Open Discussion: Are Female Directors Better At Directing Actors?

I thought it only appropriate to begin this kind of article with one of the finest female performances given in…

Cameron Carpenter

Contributor

I thought it only appropriate to begin this kind of article with one of the finest female performances given in the past twenty years. Charlize Theron’s interpretation of Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins’ 2003 film Monster is nothing short of a masterclass of acting, highlighted in turn by a film that completely supports its protagonist and is ultimately defined by it. It is no surprise that the actress, aided by a sensational physical adaptation (with prosthetic makeup) to the role, took home the Oscar that year for Best Actress at the Academy Awards.

And so our discussion begins in light of the aforementioned example: are female directors better than their male counterparts at capturing the essence of a performance? A few days ago, I penned an article about my love for director Sidney Lumet, who specialized in creating and capturing some of cinema’s most legendary performances in his movies. Below, I’ve compiled a list of actors and actresses who worked their way to Academy Award Nominations under the direction of a lady, from 2002 to 2011.

Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, Julie & Julia), Annette Benning (The Kids Are All Right), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right), Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), Carey Mulligan (An Education), Melissa Leo (Frozen River), Julie Christie (Away From Her), Laura Linney (The Savages), Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine – *Note, shared with co-director Johnathon Dayton), Abagail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine), Charlize Theron (North Country), Francis McDormand (North Country), Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), Charlize Theron (Monster), Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider), Diane Keaton (Something’s Got to Give), Holly Hunter (Thirteen), Salma Hayek (Frida), Sean Penn (I Am Sam), and Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Diary).

Some of those might be surprising. Bill Murray, a man whose comedic dryness has won the hearts of many, has received one Oscar nomination, and it was from the likes of Sofia Coppola. Charlize Theron has been nominated and won her Oscar, but was directed by a woman on both occasions. Salma Hayek’s only nomination? Through the likes of Julie Taymor. Mark Ruffalo? Let’s thank Lisa Cholodenko.

Now, certainly, we shouldn’t take anything away from the actors themselves, because the job of an actor is an incredibly stripping and vulnerable experience. But directors are there to help channel and, well, direct these performances into the film to progress it forward. If you’ve ever wondered why some actors are good in some films, and absolutely heinous in others, you can often look to the director of the movie, who has slacked off (or couldn’t work with the talent) in the acting department of the film. While it’s possible the character isn’t completely layered to an actor’s taste, it’s also an actor’s job to provide those layers to said character. A director helps in this exploration, and through these combined efforts we get the performances that leave us remembering them for a long time to come. It’s a give-and-take relationship in its most extreme.

So, why don’t we look at some prime examples of some of the works of these ladies, to help this argument?

Actor: Jeremy Renner
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Film: The Hurt Locker

Renner’s Sergeant James is one of the most endearing and memorable soldiers to be released to date, and it’s easily the finest role he’s been able to get his hands on. It’s less of a showy, entertaining performance, and one of more grime and guts than anything else. And it’s not just Renner that delivers a hell of a show. The entire cast is spot-on, especially Anthony Mackie’s JT Sanborn. These are the performances less performed and more channeled. They never compromise a complete development for the sake of getting particular moments to shine, and Bigelow’s direction allows for their acts to get the necessary breathing room.

Actress: Jennifer Lawrence
Director: Debra Granik
Film: Winter’s Bone

You could praise the likes of Lawrence’s break-through performance all day long. She layers a forward strength to Ree that is often unseen in actors her age, and her ability to power through both the intense scenes and the small ones is a true testament to her potential. But Granik doesn’t stop there. She also gives us the likes of John Hawkes in the role of Teardrop, who is one of the most remarkable (and scary) anti-heroes still floating around today.

Actress: Melissa Leo
Director: Courtney Hunt
Film: Frozen River

Leo won her Oscar for The Fighter, but it’s Frozen River where she really puts it all on the line. She provides a performance so timid to start and cultivates it to explosive realism by the time the role ends. The fact that she lost out that year to Kate Winslet (who, in fairness, proved to be quite good in The Reader) is a bit disappointing, considering the fact that Hunt directed both Leo and co-star Charlie McDermott to real bravado turns in the movie she also wrote.

Why is it that women directors seem to have such a natural ability to direct actors? If you’ll notice, very few of the pictures provided above in the almost-ten-year span of the Academy Awards are incredibly ambitious and large. They’re very much more films that are character-driven than story-driven, which provides for some intensive character study. You’ll also find that the characters often represented are not incredibly flamboyant, dignified, or enthusiastic. These ladies aren’t directing Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector. Their characters are often real, dealing with real-life issues and sometimes don’t come to complete closure by the time the credits roll.

Is it possible that women have a better analytical mindset when it comes to the craft, and are then able to inject those performances into sturdy films? It’s important to note that of all the examples above, the only film to have also taken home Best Picture and Best Director was The Hurt Locker, which is arguably the most ambitious and biggest picture of the lot, as well.

So, while male directors are often noted for the magnitude and scale of their films, is it possible that they might be outmatched in the light of being able to direct performers? Obviously there are men directors who can nab great performances practically every time (Lumet, Paul Thomas Anderson, Mike Leigh, Todd Field) and certainly specialize in doing so, but it seems for the most part, male directors seem more captured by story than they do stand-out performances. We often think of Jennifer Lawrence as Ree before we ever really think about the actual movie of Winter’s Bone. And, obviously, Theron’s performance in Monster is normally the most vocal point of any discussion of the film. That’s in major contrast to a Scorsese or Tarantino movie, where the characters can be dynamite, but they still fall under the picture as a whole.

What do you think? Leave your comments below and let us know!