Why You’ve Never Heard Of The First Woman Director Ever, According To Jodie Foster
In her 1906 satire Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism), French director Alice Guy-Blaché poked fun at the still quite new and controversial idea of gender equality. The women in the film literally start wearing the pants, donning masculine airs, and taking control. As Pamela Green's new documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (in Los Angeles theaters now, New York City theaters on April 26, and opening wide soon) shows, Guy-Blaché was an early master of provocative comedy, and within her repertoire of more than one thousand films (including 22 full-length features) were some of the first depictions of themes Hollywood still has yet to fully embrace in 2019. Her 1900 offering Pierrette’s Escapades included the first lesbian onscreen kiss, and her 1912 short, A Fool and His Money, was the first ever to center a black cast.
Yet more than 100 years after Guy-Blaché launched her career as the first woman director in history, she's relatively unheard of, save for film historians and academics. Be Natural endeavors to change that, as Guy-Blaché is often uncredited for creating and inspiring so much of what cinematic storytelling is today. The documentary, which is narrated by executive producer Jodie Foster, details Guy-Blaché's extensive career as a director, her influence on other filmmakers (including early women directors like Dorothy Arzner and Lois Weber), and, sadly, her eventual exit from the business and erasure from Hollywood history.
"History is littered with women’s stories that have been forgotten, over-looked or marginalized. That’s just the way it was," Foster tells Bustle over email. "That was the culture. Until someone comes along and challenges the narrative, you get an incomplete history passed down as fact. Once again, that is why documentary and tenacious filmmakers like Pamela Green are so important. You can’t ignore film, such a powerful form of scholarship."
Green enlisted the likes of Foster and Robert Redford (who also executive produced) behind the scenes, but also women in film and TV such as Gale Anne Hurd, Patty Jenkins, Lake Bell, Ava DuVernay, Geena Davis, Catherine Hardwicke, Julie Taymor, and Agnès Varda on camera to discuss the importance of Guy-Blaché to film canon, and inevitably commenting on the reason she's been ignored by the industry: misogyny, of course.
We want to be a part of something, a part of a creative community looking to untangle the human experience. That desire has no prescribed gender. Women directors are human directors."
Guy-Blaché got her start by convincing camera salesman-turned-motion-picture-pioneer Léon Gaumont to first hire her as his secretary and then, later, as director of his films. As someone who didn't operate the camera herself, she's also credited for separating the role of director from director of photography as well as camera operator. While working for Gaumont, she was among the first to make hand-painted color and synchronized sound films. Her use of early special effects like backlighting, close-ups, depth of field, and superimpositions furthered ideas of what films could do in a way that's difficult to quantify.
But what is easy to understand is that male revisionists took credit for a lot of what Guy-Blaché was responsible for both during her lifetime and since. Which is why Foster, as well as many other women and men alike had never heard of her pivotal work.
"When Pamela came to me with the idea for this project, I was hooked. I had never heard of Alice Guy-Blaché even though I had been in the film business all my life," Foster says. "Pamela brought Alice’s story to life and intuited that there was a treasure out there to be discovered."
Foster said she rarely saw women on set growing up a child actor.
"Maybe a script supervisor or a makeup artist. But for the most part it was just me and a bunch of guys and occasionally the lady who was playing my mom," she says. "When I realized I wanted to be a director at a young age, I thought it was an impossible dream. I remember my mother taking me to see a bunch of movies by Lina Wertmuller, the Italian director. That changed everything for me. I had someone to look to. And now to know that Alice was possibly the first narrative film maker ever… that paves the way for so many other women to take ownership of the medium."
"While the early male filmmakers were flexing their muscles with showy feats, Alice’s subjects were radical in themselves."
As told in Be Natural, Guy-Blaché launched her own company, Solax Studios, in 1907, where she continued to create comical but challenging unconventional narratives about abuse, immigration, affirmative Judaism, and gender roles. She even made a film about Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights in 1916: Shall The Parents Decide.
"While the early male filmmakers were flexing their muscles with showy feats, Alice’s subjects were radical in themselves," Foster says. "She tackled the issues of Planned Parenthood and child abuse. She made one of the first films with an all black cast. She showcased queer characters. Alice understood filmmaking was about communicating and representing, not just entertaining."
Within Solax, her husband, Herbert, started directing, too, and essentially began competing against his wife with his own production company. Their eventual separation coincides with the Great Depression, World War I, and Hollywood's beginning to become a business more than anything based on artistry, with Paramount, Universal, and Fox launching, more theaters being built in major cities.
Women, including Guy-Blaché, started to get pushed out of directing, so Guy-Blaché began to lecture at universities, screening her films, and contributing essays to motion picture magazines.
"There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man," she wrote in Moving Picture World in 1914. "And there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art."
"Women in the workplace were rare and frowned upon. Men were much too busy thinking of themselves and their power in the world to consider women as rivals," Foster says. "Alice was an afterthought, for her boss or her mentor or her husband. They didn’t value women enough to bring their contributions to the fore. Alice had a good relationship to Gaumont and to the many men she brought into the business. But when push came to shove, they didn’t value her sex. So her contributions were discarded and cast aside as negligible."
Five years later, Guy-Blaché would direct her final film and shortly after auctioning her studio as well as as other belongings in her filing for bankruptcy.
That kind of humanist interest was way ahead of her time. Even though she made some bold technical discoveries they were all in the service of character."
Be Natural is the not the first documentary about Guy-Blaché — the 1995 Canadian film The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché won a Gemini Award for Best Performing Arts Program or Series or Arts Documentary Program or Series — and there have also been published works like Alison McMahan's Alice Guy-Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema, which Be Natural is also based on. In 2004, the Fort Lee Film Commission in Fort Lee, New Jersey honored Guy-Blaché with a historic marker at the former location of the city's Solax Studio, and the Fort Lee-based Golden Door Film Festival also give out an annual Alice Guy-Blaché Award, which is given to women who have made a significant mark on the industry and advanced the art of filmmaking. (Past recipients include Parker Posey, Shine Global’s Executive Director Susan MacLaury.)
"What I think was revolutionary about Alice was her interest in character. That led her to adopt a kind of naturalism that wasn’t the mainstay of the early film experiments," Foster says. "She was interested in ordinary lives, the beauty of small, authentic moments. That kind of humanist interest was way ahead of her time. Even though she made some bold technical discoveries they were all in the service of character."
Despite these tributes, Guy-Blaché is still somewhat of a secret and left out of critical conversations about women in the director's chair. Be Natural is a solid, star-powered reminder of how long women have not only been an integral part of filmmaking, but how much women like Guy-Blaché and her contemporaries gave to the profession. Not only was Guy-Blaché one of the first directors to do so much of what she did, she excelled at it, was highly prolific, and created work that is still said to be out of a woman's wheelhouse. Not only did she stage emotional stories about different variations of family and people and use the power of humor as a universal point of entry, but she was fearless in her want to put women, people of color, queer people, and other marginalized people in leading roles, something the men of early Hollywood were not as interested in exploring.
"Alice’s creative desires were really quite humble and yet impossible to achieve in her lifetime," Foster explains. "She wanted to be seen for who she really was, to be acknowledged for her contributions and embraced by the film community. Her goals were not lofty. In fact, she remained quite insecure about the quality of her films. Like all artists, she thought she could have been better and wished she had the chance to keep making movies in order to communicate herself more fully. I think all filmmakers can relate to this. We just want to keep creating so that we can get better instead of worse and help the culture to improve along with us. We want to be a part of something, a part of a creative community looking to untangle the human experience. That desire has no prescribed gender. Women directors are human directors."
Toward the end of Be Natural, there's a segment of interviews from Nicole Lise Bernheim and Claire Clouzot, French writers and filmmakers who published Autobiography of a Pioneer Filmmaker, 1873-1968, Alice Guy in 1978. Bernheim and Clouzot spoke with several men in French cinema, all of whom discounted and downplayed her work, simultaneously eschewing any notion of sexism. The list includes Daniel Toscan du Plantier, who was the director-general for Gaumont Film Company, the very position Guy-Blaché held before any man would be hired after her departure.
There is a happy ending, though, and that's in the finding and restoring of Guy-Blaché's work. An international quick-cut montage shows what was likely years and years of work on the behalf of many people to find the vaulted films to properly archive them and to make them available to the public. (Many are now available on YouTube, easily found with a quick Google.) There are also clips of Martin Scorsese praising her ingenuity, and interviews with Guy-Blaché herself which show just how humble but confident she was in her abilities and career. Family members of her own and those of friends and collectors and collaborators aid in the ode to an oft forgotten but not forever lost filmmaker who is deserving of the limelight that she was robbed of, even before her death in 1968.
Frustratingly, this tradition is continuing into this century when, at the Cannes premiere of Be Natural last year, Deadline referred to the doc as "the best (and least seen) film in Cannes," the same year 82 women (many of them filmmakers) protested on the steps of the Palais and delivered a collective statement on gender equity.
“Women are not a minority in the world, yet the current state of our industry says otherwise,” Cate Blanchett read from a statement to the gathering crowd. “As women, we all face our own unique challenges, but we stand together on these stairs today as a symbol of our determination and commitment to progress ... We stand in solidarity with women of all industries.”
Guy-Blaché would surely have been proud.
"The result [of Be Natural] is not just the unearthing of forgotten films, but the rewriting of film scholarship. The best part is that Alice, who had spent the last years of her life trying to right the record, is finally celebrated for her part in film history," Foster says. "That is a blessing."