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 ...

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.


  • Helen Mirren didn't criticise Sam Mendes for not mentioning a female inspiration she just noted it and hoped women would be cited as influences in the future. I think most women (and men) would agree with that.

    Date and time
    March 27, 2013, 12:25AM
    • I agree and have no probs at all with that.

      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 8:07AM
  • Incredibly rude of her.

    He won an award, he gave kudos to HIS PERSONAL INSPIRATIONS, she shouted over the top later that he was WRONG to not include women. Rude. Rude. Rude.

    Ms A
    The office
    Date and time
    March 27, 2013, 7:44AM
    • No, she didn't. She said she hoped in the future there would be more women in positions where they could provide inspiration for people like Sam Mendes. She said nothing at all about his personal inspirations being wrong.

      Date and time
      March 27, 2013, 8:43AM
    • Really?

      Reverse the genders. Female director takes the stage, gives her acceptance speech (and like alll acceptance speeches it is personal to HER), gives a nod to those that have inspired her, they're all female.

      Up comes another performer to accept HIS award. And saus "it was great to hear so and so's little list of inspirations buuuut not one male was mentioned".

      Come on it was rude and not the platform. If the genders were reversed it'd be sexist! Bullying!

      Let him thank and pay kudos to whomever he chooses. Men, women, flippin' unicorns. I would be very disappointed if my win was overshadowed by someone grandstanding an issue.

      Ms A
      The Office
      Date and time
      March 27, 2013, 10:10AM
    • What on earth are you saying?

      Think of it like this, Dame Helen wasnt invalidating the list of people who inspired Sam, she was saying how disappointing it was that he couldn't name any females.....so we need to think to ourselves why couldn't he?

      Perhaps the women in the film industry are all rubbish and none of them have inspired him or perhaps they are fantastic but dont get opportunity to shine and inspire others because of unfairness, inequity, blockers (e.g. people with money and power who wrongly assume women are rubbish and dont give them opportunity)

      Dame Helen who has a lot of experience in this industry(she did get the Legend gong) is saying its the later and she is hoping that in 5 to 10 years when Sam is perhaps getting his own Legend award, that some of these blockers will have gone and he will be able to update his speech with some stories of women who have inspired him or better yet we will hear women winning awards and naming Sam as a source of inspiration.

      Date and time
      March 27, 2013, 1:12PM
  • He;en Mirren could help the situation by refusing to make films without a strong female crew, or actively seek female directors/producers/writers etc.
    I see no mention of her doing this.

    Date and time
    March 27, 2013, 8:03AM
    • Yes, it would be convenient if all those uppity women elected to just silence themselves for you.

      'If you don't like it don't participate' is a juvenile and simplistic argument, and indicates an enormous level of privilege. How exactly can one not participate in something that permeates every level of society? If women chose not to participate in every aspect of society that demonstrated some kind of sexism we'd spend our lives locked in a cupboard.

      Date and time
      March 27, 2013, 12:36PM
    • Erikah
      I don't think you read my comment carefully
      I'm supporting her and suggesting she use her star power to assist in getting more women rightfully recognised. Why are you arguing with me?

      Date and time
      March 27, 2013, 1:09PM
  • Great artilce Clem. I love it already that some people are seeking to shoot the messenger (Mirren).

    It is not hard to see why sexism is still so rampant in Western society when the prevailing attitude of men is that females have nothing interesting to say. Why is it that it's more than acceptable and legitmate for men to tell a woman's story but not the reverse?

    Date and time
    March 27, 2013, 9:01AM

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