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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump