Women in the director's chair

After Helen Mirren's comments at the Empire Jameson Awards, what does the future hold for women in the movie business?

In the 84 years since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began its annual award bonanza, only 4 of over 400 Best Director nominations have been women. Could there be change on the horizon? And, if so, what does it mean for modern leading ladies?                              

On Sunday night at the Empire Jameson Awards, Dame Helen Mirren expressed her disdain for the massively disproportionate representation of female talent in the film industry, following an acceptance speech by Skyfall director Sam Mendes in which he cited male influences such as Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson.   

"I just hope, I pray, I know that in five or ten years’ time, when the next Sam gets up and makes his or hopefully her speech, there will be two or three or four women's names in there."

As female directors have slowly begun to be allowed passage into the commercial and critical pantheons that bloom in awards season, some thought must be given to the ultimate effect this will have on the portrayal of women on-screen. It is a commonplace stereotype that harks back to the archetypal characters of Carl Denham and Ann Darrow in the original King Kong: a headstrong, macho filmmaker takes a vulnerable but beautiful actress under his wing with the promise of a better life, instead leading her to a land of monsters.

This scenario is one that has played out time and again in the real world: from Tippi Hedren’s rejection of Alfred Hitchcock’s alleged sexual advances, to the highly publicised affair between Kristen Stewart and her director Rupert Sanders, a man twice her age, much to the chagrin of tweeny-boppers everywhere.

But with the emergence of new female directing talent, could these roles be tranformed?

The tabloids revelled in the emergence of a romantic relationship between Sam Taylor-Wood, director of the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy, and her "toyboy" leading man Aaron Johnson. The two began dating following their work together on the film, a piece which focused primarily on Lennon’s childhood experiences with his mother and aunt. Significantly, Nowhere Boy leaves the all-boy antics of founding the biggest rock’n’roll group of all time as a meagre bookend, focusing almost exclusively on the maternal influence these women had on his life and work. Could this be the first step away from the overplayed damsel, moving towards a postmodern "dude-in-distress"?

Although Kathryn Bigelow was overlooked for this year’s Best Director award for Zero Dark Thirty, it was her success with The Hurt Locker in 2010 that saw her crowned the first woman to win the award. Hopefully it won’t be too long before this injustice is accordingly levelled out.

Lynne Ramsay is another female director, hailing from Glasgow, who has drawn her fair share of both acclaim and attacks. Her feature film We Need To Talk About Kevin, the story of a mother dealing with the aftershock of her psychopathic son’s violent attacks in a local high school, was met with universal acclaim. Ramsay hit the headlines recently after refusing to turn up to the first day of shooting on Jane Got a Gun, reportedly due to budgetary and script issues. One of the film’s producers, Scott Steindorff, described her departure as "insane" and "irresponsible", yet when leading man Jude Law dropped out just a few days later, no such statements were made. Could this be a knee-jerk reaction to a woman getting out of line?

According to industry insider Women Make Movies, women comprise just 18 per cent of all directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the top 250 grossing films of the day. After Mirren’s comments, maybe studios will consider taking greater risks on female talent, as they should.

Kathryn Bigelow at the Academy Awards in 2010. Photo: Getty Images.
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle