Review of “Lady Director” by Joyce Chopra


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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 treks to various offices, “full of high hopes,” only to be groped once, twice or three times by some producers, one of them no different from “the creeps who plagued women on the Paris streets, walking just steps behind while whispering obscenities.”

This master class in cringe sits all too comfortably beside a scene in the film “She Said,” adapted from the 2019 book of the same title, in which three women, all reporters at the New York Times, meet at a bar to discuss their latest investigation. Their conversation is promptly derailed by an aggressive pickup artist, who keeps propositioning one of the women (Carey Mulligan), even as she explains to him that they are trying to work. Only a loud, expletive-filled rant finally scares him off.

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

“She Said” authors Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, with Ronan Farrow, put forth paradigm-shifting accounts of the Hollywood machinery in their reportage. There was a time, not long ago, at the height of the #MeToo era that followed, when each morning brought with it a new, shocking allegation. But “it was a different time,” a phrase that used to be the stuff of damage control, is now a legal argument. Just because things change doesn’t mean time’s up. But even if our cynicism is warranted, it’s not especially useful. How, then, can artists and authors make the movement new again, push back against the media eulogizing, and find a new way to tell a depressingly familiar story?

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Into this toxic miasma called the “cultural conversation” arrive 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 girls coming of age.

Her autobiography traces the evolving role of women directors in Hollywood by drawing extensively on her own five decades in film and television. Director Maria Schrader’s film adaptation of “She Said,” by contrast, seeks to transform long-form journalism into a textbook-journalism movie, the reporters remade as active protagonists who whisper with sources at shadowy bars, and whose home and work lives inevitably blur together into a bleak, gritty mess. These texts, despite their differences, take a common tack: They make us feel the stories we already know, fixing on the shared, embodied horrors of moving through the world while female.

In many ways, Chopra’s memoir is a standard account of working in the film industry, at turns grim and gossipy. She is groped by numerous producers, makes friends (cinematographer Jim Glennon, actress Laura Dern) and nemeses (Sydney Pollack, Diane Keaton), and cracks-wise about having made a name for herself as “a trustworthy woman director suitable for television movies about ‘relationships’ ” before adding, “and, if a murderous female was involved, so much the better.”

She positions herself as a historical subject, opening the book with a discussion of the silent-era filmmaker Alice Guy-Blache and closing with her participation on a #MeToo panel at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Chopra recalls being a “sound girl” at the documentary film group Drew Associates, mildly disapproving of the chauvinism while appreciative of the opportunities. “We were fair game,” she writes, “but not one of them made any crude advances toward us.” Her steady career as an art-house filmmaker and a work-for-hire television director is ordinary, but the insights she offers into the profession are rare.

Where the book most surprises is with its eruptions of violence and visceral pain. Chopra writes in a prose style that is both unflinching and unsentimental. Scenes of sexual violence begin when Chopra is a child, but these assaults are counterbalanced with upbeat anecdotes about Joan Baez and Arthur Miller. Describing what it was like after she was raped by her college ex-boyfriend, Chopra remembers “feeling separated from [her] own body … transported into a parallel universe of violence.” But only two pages later, Chopra details her discovery of Francois Truffaut and the film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma as she studies abroad in Paris. It makes for a jarring transition, to be sure, but she writes of the rape as she writes of her two abortions: with remarkable directness, underscoring this commonality of female experience without apologizing for her grief in the former case, her relief in the latter.

Many big names and bigger personalities appear in Chopra’s account, including Harvey Weinstein, who locks her out of the editing process of her 1990 film “The Lemon Sisters, telling her, “Go away, Joyce. No one wants you here.” His appearance is a reminder of how, at his peak, Weinstein was deeply enmeshed in American film production, an unavoidable and damaging presence within the industry, and that his downfall was not unlike the pulling-down of a despot’s monument.

In “She Said, he is the central villain and the primary subject of the reporters’ inquiry into Hollywood’s sexual misconduct problem. The film turns him into a sort of invisible, instigating event, his voice only heard over the phone, his face never pictured.

It is this preoccupation with representation and repression that motivates “She Said” film’s’s sharpest intervention, staging the stories of Weinstein’s assaults without reenacting them. One woman’s account is intoned over the images of an abandoned hotel room: a robe sprawled across the bed, an untouched turkey club sitting on the table.

Weinstein’s confession, secretly recorded by model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, rings out over a series of empty hotel hallways, decorated with creepily symmetrical sconces and geometric carpet patterns. It’s very “The Shining,” very “Psycho,” very much the horror familiar from Hollywood greats like Kubrick and Hitchcock, whose relationship to their leading ladies I’ll let you Google on your own time. One character in “She Said” refers to Hollywood as a “playground for rich white men.” This is meant as a bombshell moment in the film, but the truth is, these movies — beloved and respected works of screen art — never made a secret of any of 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 must endure and what her own postpartum depression has brought into sharp focus. It’s all true, but in turning away from the specifics of Kantor and Twohey’s reporting, many of the fruitful revelations and ambiguities from their investigation are lost: the book’s extended discussion of Christine Blasey Ford, the #MeToo reunion held at Gwyneth Paltrow’s house, and the book’s detailed criticism of celebrity attorney Gloria Allred.

There will always be pieces missing when two years of journalistic inquiry are collapsed into a two-hour film or when a single director’s career stands in for all the so-called “difficult” women battling the Hollywood patriarchy.

There are limitations, too, inherent to the genres they are working in. Chopra’s account, 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 inside the building. Still, what these works share — the instinct to renew the #MeToo conversation through affect and empathy — is powerful. Each effort, each retelling, uncovers a new perspective, a new data point on the culture industries and, too often, a new horror.

Adventures in Hollywood, Television, and Beyond

City Lights. 213 pp. $17.95

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