Special Pages | Women Directors behind ’80s Comedy

By Tara Zdancewicz

Martha Coolidge
~ Valley Girl & Real Genius

Armed with an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Martha Coolidge studied acting before entering the filmmaking world in Los Angeles. Her first feature length film, Not a Pretty Picture (1976), told the semi-autobiographical incident of a date rape. Coolidge found her most commercial success with a variety of comedies in the 80s; most notably, for the Romeo and Juliet inspired Valley Girl (1983), which sparked the career of Nicolas Cage. Coolidge also helped to launch the career of Val Kilmer, in the science fiction comedy Real Genius (1985).

Coolidge was lauded for her 1991 film Rambling Rose, a family drama set during the Great Depression, which earned two Oscar nominations. From 2002-2003, the director held the honor of being the Director Guild of America’s first female president. Coolidge continues to direct films and many episodes of television shows such as Weeds, Psych, Madam Secretary, and Angie Tribeca.

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Susan Seidelman
~ Desparately Seeking Susan

Influenced by groundbreaking filmmakers Lina Wertmüller and Agnès Varda, Susan Seidelman was a force during the first wave of ‘80s independent American cinema. Hailing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, the director focused on complex female characters and enjoyed blending comedy and drama because “life is serious and humorous.” With her first feature film, Smithereens (1982), Seidelman held the honor of having the first American independent film selected to compete at the Cannes Film Festival. The film examines the dying punk scene of the 80’s in Greenwich Village.

Seidelman then directed Desperately Seeking Susan (1989), both a commercial and critical success. Starring Madonna in her first film role and Rosanna Arquette, the film follows a bored housewife that becomes obsessed with a woman she follows through personal ads in a tabloid.

In 1996, Seidelman, along with long-time partner Jonathon Brett, was nominated for an Academy Award for the short, The Dutch Master, which focused on a young woman’s erotic love for a Dutch painting. Seidelman has continued to work on feature-length films as well as television. She directed the pilot episode of Sex and the City and helped to create the aesthetic of the popular show.

Amy Heckerling
~ Fast Times at Ridgemont High

As one of the highest-grossing female directors of all time, Amy Heckerling knows what she is doing when it comes to American teen movies, dude. After obtaining degrees from both NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the American Film Institute, Heckerling’s first feature length debut, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), was an immediate success. The then only 28-year-old director used Cameron Crowe’s script about the trials and tribulations of Los Angeles teenagers, for which Crowe actually went undercover in a high school.

Heckerling followed Fast Times with a string of successful comedies including the National Lampoon’s Vacation sequel, European Vacation (1985), and Look Who’s Talking (1989). The latter featured the voice of Bruce Willis as the baby of Kirstie Alley and John Travolta and spawned two sequels and a television spinoff.

Heckerling then took a page out of Crowe’s book and sat in on classes at Beverly Hills High School in preparation for her next film, Clueless (1995). Written and directed by Heckerling, Clueless captured the essence of high school in the 90s. After finding success in film, Heckerling moved to television, where she directed episodes of Gossip Girl and Red Oaks.

Fran Rubel Kuzui
~ Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Armed with a degree from NYU, Fran Rubel Kuzui worked as a script supervisor before moving into directing. Her first feature length film, Tokyo Pop (1988), was screened at Cannes to great success as the film followed an American woman trying to understand the youth culture of Japan.

After reading Joss Whedon’s screenplay, Kuzui decided to direct Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). Working with Whedon–who later disapproved of this version of Buffy–Kuzui developed the Buffy-verse that is now a fixture of American pop culture. While she was not involved with the successful television series helmed by Whedon, Kuzui did hold executive producer credits in the Buffy television series spinoff, Angel.

The multi-faceted filmmaker now owns Kuzui Enterprises along with her husband, which distributes American film to a Japanese audience and vice versa.

Penelope Spheeris
~ Wayne’s World

Born into a traveling carnival family, Penelope Spheeris worked as a waitress to put herself through film school. Eventually obtaining her master’s degree from UCLA, Spheeris produced shorts for comedian Albert Brooks, many of the segments being shown on Saturday Night Live in the 70s.

From 1981 to 1998, Spheeris worked on a trilogy of documentaries about the punk and metal eras of rock called The Decline of Western Civilization. Throughout the films, she followed such legendary bands as Black Flag, Germ, Kiss, Aerosmith, and Megadeth. Bringing her love for comedy and music together, Spheeris directed her most famous work, Wayne’s World (1992), which stemmed from the original Saturday Night Live skit that featured the beloved Wayne and Garth.

Spheeris also wrote for the blue-collar, female-driven television comedy Roseanne (1988-97). Her other notable films include the comedies The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), The Little Rascals (1994), Black Sheep (1996), and We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n Roll (2001).

 

Tara Zdancewicz is pursuing her MFA in Film and Television Studies at BU. She enjoys gushing about film to the undergraduates that she teaches.

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