Martha Coolidge is one of the more prominent members of a very exclusive club: female, commercially viable mainstream film directors. It is not a distinction that pleases her. During her stint as the president of the Directors Guild of America—Coolidge was the first woman to hold that post—she spearheaded initiatives to increase opportunities for women and minorities to reach parity with white males in the field, lamenting, “The DGA finds the lack of effort by producers and networks in women and minority hiring deplorable.” Her own career is distinguished by a remarkable flexibility, as Coolidge has moved among independent features and documentaries, mainstream popcorn fare, and series television with aplomb. From cult comedies such as Valley Girl and Real Genius to critical triumphs, including Rambling Rose and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Coolidge has demonstrated a prodigious versatility and drive that have lifted her from the marginal category of “woman director” to the front ranks of Hollywood filmmakers.
Coolidge hails from the same old Yankee family as our thirtieth president, Calvin Coolidge, but unlike her famously silent cousin, the director has been very vocal indeed, usually in defense of gender equality in the Hollywood power structure. Born in 1946 in New Haven, Connecticut, and raised by architects, Coolidge attended the Rhode Island School of Design with intentions of entering the family trade. She preferred the dramatic arts to the drafting board, however, and participation in theater soon led her to her abiding passion, film. While at RISD, and, later, New York University (where an admissions interviewer scoffed at the notion of women directors), Coolidge made a series of autobiographical documentaries, including David: Off and On (1972), about her brother’s struggle with drug addiction; Old-Fashioned Woman (1972), a portrait of her foreboding Yankee grandmother; and Not a Pretty Picture (1975), a structurally experimental recounting of a sexual assault suffered by Coolidge while still in high school. These accomplished, award-winning films attracted the attention of the American Film Institute, which awarded her an internship that led to work with director Robert Wise and Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios. During this period, she shot the feature City Girl, a film following a woman’s pursuit of various dreams, but was unable to secure a theatrical release. (The film was eventually released in 1984.)
Coolidge’s fortunes turned in 1983 with her next feature, Valley Girl, a sunny and heartfelt teen comedy that introduced Nicolas Cage to cinema audiences and has endured as a cult classic of the genre. Valley Girl having proven Coolidge’s financial viability, the director continued innocuously in this vein, scoring again in 1985 with the thoughtful teen farce Real Genius, which established Val Kilmer as a star. Like Valley Girl, it enjoys the status of cult favorite and stands as an iconic example of eighties pop culture. Coolidge in this period made forays into television, directing episodes of the cult (there’s that word again!) comedy Sledge Hammer! and the resurrected Twilight Zone. She also directed the tropically themed television movies Trenchcoat in Paradise (1989) and Bare Essentials (1991) before lensing what remains her most critically acclaimed feature film, Rambling Rose (1991), an uncommonly sensitive exploration of a young woman’s budding sexuality set in the Depression-era South. The film was widely praised for its graceful and courageous treatment of its controversial subject matter, and stars Laura Dern and Diane Ladd received Academy Award nominations for their performances. The film won best picture—and Coolidge won best director—at that year’s Independent Spirit Awards.
Coolidge returned to television with the romantic comedy/drama Crazy in Love (1992), and over the next few years directed for the big screen the Neil Simon adaptation Lost in Yonkers (1993), the frankly feminist Angie (1994), the sentimental family drama Three Wishes (1995), and the Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon comedy Out to Sea (1997). Coolidge again made a splash with the television movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), an exuberantly staged biopic about the groundbreaking African-American actress. Actress Halle Berry had a major professional breakthrough in the title role, winning a Golden Globe for her vivid performance. Coolidge next directed a segment of HBO’s If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000), an examination of lesbian life in America. More television work followed: Coolidge executive produced the Hawaii-set series Rip Girls (2000); and directed episodes of HBO’s Sex and the City, the period comedy The Flamingo Rising (2001), and an adaptation of Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart (2001).
In 2002, Coolidge became president of the Directors Guild of America, the first woman to hold that position. In this capacity, she campaigned for greater opportunities for women and minority directors, but was frustrated in these efforts. She has noted of her tenure: “The DGA and its African-American, Asian, Latino, and women’s committees have held countless meetings with producers, networks, and studio representatives, conducted nine networking mixers in 2002 to introduce women and minority directors to key showrunners in order to develop new relationships, and have created extensive women and minority director contact lists to counter the argument that quality women and minority directors are difficult to find. With few exceptions, these efforts have not translated into action by the producers and the networks.”
Nevertheless, Coolidge herself has continued to thrive as a director, adding episodes of such quality television dramas as Huff and Related to her resume, and she has returned recently to the teen comedy/romance genre with the Julia Stiles vehicle The Prince & Me (2004) and Material Girls (2006), starring teen scene doyenne Hilary Duff.