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.
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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times