March is Women’s History Month!
As most of you know, Gabriel Byrne is a vocal feminist and supporter of women’s rights and equality–in life, in film, in theater and the arts. He has worked with amazing women throughout his career: colleagues in front of the screen and collaborators behind it. To help us celebrate this historic month celebrating women’s achievements, here is a look at some of Gabriel’s films (and a television series) created by women.
What better way to begin than Carrie Pilby, with first-time director Susan Johnson, a screenplay by Kara Holden, from the book by Caren Lissner, and starring the amazing Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl). What a list of creative women and what a sterling example of the kind of project to which Gabriel seems to be drawn these days. Other recent Gabriel films directed by women include Isabel Coixet’s Endless Night and The 33, directed by Patricia Riggen. He plays supporting roles in these films, as he does in Carrie Pilby, and it seems obvious that he enjoys working with these directors and he wants to support women in film. His actions tell the tale here, I believe.
The film centers on Carrie, an intellectual prodigy and graduate of Harvard at age 19, now struggling to find a way to navigate real life in New York City. Her father lives in London, but he takes charge of the situation by arranging for Carrie to visit with his friend, the shrink (Nathan Lane), who sets things in motion with a to-do list. Hilarity–and drama–ensue. Carrie is a fully realized, thoughtful, and multi-layered character in the book; early reports on the film indicate the transition from page to screen has been a success. The book reveals Carrie’s thought processes, of course, and allows her to quote philosophy and literature to great effect. How the film handles Carrie’s interior life is something we will find out soon!
The film screens in theaters in the USA starting March 31 and home viewing becomes available April 4. Not having seen the film, it is difficult to comment on Gabriel’s contribution, except to say he plays Carrie’s dad. It’s a role with which he seems pretty comfortable in real life, so we expect good things from him in this film!
Bel Powley and Gabriel Byrne
The behind-the-scenes story goes like this:
Sometime in 1993, Gabriel heard a remake of Little Women was in the works. He was determined to play Friedrich Bhaer in it. He wrangled a meeting with director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Oscar and Lucinda, Charlotte Gray) and informed her that he wanted the role. The book had been one of his favorites growing up; his mother had read it to him and he loved the story. He was meant to play Friedrich! Did Armstrong have someone else in mind for the good professor? We’ll never know. Gabriel won the role and he made us swoon as the shy but somehow worldly gentleman scholar who stole Jo’s heart.
Little Women turned out to be a quadruple threat: directed by Armstrong, produced by Diane Di Novi, with a screenplay by Robin Swicord, based on the classic book by Louisa May Alcott. The cast includes Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, Susan Sarandon, and Kirsten Dunst. So many women all working together to make Alcott’s women come to life–and they succeeded. The movie has a social and political aspect lacking in other film versions: Jo is a proto-feminist, setting out to discover her true calling in life, and finding it–and love–in post Civil War New York City. But the film stays true to the original story in tone and in style. It is a lovely homage to the book and offers us the most appealing Professor ever!
Gabriel Byrne and Winona Ryder
This HBO series ran from 2008 to 2010 and offered viewers an incredible array of acting by women, as well as some incredible writing by Sarah Treem. Central to the story was the character of Paul Weston’s own psychiatrist: in the first two seasons, this was Gina, played by Dianne Wiest, and in the last season, Amy Ryan portrayed Adele. These Friday sessions with Paul and his shrink were acting master classes, remarkable two-handers, as they say in the theater, with intense confrontations, gentle probing questions, and philosophical discussions that turn on a dime, anger and resentment barely being restrained. One of the reasons these scenes feel so ground-breaking is that they portray a man and a woman as equals: they have essentially the same education, same ambition, same goals. These people are dedicated to their chosen profession. The “Paul and his therapist” scenes are some of the most striking and memorable of the series and it is telling that Paul’s therapist is always a woman.
The cast roster is a Who’s Who of women in film: Mia Wasikowska, Melissa George, Embeth Davidtz, Michelle Forbes, Allison Pill, Hope Davis, Debra Winger, in addition to Dianne Wiest and Amy Ryan. Behind the scenes there is a very strong woman’s voice as well: Sarah Treem. A successful playwright, she got her start in television on In Treatment:
Treem, 36, studied playwriting at Yale University, and several of her plays were produced in New York in the ’00s. Her agent forwarded one to HBO, which was looking for a young woman to write the scenes involving Sophie the gymnast for the series “In Treatment.” Treem was hired, and her early efforts so impressed Gabriel Byrne, who starred as the show’s therapist, that he got her a larger role in writing the show.
“They offered me a lot more money than I was making as an SAT tutor, which I did to support my playwriting,” Treem recalls. “The thing about TV is you have to write very quickly, because there’s never enough time. It turned out that I was very good at writing fast.
She would go on to write the roles of April (season two) and Jesse (season three), as well as co-producing the series. Now Sarah Treem is the writer and show-runner for another successful television series, The Affair, but she is still writing plays!
Dianne Wiest and Gabriel Byrne
One of the first of Gabriel’s films to be directed by a woman, Siesta is a fan favorite. Director Mary Lambert approached the story-telling in this film from a music video perspective, playing to her experience directing ground-breaking music videos with Madonna, including “Material Girl” and “Like A Virgin.” This film is another triple threat, with a screenplay by Patricia Louisianna Knop, based on the book by Patrice Chaplin, a well-known novelist.
Gabriel notes: “It’s esoteric, certainly, a kind of erotic thriller. At least, that’s what we thought we were making…” (Elle Magazine, 1988).
The story centers on a professional stunt woman (Barkin) who returns to visit her former lover and trainer (Gabriel), on the eve of his marriage to another woman. Her trip is a mysterious journey marked by flashbacks and flights of psychological fancy, a dream-like and unsettling fantasy that leads to the discovery of murder. Was she the victim or the murderer? She cannot remember! The film plays with and distorts time and reality, and questions everyone’s perception in a mystery that is deeply romantic and strangely fascinating.
The film offers a great lead role for a woman and the supporting cast includes Isabella Rossellini, Jodie Foster and Grace Jones.
Gabriel met his future wife, Ellen Barkin, on the set. And so history was made.
Other Gabriel films by women
Draíocht (1996), directed by Áine O’Connor, with a script in Gaelic by Gabriel
This is the Sea (1997), written and directed by Mary McGuckian
Polish Wedding (1998), written and directed by Theresa Connelly
Vanity Fair (2004), directed by Mira Nair
The 33 (2015), directed by Patricia Riggen
Endless Night (2015), directed by Isabel Coixet
In January, 2017 Gabriel was interviewed by Roe McDermott for Hot Press Magazine. The article is behind a pay wall, but here is an excerpt:
Is Hollywood guilty of treating people like stereotypes and not allowing certain people or communities to be represented fully?
The Oscars stuff about black people not being recognized is true only to a certain point. First of all, you have to look at what the Oscars are. The Oscars were invented to publicise the business. And we all know that hundreds, thousands of films are made each year. The number that break through via marketing to actually make money and become movies that are seen by people is pretty small. The prize-giving at the end of the year rewards certain themes, certain actors, certain films. The idea that it’s ONLY black people who are excluded – and it’s absolutely true that black people are excluded – is false. You will never find a Korean actor being the lead in a movie simply because he’s a really good actor. And American films reflect the white status quo. They always have, and perhaps now people are beginning to see that mainstream films are prejudiced against minorities. Like, you have a situation now where gay actors are afraid to come out and say that they’re gay, in fear that studios won’t cast them in the next film. Studios think no-one wants to see a gay actor in a romantic or masculine role.
Do those limitations affect women in the film industry?
Absolutely. It’s worse, maybe. The female ingénue in films now is now getting younger and younger. Those roles are more sexualised than they’ve ever been. The predictable passage of 99% of actresses is from hypersexual ingénue to a completely desexualised older woman. That happens faster than you can say ‘sexism’. I remember being at a meeting once in Hollywood, and a very very well-known actress’s name came up for a part. A producer said, ‘Well I wouldn’t fuck her’.
Maggie Gyllenhaal said that, at 37, she was considered too old to play the love interest of a 55 year old man.
What you get now is women getting into their 30s and having children being edged out. It’s not that different to what they used to do to women in the Civil Service in Ireland. ‘Oh, you have a child? Goodbye’. You have to have very young, single women. And before you know what’s happened, you have Susan Sarandon or Jane Fonda playing the wacky grandmother. Or someone mid-30s playing an about-to-become-grandmother, because they’re a year past the industry’s acceptable age to be in a rom-com or action film. Very few women escape that. And very few cultures are presented in mainstream in Hollywood films. So that argument that Hollywood is prejudiced is absolutely true. They’re prejudiced against everything that doesn’t fit their homogenised, white, profit-making model. So if you have a script that has a conflicted hero, they will chip away at that until it’s a total stereotype.
Finally, to help celebrate women in film this month, a new classification noting contributions by women to film, both on and behind the screen, has been created and will be used by the largest film database on the Internet, IMDB.
The new rating was created three years ago by Holly Tarquini, executive director of the Bath Film Festival, to “support women in film and change the stories we see on screen.” The Bath festival created a website for the rating, which says:
“The F-Rating is a classification for any film which
1. is directed by a woman
2. is written by a woman
3. features significant women on screen in their own right.”
Tarquini says that the rating was inspired by the Bechdel test, a system devised by cartoonist Alison Bechdel to identify works of fiction that feature at least two women talking about topics other than a man.
We are sure Gabriel Byrne would approve! heart
Waking the Feminists