Dorothy Arzner

Theresa Geller

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:
Dorothy Arzner

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In 1936, Dorothy Arzner (b. 1897–d. 1979) was the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America; it would be seventy-four more years before a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, would win an Academy Award for directing. To date, women remain profoundly underrepresented in the DGA, constituting about 7 percent of the guild. Within the context of such pronounced and continuing discrimination against women in this field, Arzer’s success in the industry is all the more compelling. Although other women directors predated Arzner, her productive and successful career as a Hollywood film director in the studio system remains unparalleled. Between 1927 and 1943, she made seventeen features, most of them critically well received and profitable. Her extensive body of work, along with inventing the prototype for the boom mike (by attaching a microphone to a fishing pole), certainly makes her an important figure in American film history. That she was a woman in this field, however, is often the first and most salient detail commented on in biographies and other literatures, despite the fact that Arzner herself resisted the importance others placed on her gender. Because of her unique career as a prolific female film director—indeed, only a handful of women have comparable careers to this day—she figured centrally in the recovery projects of second-wave feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. Feminist film historians looked to Arzner as a forerunner of the women’s film movement, spearheaded by filmmakers Laura Mulvey, Chantal Ackerman, and Yvonne Rainer. Accordingly, Arzner’s films were rediscovered, screened at women’s film festivals, and interpreted in terms of a female aesthetic—an aesthetic demonstrated across various forms of cultural production. Although the gender essentialism that informed the claims to a female aesthetic waned, interest in Arzner remained. Her films—mostly women’s melodramas—provide a counterpoint to the ways Hollywood cinema represents women as spectacle. More recently, Arzner has figured centrally in discussions of lesbian and gay film history and queer cinema broadly defined. Her “masculine” appearance and lesbianism—including a life-long relationship with choreographer Marion Morgan—continue to be of interest to many, including director Todd Haynes, who has spoken of filming a biopic of Arzner’s life. Subject of documentaries, creative work, and several scholarly book-length studies and essays, Dorothy Arzner, her life and her films, continues to fascinate spectators and scholars alike.

Article.  8133 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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