For the first time in Academy history in 2021, two women (Chloe Zhao and Emerald Fennell) were nominated for Best Director. For the 2022 Oscars, a female director (Jane Campion) received a second nomination in the same category for the first time. Although women have often been overlooked in the Best Director category, there is a rich history of filmmaking from women throughout the history of the industry, with many taking charge of their production by multitasking in various areas of the filmmaking process.
To celebrate March as Women’s History Month, let’s look back at some of the contributions of female filmmakers, and the recognition their films have received from the Academy.
One of the first directors in history was a French woman named Alice Guy-Blache, who directed over 400 shorts beginning in 1896. In 1911, Lois Weber became the first prominent American female director, and was one of the most successful filmmakers – of either gender – of her time. As the Hollywood studio system came into prominence, it became harder for a woman to establish herself as a director, with one exception — Dorothy Arzner. She was the first woman to direct a “talkie,” during which she is credited with inventing the boom microphone. During her successful career, she directed Clara Bow, Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball, and was the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America.
Perhaps the best-remembered pioneering female director is Ida Lupino, who enjoyed a stellar career as an actress, director, writer and producer during Hollywood’s Golden Era, making low-budget groundbreaking films. However, it would be years before the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences recognized a female director.
In 1977, at the 49th ceremony, Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmuller became the first woman to receive a nomination for Best Director, for “Seven Beauties.” Only six more women have received this honor, only one (Campion) has received it twice and only two have won (Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 and Zhao in 2021). Except for Bigelow, these women also received nominations for writing the screenplays to their films.
Interestingly, many female directors serve multiple roles in their films, including producing, writing and even acting. In fact, Campion (“The Power of the Dog”), Sian Heder (“CODA”) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Lost Daughter”) received Best Adapted Screenplay bids in 2022. Three times that a woman has been nominated for director, she’s lost that award but won for writing: Campion (“The Piano,” 1994), Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation,” 2003) and Fennell (“Promising Young Woman,” 2021).
Tour our photo gallery featuring 24 of the most successful and celebrated female directors of all time, in chronological order (starting with the most recent and going back in time). Many have films which have been chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry, recognized for their cultural and historical significance. There are many others who have paved the way for the generation of female directors today; we have chosen some of the most decorated, influential, and recognizable in the history of film, as well as some of the current ones making history today.
It’s no surprise that actress Gyllenhaal has made such an impressive directorial debut, as her father Stephen is a Primetime-Emmy-nominated director, and her mother Naomi Foner received an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win for her original screenplay “Running on Empty” (1989). Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” has gained critical acclaim, earning stars Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley numerous accolades, including Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively. Although Gyllenhaal didn’t land a nomination for Best Director, she did for Best Adapted Screenplay, and it’ll be interesting to see what this multi-talented filmmaker has in store for audiences in the future.
After over a decade of an impressive acting and writing career, Fennell made her feature film directorial debut with the critically acclaimed “Promising Young Woman” in 2020, which received five Oscar nominations. The multi-talented Fennell also wrote the screenplay and co-produced the film, landing Oscar nominations herself for Best Picture, Best Director (one of only seven women and the first British woman to accomplish this) and Best Original Screenplay, which she won.
In 2016, Heder made a splash at Sundance Film Festival with her feature-length directorial debut “Tallulah,” which was an extension of her 2006 short film “Mother.” This year, her film “CODA,” a coming of age story about a teenage girl who is the only hearing member of her family, set a Sundance record when Apple paid $25 million for distribution rights. Heder and the cast have been praised, receiving several accolades, including Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur) and Best Adapted Screenplay for Heder.
Born in China, Zhao immigrated to America in her late teens, and has made a name for herself as a respected filmmaker. Zhao received critical acclaim for her first two feature films – which she also wrote and produced – “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (2015) and “The Rider” (2017). In 2021, her film “Nomadland” received numerous accolades, including six Academy Award nominations. Zhao herself received four of these nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. Her win as Best Director made her the second woman to accomplish this feat, and the first non-white woman to do so. She claimed a second statue, as co-producer, for Best Picture, which she shared with Frances McDormand, who also won for Best Actress.
Duvernay started out with a career in publicity, but eventually segued into filmmaking. In 2010 she wrote, directed and produced “I Will Follow,” based on her real-life experiences as caregiver to an ill aunt. Two years later, she became the first black woman to win the U.S. Directing Award at Sundance Film Festival, for “Middle of Nowhere.” In 2015, she directed “Selma” to an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and received a nomination for Best Documentary Feature for “13th” in 2017. She currently serves on the directors branch of the Academy’s board of governors.
Gerwig has found success with acting, writing and directing, both in collaboration with others, including Joe Swanberg and Noah Baumbach, and as a solo filmmaker. She directed her first film alongside Swanberg in 2008, with both also writing and starring in “Nights and Weekends.” On her own, she has written and directed two films that have received much acclaim. In 2018, “Lady Bird” received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay for Gerwig, Actress (Saoirse Ronan) and Supporting Actress (Laurie Metcalf). Two years later, her adaptation of “Little Women” won for Costume Design, netted Gerwig another writing bid and Ronan another Best Actress nod, as well as nominations for Best Picture and Supporting Actress (Florence Pugh).
In 2004, Granik turned her short film “Snake Feed” into her first feature-length effort, directing and cowriting “Down to the Bone,” which earned her numerous awards, including the Director’s Award at Sundance Film Festival, and gave actress Vera Farmiga her breakthrough role and numerous accolades. In 2011, the then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence gained recognition and her first Best Actress nomination for her role in Granik’s “Winter’s Bone,” which also earned bids for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (John Hawkes) and a Best Adapted Screenplay for Granik and her partner.
Jenkins made a spectacular feature film directorial debut, guiding Charlize Theron to her only Oscar nomination and a win for “Monster” in 2004. She followed that with a decade of television work, including “The Killing,” which earned her a Directors Guild Award and a Primetime Emmy nomination. In 2017, she became the first woman to direct a superhero film. “Wonder Woman” had the highest domestic opening for a female director, and was the highest-grossing movie from a female director up to that time. She has gone on to direct its sequel, “Wonder Woman 1984,” and is set to direct the third installment of that successful franchise.
Coppola made her feature film debut with the critically acclaimed “The Virgin Suicides” in 1999, and followed it five years later with “Lost in Translation.” For that film, she became the first woman to be nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay (Original, which she won) in the same year, and also directed Bill Murray to his only Oscar nomination (for Best Actor). Other notable films include “Marie Antoinette” (2006), “Somewhere” (2010), “The Beguiled” (2017) and “On the Rocks” (2020).
Peirce’s 1999 feature-length debut was the critically acclaimed “Boys Don’t Cry,” which earned star Hilary Swank a slew of awards, including her first Best Actress Oscar win, and brought Chloe Sevigny widespread recognition, including a Best Supporting Actress nomination, and has earned a place in the National Film Registry. In the years since, she has directed several television episodes, as well as “Stop-Loss” (2008) and the remake of Stephen King’s “Carrie” (2013). She has served on the Academy’s board of governors and is a National Board member of the Directors Guild of America.
A self-taught filmmaker, Caro began her career in television, creating commercials and working on series in her native New Zealand. Her first feature-length film, “Memory and Desire,” was released in 1998, but her filmmaking career really took off with “Whale Rider” in 2002, as she directed 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes to a Best Actress nomination (the youngest for that category up to that time). In 2006, she directed Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand to Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively for “North Country,” and directed Disney’s big-budget live-action version of “Mulan” in 2020.
Screenwriter and director Cholodenko made her film debut with the critically acclaimed “High Art” in 1998, and followed it with the star-studded ensemble drama “Laurel Canyon” in 2002. She directed Annette Bening to a Best Actress nomination and Mark Ruffalo to a Best Supporting Actor nomination for “The Kids Are All Right” in 2011, for which Cholodenko also received a Best Original Screenplay nomination and the film earned a bid for Best Picture. In 2015, Cholodenko won a Primetime Emmy for directing the miniseries “Olivia Kitteridge.”
Meyers was an established screenwriter, including a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for “Private Benjamin” in 1981, when she made her directorial debut in 1998 with Disney’s remake of “The Parent Trap,” which she also wrote. That film was a challenge, as star Lindsay Lohan played twin sisters and motion control was utilized, but went on to receive critical and commercial success. Meyers has gone on to a career as a writer and director on several successful films, particularly rom-coms, most notably “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), for which Diane Keaton received a Best Actress nomination, “The Holiday” (2006), “It’s Complicated” (2009) and “The Intern” (2015).
Following a successful 20-year career as a television and film actress, Lemmons made a stunning directorial debut in 1997 with “Eve’s Bayou,” which received critical praise and accolades, particularly for Lemmon’s direction and performances by Jurnee Smollett and Debbi Morgan, and was preserved by the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry in 2018. In 2019, Lemmons cowrote and directed “Harriet,” based on the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, which earned Cynthia Erivo a Best Actress nomination for the title role.
Ephron already had two Best Original Screenplay nominations (for “Silkwood” in 1984 and “When Harry Met Sally…” in 1990) under her belt when she directed her first feature, “This Is My Life” in 1992. A year later, she made the film that would become the standard by which all rom-coms would be measured – “Sleepless in Seattle,” which earned her a third Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. In 1998, she re-teamed her “Sleepless in Seattle” costars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan for another successful collaboration, “You’ve Got Mail,” and directed Meryl Streep to a Best Actress nomination for “Julie and Julia” in 2010.
After directing several shorts that earned numerous awards, Campion’s feature film debut came in 1989 with “Sweetie,” which also received accolades. The New Zealander came into international prominence in 1993 with “The Piano,” for which she became the second woman to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director. That film earned a total of eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, winning for Best Original Screenplay (Campion), Best Actress (Holly Hunter) and Best Supporting Actress (11-year-old Anna Paquin). This year, Campion became the first woman twice nominated for Best Director, and has a chance at three Oscars, as she is also up for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture (shared) for “Power of the Dog,” with the film having an overall leading 12 nominations.
Marshall was best known as an actress, most notably for the sitcom “Laverne and Shirley,” before she turned to directing – including a few episodes of that series. In 1986, she directed her first feature, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” starring Whoopi Goldberg. Two years later, she directed Tom Hanks to his first Best Actor Oscar nomination, for the comedy “Big.” In 1991, her film “Awakenings” earned bids for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor (Robert De Niro), although she failed to receive a Best Director bid. In 2012, her film “A League of Their Own” was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
One of the most successful and decorated entertainers of all time, Streisand has dipped a toe in all aspects of the entertainment world. Having already won Oscars for acting and songwriting, Streisand first got behind the camera in 1983 for “Yentl,” which won for its score and received four other bids, including Supporting Actress for Amy Irving, but failed to receive a Best Picture, Director or Actress nod for Streisand herself. In 1992, she directed “The Prince of Tides” to seven Oscar nominations, but was again controversially left out of the Best Director race. In 1996, she directed legendary actress Lauren Bacall to her only Oscar nomination at the age of 72, for “The Mirror Has Two Faces.”
There aren’t a lot of awards attached to her films, but Heckerling has helmed some of the most commercially successful films from a female director, two of which have become iconic teen films. In 1982, she directed a slew of young unknowns to stardom in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” most notably Sean Penn; this film has been preserved in the National Film Registry. In 1995, she launched more young careers and created another pop culture phenomenon when she wrote and directed “Clueless.” She also directed the commercial hits “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” (1985) and “Look Who’s Talking” (1986) and “Look Who’s Talking Too” (1989).
Bigelow directed her first feature, “The Loveless,” in 1981, and has gone on to become one of the most successful female directors of all time. In 2010, she became the first woman to win Best Director at the Academy Awards, the BAFTAs and the Directors Guild, for “The Hurt Locker” – for which she also took home the Oscar for Best Picture. Her other films include the cult classics “Near Dark” (1987) and Point Break (1991), as well as 2013 Best Picture nominee “Zero Dark Thirty.”
May’s career began as one-half of the innovative and influential comedy duo team of (Mike) Nichols and May. She eventually segued into playwriting, and in 1971, turned to film, writing, directing and starring in the dark comedy “A New Leaf,” which has been preserved in the National Film Registry. The next year, she directed Eddie Albert and her own daughter Jeannie Berlin to supporting acting nominations in another black comedy, “The Heartbreak Kid,” which is now considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. Her unique brand of comedy is being acknowledged at this year’s Academy Award ceremony, as she is set to receive an Honorary Award for her “bold, uncompromising approach to filmmaking, as a writer, director and actress.”
Italian filmmaker Wertmuller is one of the most prolific and successful female directors of all time. Her directorial career began with “The Basilisks”in 1963, followed by several more films, but she reached her greatest era in the 1970s. After becoming an international sensation with films such as “The Seduction of Mimi” (1972), “Love & Anarchy” (1973) and “Swept Away (1974), Wertmuller became the first woman to be nominated for Best Director, in 1977 for “Seven Beauties” (for which she also received an original screenplay bid). In 2019, Wertmuller was bestowed an Honorary Academy Award, for her “provocative disruption of political and social norms delivered with bravery through her weapon of choice: the camera lens.”
Belgian-born Varda started out as a photographer, with her still shots heavily influencing her directorial style, beginning with her first film “La Pointe Courte” in 1955. Many consider this film to be the first in the French New Wave, and she went on to direct 60 films, shorts, and television episodes over the next six decades. In 2018, she became the oldest competitive Oscar nominee, as co-director of “Faces Places,” nominated for Best Documentary. That same year, she became the first female director to be awarded an Honorary Oscar, for works “whose compassion and curiosity inform a uniquely personal cinema.” Another notable films include “Cleo from 5 to 7” (1962), “Vagabond” (1985) and “Kung Fu Master” (1988).
There were a few women directors in early Hollywood, but Lupino is probably the most prominent and influential. In 1949, she co-produced and co-wrote “Not Wanted,” and stepped in when director Elmer Clifton fell ill. She refused credit for that film out of respect for Clifton, but directed several more films for the independent company she cofounded. These were low-budget, socially conscious films that addressed issues that had been considered taboo, most notably “Outrage” (1950), one of the first films to address rape, and the self-explanatory “The Bigamist” (1953), which ironically starred her ex-husband’s (who produced) current wife (Joan Fontaine) and Lupino as the two women married to the bigamist. In 1953, she became the first woman to direct a film noir, with the fact-based, all-male-cast “The Hitch-Hiker,” and is the only woman to have directed an episode of the original “The Twilight Zone” series (“The Masks,” 1964). Both “The Hitch-Hiker” and “Outrage” have been preserved in the National Film Registry.