The Bright Lights in the Shadows

We were invited by @missenscenefilm to explore how some woman in cinema that challenged cinema and celebrate their achievements.

Instead of picking one amazing woman that achieved wide recognition, we decided to shine a light on the women responsible in many ways for some of the most iconic “masterpieces” in cinema and whose names most of us don’t even know.

In cinema’s history, there are many stories of talented, bright stars that have fallen into other’s shadows for one reason or another.

More commonly, these bright stars happen to be women, and sadly this does not occur only in the cinema industry, nor is it a coincidence.

But if something you can always count on a bright star to do is to create a light so intense that it will break free from these shadows and be allowed to shine on its own merits sooner or later.

These are just a few amazing ladies that with their contribution, changed cinema forever;

woman in cinema

Dorothy Arzner (1897 – 1979)

Director | Screenwriter | Editor | Inventor | Teacher

From 1927 to 1943, Arzner was the only female director working in Hollywood and made twenty films in that time while launching the careers of several Hollywood actresses, including Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Lucille Ball.

After editing more than 50 films and having some uncredited directing jobs, she directed her first film in 1927, Fashions for Women that was a commercial hit and allowed her to direct 3 more movies until she was given the job to direct Paramount’s first talking picture, “The Wild Party“, becoming the first woman to direct a sound film.

She was the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America and if that was not enough, she is credited for inventing the boom microphone when she suspended a fishing rod above an actress and attached a microphone to the end of it.

In 1932 she went on to work on a freelance basis and created some of her best-known films: “Christopher Strong” (1933), with Katharine Hepburn; “Craig’s Wife” (1936), starring Rosalind Russell; and “Dance, Girl, Dance” (1940), featuring Lucille Ball that still today is one of the most celebrated movies especially because of its feminist message.

In 1943, Arzner retired from Hollywood, it is not known why she did, but many suspect it was due to the increase of homophobia (and racism?) after the implementation of the Hays Code.

Arzner would maintain a forty-year relationship with Marion Morgan, a dancer, and choreographer.

Arzner never hid her sexual orientation nor her identity; her clothing was unconventional for a woman of that time; she wore suits or straight dresses.

In 1961 Arzner joined the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, where she taught Francis Ford Coppola and became an evident reference for him in the future.

woman in cinema

Joan Harrison (1907- 1994)

Screenwriter | Producer

She received two Academy Awards nominations for co-writing the screenplay for the films “Foreign Correspondent” (1940) and “Rebecca” (1940), both directed by Alfred Hitchcock, with whom she had a long professional relationship.

Her first script was for Hitchcock film Jamaica Inn (1939), she continued contributing to the screenplays for Hitchcock’s films “Rebecca” (1940), another du Maurier adaptation, “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), “Suspicion” (1941), and “Saboteur” (1942).

In 1944 she became a film producer with Phantom Lady, the other films she produced were “The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry” (1945), “Nocturne“(1946), “Ride the Pink Horse” (1947), and “They Won’t Believe Me” (1947).

At the time, she was one of only three female producers in Hollywood.

woman in cinema

Milicent Patrick (1915- 1998)

Actress | Makeup Artist | Special Effects Designer | Animator

In 1939 Patrick began working for Walt Disney Studios, and during her time there, became one of the studio’s first female animators.

Her work as an animator can be seen in four of the sequences in the film “Fantasia”. She also created the animated creature, Chernabog, featured in the last sequence of the film, “Night on Bald Mountain”. During her time at Disney, she also worked on the film “Dumbo” before leaving the studio in 1941.

Patrick continued her career at Universal Studios and is cited as being the first woman to work in special effects and makeup department.

In 1953, Patrick designed the Gill-man creature for the film “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”.

The creation of the Gill-man was credited to Westmore until recent research, most notably by Mallory O’Meara that revealed Patrick to be the designer.

woman in cinema

Verna Fields  (1918- 1982)

Editor | Sound Editor |executive

Fields became known as the “mother cutter” of directors like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg; the term “cutter” is an informal variation of “film editor”.

The critical and commercial success of the films “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972), “American Graffiti” (1973), and “Jaws” (1975) brought Fields a level of recognition that was unique among film editors at the time.

Jaws, in particular, was enormously and unexpectedly profitable and ushered in the era of the “summer blockbuster” film.

Fields’ contributions to this success were widely acknowledged for which she won both the Academy Award for Film Editing and the American Cinema Editors Eddie Award in 1976.

Spielberg credits the impeccable restraint of his movie monster’s use to “Mother Cutter,” as Fields was affectionately called. The young director was so eager to get the robotic shark, Bruce, on camera that he repeatedly pushed for shots to linger. But Fields knew just when to cut away to keep this Great White from going from fearsome to fake.

Within a year of the film’s release, she had been appointed as Vice-President for Feature Production at Universal Pictures. She was thus among the first women to enter upper-level management in the entertainment industry.

On a 2012 listing of the 75 best-edited films of all time that the Motion Picture Editors Guild compiled, Jaws was listed eighth.

woman in cinema

Debra Hill (1950- 2005)

Producer | Screenwriter

In 1975 she started as a production assistant on adventure documentaries, and progressed through jobs as a script supervisor, assistant director, and second unit director.

Hill first worked with John Carpenter in 1975, as the script supervisor and assistant editor of “Assault on Precinct 13“.

In 1978, she and director Carpenter co-wrote the horror movie “Halloween”. Their other credits together include: “The Fog” (1980), “Escape from New York” (1981), and its sequel, “Escape from L.A.” (1996).

In 1986, Hill formed an independent production company with her friend Lynda Obst. Together, they produced “Adventures in Babysitting”, “Heartbreak Hotel”, and “The Fisher King“.

In 1988, she entered a contract with Walt Disney Pictures under which she produced “Gross Anatomy”, short films for the Walt Disney theme park, and an NBC special for Disneyland’s 35th anniversary. She also produced “The Dead Zone” (1983), “Head Office” (1985), and “Clue” (1985).

Hill helped support talent in the film industry, and a number of Hill’s associates went on to later success in film. For example, James Cameron, the filmmaker, once worked for Hill in the visual effects department.

After her death, Carpenter told the Associated Press that working with Hill was “one of the greatest experiences of my life – she had a passion for not just movies about women or women’s ideas but films for everybody”.

woman in cinema

Melissa Mathison (1950- 2015)

Screenwriter | Activist

After graduating from Providence High School in 1968, Mathison attended the University of California, Berkeley.

Coppola offered her a job as his assistant on “The Godfather Part II” (1974), an opportunity for which she left her studies at UC Berkeley.

With Coppola’s encouragement, she wrote a script for “The Black Stallion“, adapted from the novel, that caught Steven Spielberg’s attention.

Mathison was on the set of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1980, when its director, Steven Spielberg, shared a seed for a new movie he wanted to make.

Mathison had just seen success with her screenplay for 1979’s The Black Stallion, and both she and Spielberg felt her flair for capturing child-like wonder was a great fit for his premise of a boy befriending an extraterrestrial.

From this rough sketch of the story, Mathison created Elliott, wounded from his father walking out, annoyed by his pesky little sister Gertie, and inspired by an unexpected friendship. E.T. became a massive hit and cultural phenomenon that earned Mathison an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Spielberg attributes the line “E.T. phone home” to Mathison.

Mathison met the Dalai Lama in 1990 when she was writing the script for Kundun (1997) and developed a lasting friendship with him. She continued to work as an activist for Tibetan freedom and was on the board of the International Campaign for Tibet.

woman in cinema

Sally Menke (1953- 2010)


She had a long-time collaboration with director Quentin Tarantino, editing all of his films until her death. Menke was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Film Editing for “Pulp Fiction” and “Inglourious Basterds“.

Menke met Quentin Tarantino when he held interviews for an editor.

Tarantino sent her the script for “Reservoir Dogs” and she said that she thought it was “amazing”.

Menke continued working with Tarantino, editing eight films altogether. Tarantino summarized their working relationship in 2007, saying that “The best collaborations are the director–editor teams, where they can finish each other’s sentences”, and that Menke was his “only, truly genuine collaborator”.

She was selected as a member of the American Cinema Editors.

On the Motion Picture Editors Guild 2012 listing of the 75 best-edited films of all time, Pulp Fiction was listed 18th.

woman in cinema

Thelma Schoonmaker (1940 – ????)


Sadly, the only one of these legends that is still alive, and she is the woman behind most of the movies in the last fifty years of director Martin Scorsese’s work.

She started working with Scorsese on his debut feature film “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” (1967), and edited all of Scorsese’s films since “Raging Bull” (1980).

Schoonmaker has received eight Academy Award nominations for Best Film Editing, and has won three times—for “Raging Bull” (1980), “The Aviator” (2004), and “The Departed” (2006), which were all Scorsese-directed films.

She signed up for a brief six-week course in filmmaking at New York University, where she came into contact with young Martin Scorsese, who was struggling to complete his film “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?”, so a film professor asked her to help Scorsese.

Schoonmaker edited Scorsese’s first feature film, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” (1967).

The early period of Schoonmaker’s career was difficult. Despite being an Oscar nominee, Schoonmaker could not work on feature films unless she became a Motion Picture Editors Guild member.

The union’s entry requirements included spending five years as an apprentice and three as an assistant, which Schoonmaker was unwilling to meet, however, she did make an uncredited contribution to “Taxi Driver”.

Scorsese had decided not to edit the picture during principal photography, but to save all the editing until shooting had wrapped. Unfortunately, this left him very little time to cut the picture, as Columbia’s contract stipulated that a finished cut had to be supplied by the middle of February. Scorsese brought in Schoonmaker to help.

In the 1980s, with Scorsese’s help, Schoonmaker was finally admitted to the union. The two collaborated on “Raging Bull”, which garnered Schoonmaker an Academy Award for Best Film Editing.

With eight Academy Award nominations, Schoonmaker tied with Michael Kahn for being the most-nominated editor in Academy Awards history. Tied with Kahn, Daniel Mandell, and Ralph Dawson, she also holds the record for the most wins in the category of Best Editing, with three.

In 2012, the Motion Picture Editors Guild published a list of the 75 best-edited films of all time. Three films edited by Schoonmaker with Scorsese are on this list: “Raging Bull” (1980), listed first, “Goodfellas” (1990), listed fifteenth, and “Hugo” (2011), listed sixty-ninth.



So these are just 8 women in cinema that are bright stars hidden in the shadows, and now we challenge you to help them and many more to shine brighter and give them the credit they deserve because of their contribution to all the movies we love so much.

Also check our list of “TOP 20 BADA$$ FEMALE CHARACTERS IN FILM”

What other bright star do you know about that is in the shadows?

What was the achievement out of these 8 women that impressed you the most?

Final score

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