List

Women in the Director's Chair: 20th Century

By Cecilia Cygnar

If you think this is a long list, consider how many films have been directed by men.

  • Dance, Girl, Dance

    2007

    Dorothy Arzner was pretty much the only mainstream Hollywood female film director in the 1920s-'40s. She hit her stride in the '30s with such classic gems as Christopher Strong (with Katharine Hepburn) and The Bride Wore Red (with Joan Crawford). This movie from 1940 was one of her last. Hollywood proved too much of an uphill struggle for a female director. And considering that we're still talking about the lack of female directors 100 years after Arzner, I would say we still have a ways to climb.

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  • The Hitch-Hiker

    2018

    Ida Lupino might be better known as an actress, mostly for the Bogart classic High Sierra, but she was one of Hollywood's only female directors in the 1950s. This 1953 film noir is as dark, brooding, and haunting as any of those directed by her male counterparts.

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  • A New Leaf

    2012

    Elaine May started out as part of a comedy duo with Mike Nichols. After Nichols broke out his directing baton with such features as The Graduate, May also picked up the helm of such movies as The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and Mikey and Nicky (1976). But she started in 1971 with this film, a quirky rom-com that is still considered a classic.

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  • Harlan County, U.S.A

    2006

    For this 1976 documentary, Barbara Kopple became one of the first female filmmakers to win an Oscar. No, she did not win a Best Director Academy Award (that would have to wait 32 more years). But she did win an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, still a very noble distinction. She that accolade again in 1990 for the documentary American Dream.

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  • Fast Times at Ridgemont High

    2004

    Most people have heard of this 1982 classic. Many people have seen it. But, what few people know is that it's directed by Amy Heckerling. In her feature film debut, Heckerling makes what some call the greatest high school movie ever. Whether or not you agree with that, this film's success allowed Heckerling to go on and direct such new classics as 1989's Look Who's Talking and 1995's phenomenally successful Clueless.

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  • Yentl

    2009

    Today, no one gives a second thought to actors taking up the directing mantel. Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, and Mel Gibson all won Oscars for doing it. But, in 1983, Barbra Streisand had quite the struggle getting this project made. And at the time, she already had two Oscars and was a box office and recording superstar. If she has trouble, what chance does the unknown female wannabe director have?

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  • The Secret Garden

    2020

    Ask most filmies who the best female director is and it's highly likely many will say Agnieszka Holland. Born in Poland, she directed films in her native homeland and Europe, including 1990's Europa Europa, for which she won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. But this 1993 film brought her to Hollywood and since then, she's directed such films as Washington Square (1997) and Mr. Jones (2019), as well as many television episodes.

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  • A League of Their Own

    1997

    There is no crying in baseball, but there is in Hollywood, since women do not get their fair due! But Penny Marshall was one notable exception. After directing Tom Hanks in Big, she followed it up with this 1992 gem about women's baseball leagues during WWII, also starring Hanks.

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  • Desperately Seeking Susan

    2000

    This 1985 Susan Seidelman film might be best known for sealing Madonna's career as a superstar, but it also gave Seidelman her first hit, which led her to an active directing career in both movies and TV.

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  • Crossing Delancey

    2007

    Joan Micklin Silver's 1988 film was a low-budget hit. After this, her career primarily revolved around directing TV episodes and TV movies.

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  • Rambling Rose

    2002

    Martha Coolidge has had a varied career in Hollywood. In the early-to-mid-1980s, she directed a string of features, including 1983's Valley Girl with Nicolas Cage. Then, she moved to TV for a spell. In 1991, she returned to movies with this feature, which scored Oscar nominations for both lead Laura Dern and Diane Ladd for her supporting role.

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  • Wayne's World

    2001

    This 1992 film was the first many people had heard of director Penelope Spheeris. But she had been active in features, music videos, and documentaries (including the LA punk rock cult classic documentary The Decline of Western Civilization) since the 1960s.

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  • Gas, Food, Lodging

    2003

    In only her second feature film (and her first as a solo director), Allison Anders directed this now-classic 1992 film. Because of its success, she has been working steadily since, mostly in television, but also with such features as Mi Vida Loca (1993) and Grace of My Heart (1996).

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  • My Brilliant Career

    2005

    Gillian Armstrong's second feature film, this 1993 movie sealed her career early and led her to directing such gems as the 1994 adaptation of Little Women and the 2001 Cate Blanchett movie Charlotte Gray.

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  • The Piano

    1999

    This 1993 film is possibly Australian director Jane Campion's most known film because of Holly Hunter's Best Actress Oscar win (Anna Paquin also won a supporting actor Oscar, as did Campion herself for Original Screenplay). But, Campion's career is much more than just this one film. She directed Sweetie (1989) and An Angel at My Table (1990), as well as The Portrait of a Lady in 1996. She also created, wrote, and directed many episodes of the hit TV series Top of the Lake (2013).

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  • Walking and Talking

    1996

    In her first feature film from 1996, writer-director Nicole Holofcener created a world of relationship anxiety. Since then, she has gone on to create complex relationship dramas such as Lovely & Amazing (2001) and Friends with Money (2006).

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  • Eve's Bayou

    2002

    This 1997 film, directed by Kasi Lemmons, is filled with passion and the mysticism of the American South. As with many previous directors on this list, this was Lemmons' first feature film as a director. And, also like others, she wrote the script for this movie.

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  • Boys Don't Cry

    2000

    This dark 1999 film is a full-length version of a short film director Kimberly Peirce had done four years earlier. The feature went on to win Hilary Swank her first Best Actress Oscar and gave Peirce a varied career in both film and television.

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  • The Virgin Suicides

    2000

    Rarely is there such an auspicious start in filmmaking as Sofia Coppola had with this, her first feature film from 1999. To prove this success was not a fluke based on her family's long history of outstanding filmmaking (her father is director Francis Ford Coppola of The Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now fame), she followed this movie up with 2003's new classic Lost in Translation, which sealed her as a top-notch writer-director.

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