Unsung Auteurs: Betty Thomas

May 26, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Hollywood comedy helmer Betty Thomas.

The term “auteur” is an oft-debated one in film circles. While the definition is broadly “a film director who influences their films so much that they rank as their author”, there are many arguments within this. More commonly, an auteur is often seen as a director with a distinct set of stylistic principles and thematic drivers, with names like Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, John Ford, Sergio Leone, Quentin Tarantino et al popping up as obvious examples. To many, however, the term auteur has also taken on qualitative properties, with real auteurs also requiring critical praise and a sense of cinematic import. So, even while filmmakers like Dennis Dugan, Shawn Levy, Raja Gosnell and Chris Columbus, for instance, might have common themes running through their work, they are never tagged as auteurs because of the fact that they work solidly within the Hollywood studio system making broadly commercial films that are regularly excoriated by critics and high-brow movie commentators. In short, does a director need to be “great” (obviously a very subjective word) in order to be an auteur? We don’t think so.

Betty Thomas

All of which brings us to Betty Thomas. It’s surprising that in today’s climate – with continued calls for greater diversity in Hollywood, and for more women to take the reins on major productions – this filmmaker’s name isn’t bandied about a bit more when it comes to discussions about the disappointingly few women who have broken through the glass ceiling in the American film industry. Was Betty Thomas’ last big screen effort – 2009’s Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel – a big screen masterpiece? Certainly not, but it was a studio film based on high profile existing IP aimed at a large audience, and it was directed by a woman. That’s of course no cause to be dancing in the streets in celebration, but in such a male-dominated industry, Betty Thomas (like her more well-known and most obvious influence, Penny Marshall) is deserving of far more support and admiration than that which she currently gets. “It’s a business and it’s a huge business involving billions and billions of dollars,” Betty Thomas told The LA Times in 2000. “If you can prove that you are not a business risk to producers in some way, then they want to be involved with you.”

Betty Thomas with Ed Marinaro in Hill Street Blues.

A towering rarity in Hollywood by standing over six feet tall, Betty Thomas made her start in the industry first as a comedian (with the legendary Second City team) and then as an actress, forming part of the legendary ensemble in the 1980s TV classic Hill Street Blues, with her tough talking Sgt. Lucille Bates a fan favourite over its long and critically acclaimed run. From there, Thomas started directing episodic television, handling instalments of Dream On, The Late Shift, Doogie Howser MD and Midnight Caller. Thomas made her big screen debut in 1992 with the lukewarm romantic comedy Only You, in which a typically befuddled Andrew McCarthy has to choose between Kelly Preston and Helen Hunt while on the rebound from a broken relationship at a Mexican holiday resort. Ultimately forgettable, Only You was an inauspicious debut for Thomas, but after helming a few telemovies, she bounced back with one of her best efforts.

A scene from The Brady Bunch Movie.

On paper, a big screen reworking of a much loved TV sitcom might have looked like a probable dud, but Betty Thomas mined comedy gold from 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie via spot-on casting and her ability to find exactly the right balance of parody and nostalgic respect. Funny and charming, the film was also a surprise hit, and firmed Thomas’ reputation as a reliable director with strong commercial instincts. “I do a couple of independent movies of the kind which never even get released, far less seen,” Thomas laughed to The Guardian of her rise as a director. “But it gets to a point where someone says, ‘Look, we want to a do a movie of The Brady Bunch. And we don’t have any money. And you’re kind of funny.’ And then you have a career.”

A scene from Private Parts.

She followed it up with the even better Private Parts (1997), a wonderfully oddball biopic in which radio shock jock Howard Stern plays himself. Surprisingly straight and utterly entertaining, Stern delivers a truly engaging performance, even effectively playing himself as a callow, college-age youth. “I know I seem a little too old to be in college,” he says to camera per the film’s self-reflexive bent. “But for this movie, you’ve gotta suspend disbelief.” Another hit for Thomas, Private Parts still stands as the director’s most original, offbeat and ultimately best film. “With Private Parts, his surprisingly sweet new movie, Howard Stern makes a canny career move: here is radio’s bad boy walking the finest of lines between enough and too much,” wrote critic Roger Ebert.

Betty Thomas with Sandra Bullock on the set of 28 Days.

Since Private Parts, Betty Thomas has pretty much stayed on the studio straight-and-narrow, directing two middling Eddie Murphy vehicles (1998’s Doctor Doolittle and 2002’s I Spy) and the poorly received teen comedy John Tucker Must Die (2006). A rare foray into drama with the 2000 Sandra-Bullock-in-rehab cautionary tale 28 Days was a disappointing misfire, but Thomas enjoyed an ironic triumph in 2009 when her kids’ comedy sequel Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel became the first female-directed picture to gross more than $200 million, making Thomas the most successful woman director to that time at the box office. That’s no small feat, but you’d hardly know it from the attention – or lack thereof – that Betty Thomas receives. Passing on directing the third Alvin And The Chipmunks flick, Thomas has instead been focusing on television of late, directing several telemovies and multiple episodes of Audrey and Grace And Frankie.

Betty Thomas

Despite battling bad reviews with good humour (“I’m never happy with my films. I try to make my films flawed. Who wants to make the perfect film? All you’ll do is piss off the gods”) and making the kind of films that probably won’t be preserved by The US Library Of Congress, light comedy specialist Betty Thomas is a true auteur…whether you like it or not.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs John Flynn, Lizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins


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