Award winning director Sofia Coppola at the Cannes Film Festival, May 14, 2014. Photo: Antonin Thuillier, Getty Images
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The unspoken glass ceiling of the film industry

A new report uncovers the gender imbalance in the film industry, made worse by the issue of class.

What do Angelina Jolie (A-Lister and humanitarian), Lynn Shelton (key figure in the mumblecore indie movement; that’s “naturalistic dialogue” for those of you who don’t read Vice), and Trish Sie (responsible for both the OK GO music video hit set on a treadmill and 3D dance smash Step Up 5) have in common? They’re the only female directors on IMDB’s list of the 50 most popular feature films released so far in 2014. 

In light of a new report which found that women directed only 5 per cent of the top 2,000 US box office hits in the past 20 years, this figure comes at no surprise. On the surface, this is yet another startling example of women being under-represented in a male dominated industry. But if you look at that tiny 5 per cent figure and analyse the backgrounds of the female directors who have smashed their way through the glass ceiling there is another key issue at play: class. The film industry invented the phrase "it's not what you know but who you know" and this attitude is pandemic across Hollywood.

Let’s look at the female directors everyone points to as the exceptions which prove the rule. First up: Sofia Coppola. While she undoubtedly has a prodigious talent and has made a name for herself with her love of dreamy slow-mo shots set to the soundtrack of shoegaze, she’s an easy target for cries of nepotism. Her father, Francis Ford Coppola, needs no introduction. From when Sofia appeared in The Godfather as a baby, she had access to a contacts book most aspiring young directors would kill for. Her first feature Lost In Translation rocketed to success and she became the first American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director before winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. In 2010 Sofia became the first American woman to win the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, for Somewhere which featured her recurring themes of fame and angst. While she has an impressive repertoire, managing to combine commercial success with an independent vibe, this been achieved safely within the golden circle of Hollywood's elite.

Next up for inspection is Kathryn Bigelow. While she was a student at Columbia she was friends with her tutor Susan Sontag and then worked with Philip Glass renovating properties. She later became the first and,so far only, female winner of the Oscar and Bafta Best Director awards for her work on The Hurt Locker. Finally, there's the second woman ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, Jane Campion, whose mother was an actress, writer and heiress to a shoe chain, and whose father was a prominent theatre and opera director.

While the reputation of these female directors is deservedly huge, their positions demonstrate the twofold nature of inequality of an industry which discriminates against women and those who have not had the fortune of a privileged upbringing.  Of the 100 best selling films of the last 20 years analysed by the report, 13 per cent of the editors, 10 per cent of the writers and just 5 per cent of the directors are women. If this was a bleak picture worthy of a still from Campion’s Top of the Lake then it gets grimmer, as the number of women on film crews has decreased from 22.7 per cent in 1994 to 21.8 per cent in 2014. This slight decrease highlights the ambivalence of the industry to this problem, as film boards and funders either don’t care or ignore the problem. For women to break through this glass ceiling the subtext is clear: if you don’t have wealth and contacts in Hollywood, then you're going to need a miracle to make it to the top.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit