Ever since the nickelodeon, the term "woman director" existed in the Hollywood thesaurus on the same page as "dancing elephant." That's been changing, slowly, and one of the women changing it is Martha Coolidge, whose new movie "Real Genius" promises to be the biggest hit of August, and who, in the privacy of her shower, perhaps, must be crooning, "How sweet it is!"

Wait a minute. Are we talking about the same Martha Coolidge? What happened to the Martha Coolidge . . .

Who came to New York after three years at the Rhode Island School of Design and was told, " 'By the way, why don't you get a manicure and wear some eyelashes,' so I'd look more like the secretaries, which always seemed ridiculous to me. How could I rewind film and splice and do the things I had to do as an assistant editor, with a manicure?"

Who enrolled in Columbia's film school, "but then it was '68, and it shut down."

Who got disgusted and followed her boyfriend to Canada: "As soon as I moved there, my boyfriend said he wanted nothing to do with me."

Who was once on the verge of casting Sting when suddenly the Police became the No. 1 band in the world. "It wasn't my spring. I was almost killed in the flash floods in Los Angeles, walked into my house shaking because I had been sandbagging outside. The phone rang, and it was Sting from Tokyo telling me that all these little Japanese groupies were around. And I'm thinking, 'Only in Beverly Hills.' "

Who returned to Canada and began another movie, "City Girl," which "shut down because they didn't have any money. I just said, 'That's it. The buck stops here.' You know, it's like . . . THIS IS IT. I said, 'I will finish this picture if it kills me.' "

Who finally found the vein with a low-budget movie called "Valley Girl" and discovered that "making it" in Hollywood meant the privilege of being railroaded by Paramount on "Joy of Sex."

Yes, the same Martha Coolidge. She hoed the tough row, but all that's behind her now. Sort of. Even now, having made a movie she's thrilled with, she can't quite believe "Real Genius," which opens today, will be a hit. "There's so much going on that I don't have any control over. It's the theaters you get into and how many people get in the first weekend. And that's it. It's a very cold, cruel world out there." And then she does the only thing she can do. She laughs.

Yes, she is related to Calvin Coolidge; her grandfather, Arthur W. Coolidge, himself the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, was cousin to the man America kept cool with through the middle '20s. But whatever gene kept Silent Cal silent has mutated out of Martha, a gabby, effusively articulate woman with a ready laugh. In high gear, her throaty voice rises to the warbling musicality of Jean Arthur, and she projects something of the Arthur magic -- she has the soul of a cutie-pie and the mind of an iron-competent hardhead.

It is, perhaps, the ideal combination for a world in which the director's chair, like boxer shorts, has only recently become available to women. Historically, women have been relegated to the "soft," intuitive behind-the-camera roles: casting, publicity, costumes and makeup, design, later screen writing. Even today, only a handful of women directors are working at all regularly in Hollywood: Gillian Armstrong, Amy Heckerling, Penelope Spheeris, Susan Seidelman, Coolidge.

Still, if it's taken her all her life to get where she is, knocking on the door of the room where the "A-directors" cluster, all her life has prepared her for it.

She was, literally, raised to be an artist. Her father was a professor of architecture at Yale, her mother an architect, too, both students of Walter Gropius; she grew up in an intellectual salon in New Haven. "I remember going to Calder's house when I was a little girl, and Josef Albers and Anni Albers were two of our best friends. She did all the fabrics in the house and came over all the time. I took drawing lessons from Albers when I was a very little girl. Believe me, he could draw -- he didn't just do squares."

Indirectly, architecture gave Coolidge her first lessons in filmmaking. "I find it extremely parallel to filmmaking. You're constantly dealing with crews. You're constantly dealing with the money people and the practicality of constructing the rather large item. I always went to sites with my father, and I always saw them meeting with clients, crews working. I loved doing that when I was a little girl -- I loved watching them pour cement."

But she wasn't, entirely, a child of the Bauhaus. Today she lives in the oldest standing house in Beverly Hills, amid her grandmother's furniture. "I have this sort of old, antique, inherited casual kind of feel to my house, which is the opposite of modern architecture," she says. And it wasn't exactly a straight, functional Bauhaus line to filmmaking, either.

First, there was singing -- New Haven was a magnet for the folkie scene in the mid-'60s, with people like Dave Van Ronk and Joan Baez coming into town. And acting on stage, a craft Coolidge later pursued with lessons in the Method (she studied with Lee Strasberg, audited with Stella Adler), and continues to study. And woodcutting -- Coolidge went off to Paris in high school to study with American printmaker Antonio Frasconi, and the next year enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to study in earnest.

But late-night singing gigs took too much of a toll on her early-morning mood, and "I couldn't get into a rock band, either," she says. "If I had gotten into a rock band, I think I probably would've been a singer, and God knows I probably would be dead now." When she made her first film, an animated short, at RISD, "I felt compelled to be a film director -- it was not a small thing," she says. "The minute I did a film, I felt I had to do this. I felt that it brought together my visual sense, my dramatic sense and my technological abilities."

Coolidge directed four films at RISD (including one starring Martin Mull, a painter then), won a kite-making contest and dropped out after three years to enter the competitive world of New York commercial-making. "People said, 'Don't tell anyone you want to be a director,' " she remembers. "It wasn't that you can't be a director because you're a woman, but that you just can't be a director. Because there was a real prejudice in the business then, which was very work-your-way-up-from-the-bottom, biased against film school graduates."

After Columbia closed during the student strike of '68, she knocked on New York University's door. "When I applied, the guy told me I couldn't be a woman director. He said, 'You can't be a woman director. You can't name five women directors in the world.' And I couldn't." So Coolidge packed up and moved to Canada, where she became the producer, writer and all-around factotum for a children's show called "Magic Tom." "I made the costumes, I read the mail," she says. "Sometimes the directors would be too drunk the night before and not show up, so I'd direct the show. I was the show, the show was me," she laughs. "If I didn't show up, there was no show."

Frustrated by the same seniority problem she had encountered in commercials, Coolidge finally enrolled at NYU. She made a documentary about her brother, later a prize-winning portrait of her grandmother with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She won her third first prize at the American Film Festival with "Not a Pretty Picture," a docudrama she made about her own rape in prep school. "He was a guy in my class, he was a sociopath. I mean, he raped people. But in those days, nobody knew that word, nobody knew it existed. Rape was a crime that happened occasionally on the street with a gun and a knife and a stranger. And this guy was in the habit of taking whatever girl he wanted by force, usually surrounded by other guys. This was, uh, his way."

It was while she was editing "Not a Pretty Picture" that she received a call from Francis Ford Coppola and producer Fred Roos, who were then starting up Zoetrope Studios. "They called me up and said, 'We saw your films, we'd like to meet you,' " she remembers. "Freaked me out. So they interviewed me. They said, 'We're looking at women directors, and we think you're it.' I was wide-eyed. It just completely made my year, because they said I was the woman director."

But things weren't exactly a downhill coast from there. Consider "Photoplay":

For two years she spent four nights a week in Los Angeles' then-fertile rock 'n' roll scene. But Coppola had his own troubles -- he was making "One From the Heart" and running wildly over budget -- so "Photoplay" was scrapped.

Coolidge returned to Canada, where she began work on "The City Girl." The money ran out, and again, a mentor rode to the rescue -- this time, Peter Bogdanovich, who was just starting his own company. "He loved the picture. He said, 'I love this picture, I'm gonna buy it.' By this time I'm really cynical. 'Oh sure you're gonna buy it. You know, everybody has tried.' He sicked two young lawyers on them, it took five months, but he got it."

Bogdanovich paid for the completion of "The City Girl" out of his own pocket (it has yet to be released). In the middle of finishing it, she got the offer to make "Valley Girl."

"I went out to dinner with my friend who produced it, Andy Lane. Andy spent two hours at dinner selling me on this project, with me not realizing that that's what he was doing. I was saying, 'Good! Good for you! Good luck! Great great!' And finally he said, 'Look, it's about girls. And we don't really understand girls. So that's why we'd like you to read this. You probably wouldn't be interested, but we'd really like to have you direct it. I was staggered. I thought, 'My God -- it's the first "go-picture" I've been offered in Hollywood, and I didn't even know it.' "

"Valley Girl" cost $350,000, grossed $17 million and was something of a succe s d'estime. At 37, after 18 years of making movies, Martha Coolidge had arrived. Sort of.

"We were just getting into the crunch of teen-age sex comedies," Coolidge remembers of that time. "I was offered every single teen sex comedy in Los Angeles. Stacks of them. Some of them I had to read all the way through because I couldn't believe that people in their right mind could offer this picture to me, a woman, even if they didn't know me. I was offered nothing else, so I took the one that was the least offensive and had the most promise, and that was 'Joy of Sex.' "

Paramount had bought the rights to the best-selling sex manual 10 years earlier and had spent millions developing it. John Belushi had been involved in the product, then died; Penny Marshall was set to direct it at one point. By the time it got to Coolidge, all Paramount had was the title, a deadline on its option, a half-written script and a lot of money to recoup.

And a strategy: Rush the movie out, make it as cheaply as possible and recoup all that development money, simply by virtue of the fact that any movie, once you add up the revenues from cable and videocassette and foreign sales, is good for a few million. This is how balance sheets are made; it is not how esthetics are made.

"The rights were running out, so I had to start shooting," Coolidge says of the debacle. "Well, I figured they'd shut down -- nobody was ready. I figured, 'Yeah, we'll shoot two days and shut down. We'll get ready and then we'll finish.' But nope, they wouldn't do that. They were trying to prove a point -- that the picture could be made for nothing. It was the most disappointing single experience in the film business."

The movie was one long battle, which, in the end, Coolidge lost -- she was pulled from the picture in postproduction, and the studio reedited it. And at least some of this was the result of sexism, something Coolidge was familiar with since she made "Not a Pretty Picture" and had to distribute it herself.

She remembers a run-in over a scene in "Joy of Sex" in which the heroine is trying to hold a diaphragm when it squirts out of her hand and sticks to the ceiling. "The studio wanted it out. They thought it was disgusting and offensive. Of coure, there's a man pulling out a prophylactic in the movie, too -- that wasn't disgusting and offensive. The scene was going to come out of the movie, and I fought to keep it there, fought to keep it there -- we finally had a preview, and it was literally the biggest laugh in the picture, so it stayed. Because laughs count more than prejudice."

"Joy of Sex" didn't finish Coolidge in the movie business, but it didn't get her out of youth movies, either -- after all, that's what "Real Genius" is. But in "Real Genius," as in "Valley Girl," she's pulled the youth movie out of the gutter; these aren't soft-core porn or rock videos -- they're real movies.

Partly, that's the result of her skill with actors and her training as an actress; she is currently studying script analysis with Joanne Barron, an acting teacher who appears in her movies (including "Real Genius"). "What it does is that it helps me, as a director, have the language of actors, understand what actors are doing, be able to work with them. Because I think that 90 percent of your movie is your actors. No matter what else movies are, they are drama about people. And if the people aren't right and the people don't work and the drama doesn't work, you don't have a movie."

But more centrally, it's the result of not pandering to her audience, or considering herself better than her material; of taking the time to ground this highly artificial genre in reality (her production company is called the Real Movie Co.). That's why she prepared for "Real Genius" with months of research in laser technology and the policies of the CIA, and why she interviewed dozens of students at Caltech and elsewhere. "Besides," she says, "my husband is one. He was a physics and biochemistry major whiz genius type," she says of the man she married a little more than a year ago.

And that's why there's a roundness, an emotional core, to the characters in her movies. "What's important to me is that you can't judge young people by your own youth," she says. "You should always remember your own youth, and be in touch with it -- the most important aspect of that being not to forget how important everything is.

"It's the first time, you know -- the first time you have sex, the first time you fall in love, the first time you're lied to, the first time you're disillusioned. It's important to deal with that in pictures, and not represent these soft saccharine idiot representations of life. The biggest crime of adults making youth pictures is they forget how important everything is, and they make everything way too casual. I don't think anything is casual between 16 and 25."