Earlier this month, the hashtag #WomenCallAction flew around the Twittersphere. This live chat hosted by The Women's International Perspective included participation by director and activist Rachel Feldman and Women and Hollywood's Melissa Silverstein. The participants called for action by the studios, the unions, and by women themselves, urging everyone to seek out stories told by women. Silverstein put the conversation into perspective by stating, “Women's stories aren't valued and women's history gets erased.”
This shared sentiment drives the mission behind Seeking Our Story. I started this LA-based screening series to watch movies directed by women that I had not seen before. Through sharing these movies, we build a community of filmmaker friends while keeping alive the history of women who paved the way.
Martha Coolidge is one such groundbreaker. Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, Coolidge had just her siblings and her mother. During a 2001 interview, the director recalled making movies with her father before he passed:
“When I was very young, my father had a hobby of making 8mm movies and using us kids as the actors. He edited them with a little set of rewinds at home. After he died when I was nine and the oldest of the three siblings, I became the ‘director.’”
As a student, Coolidge became the first graduate at the Rhode Island School of Design to receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts in filmmaking. She went on to gain a Masters in Fine Arts from NYU. After creating a number of documentaries in New York in the early 1970s, Coolidge directed a semi-autobiographical film titled Not a Pretty Picture (1976) that blended narrative and documentary styles to dissect an incident of date rape. After the film’s completion, Coolidge moved west to Los Angeles, where she worked at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studio.
Coolidge directed another feature, worked in TV, and directed more documentaries. Finally, she caught a break with Valley Girl (1983). The film not only changed her life, but introduced Nicolas Cage in his first leading role. Though Coolidge was paid only a small stipend for her work, the film’s success launched her towards a series of pictures. After directing two more features, City Girl (1984) and Joy of Sex (1984), Coolidge gave Val Kilmer his start with Real Genius (1985).
Her subsequent films include Plain Clothes (1987), Rambling Rose (1991) for which Coolidge won an Independent Spirit Award, Lost in Yonkers (1993), Angie (1994) with Geena Davis opposite James Gandolfini in his first major role, Three Wishes (1995), Out to Sea (1997) with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and The Prince and Me (2004). In addition to many made-for-TV movies, Coolidge directed episodes for TV shows like The Twilight Zone, Sex and the City, Weeds, Psych, CSI, and The Glades, among others. She has been nominated for multiple Emmy awards in directing and won the DGA Award for Best Director.
Of her career, Coolidge said, “All my films have been about people facing personal challenges in their lives and overcoming them. But as a director I like to stretch. I certainly enjoy the action and the hardware as much as the next guy, but my films center on strong characters. My greatest joy has come from working with so many talented actors.”
Coolidge served as the first woman president of the Directors Guild of America starting in 2002. The DGA credits Coolidge with remaining “committed to promoting diversity and encouraging studios and networks to hire minority and female directors.”
Regarding her career in directing, Coolidge told Women and Hollywood, “It's a job very well suited to women. Half the traits of any good director are female traits and half are male. Nurturing, listening, creative thinking, and all the people skills are very female. Leading, making tough decisions under pressure, long hours doing very physically and mentally demanding work, managing equipment, large numbers of people and machines is very male. But all good directors have these.”
Join us Friday, August 29th as Seeking Our Story presents Martha Coolidge’s breakout hit Valley Girl. The film screens as part of MiMoDa Studio’s Friday Night Film Club and is sponsored by @TheDirectorList.
Doors open at 7:30 PM, and the film starts at 8 PM. This is a community screening with donations accepted at the door. Please RSVP.
Samantha Shada is a Los Angeles based story teller and artistic entrepreneur. She produces the Seeking Our Story series, screening an alternative approach to film history by highlighting the works of women directors.