Lizzie Borden & Feminism in the Film Industry

In honor of Pride Month 2023, FF2 is (ahem) PROUD to applaud the work of queer filmmaker Lizzie Borden, best known for her provocative Indie gems Working Girls and Born in Flames.

Lizzie was born on February 3, 1958 in Detroit (MI). While still a child, she decided to cast off her given name—Elizabeth—in an act of rebellion, and legally change her name to Lizzie (mirroring the name of the infamous ax-murderer). Lizzie studied fine arts at Wellesley College before making the move to New York City. Once arrived, Lizzie worked as a writer, a painter, and an art critic. In the mid-70s, she attended a retrospective on the work of Jean-Luc Godard. She was inspired, and immediately decided to become a filmmaker herself.

Lizzie’s first film—an avant-garde documentary on a women’s collective called Regrouping—came out in 1976. Her next film, and perhaps her most famous, Born in Flames, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival to critical praise in 1983. The docufiction film, which takes place in the New York City of a dystopian future, follows a group of women of differing classes and races collectively organizing against the men who pose a threat to them. Though this future takes place within a newfound social democracy, women have still been left behind by the revolution, and it is up to them to take their liberation—their safety—into their own hands.

In her 2020 review of Born in Flames, FF2’s Amelie Lasker writes that the film’s topics and issues breach decades: “…all these perspectives on revolution and post-revolution political discourse come together, asking nuanced questions that still preoccupy us in the current decade: how can we make feminism inclusive? And how can we celebrate our victories while acknowledging there’s more work to be done?”

Born in Flames won the Reader Jury prize at the Berlin International Film Festival as well as the Grand Prix at Créteil International Women’s Film Festival. Though the film was shot on a tiny $30,000 budget with non-professional actors, Born in Flames still became an instant classic of feminist filmmaking and film at large.

Though the film was shot on a tiny $30,000 budget with non-professional actors, Born in Flames still became an instant classic of feminist filmmaking and film at large.

Lizzie wrote, directed, and produced her next feature film, Working Girls, which follows the lives of a group of sex workers in a Manhattan brothel. Like Lizzie’s other films, it concerns race, class, and capitalism—all of which are filtered through a feminist lens. Working Girls premiered at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 1986 . The next year, Working Girls won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival after which it was purchased for distribution by Miramax.

Miramax also approached Lizzie to direct the erotic thriller Love Crimes (which was based on a script that had been written by director Allan Moyle). Lizzie signed on to the project, but she stipulated that the script would have to be rewritten by Laurie Frank (a woman writer), so that the movie could focus women’s pleasure over mainstream, patriarchal erotica. Although Miramax agreed to this, ultimately, they censored Lizzie’s vision by deleting several scenes which they deemed unacceptable for audiences (including the film’s original ending). Later, when Love Crimes failed at the box office, Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein blamed Lizzie. Afterwards, she had great difficulty securing other directing jobs. Lizzie has claimed that she suspects Harvey Weinstein branded her “difficult,” which effectively ran her out of Hollywood. 

In 1995, Lizzie directed one of the vignettes for the anthology film Erotique. Throughout the 90s, she also continued to direct episodes of television as well as theater. Lizzie has also thrived as a script doctor for the past twenty years.

AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) invited Lizzie to become a member in 2021. This is a step in the right direction toward recognizing the monumental nature of her work and its impact on the film industry, but this move comes much too late. We should all feel a lot of rage about how Lizzie Borden and many other women were treated by Hollywood, Harvey Weinstein, and others just like him. The abuse systematically enforced by Hollywood studios and executives, though now being talked about, obviously has not disappeared overnight. Women’s stories, like those Lizzie Borden directs, must be uplifted and pushed to the forefront of the film industry. 

© Reese Alexander (6/27/23) FF2 Media


Read Amelie Lasker’s review of Born in Flames here.

Visit Lizzie Borden’s Wikipedia page here.


Featured Photo: Working Girls (1986). Courtesy of The Criterion Collection which offers Blu-Ray & DVD copies as well as a streaming link on their Criterion Channel. Photography by Nan Goldin.

Tags: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Berlin Film Festival, Born in Flames, Cannes, Erotique, Jean-Luc Godard, Laurie Frank, Lizzie Borden, Love Crimes, Nan Goldin, Regrouping, Working Girls

Related Posts

Reese Alexander is currently a student at Barnard College, where she studies English literature, creative writing, and French. Reese enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been published in multiple campus publications, including Quarto, Echoes, The Barnard Bulletin, and The Columbia Federalist. Reese is most passionate about medieval literature, as she believes it illustrates the contributions of women artists throughout the centuries.
Previous Post Next Post