So, let's just call this my Valentine's Day post...
The subject of misogyny seems to be brought up a lot, especially since the Oscar nominations announcement, and the debate is out regarding fair treatment of actresses (with regards to getting good parts) in Hollywood, but in respect and honor of our week’s honoree (Xavier Dolan), I wanted to focus on directors who love their actresses. The thing is, while there aren’t a huge majority of them, there are directors (extremely talented ones) who focus their strengths primarily in female driven films, stories about women, about their struggles and triumphs, and do so with a great sense of finesse, vision and intention.
So, today, let’s talk about the directors that every actress should be dying to work with.
I couldn’t decide if I wanted to make this a list of ten or a list of five. I came up with a tentative list of 11, which could have been chopped down to 10, but I almost wanted to remove the women from the list, namely because I wanted to highlight men who prefer to tell women’s stories, but then that left me with only 8 and so I started overthinking things and then I just said, forget it…let’s do 11!
So, I’ll start with my 11th, the one who could have been removed from my initial list for the reasons I’m about to divulge. My 11th pick is David Fincher. Now, it’s really only recently that he’s become this ‘go to director’ for actresses, mainly because his last two films have contained the most buzzed about female roles of their respective years, but the truth is that even during his male-centric career as a director, he’s always had very interesting female roles within the fabric of his film. Yes, the point of this article was to discuss directors who placed those actresses in the forefront and told THEIR stories, but that is why Fincher is #11. But still, if we take out his female driven films (‘Gone Girl’, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, ‘Panic Room’ and ‘Alien3’) we are left with films that, for the most part, contain truly memorable female supporting roles.
Helena Bonham-Carter in ‘Fight Club’, Cate Blanchett in ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, Rooney Mara in ‘The Social Network’, Gwyneth Paltrow in ‘Se7en’.
No, these roles aren’t prominent, or at least not as prominent as the men these stories are about, but they are standout and important roles and ones that make a serious impact, even on paper. I’m excited to see if Fincher continues to seek out plum roles for rising star actresses, because he works so brilliantly with them. He tells a different kind of ‘female driven story’, and that makes his perspective even more important. We need those tough, rough and dynamic women in film, and he has the vision and the capability to deliver that. So, while he’s nowhere near as consistent in his lavish actress adoration as the remaining directors on this list, he has the potential to get there, and I hope he does.
So that brings me to my list, which I’m kind of going to go through in random order, since this is the kind of thing that can be hard to ‘put a number on’. I have to say, I really want to make a plea to the big name Hollywood directors to get their shit together, because this list is extremely Euro-centric and that is a shame…not because European directors are lesser (they are, in fact, greater, in my opinion) but, it’s shame that American film seems so focused on telling men’s stories. When you glance over this list, you’ll see that 2 of these 10 are female, 3 are homosexual (2 additional is rumored), over half stem from Europe and 2 of the straight male directors themselves have been accused of misogyny. Hollywood itself isn’t represented here at all, really, with the 4 American directors being more independent filmmakers themselves, with only 1 name being a real big star.
I’m talking too much. Let’s just get on with the list.
Let’s talk about Mike Leigh. Mike Leigh doesn’t understand the term ‘stock character’. To him, they don’t exist. Male or female, lead or supporting (or sometimes mere cameo), every character has such richly detailed backstories that they scream to life, even if their characters are more passive and completely unimportant. It is because of his love of characters that his female driven films are so incredible. He really gives his leading ladies something to work with. Whether you’re Imelda Staunton in ‘Vera Drake’ or Sally Hawkins in ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ or Brenda Blethyn in ‘Secrets & Lies’, you are an actress with a plum role in a film by a great director. Specializing in neurotic, quirky, damaged souls, Leigh writes a very specific and relatable character, one who we can visualize and identify with. You just need to be British.
Who’d I love to see work with him? Keira Knightley and Kristen Scott-Thomas in some twisted mother/daughter black comedy. I’ve been calling Knightley the next Scott-Thomas for years now, and to see them together, in the hands of someone like Leigh, would just be heaven for me.
Then we have Todd Haynes. Haynes’ films have often been gay-centric, but he’s undeniably in love with actresses, and he’s uses some extremely beloved ones in his work. From Julianne Moore to Cate Blanchett to Kate Winslet, Haynes has given extraordinary parts to women, even going as far as to cast Blanchett as one of the many personalities of Bob Dylan. He’s a visionary, a true cinematic artist, and because of this working with him should be top priority for any actress. He’s currently grooming Blanchett, Mara and Paulson for an Oscar campaign, and he has a plum role in Peggy Lee ready for a talented young actress to snatch up. I don’t see him veering from his actressexual orientation anytime soon.
Who’d I love to see work with him? I honestly feel like his breed of androgyny in film and his ability to coax this brooding intensity out of sexuality would be a great fit for someone like Angelina Jolie, who really needs to work with better directors to draw out her obvious talent.
Now, my beloved Sofia Coppola. As a former actress herself (LOL), it’s only natural that she’d gravitate towards stories for actresses, but really it’s her autobiographical style that lends itself to telling women’s stories, and she tells them so well! Her work with Kirsten Dunst, Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning and Emma Watson has been remarkable, giving such textured characters to these young starlets to work with. Her name has been circulating the current ‘Little Mermaid’ live action project, so she’s obviously still concerning herself with female driven films, and I love her so much for that.
Who’d I love to see work with her? So many, many actresses, but I really would love to see what she’d do with someone closer to her own age, maybe someone like Naomi Watts in a reflective piece on the effect the youthful innocence lost she constantly portrays can have on life later on.
Let’s debate the controversial Lars von Trier for a minute. You can call him a misogynist, a masochist, a sadist or just a plain old asshole, and you’d probably be right on all counts, and yet you can’t deny that his track record with actresses is uncanny. The man knows how to write a deeply poignant, interesting and complex character, and he loves to gives these characters to actresses of impressive talents. Nicole Kidman, Kirstin Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Emily Watson, even Bjork; all of them have delivered incredible performances under his guiding hand, and have put themselves for hell to achieve it (these are some of the most disturbing characters in recent cinematic memory) but they do it for a reason…he gives them something to chew. There is so much depth to these women, and it is because of that that I will continue to champion von Trier and continue to look forward to whoever he sets his sights on next.
Who’d I love to see work with him? Scarlett Johansson, easily. She is expanding her resume to include such interesting characters and directors, and I’d love to see von Trier get her in his clutches and put her through the ringer, pulling out of her the best she can possible give.
Next up, a personal favorite, Joe Wright. Granted, he has ‘Pan’ coming up next, but I think he learned his lesson with ‘The Soloist’ that you don’t leave a good woman behind, and so I wholly expect him to resort back to draping the likes of Keira Knightley in period costumes and guiding her around a lavishly decorated set, and I can’t wait until that happens! Wright has this beautiful literary way about his filmmaking, this gorgeous visual aesthetic that beautifully meshes with the female frame, and the way that he can draw such riveting sexuality while maintaining this astonishing level of class and elegance is something not everyone can achieve.
Who’d I love to see work with him? Gugu Mbatha-Raw, my current actress obsession, would be putty in his hands; the good kind, that you can mold into an Oscar nominee. We already know that she makes period films look good, and we already know what she can do with repressed (and not so repressed) sexuality, so I’d love to see Wright give her something truly salacious to work with; maybe even a gothic lesbian drama. Oh GOD!
And now we have a pair of directors, the Dardenne brothers. Yes, they have worked with actors and have produced some male-centric films (as has almost everyone on this list), but let’s be honest, it is their female driven films that have had the most impact. Working with some of the best European actresses, the Dardenne brothers have never failed to present full-bodied character portraits. In fact, it is their depth of character development that makes them such great ‘actors directors’, or in this case ‘actresses directors’. Marion Cotillard’s recent Oscar nominated turn in ‘Two Days, One Night’ is just one example of how well they work with female talent. Cecile De France, Arta Dobroshi and Emilie Dequenne have delivered career best performances under their hand, with characters that are so rich, so lived in, so brutally honest.
Who’d I love to see work with them? The fact that Juliette Binoche has not worked with them yet is rather gross, but I’d love for it to finally happen. Throw in Tilda Swinton as her adopted sister or something like that and give them dark family secrets and some sort of rehab issue and you have a movie I’d be dying to see!
We all know that Jane Campion loves telling women’s stories. If one looks at her filmography, she hasn’t once delivered a male-centric story; not once. Yes, there are men in her stories, but these stories are first and foremost about women. And what range of incredible stories has she told. From her humble Australian beginnings to her Hollywood (and Oscar) breakthrough, Campion has developed some incredible characters and handed them to a wide range of actresses, from big names like Kate Winslet, Holly Hunter and Nicole Kidman to new faces like Abbie Cornish and even forgotten stars like Meg Ryan. Recently she went to television, but here’s to awaiting her next cinematic film, which is sure to star an incredible actress with a killer role.
Who’d I love to see work with her? I’d honestly love to see her get her hands on the ‘Gatsby’ co-stars, Carey Mulligan and Elizabeth Debicki. Either that, or Cate Blanchett. Campion and Blanchett seem like they’d be a perfect match, actually. How about all three, as mother and daughters, and make it in the vein on ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’, with Blanchett the manipulative mother and Debicki and Mulligan her conflicted daughters. Debicki can be the wayward one, the rebel, the bitch, and Mulligan the passive aggressive muted one.
What actress doesn’t want to work with Woody Allen? Over is decade sprawling career her has helped actress after actress snatch Oscar after Oscar, and he does it by giving them truly inspired, involving and memorable characters. Blanchett, Cruz, Keaton, Wiest…the list goes on, and the number of nominations pulled from his work is outstanding. If you are an actress working in Hollywood, you want his number. His complex character portraits lend themselves to a collage of actors all working together in harmony (or a disjointed harmony) and so many of his actresses find themselves in colorful supporting roles, but Allen has been known to write women’s stories VERY often, and when he does, he does so with such rich development.
Who’d I love to see work with him? There are so many actresses who seem like they would fit in his world, but I love when he works with someone who doesn’t seem like a fit, and then they just produce something incredible. How about Viola Davis? It would be nice to see him work with an actress of color, in a plum role, and she has the chops to deliver something both highly dramatic and tenderly comical, so I would love to see what he’d do with her. Same goes for Susan Sarandon, but, like, I doubt she wants to work with him.
I’ll be honest; the initial director who inspired this post was Pedro Almodovar. I was watching my Blind Spot for January and it just came to me. Almodovar LOVES actresses. He loves writing for them, giving them great material, and watching them work it time after time. Many of his films revolve around MANY women, and he finds such beautiful ways of making them all feel richly developed and whole. Playing with gender roles, gender lines and gender stereotypes, Almodovar offers his actresses a chance to completely transform themselves and try things they never would be able to with any other director.
Who’d I love to see work with him? The thing about Almodovar is that he loves his work to be melodramatic, verging on soap opera levels, and it works under his hand with the right cast. The first name I thought of was Maribel Verdu. I’ve only seen her in a handful of things, but she really knows how to amp of up the soap opera elements, and they play well on her (especially in ‘Blancanieves’). I’m surprised they haven’t teamed up yet, since they seem like the perfect match.
And lastly, the man of the hour, Xavier Dolan. Not only does he love his actresses, but he writes them such lively, lovely, spirited parts. From his first film, ‘I Killed My Mother’, to his most recent, ‘Mommy’, he’s shown a beautiful knack for developing layers in his female characters. I think the way he wrote the part of Fred in ‘Laurence Anyways’ shows the true strength of his vision. Here is a character that could have, in the wrong hands, become this plot point to express antagonistic adversity, and yet he molds her with such strong balance, true raw emotions, that she becomes one of my favorite female characters in recent years. Handing lead roles to Clement, Dorval and Chorki (work with her again!), not to mention rich supporting roles to the likes of Nathalie Baye, Dolan is an director that EVERY ACTRESS NEEDS TO WORK WITH. He’s already snatched up Jessica Chastain for his first English language film, ‘The Death and Life of John F. Donovan’, and I can’t wait to see who works with him next!
Who’d I love to see work with him? Marion Cotillard. The end. Like, that pairing would be utter cinematic perfection. Push her. You know she can take it, do it, deliver it, whatever it is.
So those are my thoughts on ten working directors who gravitate towards women's stories. What are yours? Who did I miss? Which actresses would you like to see get to work with these specific directors?