Ida Lupino: Why Hollywood is still ‘On Dangerous Ground’
by Eddie Richey
“I used to be the poor man’s Bette Davis. Now, I’m the poor man’s Don Siegal.” In reality, she was a true original: writer, actor, director, producer, at a time when no one in Hollywood had the balls to hire a woman to direct a film.
In 1949, Ida Lupino took over the direction of Not Wanted after the original director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack. She had written the script and knew the story better than anyone, so they said what the hell. She received credit for having written the screenplay and co-producing the film, but not for directing it.
The film is about a “beautiful but unsophisticated girl who is seduced by a worldly piano player and gives up her out-of-wedlock baby, after which her guilt compels her to kidnap another child.” Author Mary Hurd, in her book Women Directors & Their Films, writes “although the subject of the film was controversial, it received a vast amount of publicity, and she was invited to discuss the film with Eleanor Roosevelt on a national radio programme.”
Her next picture, Outrage, told the story of a young woman trying to cope with the aftermath of rape. Martin Scorsese called it “a subdued behavioral study that captures the banality of evil in an ordinary small town.” Yet, she only directed five more features, only one after 1953 (The Trouble with Angels) before turning to television in 1956, where she directed some sixty episodes.
As an actor, Ida’s range was incredible. The venal, murderous, married slut in They Drive by Night; the tender, blind sister of a mentally ill murderer in Nicholas Ray’s great On Dangerous Ground; and Steve McQueen’s estranged mother in Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called Junior Bonner made to order for both Steve McQueen and Robert Preston, but wrote “the loveliest performance is that of Miss Lupino.” She also won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress in 1943 for her portrayal of a ruthless stage mother who pushes her little sister’s career as a way to escape her own poverty in The Hard Way.
I never realized how much of an influence she was on me until recently. When I was a kid, my favorite TV show was the western Have Gun, Will Travel. Richard Boone played the mysterious Paladin, a hired gun always on the side of the underdog. Ida Lupino directed eight episodes. She was the only female director working in television at the time.
Upon re-watching the entire series recently, several of the episodes she directed, including “The Trial” and “Lady with a Gun,” are among my favorites. Richard Boone, the actor who played Paladin, said of her: “Ida stimulates me as an actor because she knows acting. In a weekly show, you get into acting patterns. Ida gets you out of them.” She directed episodes of The Rifleman, The Untouchables, and was the only woman who directed an episode of The Twilight Zone (the wonderful “The Masks”).
Her range as a director was as great as her range as an actor. The Hitch-Hiker (which she also wrote) is a terrific film noir about a psychotic killer, as far away from episodes of The Donna Reed Show or Bewitched, which she also directed, as one can get.
Why do opportunities for other directors, who by happenstance of birth are female, remain limited?
For sure, the diminutive dynamo was fiery and stubborn, often suspended by Warner Bros. for refusing to play roles Bette Davis had turned down. “My agent had told me that he was going to make me the Janet Gaynor of England – I was going to play all the sweet roles. Whereupon, at the tender age of thirteen, I set upon the path of playing nothing but hookers.”
Lupino once called herself a “bulldozer” to secure financing for her production company, but isn’t that exactly what it takes in Hollywood?
I recently co-wrote a script with the wonderfully talented Emily Skopov, which is currently out to talent agents. She knows the story and the characters better than anyone, and we have stuck to our guns that she will direct it. With two TV pilots out and about, and a third on its way, the directors I most want to work with are Rosemary Rodriguez, Kari Skogland, Andrea Arnold and a former student, Jiang Xuan — all are inspiring filmmakers.
Perhaps the reason Ida Lupino was so intimidating, and why current directors who are women still have to deal with the term “female” director rather than just director, is that all these wonderful artists have something that some male executives in Hollywood lack…