Unsung Auteurs: Martha Coolidge

June 24, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: quietly assured comedy/drama specialist director Martha Coolidge.

“I was raised to believe that I was equal and discovered, working in movies, that this wasn’t true,” director Martha Coolidge wrote in a fiery opinion piece for The New York Times in 2012. “I’ve spent my life trying to change that. Though female directors are now a small part of the industry, we are an invisible minority. Even in government, we lack representation. It feels like we’ve gone backward. The cultural dismissal of women is so ingrained that the public, including women, doesn’t seem to perceive a problem.”

Director Martha Coolidge

Hollywood’s dismissal of Martha Coolidge is one of the industry’s great blights. But as several of our other looks at female Unsung Auteurs have amply and disappointingly shown, female directors are regularly denied opportunities in Hollywood despite not only their obvious gifts as filmmakers but also their track records as box office winners. If most male directors had a film as truly extraordinary as Martha Coolidge’s 1991 masterpiece Rambling Rose on their resumes, they would likely be proclaimed a genius, and offered a list of top quality projects to choose from. Coolidge, however, has been spending most of her time over the past few decades helming episodes of television shows like Madam Secretary, CSI and Drop Dead Diva. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but the supremely talented Martha Coolidge deserves to be developing and directing her own films for the big screen.

Martha Coolidge

Martha Coolidge (a distant relative of US President Calvin Coolidge) was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and initially studied illustration at The Rhode Island School of Design. She shifted gears, however, and eventually became the first film major at the school. She also studied at New York University’s famous Tisch School Of The Arts, before moving to Los Angeles, where she studied acting with industry giants like Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Joanne Baron, and David Craig, and also worked in various capacities for Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios.

Martha Coolidge in Not A Pretty Picture.

Coolidge kicked off her directing career with a clutch of edgy documentaries: 1973’s More Than A School (about a non-traditional high school), 1974’s Old Fashioned Woman (in which Coolidge interviews her grandmother), and 1976’s Employment Discrimination: The Troubleshooters. The most substantial of these was 1976’s Not A Pretty Picture, a bold, experimental and deeply personal work in which Coolidge attempted to come to terms with – via cinema – her own date rape at the age of sixteen while at high school. “The movie is way out on the edge, avant-garde almost, and very ‘meta’, but the end result is not distanced or abstract,” wrote Sheila O’Malley for Film Comment. “She cast actors to play herself at sixteen, her friends, the rapist – and then she films the rehearsal process, stopping to discuss things with the actors. It’s an extraordinary project.”

Deborah Foreman and Nicolas Cage in Valley Girl.

After her experimental introduction to filmmaking, Coolidge got decidedly more commercial with her stellar 1983 debut, Valley Girl. A Romeo & Juliet redux about a mismatched punk rocker and wealthy mallrat who find a romantic common ground, Valley Girl is sweet, funny and knowing, and boasts wonderful performances from Nicolas Cage (in his first major performance) and Deborah Foreman. Though not celebrated in the same way as teen films like Fast Times At Ridgemont High or those of director John Hughes, Valley Girl is an essential piece of 1980s cinema. “When I read the script, I knew that this was an incredible opportunity,” Coolidge told Rediscover The 80s of the film. “I’d had what I had thought were going to be much bigger breaks, like working on two different films that I was going to direct for Coppola and Zoetrope, which were cancelled. There were several development deals with studios that ultimately were abandoned, and directing an indie feature in Toronto that went belly-up part way through. But when I got to this little, modest love story, I knew that I could make something really great out of it and that it would/could change my life.”

Val Kilmer in Real Genius.

Coolidge followed up the wonderful Valley Girl with the far less wonderful The City Girl (a little seen 1984 curio about cults, sex and the underground music scene) and Joy Of Sex (a tawdry teen sex comedy from the same year which was wrested from Coolidge’s control by the studio and turned into a T&A-fest) but course-corrected beautifully in 1985 with the very funny Real Genius, starring a fantastic Val Kilmer in one of his earliest roles. A teen comedy about a group of adolescent geniuses battling with the corruptive adult powers trying to exploit their talents, the film is inventively entertaining, strongly characterised, filled with hilariously smart-arse dialogue, and tinged with social commentary. “Today, I have more people telling me that this is their favourite film than I ever had before,” Coolidge told Rediscover The 80s of Real Genius. “It’s certainly earned its place in the lexicon of ‘80s classics.”

Laura Dern, Martha Coolidge, and roducer Renny Harlin on the set of Rambling Rose.

A comedy about a cop undercover in high school followed in 1987 with the entertaining Plain Clothes, but Coolidge’s finest film would come in 1991 with Rambling Rose. Penned by the great Calder Willingham (The Graduate, Little Big Man, One-Eyed Jacks, Paths Of Glory) and starring Laura Dern in one of her best performances, this tale of a sexually precocious young woman kicking against the pricks in a conservative small town has the burnished literary feel of an American classic, but despite its two Oscar nominations, Rambling Rose is now criminally under-valued and rarely discussed. “It had so many things going against it,” Coolidge told The South Florida Sun Sentinel of Rambling Rose. “It was a small adult film. It was a period film, so everything costs more to get the details right for sets and costumes. Even the smallest items are more complex. It also involved sexuality in an honest way that you don’t see in Hollywood.” Tough to get made, Rambling Rose remains Coolidge’s most essential film.

Martha Coolidge with Geena Davis on the set of Angie.

The director’s work since has been strong but not exactly in the same league as her earlier films, with Coolidge helming a number of mild, easy-going and well-executed comedies (1993’s charming Neil Simon adaptation Lost In Yonkers, with Richard Dreyfuss and Mercedes Ruehl; the 1997 Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau vehicle Out To Sea; 2004’s The Prince & Me with Julia Stiles; 2006’s Material Girls starring Hilary and Haylie Duff); and a sweet family drama-fantasy (1995’s Patrick Swayze starrer Three Wishes). The films that have felt the most truly like hers, however, have been 1994’s tough-talking drama Angie (starring Geena Davis as a gritty mother-to-be with an uncertain future) and her most recent film, 2019’s I’ll Find You, a music-filled historical romantic drama starring Aussie actress Adelaide Clemens, Connie Nielsen and Stellan Skarsgard. In between all of these films has been a swathe of television work (including the superior small screen feature Introducing Dorothy Dandridge with Halle Berry) and other projects.

Martha Coolidge with Geena Davis and Stephen Rea on the set of Angie.

Martha Coolidge is a gifted filmmaker with a great track record, and three bona fide classics in her cinematic kit bag. Her lack of recognition is frustrating, and perhaps best voiced by one of her biggest fans, writer/director, Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats). “I remember interviewing Martha Coolidge, one of my favourite filmmakers in the world, who made a triumvirate of fucking movies that should guarantee a long-ass career: Valley GirlReal Genius and Rambling Rose,” Smith told A.Frame. “I probably wouldn’t be doing my job if I hadn’t seen Martha Coolidge do her job, or at least the product of her work as far back as Valley Girl, a movie that is not just in my creative DNA, but my personal DNA as well. So I’m interviewing Martha Coolidge for a podcast, and she’s talking about how she can’t get a job, how the phone doesn’t ring and nobody hires her. And my jaw hits the fucking floor. I was like, ‘What are you talking about? You made Rambling fucking Rose.’ And she goes, ‘The offers weren’t many back then, and they’re certainly not now. There comes a time when the phone stops ringing.’”

Well, Martha Coolidge’s phone should be ringing off the hook. The fact that it’s not, sadly, is a Hollywood tragedy…

Rambling Rose, An Old Fashioned Woman and Not A Pretty Picture can all be viewed on Martha Coolidge’s Vimeo page. Follow Martha Coolidge on Twitter. If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins


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