"Isn't it AMAZING?" asks Nora Ephron, actually sounding amazed. "It's like some fantastic biological thing has happened. It's like paramecium or something. I mean, suddenly there are 23 where there used to be two."
The celebrated screenwriter of "When Harry Met Sally" isn't really talking about paramecium -- or, for that matter, about any simple life form. The subject is female movie directors, a complex breed if ever there was one.
While the recent emergence of black directors has been grabbing most of the headlines, a quieter, parallel revolution has taken place. In the last year or so, approximately two dozen American features directed by women have opened -- many to box-office success and/or critical acclaim.
These films range from "This is My Life" (a comedy-drama that marks Ms. Ephron's directorial debut and tells the story of a female comic and her daughters) to Lili Fini Zanuck's "Rush" (another directorial debut, and a hard-hitting drama about undercover narcs) to Penelope Spheeris' "Wayne's World" (a giddy comedy based on a "Saturday Night Live" sketch about teen-age boys).
The long list of recent movies by female directors includes Lizzie Borden's flashy "Love Crimes," Randa Haines' probing "The Doctor," Mary Agnes Donoghue's soft-toned "Paradise," Kathryn Bigelow's action-packed "Point Break" and Mira Nair's racially themed "Mississippi Masala."
Also on this list is "The Prince of Tides," a family saga which last week received an Oscar nomination for best picture, although Barbra Streisand was not nominated in the best-direction category. If she had been, she would have become the first woman since Lina Wertmuller ("Seven Beauties" of 1976) to be so honored. But in any case, it seems clear that female filmmakers have arrived.
"What's more important for women directors is not whether they get nominated for Academy Awards, but whether their movies make money," notes Ms. Ephron, whose new film opened last week in New York and Los Angeles, and is scheduled to arrive elsewhere March 6. And we should keep in mind that despite the strides female filmmakers have made in recent months, they still make up less than 10 percent of directors in the Directors Guild of America (which recently did nominate Ms. Streisand for its directing award.)
"This year we have 25 women directing," Ms. Zanuck estimates. "It's a landmark year ... [But] we haven't been a big enough population directing to worry about whether we get a nomination or not. A woman will win some day. It's that simple."
To put all this in perspective, it should be noted that the recent breakthrough for female filmmakers isn't the first.
"During the silent period, there were more women directors, proportionally, than at any subsequent period until the present -- and, really, until the last decade," says Kay Armatage, a teacher of cinema studies and the chair of women's studies at the University of Toronto. "In the early days of the cinema, there were no training schools. There were no educational programs. It was a wide-open field."
Before the 1930s, a woman could set up a simple camera, direct a motion picture and sell the completed project on "film exchange row" in New York City, where the going rate for a movie was 10 cents per foot -- regardless of a director's gender. But as the film business evolved from a collection of independent production companies to a highly structured mega-industry, female directors were left in the lurch.
"They were all knocked out of the business by the rise of the major studios and the rise of the unions, which deliberately kept women out of their ranks ... until the mid-'70s," explains Ms. Armatage.
According to her research, from the mid-'30s to around 1960 only two women were directing feature films in the United States -- actress-turned-director Ida Lupino and Dorothy Arzner (Christopher Strong). The Directors Guild has calculated that of the 7,332 feature films made in Hollywood from 1939 to 1979, only 14 were directed by women.
During this barren period, women starred in films, and sometimes even wrote them, but were virtually banned from other major positions.
A notable exception was the field of film editing, which they dominated.