Dear Hollywood: Stop Calling Uncompromising Women "Difficult"

Difficult. It ís an adjective I generally associate with my adolescent tantrums.

Apr 3, 2013 at 12:30pm | Leave a comment

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It all started last Monday, when one of my favorite directors,  "Jane Got a Gun" director Lynne Ramsay, walked off her own set

Several publications rushed to respond to Deadline's initial report about Ramsay's departure, which couldn't "remember a situation when a filmmaker who developed a film didn't show up for work on the day it starts production."

(Cue the lengthy list of male movie makers who have done that very thing, from Alfred Hitchcock on "Notorious" to "Waterworld" helmer Kevin Reynolds.)

Here's what we know: On March 18, Jane producer Scott Steindorff revealed that Ramsay had failed to show up on the first day of shooting for Natalie Portman's new film about a woman who defends her farm from a group of outlaws. His decision to go to the press instead of releasing an official statement smacked of tit for tat histrionics, particularly his use of infantilizing adjectives like "irresponsible" to describe Ramsay.
 
The issues that led to Ramsay's departure reportedly included the director's creative control, the script and the budget. All of which appear to be legitimately professional concerns from the other stories Iíve read about this sort of thing. Yet sources who had worked with Ramsay were suddenly claiming she was, and always had been, "difficult." 
 
Difficult. It ís an adjective I generally associate with my adolescent tantrums. Don't be difficult, Soraya, my mom would say as I tried to squirm out of curfew or a particularly lengthy grounding. Calling Ramsay difficult undermines her professionalism as it infantilizes her. It makes her seem like she kicks up a fuss for no reason. Most importantly, it gives her superiors, in this case, her male producer, the upper hand. 
 
The same label was applied to "Twilight" director Catherine Hardwicke when she decided not to return to the teen vamp franchise in 2008. Formerly an indie filmmaker like Ramsay, she had made her name in 2003 with "Thirteen," a gritty drama about a precocious young teen who grows up way too fast.
 
When she left Bella and Edward behind, rumours swirled that she had been fired by Summit for being "difficult" and "irrational." But Hardwicke later told Entertainment Weekly that she had simply exercised her "right of first refusal" over concerns about the tight shooting schedule and the Edward-less plot of "New Moon."
 
Filmmaker Julie Taymor had the dubious pleasure of being slapped with a slightly more retro label back in 2007 when she threatened to take her name off "Across the Universe."
 
"If you work off her hysteria, that will do the film an injustice," movie executive Joe Roth told The New York Times at the time. As it turned out, Roth had re-cut Taymorís musical and screened the shortened version without asking her permission.
 
 It's the kind of thing that would have driven Debra Winger crazy, Hollywood's most famous difficult woman (and one of my mom's favorite actresses, as serendipity would have it). She was stuck with the label in the 1980s after being outspoken about the high expectations she had for her films, including "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Terms of Endearment."
 
"I was warned that Debra would be argumentative and difficult. But I didn't find that," Black Widow director Bob Rafaelson told the New York Times in 1986. "No actress I've worked with has had a sharper instinct. She reminds me of Jack Nicholson in the way she works."
 
Funnily enough, Jack has never been called "difficult" as far as I can remember. 
 
In fact, none of the famously difficult male filmmakers have been labeled as such. Either their hellish shoots are given cute nicknames -- "Apocalypse, When?" for Francis Ford Coppola's infamously delayed feature to "Flaws" for Steven Spielbergís error-addled shark flick -- or they are treated with euphemisms like mercurial, the word actress Lily Tomlin used to describe her "I Heart Huckabees" director David O. Russell. You may remember watching their infamous screaming match on YouTube.
 
Perhaps the closest anyone has gotten to calling a male director difficult is when volatile actor Shia LaBeouf told David Letterman in 2011 that his Transformers director, Michael Bay, was "aggressive, hard to work for and demanding."
 
Little wonder then that Kathryn Bigelow, the most successful female filmmaker in Hollywood and the only woman to win an Oscar for best director (for "The Hurt Locker" in 2010), tends to avoid discussing the industry's sexual politics. In an interview with MIT's school newspaper The Tech in 1990, at the time she released "Blue Steel" (another one of my favorites, in which Jamie Lee Curtis stars as a female cop who gets involved with a killer), Bigelow explained her stance. 
 
"If there's specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can't change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies," she said. "It's irrelevant who or what directed a movie, the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don't."
 
In a sense, Ramsay has gone the Bigelow route, opting out of a response to the press coverage surrounding Jane. In so doing, she refuses to compromise her professionalism and give credence to Steindorff's depiction of her. But I wonder if Ramsay would be facing the same situation if she were a man.
 
According to the Atlantic Monthly, when George Cukor left "Gone with the Wind" in 1936, three weeks into production, there was no talk of him being "difficult." Instead, he and producer David O. Selznick released a cordial statement together.
 
"As a result of a series of disagreements between us over many of the individual scenes of Gone With the Wind, we have mutually decided that the only solution is for a new director to be selected at as early a date as is practicable," it read. 
 
Now that wasn't so hard, was it?