Actresses Shining Behind The Cameras

D.W. Griffith wanted to be a director. But when he showed up knocking at film studio Biograph’s doorsteps, all they could offer him was a role as an actor, something Griffith already had plenty of experience with on the stage. He was happy with the work, as he remembered the days when he had to shovel coal or pick hops to make a living all too well. While his ultimate dream was to become a playwright, his dire financial situation made him decide to have a go at film screenwriting and directing as well, and it was in this that he would achieve tremendous fame with The Birth of a Nation. Not that this came easily; it was only when a last-minute cancellation by house director Wallace McCutcheon left Biograph bosses scrambling for a replacement that Griffith got his break. In 1908, his first film titled The Adventures of Dollie made its New York debut. The twelve-minute film about a kidnapped young girl floating down the river in a barrel sold twenty five copies, and Biograph offered Griffith a contract. The rest is history.

One hundred years later, not all that much has changed. Aspiring actors and actresses wait tables or take on other odd jobs awaiting that one crucial callback. And once one has a foot in the door on screen, the established networks come in quite handy when thinking about a career behind the cameras. This week, Ryan Phillippe became the latest actor to express an interest in taking on a more active role behind the scenes. The appeal is obvious. Directing is more prestigious, it allows one express his or her creative vision in ways that acting never could, is interesting financially, plus it offers better long-term prospectives when looks start waning or when one is ready for a more private existence. Numerous blogs have been written about actors who have successfully (or not so) made the transition—the undisputed number one being Clint Eastwood, while Ben Affleck is turning out to be quite the talent as well—but notably absent from the lists are actresses who did the same. However, this certainly does not mean that there have been no actresses who have demonstrated considerable talent behind the cameras. I have chosen to focus on directors rather than producers, meaning that Mary Pickford is left out—even though she remains the most powerful woman behind the screens up until this day in her role as a producer and founder. Here are six actresses who have taken the leap:

The Early Bird: Lois Weber

Many have never heard of Pittsburgh-born Weber, and neither had I until read an article about her in a magazine a couple of years back. The story is so tragic it could easily be a film: she became the highest-paid director within Universal Film Manufacturing, earning $5000 per week plus a share in her films’ profits. The world was at her feet, and she was the only female director within the Motion Picture Association of Directors. When she died, she was alone and penniless. Weber started out as an actress in short films, but quickly made the transition to director. In 1914, she became the first woman to (co)direct a feature film, The Merchant of Venice. After this, a slew of highly controversial yet successful films, such as Where Are My Children? on contraception and Hop, The Devil’s Brew on alcoholism. Weber became a respected director, as much for her technique as her fearless choices regarding subject matter. She even founded her own production company, Lois Weber Productions on the height of her fame, but her morality tales fell from grace and her tumultuous personal life further impeded continuing success. As the silent film faded, so did the career of Lois Weber. Her foray into sound film was unsuccessful and after the poor reception of White Heat in 1934 she never made another film.

The Established Director: Sophia Coppola

Coppola at work

With all her directorial successes, most recently Somewhere for which she received the Golden Lion in Venice, it is easy to forget that Sofia Coppola started out as an actress. As uneasy as she appeared in front of the cameras, so comfortable she is behind them. With a father as famous as hers and a family full of Hollywood royalty, it is not surprising that Coppola is where she is today. But whereas her acting career was largely the result of her family connections, and she never proved particularly apt at or interested in it, she is undeniably talented behind the camera. The role of Mary Corleone in her father’s The Godfather III earned her a Razzie for Worst New Star, and Coppola made a quiet exit from the screen. But she came back with a vengeance; her debut film The Virgin Suicides generated rave reviews, and the intensity and claustrophobic setting of the story were balanced by a semi-comical tone. Lost in Translation definitively established Coppola as a skillful writer and director, and she should have won the Oscar for it. Her biopic Marie Antoinette is wildly underrated for some reason, but showed the versatility of Coppola as a director. She is one of the most accomplished directors of her generation, if not the most accomplished female director right now.

The Successful First Timer: Nandita Das

Director/actress Nandita Das

Before she became a director, Nandita Das had already been acting for over a decade. In 2000, she won the Best Actress Award at the Santa Monica Film Festival for Bawandar, a powerful dramatization of the real life story of an Indian woman who became the victim of a punitive gang-rape for her demonstrations against arranged child-marriages in the country. Her directorial debut Firaaq, translating to separation and quest in Urdu, appeared in 2008. It follows the aftermath of the 2002 riots between Muslims in Hindus in Gujurat, and trails the lives of fictional perpetrators, victims, and those otherwise impacted by the bloodshed. It is a beautifully and subtly filmed account of the events, and Das has chosen to emphasize the human emotions rather than the bloodshed itself—violence is virtually absent from the film. The screenplay is brilliant, and the result is an overwhelming narrative that is even more impressive considering the fact that Das also wrote the screenplay. While she has continued onto the acting path after Firaaq, we can only hope that she’ll soon decide to shoot a sophomore film to equal success. Drew Barrymore is another actress that belongs in this section, as 2009’s truly entertaining Whip It gave viewers a glimpse of her directorial skills, and unlike Das she is already working on a second film: How To Be Single.

The All-Around Talent: Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand also starred in Prince of Tides, with Nick Nolte

No words are needed really. If you manage to have a successful career in music, win an Academy Award (for 1968’s Funny Girls), direct the perfectly crafted Prince of Tides and a few other films that are not too shabby either, you can proudly call yourself a woman of all trades. In fact, it is fair to wonder if someone with that amount of accolades can still be called human at all.

The One to Watch: Vera Farmiga

Vera Farmiga at Sundance 2011

Very Farmiga’s Higher Ground opened on this year’s Sundance Film Festival to rave reviewsThe Academy Award nominated actress also stars in the drama, which revolves around a woman’s faith and especially her doubts and struggles after she almost loses a child. Together with her husband, she joins a born-again Christian group in New York state. The buzz is promising, with even a few ‘terrifics’ registered in early reviews and Screen Magazine calling her approach “just short of miraculous” in the way it manages to treat the heavy subject of religion in faith in a balanced and at times comedic manner. I have not seen the film, so I cannot make any definitive statements about Farmiga’s qualities as a director, but I for one look forward to August when the film will have its American premiere. Another high profile actress currently plotting an expansion of career is Angelina Jolie, who is currently shooting her debut film. Controversy and protest have surrounded the film before production has even finished: it shows the love story of a Bosnian woman and a Serbian rapist, an understandably sensitive topic less than twenty years after the war. Jolie will have to prove herself sensitive to the emotional charge and complexity of her topic, and I’m certainly curious to see how she navigates these issues in her as of yet untitled film.

The Don’t-Quit-Your-Day-Job Director: Jodie Foster

Jodie Foster, Mel Gibson, and the beaver

I’ll be the first to admit that this pick is completely subjective. I am a fan of Jodie Foster the actress, at times find her brilliant, but her directorial projects have failed to charm me. They are by no means bad: Home For The Holidays is an entertaining film, but that is more the accomplishment of the actors than of the direction. Little Man Tate was a project close to her own heart, with an “element of autobiography”. As Roger Ebert recalled, Foster always had an air of intelligence and insight over her, even as a child. The character in Little Man Tate shares this intelligence and outsider perspective on the world, yet Foster’s affinity with the topic does not translate to the screen. What remains is a somewhat lifeless and standard story without a real spark or thrill in it, something that Foster does always convey as an actress. But there is hope: The Beaver, starring Mel Gibson, will be released this month. While Variety critiqued Foster as unable to “navigate the seismic tonal shifts,” other reviews have been positive, and I am ready to be surprised