Ava DuVernay, Nicole Kidman Reveal Their Biggest Inspirations: "These Women Weren't Pleasers"

AP Images; patrickmcmullan.com

Six industry influencers, set to be honored at Women in Film’s annual Crystal + Lucy Awards on June 16, cite Sherry Lansing, Sissy Spacek and Lena Dunham as female pioneers, while one lavishes praise on her mom.

This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

When Women in Film presents its annual honors at the Crystal + Lucy Awards on June 16, the event will cap yet another year of flux and challenges for female industry leaders. In a time when gender-pay disparity and diversity both onscreen and off have become even-hotter-button issues in the business, singling out six women who have blazed trails amid the challenges carries even greater meaning.

And each of the 2015 honorees has a unique perspective on women's progress in Hollywood: a veteran agent (ICM partner Toni Howard); an Oscar-winning actor and producer (Grace of Monaco's Nicole Kidman); a Golden Globe–winning show creator (Transparent's Jill Soloway); a film studio's worldwide marketing and international distribution president (Warner Bros.' Sue Kroll); a director on the rise (Selma's Ava DuVernay); and a buzzy performer (Fantastic Four's Kate Mara). Here, these achievers reveal the women who've driven and inspired them, including some they hardly know.

"People speak of the dire statistics for women directors in this town. And those numbers are jaw-dropping and unacceptable, indeed. But consider this: Less than 1 percent of minority women are partners in law firms in this country. Less than 1 percent! Talk about invisibility. But despite the stats, Nina Shaw, a founding partner of powerhouse law firm Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano, has been both visible and vibrant. She is my lawyer, my guide and my friend. She's been instrumental in my career in ways much more important than business -- in the ways of kindness and of sisterhood. For that, I thank and salute her."

"Sue Mengers, whom I observed as an agent for decades, obviously had a significant influence on me and my career, but Sherry Lansing has had the biggest impact. Many times, I've asked myself, 'How would Sherry handle this?' I've watched her from the time she was a story editor to president of 20th Century Fox and chairman of the Paramount Pictures Motion Picture Group. No matter her title, she treated everyone with the same level of respect and has always been the most gracious, honest, loving person. The worst thing she ever said to me was, 'Honey, I just can't wrap my arms around that idea,' whereas Sue may have said, 'Over my dead body.' I received great advice from both of these powerful women, with a slight difference in the delivery. I have them both to thank for coming around at the right time in my life and providing the guidance that has served me well."

"I've been influenced by many women. Women who defied

the times, defied convention, the women who made a mark -- despite how they looked or what their heritage was, how they spoke. Women -- trailblazers, I suppose -- who have walked tall to get where they are, who have the supreme talent and courage to break the mold continually. Whenever I need the inspiration, I look to women like [actors] Juanita Moore; Anna Magnani; Jessica Tandy, who was still working at 84; Eleonora Duse, who redefined acting; Sally Field, for her ability to jump from television to Norma Rae. Shirley MacLaine, Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn, Tilda Swinton, Jane Campion, Jane Fonda, Isabelle Huppert, Gena Rowlands, Lena Horne, Liv Ullmann, Geraldine Page. These women weren't pleasers; they were trailblazers."

"Although she was never introduced to the movie industry, my mother's spirit is here with me every day. Dorothy Kroll was a remarkable woman in her own right -- a concert pianist and a gifted writer who became a single mother and raised my brother and me on a freelance writer's salary. She channeled all her innate brilliance into instilling in me the courage and confidence to pursue my own dreams without hesitation or fear and modeled the independence, resourcefulness and relentless drive it would take to get here. I'm extraordinarily fortunate to have a career I love, and it would not have been possible if Dorothy hadn't pushed me to discover what I was capable of. Everything I am and have achieved, I owe to her."

"I have admired Sissy Spacek from the time I was 9 and saw her in Coal Miner's Daughter. It was a film my mother showed me and a performance that helped me realize that I wanted to be an actor. I then had the pleasure of working with her on a movie about 19 years later [2012's Deadfall] and witnessed firsthand her incredible presence. Her strength, enthusiasm, confidence and work ethic have been an inspiration and remind me to hold on to the gratitude and determination that we have when we first start out in this business."

"This is going to sound weird because the woman who has most influenced me is someone I don't know that well and have never really worked with: [Girls star-creator] Lena Dunham. At this point, I imagine she's sick of me and thinks I'm a stalker because I constantly bring her name up. But it was a real turning point for me, seeing her film Tiny Furniture. In some ways, it was like looking at a younger version of myself -- but a version of myself without shame. It doesn't help that everybody I knew told me I looked like her and asked if we were friends. But the headline is that her characters did inspire me to ask myself what I would write if I wasn't trying to hide all my unlikable truths. I did indeed feel jealous of her as well, but when I read a saying that her father, the artist Carroll Dunham, used [to describe his feelings about his wife's success] -- 'A rising tide lifts all boats' -- it allowed me to synthesize my competitive feelings into inspiration. I wanted to do something as true as what she was doing. I think competition among women gets a bad rap these days -- it's always reduced to catfights or envy -- but I actually love when our artistry inspires one another to reach higher and to go further."


Jill Soloway

Kate Mara

Sue Kroll

Nicole Kidman

Toni Howard

Ava DuVernay