Girls on Film: Stephen Frears' pioneering platform for older actresses

Philomena sees the director mounting another highly acclaimed film starring an actress outside of Hollywood's usual type

When, over the course of multiple decades, a filmmaker earns almost nonstop accolades, he sometimes become as mainstream as the actors that bring his work to life. Alfred Hitchcock paved the way with his iconic silhouette, and today, the general populace is familiar with Woody Allen's neurotic world, or the heart-warming dramas produced by Steven Spielberg. But there are some filmmakers who rest just outside of that spotlight. You may know their work, or even their name, but their persona never outshines the movies they craft. They are filmmakers like Stephen Frears, whose latest film, Philomena, is in theaters.

Frears has earned countless nominations in the world's leading cinematic competitions, from the BAFTAS to the Academy Awards, delivering a consistent stable of films free of Hollywood's typically reductive niche. He has highlighted the worlds of Pakistani and Nigerian people in Britain, the grit of the American West, the British Monarchy, the heroes and heroines of fiction, and even an immature man obsessed with music.

But where many directors have found their fame detailing all manner of machismo — the dangers of goodfellas and godfathers, or perhaps a hero with a leather whip — Frears found his greatest success with women. More precisely, he's found his greatest American success with women old enough to be considered past their "prime" in all the usual Hollywood circles.

The U.S. awards circuit first took notice of Frears' women with the 1987 drama Prick Up Your Ears, which earned a 50-year-old Vanessa Redgrave a Golden Globe nomination. Within a year, he would return with the whirlwind known as Dangerous Liaisons, starring a 41-year-old Glenn Close. Two years later, he reminded audiences of the many talents of 39-year-old Anjelica Huston in The Grifters. Nabbing 29-year-old Julia Roberts as Mary Reilly earned him Razzies instead of cheers, but the Academy refocused on his work with 70-year-old Judi Dench in Mrs. Henderson Presents, and then 61-year-old Helen Mirren as The Queen. Now he's offering yet another leading performance and potential Oscar for Dench, who's now pushing 80, as the star of Philomena.

This Academy success isn't the result of some particular affinity for women, age, and a narrowed focus. It isn't an agenda, or a niche, but rather the celebration of talent in any form. Prick Up Your Ears earned Gary Oldman his first BAFTA nomination; Liaisons gave John Malkovich his breakout role; and before Chiwetel Ejiofor made waves with 12 Years a Slave, he was courting many nominations and wins for his work in Dirty Pretty Things.

Frears happily lets his casts shine greater than his own contributions, often finding or reminding us of talent we forget about in the chase for the new "best" thing. For 25 years, he's been the consistent reminder of the broad range of talent Hollywood could mine if it dared to, offering dynamic women that the industry adores, in spite of their business plans and film franchises.

Dangerous Liaisons

From Cruel Intentions to 1930s Shanghai, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' novel has been well-traveled on the big screen — but never more famously than Stephen Frears' 1988 Oscar-winning adaptation. Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) appears to be an upstanding woman of society, but privately she rebels against the restrictions set upon women of her time. She has sex freely, and loves to manipulate those around her. Angry with one of her lovers, she sets out to have Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) seduce the man's naïve fiancée (Uma Thurman) as he himself tries to seduce the virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfieffer).

With the one-two punch of Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons, Close became Hollywood's beloved evil fiend. It was a bit of a Catch-22, however; as Frears relished in Close's dramatic powers, Tinseltown ultimately narrowed her path. Liaisons was the last Oscar nomination she earned for years, until she finally got her passion project — Albert Nobbs — off the ground in 2011.

The Grifters

Under the attention-grabbing title "a Martin Scorsese Production," The Grifters follows a small-time grifter (John Cusack) caught between his unscrupulous con artist mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) and sexually manipulative girlfriend Myra (Annette Benning). Each one plays their own game to get by, which ultimately sends their personal worlds into chaos, as the mother and the girlfriend vie for control in the world of grifting.

The film was an immediate flip in tone for Frears, giving mainstream audiences a taste for his range as he moved from period drama to old-school, neo-noir camp that boasted a distinct Oedipal twist. Once again, Frears offered a lot for his actresses to chew on — and again, Hollywood failed to follow suit. Anjelica Huston has not found an Oscar-nominated role since. Instead of the jumping off point for further meaty work, The Grifters became the capper on her mainstream award career.

Mrs. Henderson Presents

Dame Judi Dench stars as Mrs. Laura Henderson, a widow who buys an old theater in pre-war London. With the help of manager Vivian Van Damm, she begins a variety show. But popularity invites mimicry, and when profits begin to dwindle as others copy her angle, Henderson heads into spicy, unprecedented British territory — starting a nude show that riffs on Paris' Moulin Rouge.

The seeds of Dench's future success with Frears were sowed over three decades ago when she played a part in the 1981 BBC2 Playhouse production "Going Gently." Within a few years she was facing the fall of Saigon with the director in Saigon: Year of The Cat before both built impressively diverse resumes apart — until they reunited for Mrs. Henderson, which led Dench to her fifth Oscar nomination. The film allowed Dench to have some fun with her work, and unlike her predecessors, it wasn't a career capper.

The film marked a turning point in public resonance for Frears' heroines. Dench's work did not dry up, and from then on, the performances Frears captured led to further critical successes. It also marked the divide of international interests as U.S. film marched straight into the arms of superheroes and big-action worlds while Frears focused more on dynamic British tales.

The Queen

Princess Diana's death is the entry point into Frears' look at the British monarchy, as sentiments are split between the Queen (Helen Mirren), who sees the death as a private family affair, and the Prime Minister and greater public, who want a public acknowledgement. The particulars of mourning lead to a larger look at the evolving world and the place the monarchy holds in modern society.

Before her collaboration with Frears, Mirren was primarily known as the titular ex-sexpot in Teaching Mrs. Tingle for American audiences, while the Brits knew her best as television Detective Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. After The Queen, she became a media darling, luring audiences with equal measures of talent and ageless sex appeal. The role opened the door not only for her allure to grow in her sixties, but also led to a list of films that reads like a twenty-something's resume instead of a woman with 40 years of experience.


Frears' latest tells the story of Philomena Lee (Dench), a woman who — 50 years before the film begins — was forced to give a son up for adoption in a society that frowned on single mothers. With the help of a world-weary political journalist (Steve Coogan), she begins the quest to find the son who she was only allowed to mother for his first few years while working in a convent.

While Dench has never hurt for work — her work as M in the James Bond franchise kept her solidly in the movie-going consciousness — her collaborations with Frears allow for more critically lauded opportunities between the action films and vacations to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Philomena is courting near-universal praise for offering a heartfelt film that avoids the usual schmaltzy pitfalls. Unsurprisingly, awards pundits are expecting Dench's name to be all over the nomination announcements in coming months — and if this doesn't become the fifth woman-centric film to earn Frears' lead actor an Oscar nomination, it will be a big upset. It's another triumph for the duo, and another time that Frears deserves credit for going against the usual Hollywood grain.

Girls on Film is a weekly column focusing on women and cinema. It can be found at TheWeek.com every Friday morning. And be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter feed for additional femme-con.


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