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52 Films By Women: It's a Moral Imperative That We Talk about Martha Coolidge's 'Real Genius'

By Seth Freilich | 52 Films by Women | July 20, 2016 |

By Seth Freilich | 52 Films by Women | July 20, 2016 |

In the wake of all the recent “women aren’t funny” nonsense surrounding Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, just imagine what it must have been like to be a woman trying to direct comedies thirty years ago. Before Nora Ephron and Penny Marshall there was Martha Coolidge, first with Valley Girl and then with Real Genius. Martha Coolidge is a boss. A distant relative of President Calvin Coolidge, Martha Coolidge has herself been a president, as the first (and, ridiculously, only) head of the Director’s Guild of America. Though she holds no Oscars, she’s got an Emmy (Introducing Dorothy Dandridge) and a Spirit Award (Rambling Rose). And perhaps most importantly, with 1985’s Real Genius, Martha Coolidge inspired a generation of future scientists.

Do we really need to talk the nuts-and-bolts of this film; is there anyone who hasn’t seen it? If so, for shame. But briefly, Real Genius is about some advanced nerd geeks at a Cal Tech-like school who unknowingly create a military-grade space laser as part of their final project. In some ways, it is a quintessential 80’s movie. It’s a coming of age tale with a solidly of-the-time soundtrack, complete with two montages, and the story culminates in a preposterous act of amusing revenge and comeuppance. It’s got a geeky lead character (Mitch - Gabriel Jarret), a cool guy character (Chris Knight - Val Kilmer), a contemporary bully asshole student (Kent - Robert Prescott), and a real and proper antagonist (Professor Hathaway - William Atherton).

Only, Real Genius really isn’t a quintessential 80’s movie at all. Where other 80’s movies pit the nerds against the jocks, this movie is all about and only about the nerds. And the fundamental character dilemma they face isn’t about how smart people can “fit in” but, rather, how one balances book smarts and creativity. With Lazlo Hollyfield (Jonathan Gries), we see the extreme of allowing your intellect to dominate your creativity, while Knight sits at the other extreme, using his intellect merely to feed creative hijinx. Only when 15-year-old Mitch comes onto the scene — pure intellect who has not yet even found his creativity — do all three characters eventually find themselves working together to find the right balance. Of course, this is a heavy and intellectual topic for a college comedy romp, and so much of this sits on the margins. But it’s far more substance than most of the school-set comedies of the decade (or other comedies of any decade) offer.

There’s something else uniquely non-80’s about the film — its female lead, Jordan (Michelle Meyrink). While the film gives Jordan a romance story, it’s a light and largely inconsequential romance story. More significantly, she is her own woman. Jordan is smart and weird and unique, and unapologetically so. She helps Knight and Mitch out in their eventual scheme not out of puppy love or because they’re boys, but because she just wants to, and she brings her own skills and talents to the group. To have a female character who is every bit the brainy equal of the boys, who doesn’t show her tits off, and who is an equal participant in the boys’ schemes … sadly, that would be uniquely non-now, let alone non-80’s.

While there was obviously a script to start with, Coolidge carries most of the responsibility for the film’s endearing success. Reading up on her career shows that she has always fought to avoid senseless nudity, to make female characters who are independent and who serve their own point and value. And more broadly, when asked about her perception as an “actor’s director” and what she brings to the table, Coolidge offered a lovely take on the many roles a director must play:

Ultimately being a good director is a unique combination of male and female qualities: You are a four star General, an inspirational leader and strategist as well as the most nurturing mother in the world. All good directors, men and women, have both these sides very well developed. 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.

And it is clear that Coolidge brought this type of directorial leadership to Real Genius, not just from what we see on film, but from the mouth of one of her actors. William Atherton may be known best for playing assholes on film, and here he finds himself in the middle of a phenomenal asshole-trilogy run (Real Genius followed on the heels of his turn in Ghostbusters and a few years later he’d play king asshole in Die Hard). But in a recent A.V. Club career retrospective interview, Atherton shows that he is nothing like his characters, speaking endearingly about his director of thirty years ago:

Martha Coolidge had the great style for that picture; that picture lasts because of her directorial style. She has great affinity for smart, young people, an organic affinity, and that was really what made that picture go. In the ’80s, and I guess in the ’90s, all the studios would have a topic, and then they would compete every summer on the topic. So in that year there was My Science Project, Weird Science, and Real Genius. That would be all that same summer. If somebody saw that somebody had adopted this subject, they would have their version of that subject. They felt, “Well, they think this is going to go, so maybe our version of it will go, too.” That’s how, I think, corporately that all happened. But artistically, that happened because of Martha.

Coolidge made a smart, funny film (“See dad, it’s coherent light.” “…Oh. So it talks?”). It’s a film with moments of biting satire, like the opening star chamber scene, and classroom scenes culminating in even the teacher not being present. And more importantly, as noted at the top, it’s a film that inspired a number of budding scientists. I am one of them (sort of).

I was a physics major in college, and I was damn good at it. But I also had (most of) a minor in theater, and took courses on feminist art and 60’s counter-culture. My two mentors, and professors who remain treasured friends to this day, were an astrophysicist and a theologian. My college career was an ongoing attempt to balance math and science, on the one hand, with art and creativity on the other. In other words, I was basically trying to be Chris Knight — and when I eventually discovered the legendary and amazing Richard Feynman, I realized that this balance was real and sustainable. And I wasn’t alone. A number of friends in the physics department similarly claimed some debt to Real Genius, perhaps none more so than my lab and study partner. I used to refer to her as the other half of my brain, and she’s a woman who, as a girl, was able to conceive of herself as a future scientist in no small part because of Jordan. While she would go on, unlike me, to get a PhD in astrophysics (remind me again why I chose the route of law over space?), she was also constantly balancing math/science and art/creativity, and eventually gave up practicing science to teach yoga.

And yet, the director of a movie that inspires like this, still found herself struggling, from that day to this day, because she’s a She. For anyone who thinks that there isn’t still a massive gender problem in Hollywood, let Coolidge set you straight:

Being a woman director has continued to be a challenge my entire life. It got much better in the 90s and then got worse. Even though there are more women directors now, there are fewer opportunities for us all. The statistics have declined and now fewer women are coming into the feature and episodic business and even into film school. I think it’s because they read and hear how difficult it is. Maybe they don’t want to work that hard without a real shot. I’m teaching now and I’m shocked at how few women in proportion to men are going into directing. It’s worse than it was when I was in school at NYU! And there were no working women directors then.
Now, of course, I’m facing both the gender issue and the age issue which is real. I’ve been blessed with a good career and I’m a better director now than I’ve ever been. But jobs are hard to come by for all directors, mostly because of the economy, just harder for women, minorities and older directors. I’ve thoroughly loved directing CSI: Crime Scene Investigation because I really “get” the show, love the writers and actors and it gives me a chance to kill people and take on darker subjects than what I usually am offered. The movies that come to me now are mostly gender driven women’s pictures which feels so odd, and all of them are independent films. I’ve been writing and developing my own films as well.

That’s really god damned depressing. Here’s hoping that the Hollywood establishment eventually rues the days it made women second-class players.

“Rue the day? Who talks like that?”

You can rent Real Genius on iTunes.

You can see all past 52 Films By Women picks here.