The disturbing mini-trend of clearly talented female directors seeing their careers pulled up short after making just one film has been widely covered in the media, and also in the Unsung Auteurs column itself. Another curious and deeply disappointing figure to add to this way-too-long list is Nancy Kelly, a documentarian and producer who received strong reviews for her 1990 debut feature Thousand Pieces Of Gold, yet never helmed another fictional film. To make Kelly’s case even more fascinating, her sole feature film is also a western, a genre only rarely undertaken by female filmmakers.
Appropriately enough, Nancy Kelly’s journey toward filmmaking (she had done various work in the industry at this stage) took a game-changing detour onto the range, when the young woman from a working class family in Massachusetts packed up her belongings and headed out west to take a job as a ranch hand. Initially treated with suspicion by the cowboys that she worked with, the feisty Kelly eventually won them over. “I had never even ridden a horse before, but I wanted an adventure,” Kelly told Indiewire in 2020. “It was an impromptu decision that changed my life forever. The cowboys didn’t know what to make of me. But I broke my own horse, rode thirty miles a day on the open range, roped calves from horseback, and castrated them. In time and in their taciturn way, they finally admitted I was ‘good help’, their highest compliment.”
Nancy Kelly mined her experiences on the open range for her debut 1985 documentary short Cowgirls: Portraits Of American Ranch Women, a 30-minute piece which tracked the no-nonsense daily lives of three generations of female ranch workers. Earthy, honest and authentic, the film received good notices, and eventually steered Kelly toward her debut feature five years later. A few years after she pulled the reins on her surprise career as a cowgirl, Kelly discovered Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s novel Thousand Pieces Of Gold, which she instantly saw as a film.
For six long years, Nancy Kelly and her husband and filmmaking partner Kenji Yamamoto struggled to raise the finances for the film, encountering all manner of obstacles along the way, many of them gender based. The painful journey, however, reaped incredible creative dividends, with Kelly’s 1990 western drama Thousand Pieces Of Gold a highly evocative and poetic, yet riveting and gutsy work. The film tells the sad but incendiary tale of Lalu (played with extraordinary passion and power by the charismatic Rosalind Chao), who is sold into slavery in 1880s China, and eventually ends up in Idaho, where she is to be sold into a life prostitution. Fiercely self-possessed and independent, Lalu fights her fate, and eventually ends up in a controversial relationship with Charlie (the great Chris Cooper, superb as always), an alcoholic with a good heart who truly loves her.
A great, meaningful and epic story beautifully told, Thousand Pieces Of Gold was restored and screened in the US in 2020, but sadly remains largely forgotten. It’s a vital piece of feminist cinema that also deals powerfully with issues of race and the grim horrors upon which America was built. “Rosalind Chao’s performance is a wonder, the sort that, in a conventional Hollywood epic, would inspire Oscar speculation,” wrote esteemed critic Roger Ebert in his 1990 review. “She gives us a character who begins as a child in grief and confusion, and prevails in a strange land until she is finally able to stand free as her own woman. It’s quite a story.”
Fiery, poetic and utterly compelling, Thousand Pieces Of Gold showcased Nancy Kelly as a director with very obvious gifts, but a number of fascinating follow-ups never eventuated. “We raised a substantial amount of money to develop a film that was called Liberators,” Kelly told The Sundance Institute. “That was based on the story of the Japanese American soldiers that fought during World War II and were part of the liberating force at Dachau and were never allowed to speak.”
There were several other projects that Kelly attempted to mount with husband and filmmaking partner Kenji Yamamoto, but all stalled and failed to come to fruition. “I already made it in a male-dominated world, you know?” Kelly told The Sundance Institute. “I was a ranch hand, and I just couldn’t imagine a world that was tougher to integrate myself into as that. But Hollywood, it’s not as blatant, but it’s way more pervasive. You know, the percentage of women directors back then was four percent. I said, ‘I’m either going to leave the film business or I’m going to go back to documentary.’ I just wanted to make films.”
Tragically deterred by an industry clearly unable to identify talent, Nancy Kelly indeed abandoned the world of features, and shifted her focus onto documentary filmmaking, with projects like 2002’s 54-minute Downside Up (about America’s largest museum of contemporary art, The Massachusetts Museum Of Contemporary Art) and 2005’s feature-length Rebels With A Cause, an environmentally focused, Frances McDormand-narrated look at The Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Though still working effectively in the world of documentary on fascinating projects that matter, it’s still hard not to ponder what kind of feature films the profoundly talented Nancy Kelly could have created if afforded the opportunities that her behind-the-camera skills truly deserved.