Review of “Lady Director” by Joyce Chopra


In her new memoir, “Lady Director: Adventures in Hollywood, Television and Beyond, Filmmaker Joyce Chopra describes her youthful efforts to break into the French film industry in the 1960s. She goes to various offices, “full of high hopes”, to be groped one, two or three times by certain producers, one of them being no different from “the creeps that tormented women in the streets of Paris, walking a few paces behind while whispering obscenities”.

This cringe-worthy masterclass sits all too comfortably next to a scene from the movie “She Said,” adapted from the 2019 book of the same title, in which three women, all New York Times reporters, meet at a bar to discuss their latest investigation. Their conversation is quickly derailed by an aggressive pickup artist, who continues to make propositions to one of the women (Carey Mulligan), even as she explains to him that they’re trying to work. Only a loud, swear-filled diatribe eventually scares him away.

Dolly Parton said it best: What a way to make a living.

“She Said” writers Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, along with Ronan Farrow, presented groundbreaking tales of Hollywood machinery in their reporting. There was a time, not too long ago, during the height of the ensuing #MeToo era, when every morning brought a shocking new allegation. But “it was another time,“a phrase that was once the stuff of damage control, is now a legal argument. Just because things change doesn’t mean the time is up. But even if our cynicism is justified, it’s not particularly helpful. How, then, can artists and authors renew the movement, fend off media praise, and find a new way to tell an infamously familiar story?

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Into this toxic miasma called the “cultural conversation” comes Chopra’s book and “She Said.” Chopra is best known for her critically acclaimed 1985 film “Smooth Talk,” and her work often centers on mothers and daughters, ambitious women, and coming-of-age girls.

Her autobiography traces the evolution of the role of female directors in Hollywood, drawing heavily on her five decades of film and television. The film adaptation of “She Said” by director Maria Schrader, on the other hand, seeks to transform long-form journalism into a manual journalism film, recast reporters as active protagonists whispering with sources in shady bars, and whose home and work lives inevitably fade together into a dark, gritty mess. These texts, despite their differences, adopt a common approach: they make us feel the stories we already know, fixating on the shared and embodied horrors of moving through the world as a woman.

In many ways, Chopra’s memoir is a standard narrative of working in the film industry, by turns dark and verbose. She’s groped by numerous producers, makes friends (cinematographer Jim Glennon, actress Laura Dern) and enemies (Sydney Pollack, Diane Keaton), and cracks for making a name for herself as a “trustworthy woman”. women director suited to ‘relationship’ TV movies” before adding, “and, if it was a murderous woman, all the better”.

She positions herself as a historical subject, opening the book with a discussion of silent-era filmmaker Alice Guy-Blache and closing with her appearance on a #MeToo panel at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Chopra remembers being a “sound girl” within the Drew Associates documentary film group, mildly disapproving of jingoism while appreciating the opportunities. “We were fair game,” she wrote, “but none of them made rude advances to us.” Her steady career as an arthouse filmmaker and on-demand TV director is ordinary, but the insights she offers into the profession are rare.

Where the book surprises most is with its outbursts of violence and visceral pain. Chopra writes in a style of prose that is both unwavering and unsentimental. The scenes of sexual violence begin when Chopra is a child, but these assaults are offset by upbeat anecdotes about Joan Baez and Arthur Miller. Describing what it was like after being raped by her ex-boyfriend from college, Chopra recalled “feeling separated from [her] own body… transported to a parallel universe of violence. But only two pages later, Chopra details her discovery of François Truffaut and the film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma while studying abroad in Paris. It creates a shocking transition, of course, but she writes of the rape as she writes of her two abortions: with remarkable candor, emphasizing this community of female experience without apologizing for her grief in the first instance, her relief in the second. .

Many big names and more important personalities appear in Chopra’s story, including Harvey Weinstein, who cut him out of the editing process for his 1990 film “The Lemon Sisters.”, saying, “Go away, Joyce. Nobody wants you here. His appearance is a reminder of how, in his heyday, Weinstein was deeply enmeshed in American film production, an inevitable and damaging presence within the industry, and that his downfall was not unlike the destruction of a despot’s monument.

In “She Said, he is the central villain and the main subject of journalists’ investigation of the problem of sexual misconduct in Hollywood. The film makes him a kind of invisible and instigating event, his voice is heard only on the telephone, his face never photographed.

It is this preoccupation with representation and repression that motivates the most pointed intervention of the film “She Said”, staging the stories of Weinstein’s attacks without reconstructing them. A woman’s story is sung over images of an abandoned hotel room: a dressing gown stretched out on the bed, an intact turkey club sitting on the table.

Weinstein’s confession, secretly recorded by model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, echoes through a series of empty hotel hallways, decorated with creepy symmetrical sconces and geometric carpet patterns. It’s very “The Shining”, very “Psycho”, very much the familiar horror of Hollywood greats like Kubrick and Hitchcock, whose relationship with their leading ladies I’ll let you Google at your own pace. A character from ‘She Said’ refers to Hollywood as a ‘playground for rich white men’. It’s meant to be a bombshell moment in the movie, but the truth is that these films — beloved and respected works of on-screen art — never held anything back from it.

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“She Said” connects what Kantor (Zoe Kazan) calls Weinstein’s “ocean of wrongdoing” to more universal experiences of misogyny and gendered pain; “This darkness, this constant violence,” as Twohey (Mulligan) describes it, is what all women have to endure and what her own postpartum depression has highlighted. It’s all true, but by turning away from the details of Kantor and Twohey’s reporting, many of the fruitful revelations and ambiguities of their investigation are lost: the book’s in-depth discussion of Christine Blasey Ford, the #MeToo meeting held at Gwyneth Paltrow’s house, and the detailed review of the book by renowned lawyer Gloria Allred.

There will always be missing pieces when two years of journalistic investigation boils down to a two-hour film or when the career of a single director replaces everything the so-called “difficult” women who fight against Hollywood patriarchy.

There are also inherent limitations to the genres they work in. Chopra’s narrative, for one, can only provide her side of the story when it comes to her high-profile professional beefs and artistic failures, which is to be expected in any showbiz memoir. The film’s redactions, meanwhile, are chilling reminders of Hollywood’s self-protective impulses, raising the question of how much can we trust a call that comes from within the building. Yet what these works share – the instinct to renew the #MeToo conversation through affect and empathy – is powerful. Every effort, every story reveals a new perspective, a new data point about cultural industries and, too often, a new horror.

Adventures in Hollywood, TV and Beyond

City lights. 213 pages. $17.95

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