Ida Lupino: A Heroine for Women in Film, Behind the Camera and on the Silver Screen

Ida Lupino (1914-1995), English actress and director, c1930s. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Ida Lupino (1914-1995), English actress and director, c1930s. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Film festivals contribute to the discovery of films from around the world, but more recently, have also been highlighting another kind of "foreign" film, those made by and about women. In the United States, within the film industry, both independent and larger budget Hollywood studio-backed films, produce an embarrassingly tiny amount of films directed by women, thus we too rarely are able to see an abundance of films made by women. But it did not have to be that way. Strong women both in front of and behind d the camera, working as directors, screenwriters and actresses, have been present since the earliest days of cinema. The discovery of these early women in film has been a powerful addition to my own film experience. I can only wish that more audiences around the world have access to these films and begin to learn more about the contributions made by women in the industry from the very beginning of Hollywood.

One of those discoveries I made first twenty plus years ago, was Ida Lupino. This London born actress, screenwriter, director and producer hit Hollywood and never stopped, even when it became obvious that men dominated the industry.

She worked on feature films, and in television, both in front of and behind the camera, writing and directing and producing, all while starring in, some of the most moving films ever made. And the themes she dealt with in her films resonate with men and women today, but they were focused on the female experience, in love, life and loss. Often loss was at the core of the stories she became part of during her filmmaking years.

So what happened? Where are our new Ida Lupinos? Why have there not been more women in front of and behind the camera, calling the shots, having such a strong and present voice ever since? Why do so few women have the power and funding behind them to communicate the kinds of messages, and make such beautiful films as Lupino did over half a century ago? More women are starting their own production companies to produce more content by and about women but when will we see a seismic shift? We are half the world's population so where are out stories?

Thus it was sheer pleasure, tinged with tears, as I sat mesmerized by Lupino on the big screen in a dark cinema during the recent Fribourg International Film Festival, Lupino was so beautiful and witty, so moving and very human, a complete woman on screen, not a stereotype. I was also taken by the power of her filmmaking skills, while. I was watching a gloriously unapologetic actress' work, both on screen, and behind the camera, as both co-writer and director (replacing a man, has that ever happened before or since?) in the 1949 wonder of a film, Not Wanted by Ida Lupino.

I am so thankful to Pierre Rissient, a longtime supporter of women directors, for selecting Ida Lupino as his choice for the recent homage at Fribourg, and to Thierry Jobin, the director of that festival, for choosing dedicate this year's focus to women in film. This gift was one I hope many others will be able to share via film festival screenings, in home theatres and, yes, even on the small screen if that is the only way to be able to enjoy these classic films. But these films are not only wonderful stories, they are fantastic reminders of the fact that women have been working in the industry since the early days, in decision-making roles, and shaping the content of the stories themselves.

There are not only women but many men, working behind the scenes in the industry, at festivals, to make sure women's contributions to cinema are not overlooked, nor, in the case of Ida Lupino, forgotten. It is because of a personal commitment to include and highlight women's accomplishments in film that the director of the Fribourg International Film festival focused the majority of the festival on films by and about women. Female directors telling stories of strong women held panel discussions, schools visited and new audiences introduced to films from around the world. One of the lasting impressions I had from being present in Fribourg with my own film about a strong woman, the mother of President Obama, Ann Dunham, was that women also need to support men who support us. We are all in it together.

This was not my first encounter with the work of Lupino. Back when we co-founded (along with Kathleen McInnis and SIFF support) the Women in Cinema Festival in Seattle twenty years ago, we chose to put Ida Lupino on the cover of our catalogue. Her unwavering gaze and intelligent eyes belied a deeply talented cinematic soul. I kept wondering how it was possible that such a woman existed and yet ever since, we have rarely heard of such a powerful and successful woman in Hollywood.

When I recently asked a male investor about why he did not support films made by and about women he replied that he had been advised that these films did not export well. Hollywood cinema is one of the United States' most important exports, and the studios have enormous lobbying power in terms of trade deals. But we must remind this industry that there is also a responsibility that goes along with telling and selling tales around the world which are often all that many people know about America. Women are an important part of who we are as a country and our accomplishments and lives and stories deserve screen time and to be seen.

Ida Lupino not only starred on screen but wrote and directed six films between 1949 and 1953 alone, for the production company she formed with her then husband. Not Wanted was a masterpiece, heart wrenchingly moving as it focused on a young woman's longing to be loved, and her abandonment by her lover, leaving her alone and pregnant, at a time when such stories were hidden away, not highlighted on the big screen.

The realistic and human interactions of the protagonist as she chooses a home for unwed mothers and ultimately gives up her baby, are recounted in such a deeply well rounded way, as if well-researched, and approached from the point of view not only of an absence of judgement, but that of forgiveness and the all-too-human desire to find understanding, acceptance and love. Not Wanted reveals the face and anguish of a young woman forced by society to give up her child, deserted by the father, and yet learning to accept and open herself to the true love of an imperfect yet all-too-human, wounded, yet giving man.

I found myself in tears during the final scene of the film, wanting to see more of these masterpieces, wishing that filmmakers, women such as Lupino, had never faded away, but been strongly supported in order to give us a more well-rounded view of the world. I was drawn time and again to the Lupino film series, marveling at the use of music and seduction in The Man I Love, and in Outrage in 1950, which confronts the harsh reality of rape. The male characters are multi-dimensional, and themselves imperfect and at times weak, often much less strong than the women they love, or leave. In Not Wanted, the man who falls in love with the young woman who has had a breakdown upon giving her baby up for adoption, is himself wounded, but not as much psychologically and physically from his war wounds.

We warm to all of these characters, their imperfect families, critical parents, children without supervision, hard working people, men and women, artists and musicians, gas station attendants and war vets, all trying to get by and make a living and maybe find a little love along the way, as they remind us of ourselves. Perhaps that is what women are able to put on the screen, reality as it is, not as we wish it to be. Ida Lupino captured something about the world of artists, and simple waitresses and young men returned from war, who are all just looking for love, and a little excitement, some music to lighten their pain, some love and lust to distract them for a while.

This is the magic of the silver screen, told by a woman, a director, who is also a great beauty, an actress who lives the stories and leaves us with a reminder as to why we love spending time in a dark room staring at the screen. Perhaps Hollywood should look to its own history to find the successes it craves. The stories of Ida Lupino are universal, heartfelt and one hundred percent woman. Perhaps her story deserves a film. Perhaps the money should get behind films by and about women.

Obviously Hollywood needs to catch up with its audiences and start showing us what we want to see, more female heroines, more stories about real women and more perspectives which do not reinforce stereotypes which we have fought hard to overturn. And we women in film need to keep taking back the cameras, and all of us need to make the effort to spend our money at the box office to support these films. We are over half the planet, now we need to make sure we are equally represented in the images and stories we share and use to communicate what it means to be a woman.