Suzanne Leonard's "Fifty Hollywood Directors"

February 17, 2015

Suzanne Leonard

Professor Leonard talks about her new book "Fifty Hollywood Directors", working on an anthology as an editor, and the upcoming Academy Awards.

Fifty Hollywood Directors is a collection of essays about twentieth-century directors and a follow-up to the book Fifty Contemporary Film Directors, which was published in 2002. Why create this anthology?

As a caveat, I was not involved in Fifty Contemporary Film Directors…. The impetus for the second volume was to help students think about classical Hollywood from the perspective of production studies. When film studies sought to gain legitimacy as a discipline, the director was one of the first figures that people started to study. What we [Yvonne Tasker and I] wanted to do was to have a book that would take that same theoretical angle, and apply it primarily to Hollywood’s golden era.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, the studio system was extremely popular, and had quite a vice grip on directors and on stars, which made it a rich subject for investigation. We aimed for a publication that was responsible to film history, whereas the first volume had been about contemporary directors only. Our goal was to use the director as a figure to talk about film history and the discipline of film studies a bit more broadly.

Tell us more about the structure of Fifty Hollywood Directors.

There is a smaller section at the beginning devoted to silent film history, before the onset of the studio system, and a number of those entries talk about directors--like DeMille, Griffith, and Vidor-- who needed to be nimble because feature film was in its infancy as a medium. The middle section, Classical Hollywood, contains the bulk of the book’s content. During classical period, you have directors who were were under the thumb of the studio’s vision, as well as certain directors who were associated with particular genres, like John Ford and the western or Minnelli and the melodrama.

The final, smallest section is about New Hollywood. Here, a breakout of directors in the 1970s wanted to really reenvision the form of movies. This era also coincided with decline of the production code, which said that stories needed to have a moral ending, and that you couldn’t show women in compromising situations unless they were punished for their behavior. During the New Hollywood era, you had a re-envisioning of stories that were not told during the Golden Age.

What are the challenges and advantages of working on an anthology as an editor?

One of the challenges was to maintain a tone in the articles that was respectful of the directors and also understood the limitations under which they were working. A lot of these directors had industrial conditions that they were subject to, and they didn’t necessarily have a lot of ability to push the envelope in terms of form or narrative. So we wanted to celebrate the role of the director, but at the same time not over-value the role, or suggest that films were the product of a single creative visionary. Certainly films are a collaborative effort, and as feminist scholars, we were very aware of the fact that most of the directors profiled in the book are male.

What we were most interested in is how our featured directors and the films they made were in dialogue with their cultural and social contexts, and I’d have to say that the writers I worked with were very cognizant of that. Nobody wrote a piece that I felt was too celebratory of the “great male director.” They were all very measured in assessing what this director was able to accomplish within the confines of the system in which they worked. They also addressed film as a joint effort; many of the pieces consider how particular screenwriters, cinematographers, stars, or cultural contexts helped to make a director's work memorable or influential.

Were there any directors you liked who did not made the cut?

We were chagrinned to not be able to include more women; in the first volume, there were more female directors who were profiled. Here, we featured directors who made multiple films, and when you’re working within the studio system, which again was so closed, it was a challenge to find diverse voices.

On the flip side, we were excited to be able to include Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner, and Ida Lupino...and then in the New Hollywood era, Stephanie Rothman, who directed B-movies. I was particularly happy about the inclusion of Stephanie Rothman, because she did all these campy films in the 1970s which have been largely forgotten. I would say that the book is nevertheless symptomatic of the historic problem of gender inequity in Hollywood.

What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this book?

I was surprised to find that there was considerable cross-pollination between European cinemas and American film. I’m an Americanist, and so most of the directors I study work fairly exclusively in the United States. A number of the directors--in fact, a large number of the directors--profiled in this book were emigres, with many coming over from Europe during the World War II era. You have a lot of Jewish intellectuals who were fleeing incredibly dire circumstances, who then brought a European influence to their productions, including a set of narrative and stylistic techniques. Though the book is called Fifty Hollywood Directors, it illustrated to me that Hollywood as a term is a much more global concept than I had previously thought.

How do you feel about the nominees for the upcoming the Academy Awards on February 22nd?

There are some pretty exciting female roles in serious films. I’m thinking about Reese Witherspoon in Wild, Julianne Moore in Still Alice, and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. These nominees also suggest the attractiveness--and frankly the marketability--of female authorship, since all three of these films are based on books written by women.

One thing I might say on a more negative note is that we were only able to include one director of color [in Fifty Hollywood Directors], Oscar Micheaux. This organization was symptomatic of the time periods on which the book concentrates. I have been doing a fair amount of reading on the controversies over Selma and the fact that Selma was largely ignored by the Academy Awards. Some of Hollywood’s omissions, and it’s historic relationship to issues of race, remain troubling.

While I think our book felt beholden to the fact that there weren’t that many directors of color working in Hollywood back then, now we have a situation where there was this film directed by an African-American woman that’s gotten so much acclaim and it is still getting overlooked. We're still seeing restriction and omissions and absences and a lack of recognition.