Dame Helen Mirren goes rogue

Dame Helen Mirren attends the 18th Jameson Empire Film Awards at Grosvenor House, on March 24, 2013 in London, England.

Dame Helen Mirren attends the 18th Jameson Empire Film Awards at Grosvenor House, on March 24, 2013 in London, England. Photo: Karwai Tang

Whenever I think it's not possible to like Dame Helen Mirren any more than I already do, she comes out with another brilliant sound-bite. This past weekend, she was presented with the Legend gong at the Empire Awards.

At the tail end of her acceptance speech, she took director Sam Mendes - who'd won Best Director and the Empire Inspiration Award for Skyfall – to task for failing to mention any female filmmakers in his list of personal inspirations.

“Now I just want to say quickly, it was great to hear Sam Mendes' little list of moments that had inspired him. I did however note that there was not one woman's name there behind the camera,” she said.

Actress Dame Helen Mirren with the Empire Legend award at the Jameson Empire Awards at Grosvenor House on March 24, 2013 in London, England.

Actress Dame Helen Mirren with the Empire Legend award at the Jameson Empire Awards at Grosvenor House on March 24, 2013 in London, England. Photo: Handout

“I just hope, I pray, I know, that in five or 10 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 there. There are wonderful female directors coming up, many of them British, and it's wonderful to see that. So, go girls.”


Naturally, the media was quick to decry her speech as out of line. Why, here’s Marc Lee in the Telegraph letting us know that a) it's not Sam Mendes' fault he wasn't inspired by any female filmmakers, and b) she shouldn't complain about the status of female filmmakers, because The Help was a big hit. The Help, which was written and directed by a man. Progress!

He goes on to note that last “summer, the all-conquering animation studio, Pixar, released Brave, the first of its films with a female central character. (Pixar has a strong tradition of employing women producers and animators.).”

Yes, they released Brave, but not before they replaced its female director (the first in the studio's history) because they didn't like the decidedly feminist direction her vision was taking the film in.

Furthermore, had he not been so dazzled by the apparent feminist juggernaut that is The Hunger Games film series (directed by a man, screenplay co-written by two men in collaboration with the book's author, Suzanne Collins, who comes a distant third), Lee might have thought to mention the unfair treatment that has been doled out to female filmmakers in the past few years: the movies written by women that had to wait for their greenlight until Bridesmaids had opened, to see if audiences would watch a female-centric comedy; the female directors who struggle to obtain funding for their projects; even the sexist treatment of powerful female producers.

That last point should be clear to anyone who was unfortunate enough to read Vanity Fair's “profile” of The Master and Zero Dark Thirty producer Megan Ellison, which evidently chose not to highlight her work supporting daring independent filmmaking and instead focused on her relative youth (27), “heiress” status, and unconventional (read: unprofessional) approach to the biz.

(Then again, VF was the same magazine that saw fit to shoot Sherry Lansing, the first female head of a Hollywood studio, poolside in a swimsuit for their inaugural Hollywood Issue back in 1995.)

Sundance Institute's recent study of women in film provides sobering evidence to the contrary for anyone keen to accuse Mirren of whining, the takeaway being that while women are better represented in independent cinema than mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, there is still a long way to go before the gender disparity is erased.

The study also demonstrated that when women do end up in the director's chair, there are more likely to be gigs for female screenwriters, editors, cinematographers and producers on the same project.

Inevitably, in the hands of the armchair critics of the internet (and some not-so-armchair critics, if Marc Lee is any indication) these debates dissolve into the inane idea that “female filmmakers” are a genre unto themselves, much like the dreaded “women's music” spectre of the mid-'90s.

The reality, however, is that there are plenty of talented female filmmakers whose films aren't being seen because studios won't take a punt on their projects in the same way they would a male director's.

(You can be certain that the phrase “We've already got one Kathryn Bigelow” has been uttered multiple times behind the scenes.)

Did you see Meek's Cutoff? Fish Tank? Seeking a Friend for the End of the World? Take This Waltz? Pariah? Or were they buried in limited and oft-delayed releases that make it difficult for them to thrive, thus providing studios with the handy excuse that “the last film we let a woman direct bombed, so we're not going to take the chance again”?

Lee's limp Telegraph defence of Mendes is correct in the sense that, no, it's not directly Sam Mendes' fault that women filmmakers are up against it. But until we face fewer obstacles to film industry success, it's up to successful male filmmakers to serve as our allies.

Allies do exist - think of Quentin Tarantino and his career-long collaboration with editor Sally Menkes (who passed away in 2010); “It's the true epitome, I guess, of a collaboration because I don't remember what was her idea, what was my idea. We're just right there together” - but too often they seem thin on the ground.

So if that means someone like Sam Mendes needs to seek out the work of his female peers in order to highlight them, well, I think he can handle it. If he can't, we'll just set Dame Helen on him again.