on the set of “Return to Lonesome Dove”, photo courtesy: susan c. ingram
Watching Scorsese’s “Irishman” Made Me Yearn for Women-Centric Epics
Somewhere in the middle or even in the first third of “The Irishman” I started to feel uncomfortable. And not because of the language or the violence or the weirdness of everyone’s digital facelifts. Not even because of Robert DeNiro’s fake blue eyes that in one scene glowed like the eerie cerulean lights on my mother’s CPAP-cleaning machine.
By the time the film ended, and I watched the credits and parade of digital technicians’ names crawl by, I began to identify that discomfort. And when the Netflix behind-the-scenes documentary, “The Irishman: In Conversation” queued up and began playing automatically, my discomfort was morphing into anger, sadness and even feelings of defeat.
As I sat watching multi-award-winning director Martin Scorsese, and veteran multi-award-winning actors Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci chatting with cocktails in hand in what looked like a Manhattan steakhouse, I thought, maybe even said out loud, “When am I going to get the chance to watch an old-school, longtime, multi-award-winning woman director and three longtime, multi-award-winning women actors sitting around shooting the shit about the challenges of directing, acting and writing?” When will I get the chance to learn from the “Old Girls’ Club” of women filmmakers about their decades of experience working in top Hollywood films? Not to mention the challenges and changes in the film biz, with the advent of new technologies, or even what it’s like to continue playing major roles in major films as an aging actress?
When will I get the chance to see that?
Never, I thought. NEVER.
I worked in the film business as a union camera assistant from the early 1980s to the early 2000s on major Hollywood projects, including with Al Pacino on “Scarface.” I wonder why things have hardly changed since my 20 years working behind the camera. During that time, I worked with no women cinematographers, no women feature film directors and only a few women television directors.
When I started working as a union camera assistant, there was one woman cinematographer in the Hollywood camera union, British-born Brianne Murphy. I never had the pleasure of working with her. When she died in 2003, 30 years after she was admitted to the union, there were only five women out of 265 members. In 1980, she was the first woman cinematographer on a major Hollywood feature film, according to the Los Angeles Times. That is about 100 years after the dawn of motion pictures.
“We’ve come a long way,” Murphy said, in 1995 when receiving the Women in Film Lucy Award for Innovation in Television, “but we must continue to reach out to women and know that the road less traveled is worth the effort.”
According to the Hollywood Reporter, by 2017 only 2% of union cinematographers on the top-100 grossing films were women.
Almost 40 years after I was lucky enough to be one of two women selected for the Hollywood camera union’s camera assistant training course, there are still almost no women cinematographers and directors of big studio pix such as “The Irishman.”
Just look at this year’s list of Golden Globe nominees: no women directors and four of the five best picture nominees are male-dominated stories. Likewise, no Oscar nominations for women directors or cinematographers. Meanwhile, thankfully, the National Film Registry announced recently it is adding a record seven women-directed films to its vaults, including 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” directed by Kimberly Peirce and “A New Leaf,” written and directed by Elaine May, who also starred in the film: Hollywood’s first female triple-threat. Can you name any others, besides Barbra Streisand’s award-winning “Yentl,” for which she received the Best Director Golden Globe in 1984?
Which begs the question – is there any equivalent anywhere in the film business to the empire of epic, male-dominated stories such as those of Scorsese (“Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas,” “The Irishman”) or Francis Ford Coppola (“Apocalypse Now,” “The Godfather” trilogy)?
Where are the women-dominated epics? Which women directors have been able, no, allowed, to build a women-centered empire of, epic, elegiac, breathtaking, groundbreaking, best films of the year, to quote some of the breathless reviews of “The Irishman.”
OK, easy enough to answer. We live in a male-dominated culture, where machismo and violence, bullying and balls are romanticized and lionized (just look in the White House).
Women, and let’s not forget anyone else who is not white and male, take a back seat to, and yes, like me, often support with their dollars and enthusiasm the perpetuation of the male-dominated epic. I’m the first to admit I love gangster movies, always have. My movie heroes include Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell (as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe). And working with and watching Al Pacino’s performance as Scarface, up close and personal, was thrilling.
I don’t watch “The Searchers” to catch a glimpse of a young Natalie Wood or to relate to the marriage-focused Vera Miles, but to watch the macho fireworks between John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter and the slow burn of German-born Henry Brandon playing a bare-chested Comanche chief named Scar.
I grew up a full-on Tomboy playing football in the street and watching Saturday morning TV shows such as “The Dead End Kids” and “The Three Stooges,” as well as primetime fare including “Combat,” “Rat Patrol,” “Hogan’s Heroes” and “The Wild, Wild West,” which was removed from the air for its violence.
Nary a woman’s story among those titles, in which women mostly played hookers and showgirls. The one shining example of a woman role model in my childhood – who I looked up to and wanted to be – was Diana Rigg as the intellectual/scientist and secret agent Emma Peel of the 1960s British TV sci-fi/spy drama “The Avengers.” Thank god for Emma.
As a film school student in the 1970s, the only woman director who was held up as a real talent and maverick was actor and director Ida Lupino, who played tough gals and directed films that featured such roles for women. Of course, I also idolized another woman maverick, Bette Davis, who took control of her career and spit in the eye of male studio heads.
As a union camera assistant in Hollywood and then back home in Baltimore, most of the film and TV projects I worked on were directed by and starred men. Although, the producers of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” which I worked on for six seasons, used a number of women directors. Of the more than 50 directors of the show, which ran from 1993-1999, 10 were women, including Kathryn Bigelow, Kathy Bates and Barbara Kopple.
But even so, where are their empires? Their decades of epics? Why can’t I watch them chatting around a table – martinis in hand – extolling the virtues of creativity and hard work and a lifetime of having the opportunity to make big-budget blockbusters over and over and over again?
In Hollywood’s very beginnings there was Alice Guy-Blaché, the subject of “Be Natural,” a new documentary by director Pamela B. Green. The film follows Guy-Blaché, recognized now as the first women film director and the world’s first female filmmaker. Where is her legacy? Where are the legions of young women who would have followed in her footsteps, had her accomplishments been encouraged, lauded and financially supported?
Obviously, the advent of easily accessible digital film-production equipment has brought more women into more roles in independent and lower-budget features. But, remember, at this year’s Oscars there were zero women nominated in the directing and cinematography categories.
That, of course, is not news. It is, in fact, very old news.
So, don’t hate me if I wasn’t particularly charmed, excited or mesmerized by Scorsese’s newest blockbuster, I’m still waiting for that empire of women filmmakers to emerge and rise and, finally, strike back.
Susan C. Ingram is a former 20-year motion picture camera assistant and Baltimore-area community newspaper journalist. Besides 20 years of bylines in the Community Times, Baltimore Jewish Times and Baltimore Style magazine, her fiction and memoir has been published in So To Speak Journal, Dime Show Review, Sick Lit Magazine, Seltzerzine and Jersey Devil Press. She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University and currently writes and edits from her home in the suburbs of Baltimore.