Martha Coolidge

Martha Coolidge
"We have to have a vision, but we also must be good communicators to show people our vision and give them the confidence that we know what we are doing. We are mom and dad, boss and confidant, and both men and women can be good at all aspects of directing, but not many have it all in spades."
- Martha Coolidge

Induction Category:
Arts & Humanities

Born: 1946

Inducted: 2005

Town: New Haven

From cult classics to iconic films, Martha Coolidge has proved wrong those who told her when she set out to make movies that women had no place in the director’s chair. A widely respected director of both films and television, in 2002 she became the first woman elected president of the prestigious Directors Guild of America in its 66-year history. While president, she spoke out against the shortage of females working behind the camera. Throughout her career, she has worked to highlight gender issues in her films and, off-screen, she has been an ardent advocate for increased opportunity and recognition for female directors.

Coolidge was born on August 17, 1946 to two architects in New Haven, Conn., and was exposed to creative expression from a very young age. In fact, in a 2011 interview, she recalled her father acting as director while making 8mm movies of his children playing. After her father’s death, a nine-year-old Coolidge would take over the director’s job, doling out roles to her siblings. She soon began to explore the arts outside her family and began singing in choirs at New Haven coffee houses. In the 1960s she even joined The Blackfriars, a small acting troupe based in Cheshire, Conn. As a high school senior, Coolidge began experimenting with directing in new settings. By the time she went off to the Rhode Island School of Design, she was ready to become the first student to major in filmmaking. She then pursued an MFA from the New York University’s School of Visual Arts and Film and Television, graduating in 1974.

During her time at NYU, Coolidge began creating documentaries. In fact, her first two forays into film were personal documentaries: David: Off and On (1972), which addressed her brother’s experiences as a drug addict; and Not a Pretty Picture (1975), a fictional film based on a personal experience with the trauma of date rape. While in New York, she experienced the difficulties of a woman trying to make it in the film industry and knew the obstacles would be even greater in Hollywood. In 1978, she helped launch the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers and, in 1983, made her Hollywood debut with Valley Girl, a low-budget teen comedy about a growing pop-movement in Southern California. When she signed onto the film, she had a feeling that it might transform her life as she knew it, even though the film’s success was far from certain. Coolidge received only a small stipend for her work on the film and finally resorted to living in a friend’s garage. However, after the film’s release it was clear that her choice was worth it. Valley Girl turned out to be Coolidge’s big break and shortly after its release she was given the opportunity to try her hand at big-budget filmmaking with 1985’s Real Genius, featuring Val Kilmer in his first starring role.

Martha Coolidge’s work has ranged from the comedic to the serious and from the small screen to the big screen. Known as an “actor’s director,” she works to bring out the best in those she casts and the majority of her major films are character-driven, many of them focusing on women’s issues. Regardless of the issues they raise, Coolidge’s films consistently demonstrate her awareness of the implications of gender. One of her most acclaimed films, Rambling Rose (1991), deals with sexual exploitation and gendered stereotyping. In 1994, she directed Geena Davis in Angie, a film about a single young Brooklyn native who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. It was this film that cemented Coolidge as a major Hollywood director.

Since the mid-1990s, she has directed many feature films including Out to Sea (1997), The Prince and Me (2004), and Material Girls (2006). Coolidge has worked on a number of TV movies as well, including the Emmy-winning Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and An American Girl: Chrissa Stands Strong (2006), an anti-bullying film nominated for the Director’s Guild Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Children’s Program. She has also directed episodes for several television series, including Sex and the City, Weeds, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice