti and Mandy Walker received notice, but still no nominations.

Penny Marshall: First Woman to Craft a $100 Million Movie
Wiping away the romcom atrocities currently being committed by brother Garry Marshall, Penny is more than just the director who used to star in 'Laverne and Shirley.' In an industry where many women must find their way in through arthouse and indie cinema, Marshall is known for her mainstream, big-money work. In 1988 with 'Big' she became the first woman to helm a film that grossed over $100 million (on only her second feature -- her first was 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' two years earlier). She had the same success again with 'A League of Their Own.'



Now director Catherine Hardwicke is the highest grossing female director for her work on 'Twilight.'

Julie Dash: First Theatrically Released Film Written/Directed by an African-American Woman
It wasn't until the 1990s that the U.S. saw its first film written and directed by an African-American woman go into wide release -- Julie Dash's 'Daughters of the Dust' in 1991. She began working on the film in 1975, secured funding to make it over ten years later, and then suffered a two-year span of post-production money troubles. Ultimately, however, Dash was victorious, the film winning accolades and critical praise. In 2004, the Library of Congress preserved it as one of the country's "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" films.



Kathryn Bigelow: First Woman to Win Best Director Oscar
Lina Wertmuller paved the directorial path in 1976 when she became the first woman to ever be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. But it would be another 30+ years until Kathryn Bigelow would win for 'The Hurt Locker.' You can read more about that win in last year's Oscars commentary.

Is there a female feat you wish was mentioned? Share it below.

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