Thesps on quest for ‘multihyphenate’ status

The hyphen is Hollywood's most essential accessory

The most essential accessory for Hollywood’s current crop of coolkidz is neither the vest/suspenders (for men) nor the oversized masculine watch and lob haircut (for women).

It’s the hyphen. For both.

It seems no one is content to be a working actor anymore. The difference is that unlike past decades, when A-list thesps pursued pop music (the hairy eyeball gazes upon you, Eddie Murphy, Don Johnson, Lindsay Lohan et al), today’s up-and-comers won’t rest until they’ve been crowned the next Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood or Jodie Foster.

No one’s hyphens are blinging right now quite like Ben Affleck’s, whose Hollywood dream began with a screenwriting Oscar and is being heavily re-gilded with “Argo.” Joseph Gordon-Levitt caused a mighty stir when at Sundance he whipped out “Don Jon’s Addiction,” his debut as a feature writer-director, which Relativity Media threw down hard to acquire. James Franco has so many hyphens that he employs a full-time schedule-keeper to keep the gears meshing. And Ryan Gosling, clearly determined to create Clooney Career 2.0, has had his first hyphen on order for months now: “How to Catch a Monster,” his writing and directing debut, begins shooting next month.

Women, in particular, seem to be the most determined — or perhaps are finding it most necessary — to wear the “multihyphenate” mantle. Ellen Page was hired for her directorial debut, “Miss Stevens,” last week — the same day Variety first reported that Melissa McCarthy would add her rookie feature helming and screenwriting credits to her resume with “Tammy” at New Line.

A pair of studies released during Sundance underscored the uphill climb for women working behind the camera: One showed that 30% of the directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and editors on Sundance fest pics were women; the other showed that femmes made up 18% of those roles among the overall top 250 domestic pics of 2012.

But I sense that dynamic is shifting more quickly than the numbers would indicate. As it often is in the indie world, hyphens were commonplace at this year’s Sundance, but the number of women sporting them in Park City was notable.

Much was made of the fact that of the 16 competition pics, eight were directed by women. But here’s the twist: all eight of those femme directors also wrote their pics (among the guys, three were writer-directors.)

“If you’re a person who’s hungry to try things, then that’s just a natural progression,” says Lake Bell, who made her feature writing and directing debut with Sundance competition comedy “In a World,” in which she also starred. “We are a very entrepreneurial generation, and with all the tools that are now accessible, everything is possible. It’s definitely a different way of creating.”

One prominent indie producer told me that women filmmakers in particular are becoming more vertical in their approach simply because there’s a dearth of material that resonates. “I can count on one hand the interesting guys who I’d like to work with right now,” the producer — a man, for the record — told me, “but I could list for you on and on and on the women who are doing interesting stuff.”

At the top of that pyramid is Lena Dunham, whose 2010 SXSW winner “Tiny Furniture” (which she wrote, directed and starred in) led to the HBO series “Girls,” for which she is the writer, director, executive producer and star (a trail blazed by Tina Fey).

And the list goes on: Kristen Wiig. Brit Marling. Sarah Polley. Zoe Kazan. A producer familiar with Page’s hiring for “Miss Stevens” said the shotcallers were on the lookout for an actor who wanted to try her hand at directing, and sparked to her take on the material despite her inexperience. And McCarthy’s box office bona fides are well in order after a $36 million opening for “Identity Thief.”

Of course, Hollywood’s gender gap problem is nowhere near being solved. But it’s closing fast, in part because filmmakers are taking matters of story, direction — even financing and distribution — into their own hands, evening the playing field with each project that comes to life.

“I’m a bit of a control freak,” Francesca Gregorini, who wrote and directed Sundance competition feature “Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes,” told me before Sundance. “That’s served me pretty well.”

It’s a method that could work for all of Hollywood’s Renaissance men and women.