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Oscars snubs: the lesbian director who mentored Coppola but never won an award

Oscars snubs: the lesbian director who mentored Coppola but never won an award

Dorothy Arzner (L) with actress Clara Bow on the set of The Wild Party.

This year’s Oscars have an all-male lineup of nominees for Best Director.

And unsurprisingly so. The Academy has often proved to be blind to the talent of many women behind the camera.

No LBT women nominated for Best Director at the Oscars

Over the past decades, only five women earned an Oscar nod for Best Director.

Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller, Newzealander Jane Campion and American directors Sofia Coppola, Greta Gerwig and Kathryn Bigelow have all received a nomination each.

The latter was the only woman to win the golden statue for The Hurt Locker in 2009.

While A Star Is Born actor-turned-director Bradley Cooper admitted he felt ‘embarrassed’ by Oscars Best Director snub, many talented women – Lynne Ramsay, Debra Granik, Josie Rourke and Can You Ever Forgive Me’s Marielle Heller – have been overlooked by the Academy this year. Without complaining.

Lesbian director Dorothy Arzner never won an Oscar

Dorothy Arzner and her partner Marion Morgan.
Dorothy Arzner (L) and her partner Marion Morgan. | Photo: Wiki

Among the many female directors in the shadow of their male peers, there was pioneer filmmaker and out lesbian Dorothy Arzner, active in the silent era until the 1940s.

She grew up in Hollywood, where her father was the owner of a restaurant that was popular with actors for his proximity to a theatre.

Her name has been long associated with one of the biggest film studios of Tinseltown, Paramount.

In 1919, she started typing scripts for the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which would later become Paramount. After six months, she became a cutter and editor at Realart Studio, a subsidiary of the studio.

She edited 52 movies, including 1922 Blood and Sand starring Rudolph Valentino, for which she undertook some of the filming as well. That was her big shot.

She quickly rose to popularity as the only active female filmmaker working in Hollywood during the Golden Age.

Paramount entrusted her with the studio’s first sound film starring It Girl Clara Bow, The Wild Party in 1929.

Arzner directed a total of 20 films before she retired in 1943. Yet the trailblazer died with no Oscars nor other major awards to her name.

An out lesbian in the 1930s Hollywood

Arzner’s attitude was revolutionary because she never hid her attraction to women.

She was known for being very private, but her same-sex relationships weren’t a secret.

Her clothing was also deemed unconventional for a woman of those times. She, in fact, used to wear suits and straight dresses, promoting a new style outside the gender binary.

The director maintained a forty-year love story with dancer and choreographer Marion Morgan. The two lived together until Morgan’s death in 1971, eight years before Arzner herself died.

Did she have a relationship with Katharine Hepburn? 

Katharine Hepburn as Lady Cynthia Darrington in Christopher Strong.
Katharine Hepburn as Lady Cynthia Darrington in Christopher Strong, directed by Arzner. | Photo: RKO

Arzner launched the career of some of the greatest Hollywood stars, casting them when they were still relatively unknown.

Katherine Hepburn earned the part of the female protagonist in the movie Christopher Strong, her second screen role.

The 1933 film was inspired to the life of British aviator Amy Johnson and directed by Arzner.

Iconic movie critic Pauline Kael described the film about an extramarital affair between two aviators ‘one of the rare movies told from a woman’s sexual point of view’.

The filmmaker also cast Rosalind Russell in Craig’s Wife and comedian Lucille Ball in Dance, Girl, Dance, choreographed by Arzner’s partner, Morgan.

Her friendship with Joan Crawford

When she walked away from Hollywood, Arzner became a publicity consultant for Pepsi. She directed many commercials starring diva Joan Crawford, the wife of Pepsi CEO Alfred Steele.

Rumors started to circulate because of Arzner’s friendships with these actresses.

Apart from Arzner’s confirmed relationships with actresses Alla Nazimova and Billie Burke, the lesbian director was also rumored to have dated Hepburn and Crawford, with whom she maintained a close friendship until her late years.

The Morning Glory actress, particularly, sent a telegram read during the 1975 tribute to Arzner by the Director’s Guild of America.

‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?’ Hepburn wrote.

Mentoring Francis Ford Coppola

Dorothy Arzner in 1934.
Arzner in 1934. | Photo: Wiki

Arzner joined the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in the late 1950s.

She famously mentored a young Francis Ford Coppola, giving him a piece of advice he still cherishes to this day.

The Godfather director remembered Arzner as ‘salty and sort of tough’. He also recalled her mentor telling him not to worry about his career.

‘You’ll make it. I’ve been around. I know,’ Arzner told him.

Unlike Arzner, Coppola ended up earning four Oscars nods for Best Director, winning for The Godfather Part II.

Arzner, instead, was awarded a star on the Walk of Fame. Moreover, Paramount dedicated its Dressing Room building to her in 2018, which many saw as a consolation prize.

This lack of recognition, however, never worried Arzner as her legacy still endured today.

‘Try as a man may, he will never be able to get the woman’s viewpoint in telling certain stories,’ she wrote in 1931 for a Paramount Pictures biography.

A lesson on the importance of having women directing female-driven narratives which is still relevant today. How long before the Academy acknowledges it?

See also:

Why this lesbian photographer is an icon for generations of girls who love girls

First Italian woman to publicly come out as lesbian dies at 83

17 novels any lesbian and bi woman should read before turning 30