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Interview with ‘Ida Lupino, Director’ author Therese Grisham

The following interview between me and film scholar/author Therese Grisham appeared at Cine-File Chicago on Friday.
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Ida Lupino is a beloved icon from Hollywood’s golden age. Sexy and tough, she was a bona-fide “noir” goddess who starred in classic films by directors as varied Fritz Lang (While the City Sleeps), Nicholas Ray (On Dangerous Ground) and Raoul Walsh (High Sierra). Her work behind the camera has been less celebrated but Lupino was also an important and pioneering director from the late 1940s through the late 1960s. Ida Lupino, Director: Her Art and Resilience in Times of Transition, co-written by Therese Grisham and Julie Grossman, is the first book-length critical study of Lupino as a director and one that should help spark a much needed reappraisal of this trailblazing female filmmaker. Grisham will appear at Facets Multimedia on Monday, December 4 to sign copies of the book following a free screening of Lupino’s 1951 film Hard, Fast and Beautiful. I recently sat down with her to discuss the book.

MGS: There were dozens of women directors working in the U.S. film industry in the silent era. In the years immediately after World War II, there was only Ida Lupino. Why did Hollywood become more inhospitable to female filmmakers over time?

TG: It happened at the end of the ‘20s and into the ‘30s. Part of that was the centralization of the movie industry (in Hollywood). Another part of it was unionization of work, the kind of strict categorization of work. Prior to that, men and women worked in all facets of filmmaking. We’re talking behind the camera: you weren’t just an “X,” you did various things. Once the jobs became categorized, that was no longer the case. And it seems inevitable at that point that the expendable people – we’re talking because it’s a patriarchal culture – would be women. So that (the silent era) was a real golden era: Lois Weber was a big production figure, as big and powerful as Cecil B. DeMille. She made so many films, and look at what has happened over time because of the erasure of women from Hollywood. Like Alice Guy Blache before her – who also owned her own production company, Solax, and made 600 films or something – there’s this whole rediscovery thing going on where these films have to be reclaimed, they have to be found, they have to be restored. That is far more typical now of women filmmakers historically than any men I can think of.

MGS: Lupino is not considered an “auteur” in a lot of critical circles to this day. Why do you think this is still the case?

TG: Look at what Martin Scorsese wrote about her in the ‘90s. He wrote her obituary (in the New York Times), and he had written about her before. He definitely considers her an auteur. But I think she was considered by some people to be kind of a hack. In many cases, that becomes just an excuse to dismiss a director. And also because of her acting career; that overshadowed her directing career. I think a lot of people didn’t take her seriously because of her acting career. This doesn’t have anything to do with people in the industry, by the way. This has to do with critics because she was taken seriously in the industry.

MGS: What do you consider the hallmarks of her work as a director in terms of form and content?

TG: In terms of content, I think she was abidingly interested in questions of gender in a way that perhaps feminists at the time didn’t really recognize because she’s very even-handed and non-judgmental about men. Which I find to be a beautiful aspect of her films. She has a way of being able to think herself into her male characters’ positions. She doesn’t vilify them. The only character she ever vilified in her films is the rapist in Outrage. It was reported by (co-writer/producer) Malvin Wald that she wouldn’t even look at Albert Mellen (the actor playing the rapist). He didn’t get a name. He was just “the rapist.” But otherwise she’s fair, non-judgmental and understands the predicament of men. The other thing is that she really focuses on the plight of women. That distinguishes her because while the “social problem film” was being made, it didn’t really focus on women. The predicament of women in the post-war period was of paramount importance to her and it gets carried over later into a film like The Trouble with Angels (1966). In terms of form, I think she’s consummate. Both in terms of what she managed to get from her actors – it was widely reported by people who worked for her that she was really great at drawing out the type of performance she wanted from the actors – but also, this is my predilection, I love her propensity to make the social problem film into noir. Particularly, the lighting, shadows and camera angles, that’s what I find so entrancing about her. That is a real strength.

MGS: My favorite section in the book is the one on “home noir” where you talk about the “submerged feminist energy” in film noir. How does Lupino’s work relate to this concept?

TG: Oh man, I think her early films are largely home noir. I would say Hard, Fast and Beautiful, Outrage and The Bigamist are all different keys of home noir. You have this kind of retrograde or arrested home in Outrage that harks back to an earlier time when Victorian mores and Victorian patriarchy are in place. Even though that patriarchy is kind of softened externally, it’s still kind of there with this outrageous house, which on the outside looks almost like a California bungalow but on the inside is perfectly Victorian. And then, this is my speculation, (production designer) Harry Horner adds that horrible cage to the outside, you know that rose trellis that’s like a big claw over the house? Every image is of entrapment.

MGS: Like she’s a prisoner in her own home?

TG: And not only that but her mother is also a prisoner in this very unspoken way. And, in Hard, Fast and Beautiful, it’s really a modern counterpart of that where, even though that house is contemporary for that time, Millie and Florence’s encroachment into areas where they don’t belong is punished. Millie takes over the living room because she doesn’t have an office and she’s an ambitious woman. And Florence takes over the garage, which is the male domain, to practice tennis. Those elements make me laugh; the domestic space is so intrinsic and vital to her films.

MGS: One of my takeaways from this book is that she had to be shrewd in dealing with the men around her in the industry. She pretended to know less about cinematography than she did in order to get cooperation from her D.P.s but she also extended this attitude to studio execs and censors.

TG: She buttered them up and then she brought down the iron fist. She got her way. She was criticized for that, unfortunately, by some feminist critics who wanted to draw perhaps too close a parallel between her life and her work. I also think: what choice did she have? It was either do things the way she did them, which, as you say, was shrewd – buttering these people up and getting what she wanted – or not getting things done at all. What other thing would she have done? She couldn’t have hung out with ‘50s housewives, a bunch of women who were repressed and suppressed and boring and domestic. She wasn’t like that. Yet she paid a price because she was a powerful woman but she also played that domestic role with Howard Duff (her third husband and co-star in the sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve). You can see her, even in that role, the gender tension between her and Howard Duff, which is a lot of what the show is about, in a really dark I Love Lucy way. Her persona is so suppressed and yet she exceeds it but she shouldn’t. So that’s very painful because of when she was born. Things didn’t start being brought to light in any collective way until the early ‘60s with Second Wave Feminism and all that. I think a lot of feminist critics haven’t understand that and they’ve held her to account in a way that she shouldn’t be.

MGS: Which of Lupino’s films would you first recommend watching for someone unfamiliar with her work?

TG: It wouldn’t be The Hitch-Hiker. It’s a great film noir about masculinity but to me it seems like an anomaly in her work. There are no women in it even though it stems from men trying to hoodwink their wives and escape domesticity. I think I would choose Hard, Fast and Beautiful. The fact that it’s a film noir, the fact that it’s a really unusual melodrama – I mean, some people have called it a “maternal melodrama” in which the mother is vilified and I don’t agree at all. It gives perspective on those things. And there are some fantastic chiaroscuro shots – like the hotel room in Europe, (which externalizes) the chaos of Millie’s subconscious. It pretty much has it all.

Information about the free screening of Hard, Fast and Beautiful and book-signing of Ida Lupino, Director can be found on the Facets website.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

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