A Brief Encyclopedia of Female Screenwriters.
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” These were the words of the epitome of female wit: Dorothy Parker.
The American poet, critic and founder of the Algonquin Round Table, grasped with satire the difficulty of the writing profession. Even more so when you’re a woman in a man’s world. But this did not prevent Dottie from becoming America’s most versatile writer for both literature and screenwriting. We must thank her for Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur and Technicolor musical Sweethearts, not to forget the Academy Award nominated films A Star Is Born and the adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes.
Throughout history there are many examples of unrecalled, female screenwriters who have created the foundations for powerful silver screen tales. Here are some examples:
Italy’s THE ONE
Those who are fond of Italian Neorealism will already know that Suso Cecchi D’Amico is the soul behind masterpieces such as Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan or his Oscar-winning Bicycle Thieves. Cecchi D’Amico collaborated with a multitude of celebrated Italian directors, including Luchino Visconti (Bellissima, Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, Ludwig, Conversation Piece), Michelangelo Antonioni (The Girlfriends), Alessandro Blasetti (Lucky to Be a Woman), Luigi Zampa (L’onorevole Angelina), Mario Monicelli (Big Deal on Madonna Street, The Passionate Thief, We Hope It’s a Girl), Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano), and Franco Zeffirelli (The Taming of the Shrew; Brother Sun, Sister Moon). Not only did this woman change the history of cinema, but it is to her that Cinecittà Studios owes the term scaletta (“outline,” or literally, “little ladder”), to describe the steps a character must take to reach the end of the story.
Two French Madams
Germaine Dulac began her career as a theatre and film critic, before embracing the screenwriting quest. She experienced the transition from silent films to talkies, and was a pioneering woman since she founded a production company in 1915. She eventually directed highly inventive pictures, experimenting with the artistic movements of Impressionism (The Smiling Madam Beudet) and Surrealism (The Seashell and the Clergyman). Dulac was among the first who battled for the recognition of the filmmaker as an auteur, to ensure that cinema would be the medium of both human perception and a direct rendition of reality.
French novelist and scriptwriter Marguerite Duras, is known for Hiroshima mon amour, that earned her a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. The life she led before becoming a storyteller, would actually make an excellent film script. Born in Saigon, Marguerite was raised by her mother, after her father died, and grew up with her siblings in complete poverty. She moved to France at seventeen, to study political science and was hired by the French government in the Ministry of the Colonies. During World War II, Duras worked for the Vichy government, but was also a member of the French Resistance. She is credited for over sixty screenplays, that include The Lover － which was clearly inspired by the affair she had, as a teenager, with a rich merchant in Vietnam － and Seven Days…Seven Nights － an adaptation of her novel Moderato Cantabile, directed by Peter Brook, starring Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Three American Prodigies and many more
Among the first ladies in the United States who wrote for the screen, there is a noteworthy trio of females born in the late 1800s. Frances Marion was the first writer to win two Academy Awards, for The Champ and The Big House. She is mostly remembered for the adaptation of Eugene O’Neill‘s Anna Christie, where Greta Garbo played the titular role. Anita Loos wrote film scripts from 1912, for the likes of D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks; she is the one who scripted Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. June Mathis was determining in shaping Hollywood’s dream factory. She was head of Metro’s script department in 1920 and launched Rudolph Valentino’s career, insisting he played the lead in the film she wrote The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Most importantly, she forged the modern screenplay format, to include stage directions and physical settings.
Whizzing through the decades, from the early 20th century until today, the list is abundant and you’ll be surprised to see how some of the most famous and successful movies we know, came out of female pens. These are just a few examples: Ruth Gordon (Adam’s Rib), Betty Comden (Singin’ in the Rain), Joan Harris (Rebecca), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Howard’s End), Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility), Melissa Mathison (E.T.), Elaine May (Tootsie), Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise), Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally), Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada), Diablo Cody (Juno), Leslie Dixon (adapted the musical Hairspray), Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith (Legally Blonde), Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!) Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh (The Lord of the Rings), Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass), Melissa Rosenberg (The Twilight Saga), Vanessa Taylor (Divergent Series), Amanda Silver (In the Heart of the Sea), Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl), Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith (Saving Mr. Banks), Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy), Juliette Towhidi (Testament of Youth), Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast). Not to forget the women screenwriters who gave life to some of the most popular television series, such as Shonda Rimes (Grey’s Anatomy) or Nancy Oliver (True Blood).
But, in my opinion, a contemporary screenwriter who strikes a chord in the kaleidoscope of human emotions is Naomi Foner. Born as Miss Achs in New York City, Naomi was raised in a family of doctors and later earned an MA in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University. This background has definitely contributed to making her a profound storyteller of the conflicting features of human behavior.
Naomi Foner’s films uncover themes that pertain to all of us, in an incredibly raw way. Her stories are slowly paced, to allow audiences to enter the world of the characters and relate to their hardships. Foner depicts the human condition in a Merleau-Pontyan key: she investigates being-in-the-world through embodied cognition. Whether it is love palpitations of reunited lovers, the psychosomatic tribulations of addiction, or the winces that betray the afflictions people try to hide, Naomi’s characters truthfully portray how bodily perception intertwines with our psyche.
Her dialogues flow and encapsulate powerful messages that pertain to concrete experience. For instance, Violets are Blue is not a traditional romantic film: it addresses how dreams of youth may clash with the realities of adulthood and further interweave with serendipity.
When it comes to how life offers us the ability to choose between different courses of action, the script of Running on Empty is exemplary. For this film, directed by Sidney Lumet, Naomi Foner received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay and won a Golden Globe Award for the same category. Her poignant screenplay tells the story of a family running from the F.B.I. because of a violent act the once-radical parents committed back in the sixties. The fugitives symbolize how the sins of progenitors should not be laid upon their children. In fact, the youngsters follow their parents’ values until they are placed at a crossroads, that will make them reconsider self-consciousness and normative orientation.
Foner further delved into the social issues of our time, involving disability and race. In A Dangerous Woman spectators observe how we can learn from the vicissitudes of a mentally impaired woman, who is unable to lie. One of the characters tells her, “Sometimes we have to tell lies to get to the truth,” and this can lead back to the way Aristotle conceived art as mimesis, bringing out the inward significance of things. In this manner the deception of filmmaking becomes more truthful in chronicling a story that can be believed to be real, just as much as the little white lies mankind exchanges, reveal its frailty.
Losing Isaiah is an ode to people’s fallibility. It tackles the race debate with potent delicacy. It does not take sides. It is neither a black film, nor a WASP movie. It is simply about motherhood. Actually it is more about being someone’s child, which cannot be reduced to mere biology, but rather regards feeling akin to the world (and people) that accompany our growth.
Parenthood tinges itself with various problematics, even when there is an active presence following the offspring’s development. Naomi depicts this very well in the adaptation of Myla Goldberg’s novel Bee Season. In this case, the film shows how every member of the family seems isolated. Furthermore, the movie explores how the ambition of parents can lead children to a quiet rebellion. The young protagonist epitomizes Sartre’s idea that, “Man is condemned to be free because once thrown into the world he is responsible for everything he does.” The little girl has a fanatic father, a Professor of Judaism who is obsessed in making his daughter become a spelling bee champion. But the eleven year old girl teaches her dad a lesson, somehow embodying the “Neshama” which in Judaism is considered the essence of one’s soul. She remains pure to her natural instinct.
Breathing life to all these powerful stories can absorb an author, to the extent of cultivating a strong detachment from the real world. Devotion to writing, just as acting, may in some occasions jeopardize one’s private sphere. Whether you are scripting a character’s destiny, or fleshing it out, it is all time taken away from your own existence. But this is not the case for Naomi, she married men who shared her intellectual acumen － Eric Foner, a Professor at Columbia University, and filmmaker Stephen Gyllenhaal － and is the proud mother of two of today’s most talented actors in Hollywood, Maggie & Jake Gyllenhaal.
Naomi is a grandmother too. And she also made her directorial debut with Very Good Girls, starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Once again Naomi Foner transformed the familiar tunes of the human condition in something empathetic and meaningful. Friendship, teenage infatuations, family losses, all mingle in her inkwell, as she dips her quill and transforms them into something real, that avoids tear-jerking cliché but always overwhelms viewers. We shall see what new artistic enterprise Naomi Foner will embark upon, without any doubt it will be just as her previous ones: humanizing.