Coolidge, Martha

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Nationality: American. Born: New Haven, Connecticut, 17 August 1946. Education: Studied animation at the Rhode Island School of Design; studied filmmaking at New York University's School of Film and Television, where she earned an MFA; also studied film at the School of Visual Arts and Columbia University. Career: Acted with Blackfriars, a Cheshire, Connecticut, acting company, 1960s; began making short films while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, worked behind the camera on commercials and documentary shorts, and produced a children's program for Canadian television, mid-to-late 1960s; directed first documentary, David: Off and On, 1972; directed an episode of the TV series Winners, 1978; hired by Francis Coppola's Zoetrope Studio to develop the film Photoplay, which never was produced, 1978; directed first feature, City Girl, which was not released for two years, 1982; directed episodes of the TV series The Twilight Zone, 1985–1987; directed episodes of the TV series Sledge Hammer, 1986. Awards: Best Director Independent Spirit Award, for Rambling Rose, 1991; Women in Film Crystal Award, 1992; Directors Guild of America Robert B. Aldrich Achievement Award, 1998. Address: 2129 Coldwater Canyon, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.

Films as Director:


David: Off and On (doc) (+ pr, ed)


More than a School (doc) (+ ed); Old-Fashioned Woman (doc) (+ pr, ed)


Not a Pretty Picture (doc) (+ sc, pr, co-ed)


Employment Discrimination: The Troubleshooters (doc)


Bimbo (doc) (+ pr, ed)


Strawberries and Gold (for TV)


Valley Girl (Bad Boyz, Rebel Dreams)


City Girl (+ pr) (completed in 1982); Joy of Sex


Real Genius


Plain Clothes (for TV); Roughhouse


Trenchcoat in Paradise (for TV)


The Friendly; Rope Dancing


Bare Essentials (for TV); Rambling Rose


Crazy in Love (for TV)


Lost in Yonkers




Three Wishes


Out to Sea


Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (for TV)


If These Walls Could Talk 2 (co-d) (for TV)

Other Films:


Passing Quietly Through (pr, ed)


The London Connection (The Omega Connection) (Clouse) co-story)


That's Adequate (Hurwitz) (ro as Herself)


In Search of Oz (for TV) (doc) (ro as Interviewee)


Beverly Hills Cop III (Landis) (ro as Security Woman)


Rip Girls (Chopra) (exec-pr)


By COOLIDGE: articles—

Interview with Chris Chase, in New York Times, 6 May 1983.

"Dialogue on Film: Martha Coolidge," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), June 1984.

Interview with Claire-France Perez, in L.A. Woman (Los Angeles), August 1985.

"Close Up," interview with Debby Birns, in American Premiere (Beverly Hills), September 1985.

"Dialogue on Film: Martha Coolidge," in American Film (Los Angeles), December 1988.

"Off Screen: Martha Coolidge Gets an 'A'," interview with Renee Shafransky, in Village Voice (New York), 13 August 1995.

On COOLIDGE: articles—

Schwann, S., "Close-Ups: Martha Coolidge," in Millimeter (New York), September 1983.

Roddick, Nick, "Martha's Bag Full of Roles," in Stills (London), June/July 1984.

Attanasio, Paul, "The Road to Hollywood—Director Martha Coolidge's Long Trek to Real Genius," in Washington Post, 7 August 1985.

Klapper, Zina, "Movie Directors: Four Women Who Get to Call the Shots in Hollywood," in Ms. (New York), November 1985.

Cook, P., "Not a Political Picture—Martha Coolidge," in MonthlyFilm Bulletin (London), December 1986.

Bernstein, Sharon, "Women and Hollywood—It's Still a Lousy Relationship, But Is There Hope for the Future?," in Los AngelesTimes, 11 November 1990.

Zeitlin, M., "Martha, I Says," in DGA News (Los Angeles), no. 2, 1994.

Chira, Susan, "Unwed Mothers: The Scarlet Letter Returns in Pink," in New York Times, 23 January 1994.

Sigesmund, B. J., "Feature Filmmaker," in Independent Film andVideo Monthly (New York), June 1994.

* * *

Martha Coolidge began her career as one of the high-profile women filmmakers whose initial credits parallel the rise of post-1960s feminism. Through the 1970s she worked exclusively within the independent sector, directing a series of savvy feminist/humanist documentaries that explore political and social issues. Perhaps her best-known film from the period is Not a Pretty Picture, an uncompromising, autobiographical portrait of a woman filmmaker directing a narrative re-staging of her own rape.

In 1983, Coolidge "went Hollywood" and directed Valley Girl, a mainstream comedy as well as her first fiction feature to earn theatrical distribution. (The independently-produced City Girl was made a year earlier, but released a year later.) On one level, it is a mark of social progress that, in the intervening years, Coolidge has been able to forge a mainstream commercial career; had she been a generation older, her gender would have excluded her from entering the ranks of studio directors. Yet conversely, after perusing her filmography, one might dismiss her as a careerist who sold out her artistic independence, with her early credits merely serving as her Tinseltown calling card. For after all, Coolidge is no Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, John Sayles, or Spike Lee: independent-minded filmmakers who, throughout their careers, have cannily used the system as a means to produce their own distinctive projects.

It would be unjust to imply, however, that all filmmakers working within the confines of Hollywood are sell-outs. So with regard to Coolidge, more meaningful questions arise: Has she become merely a cookie cutter commercial director, content to bask in the spotlight as a Hollywood player? Or has she been able to successfully operate within the commercial constraints of the industry, directing films that are viable at the box office—and, thus, insuring that she will continue working—while maintaining a semblance of the intelligence, commitment, and political sensibility that characterize her early films?

What can be said for Coolidge is that quite a few of her mainstream features are non-exploitive, and spotlight the trials of female characters. Yet despite their noble intentions, too many have been commercial throwaways or failed efforts. Valley Girl, a teen comedy, may be admired for transcending the limitations of its genre, and Real Genius may be lauded for its depiction of college students who are not all-consumed by sex. Yet both are disposable, forgettable satires. Lost in Yonkers, based on a Neil Simon play and Coolidge's highest-pedigreed film, is a slightly-better-than-average adaptation. Three Wishes is a slow-moving 1950s reminiscence, while Joy of Sex is an insipid farce about a high school virgin and how she reacts when she thinks she is dying. Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, produced for television, is a by-the-numbers biography of the tragic African-American actress. Despite its star power—it features Jack Lemmon and Walter MatthauOut to Sea is a dopey comedy. Easily the apex of Coolidge's Hollywood career is Angie, charting the plight of the independent-minded title character, a working-class Brooklynite who is being pressured to marry and, instead, decides to have a baby out of wedlock.

Unsurprisingly, Coolidge's very best features—those that offer genuine insight along with entertainment value—are independent productions. Given her cinematic origins, City Girl is a logical starting point for her narrative career: a penetrating (albeit little-seen) portrait of an ambitious young photographer and her assorted, unsatisfactory involvements with men. By far, Coolidge's very best film is Rambling Rose. Based on an autobiographical novel by Calder Willingham, Rambling Rose offers a compassionate portrait of the title character, a troubled, orphaned 19-year-old. Rose is a vulnerable young woman who confuses sex with affection, and the scenario records the impact she has on the family with whom she comes to live—and, in particular, on a sensitive young teen-aged boy.

Angie and Rambling Rose aside, one hopes that the banal Out to Sea and the disappointing Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, her final two credits of the 1990s, do not represent the creative maturation of Martha Coolidge.

—Rob Edelman