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Movie Stars Have Heroines, Too

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

the new season

We asked actresses, directors and writers with this fall’s films to tell us about the forerunners they admire. Tilda Swinton, Rashida Jones, Michelle Rodriguez and others explain in their own words.


It’s the rare fall film season that features as potent a lineup of female-driven movies as this one — a convergence, perhaps, of fortuitous timing and the industry’s focus in the last year on women’s rights in initiatives like Time’s Up. But for every woman hitting her mark in front of the camera or running things behind the scenes, there are countless others whose stars haven’t been allowed to shine quite as brightly as they might have, for reasons that are often inexplicable.

Here, in their own words, women involved in this season’s films praise the female colleagues they most admire — past or present, relatively unknown or famous in their own right.

Rashida Jones on ... Lena Horne

Lena Horne's screen career lasted into the 1990s. She died in 2010.CreditAgence France-Presse -- Getty Images

Even though she battled racism her whole career, Lena Horne was always a beacon of elegance and talent onscreen. My memory of her singing “Believe in Yourself,” sparkling like a galactic goddess as Glinda in the movie version of “The Wiz,” was a truly formative one for me as a kid. To see her perform with such formidable but benevolent force, I honestly just assumed, “That’s what God must be like.”

Offscreen, she also stood for what was right, which meant fighting for civil rights, not performing to segregated crowds on a U.S.O. tour, not a particularly popular move at the time.

From the Cotton Club to her legacy at MGM, I think she is far underappreciated as a performer and part of entertainment history.

Ms. Jones is the co-director and co-writer of the documentary “Quincy.”CreditIlya S. Savenok/Getty Images

Olivia Wilde on ... Amy Heckerling

Amy Heckerling at the Tribeca TV festival in 2017. CreditMatt Doyle/Contour, via Getty Images

Amy Heckerling directed “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “National Lampoon’s European Vacation,” “Look Who’s Talking” and “Clueless.” She has arguably done as much as John Hughes or Cameron Crowe to shape our adolescent perspective, and yet her name is not synonymous with American teen culture, as theirs are. She changed the way we dressed, listened to music and spoke. You probably accidentally quoted her today. Like Nora Ephron, Amy brought progressive notions of femininity to her writing, and dared other filmmakers to up their game in terms of female authenticity and wit. She has been a huge influence on my transition into directing, but it’s unlikely I’ll ever reach her level, as very few of us will ever direct that many hits, let alone create anything as culturally defining as Heckerling has so far. As if.

Ms. Wilde is starring in “Life Itself.”CreditIsak Tiner for The New York Times

Maggie Gyllenhaal on ... Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley in a scene from “Stories We Tell.”CreditRoadside Attractions

I have so much admiration for Sarah Polley. She’s my age. She began as an actress. But she pushed through it to find her actual voice as a director. And her voice is totally singular, unlike anyone else’s. A sure sign that it is hers. My favorite film of hers, “Stories We Tell,” even defies categorization. Is it fiction? Is it a documentary? It is searingly truthful, but there are huge elements of fantasy and imagination.

And there is something distinctly feminine about her work. I’m not sure what that means exactly, except that it’s new. Women are very adept at fitting themselves into and relating to a male narrative, a male lead character. We’ve had to; we would have been starved for art that we could relate to otherwise. Sarah’s films don’t make me do that. So I feel thrilled, challenged and easy all at once when I watch Sarah Polley’s work as a director.

Ms. Gyllenhaal is the star and a producer of “The Kindergarten Teacher.”CreditClement Pascal for The New York Times

Keira Knightley on ... Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley has an extraordinary résumé. Her acting work is second to none. The director Isabel Coixet’s 2003 film, “My Life Without Me,” is one of my favorite films and performances. I could watch Sarah’s acting work all day but it’s her work as a director that I would like to see more of. Her 2007 debut feature, “Away From Her,” was extraordinary and earned her an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. I loved her 2012 follow-up film, “Take This Waltz,” a uniquely female portrayal of a relationship. In her acting, directing and writing, she has a very personal voice and one I would like to hear much more of.

Ms. Knightley is the star of “Collette.”CreditRyan Pfluger for The New York Times

Regina Hall on ... Fredi Washington

Fredi Washington in a dressing room circa 1940.CreditCharles “Teenie” Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art, via Getty Images

Fredi Washington, known by most for her role in the original 1934 classic “Imitation of Life,” is a woman whose talent, courage and conviction I truly admire. Her passion and activism helped forge the way for all black Hollywood, including Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and me. Thank you, Fredi Washington. You are phenomenal.

Ms. Hall is starring in “The Hate U Give.”CreditMichael Loccisano/Getty Images

Nicole Holofcener on ... Lynn Shelton

Lynn Shelton in Seattle in 2012.CreditStuart Isett for The New York Times

I don’t know why more people don’t know Lynn Shelton’s movies. They’re really good. She tries many different genres and she writes about many different things, which really impresses me because I sometimes think I have no imagination and can’t write about anything except my own life. And she does the opposite, to great effect. One minute, in “Your Sister’s Sister,” she’s writing about a sister who’s sleeping with the boyfriend of her sister, and the next, in “Outside In,” it’s about a guy who gets out of prison and is in love with his former high school teacher, which I think is kind of brilliant.

There’s an independent movie ghetto that sometimes we find ourselves in. Most people don’t know who I am either. I think a woman making independent films does get put in a drawer. I’m not complaining. I like my drawer.

Ms. Holofcener is the writer of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”CreditAlison Rosa

Sandi Tan on ... Marrie Lee

Marrie Lee in “They Call Her Cleopatra Wong.”CreditRichard Suarez

The former action queen Marrie Lee was my stepmom for almost a year when I was a little kid in Singapore, but I knew her as “Auntie Doris,” the bespectacled goofball who told the best ghost stories. Before her time with my turbulent father, and unbeknown to me then, Marrie had, at age 18, played the title role of the kung fu-fighting Interpol agent in “They Call Her Cleopatra Wong” (1978), an exuberant low-budget actioner by Bobby Suarez. This film and its spinoffs shot her to cult stardom in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East (lobby cards in many languages can still be found on eBay) — and it also captured the imagination of one future American auteur: Quentin Tarantino has said Uma Thurman’s character in “Kill Bill” was partly inspired by Marrie’s Cleo.

Dissatisfied with working conditions in the Philippines, Marrie left Suarez’s Manila studio and returned to Singapore in 1979 before they could make the proposed star vehicles “Super Woman” and “Queen Cobra.” This predated the Hong Kong action movie boom of the early ’80s that birthed a generation of action stars, including Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh. In a business that’s mostly about timing, Marrie had simply hit a bit too early.

When my father met Marrie, she’d already retired, at 21, from the movies and was managing a dance troupe called the Devil’s Angels that toured hotel bars in feathers and sequins. In the late ’90s, I helped organize a revival screening of “Cleopatra Wong” (largely forgotten by then), and Marrie got her second wind. Invitations to festivals in Europe and Australia followed, but more important, her sense of her own creative destiny changed. She now wanted to make her own movies. In the past decade, working with a largely volunteer crew in Singapore, Marrie has written, directed and produced two movies and is now, having just recovered from a stroke, working to make a third!

Ms. Tan is the director, writer and producer of “Shirkers.”CreditKimberly White/Getty Images

Jamie Lee Curtis on ... Laurie Metcalf

Laurie Metcalf was nominated for an Oscar for “Lady Bird.”CreditJemal Countess/Getty Images

In 1984 I saw Laurie Metcalf do the Steppenwolf production of Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead” in New York. She had a monologue that was showstopping and breathtaking, and I remember thinking she was the finest actress I had ever seen. For years I would watch her build these characters on television in “Roseanne” as well as her brilliant work on HBO’s “Getting On” but not get the attention I felt she deserves. I am so happy that she was recognized for her work in Greta Gerwig’s film “Lady Bird,” and I hope now that she will continue to be noticed. But for years I felt that she was unrecognized for her amazing contributions.

Ms. Curtis is the star and an executive producer of “Halloween.”CreditChris Pizzello/Invision, via Associated Press

Tilda Swinton on ... Kira Muratova

Kira Muratova at the Rome Film Festival in 2012. CreditTiziana Fabi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

I wanted to just send three sentences’ worth of names:

Mai Zetterling, Wendy Toye, Margaret Tait, Binka Zhelyazkova, Larisa Shepitko, Wang Ping, Moufida Tlatli, Marion Hänsel, Barbara Kopple, Lotte Reiniger, Alison de Vere, Marzieh Meshkini, Sarah Maldoror, Dinara Asanova, Ana Mariscal, Kinuyo Tanaka, Valérie Massadian, Yuliya Solntseva, Malvina Ursianu, Cecile Tang Shu-shuen, Sai Paranjpye, Lorenza Mazzetti ... for starters.

But since you ask for one:

When Kira Muratova died in June, there was no foot-long obituary in the Western newspapers. This masterly director of 22 films, pioneer of the complex crane maneuver, of tracking shots to give any in “Taxi Driver” a breathtaking run for its money: her epic, rebarbative, wildly chaotic, furious, visionary films have earned her a revered place in the international — intergalactic — canon for her work of five decades. It’s high time she made it over the wire.

Ms. Swinton is starring in “Suspiria.”CreditVera Anderson/WireImage, via Getty Images

Michelle Rodriguez on ... Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow last year.CreditBrittany Greeson for The New York Times

Of all the wonderful women in this industry, I’d have to tip my hat to Kathryn Bigelow. Kathryn’s follow-through is impeccable, and when I witnessed her transition from the commercial spectrum into serious storytelling, I was in awe. I appreciate “Point Break” all the way to “Zero Dark Thirty,” as they have an innate understanding of the male-driven pulse within the industry. I can’t think of another female filmmaker since Mary Pickford who could have successfully navigated the industry waters from the ’90s into the new millennium with equal patience, resilience and creativity.

Ms. Rodriguez is starring in “Widows.”CreditEdward Berthelot/GC Images, via Getty Images

Regina King on ... Euzhan Palcy

Euzhan Palcy at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011.CreditGuillaume Collet/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images

Euzhan Palcy. I never even considered it was possible for a black woman to be directing on the main stage until “A Dry White Season.”

Ms. King is starring in “If Beale Street Could Talk.”CreditElizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times

Karyn Kusama on ... Linda Manz

Linda Manz in “The Wanderers.”CreditOrion Pictures

The actress Linda Manz really influenced me in my youth. She got her start playing the young girl in “Days of Heaven,” the Terrence Malick film. And she just had this incredible poetry, this incredible masculine voice, almost like she was a smoker for years, but she was a kid. She only really did three films of note, and they were relatively in the same period: “Days of Heaven” (1978); “The Wanderers” (1979), and then a movie Dennis Hopper directed, “Out of the Blue” (1980). She was so distinctive, not at all typically or traditionally feminine, and defiantly uninterested in playing that. And there was something for me, as a younger person, to see an actor who rode this line in some kind of limbo between female and male energies and auras. You never forget a person like that.

Ms. Kusama directed “Destroyer.”CreditBrinson + Banks for The New York Times

Nadine Labaki on ... Forough Farrokhzad

Forough Farrokhzad (1935-67).Credit

The first name that comes to mind is Forough Farrokhzad, an Iranian filmmaker and poet with a strong feminine voice whose poetry was banned after the revolution in Iran, and who was a true pioneer in women’s liberation and independence. Her documentary “The House Is Black” is considered an essential part of the Iranian new wave and is a true inspiration to me. And I can’t help but think of a lot of other Middle Eastern filmmakers and actresses who, like her, were often misunderstood, marginalized and sometimes even exiled from their own countries just because of their unconventional views, considered too controversial or too provocative for their time.

Ms. Labaki directed “Capernaum.”CreditSebastien Nogier/EPA, via Shutterstock

Alice Rohrwacher on ... Anna Magnani

Anna Magnani with her Oscar for best actress in “The Rose Tattoo” (1955).CreditUniversal History Archive/UIG, via Getty Images

To admire Anna Magnani is to admire a total woman, an extraordinary actress and, above all, an expression of “polar” femininity. Anna expressed strength and weakness, and while staying true to herself, joyfully embodied the contradictions of all that is feminine: hence charm and violence, gentleness and ferocity, folly and lucidity, courage and fragility.

In Italy’s early postwar years especially, she catalyzed the desires of an orphan nation, a newborn democracy looking for a mother. In neorealism and for the rest of her career, Anna Magnani became a reliable, thoughtful mother for this young Italy recovering from the wounds of war. But she was also despairing and severe, alone in front of a candle waiting for her sons to return. A woman who was a symbol and a nest and a bitter smile, old yet immature. Pasolini called her “Mamma Roma” and the name stuck.

Ms. Rohrwacher wrote and directed “Happy as Lazzaro.”Creditvia Netflix

Marielle Heller on ... Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda last month in Beverly Hills.CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times

Not only is Jane Fonda an incredible actress and hilarious, but she has done so much to advocate for women, victims of abuse and violence, the environment and humanity in general. I’ve never had the pleasure to meet her, but I imagine her to be someone who has strong morals and follows that compass when making decisions. And that is never easy. To have such a long and diverse career, without losing that sense of self, is something I aspire to. And her relationship with Lily Tomlin is one of my all-time favorite things. I mean, come on.

Ms. Heller directed “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”CreditElizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times

Mimi Leder on ... Dorothy Arzner

Paramount recently named a building after the director Dorothy Arzner.CreditAssociated Press

Dorothy Arzner helmed more studio films than any other woman in history, and they recently dedicated a building to her at Paramount, where she directed 11 films during the ’20s and ’30s. She was a true trailblazer, had so much tenacity, broke the glass ceilings for many women, was the first female member of the Directors Guild of America, and invented the boom mic. She had a fearless passion and a love of storytelling, and I connect with her on that level because I have that fearless love and passion for directing. I won the Women in Film Dorothy Arzner Directors Award in 2000, which was quite an honor, and Steven Spielberg presented it to me. My daughter was 13, and I think it was the first time she realized, “Hey, my mom is somebody besides my mom.”

Ms. Leder directed “On the Basis of Sex.”CreditMike Coppola/Getty Images

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