I asked Joyce Chopra about the title of her recently published memoir, Lady Director, during a Zoom interview earlier this year.
She laughed. “When I was doing television movies, they’d say, ‘Well, get a woman director,’ because it’s about emotion,” she told me. We then discussed the inherent awkwardness of saying “woman director”—or is it “female director”? “Man director” just sounds weird, and “male director”…well, who would ever say that? After all, isn’t it implied?
Chopra’s memoir—a brisk but lively read, spanning a long life and prodigious career, published in November 2022 by City Lights Publishers—provides firsthand insight into the inherently precarious situation of being a woman in a man’s world, from a genuine, if woefully under-recognized, trailblazer of the artform. Her films explore a range of seemingly disparate subjects, but nevertheless evince a distinct, finely unsentimental view of the world and the way people within it relate to others, and then to themselves. This is something Chopra pursued doggedly in documentary and fiction, theatrical exhibition and TV, forging ahead without many others, before or alongside her, to emulate.
The now-86-year-old filmmaker starts at the beginning, of course, the linear details of one’s life being the obvious framework for a memoir. Born Joyce Kalina (Chopra is the last name of her first husband, the circumstances of which she details in the book; this is as much a personal memoir as it is one about her film career), she was born and raised aroundabout Coney Island by a lawyer father and schoolteacher mother. Following high school, Chopra attended Brandeis University, where she studied Comparative Literature and found an outlet in acting. It was during college that she discovered a love of cinema; having convinced her parents to let her study abroad in Paris for a year, she was introduced to the Cinémathèque Française by newfound artist friends. After attempting to pursue acting professionally in New York after college, she moved back to Boston and opened Club 47, a now-legendary (but long-shuttered) music club in Harvard Square. Among other distinctions, the venue is where Joan Baez got her start as a teenager. Chopra also started a screening series at Club 47, which was where, she writes, “the idea of becoming a film director was beginning to take hold in my imagination.”
Chopra lays out the progression of her life and career with the care of one adept at situating the lives of others into greater context, while still nodding to the existential ramifications of our seemingly circumscribed existences. As Australian academic Lisa French notes in another recent book, The Female Gaze in Documentary Film: An International Perspective, “[a]cademic Barbara Creed has suggested that, historically, women’s films have favoured narratives that are open-ended and refuse closure, ‘perhaps because they adopt an oppositional stance in relation not only to their subject matter but also in relation to conventional cinematic practices.’” This is evident in Chopra’s films, both the documentaries and narratives; consider the inherent lack of closure in Girls at 12 (1975), the rest of whose lives are yet to materialize, and Smooth Talk (1985), wherein Chopra leaves the ending ambiguous to evade a pat conclusion.
“It’s a question I can’t truly answer,” she says to me when I ask why she was so intent on becoming a filmmaker at a time when she didn’t know of any other women who’d gone down the same path. “I describe being in Paris and going to the Cinémathèque, and the people I was with were just obsessed with movies. But they were painters, they weren’t trying to make movies. It stuck in my brain, even though at that point, when I graduated, I went to acting school. But I didn’t stick with it. I don’t know why, it just got into my head, like an obsession, that I had to try. I had no idea where to go. There weren’t any film schools. I think the [University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts] existed, but I think it was only men. But I’d never heard of it and certainly there was no internet on which you could type in ‘film schools.’”
It was in the stars, I joked. “It was in the stars, over Coney Island,” she says. “I like that.”
Chopra had been looking for a job in film when she was advised to check out Drew Associates, headed by direct cinema pioneer Robert Drew with Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert Maysles. During her impromptu interview she was able to preview the supremely influential documentary Primary (1960) and eventually signed on as an apprentice editor. It wasn’t until later, when Drew Associates disbanded for financial reasons, that Leacock unexpectedly contacted her to embark upon a project for the Saturday Evening Post, documenting the newly born Fischer quintuplets, the first to have survived in the United States.
Happy Mother’s Day (1963), a short documentary co-directed by Leacock and Chopra (a credit that Chopra writes wasn’t originally included in any advertising for the film), accomplishes more than its intended purpose as a human-interest piece. The frenzy around the quintuplets resulted in them being viewed as a rather adorable commodity, with companies around the country eager to bestow their wares upon the reluctant celebrities. The politicians and businesspeople of the town where the quintuplets were born (Aberdeen, South Dakota) were also eager to profit.
The film ends up being as much about this profiteering as it is about the babies themselves, showing how craven the small-town residents were to make a buck at the children’s expense. Their mother, Mary Ann, seems to be the only one who isn’t, rebuffing suggestions that the parents allow for regular viewing of the quints as a tourist attraction; Chopra and Leacock routinely focus their camera on her circumspect visage, foiled against the others’ oblivious enthusiasm, the attitudes toward this expanse of commodification stark in contrast. “These were very nice people in that town,” says Chopra, “but they wanted to make money.”
“Ricky Leacock was the grown-up in this situation,” she recalls. “He and Pennebaker get this job, they’re paid to do a film about how wonderful it is for America that these quints have been born. The Saturday Evening Post bought the rights to this, and neither of us could resist doing the film we did… It shows you how irresistible the reality of the situation was that it trumped his responsibility to turn in a product that they would accept.”
Chopra’s next endeavor, a documentary about an up-and-coming rock band, didn’t go anywhere, but it did result in the head of feature-film production at United Artists inviting her to bring him a script, tapping into her longtime aspiration to make a fiction feature. Though that didn’t come to fruition right away, her pursuit of a script did lead her to writer Tom Cole, to whom she was married until his death in 2009. Both were married to other people when they met, which resulted in a tumultuous affair that ended in a temporary return to their respective partners. They reunited a few years later; after marrying they tried to produce a feature-film adaptation of one of Tom’s stories, though it didn’t pan out. What did, though, was Chopra’s desire to have a child. Upon getting pregnant, she sought to ensure that her identity as a filmmaker stayed intact.
The resulting effort, Joyce at 34 (1972), made with Girlfriends director Claudia Weill, documents the birth of her daughter Sarah—making it perhaps the first-ever live birth on television—and her subsequent struggle with being a parent while working full-time. Chopra had intentionally signed up to direct a short documentary right after giving birth in an attempt to keep her grip on that tenuous hold of her ambition; the film documents this, as well as her relationship with her aging mother, who watched Sarah while Chopra shot the film in Brooklyn.
One might expect the most striking scene in the film to be Sarah’s birth, but it’s really a scene between Chopra’s mother and her retired schoolteacher cohorts, who come together to discuss the experience of what it’s like to work while being their families’ primary caregiver. “I wanted to do something that was worthwhile in this world,” one of them proclaims. “Always I had the feeling that if I stay home, I’m bored, and I’m not happy, and that’s not good for [my son],” observes another. “If I go to work, I come home tired, and I don’t have any time for him, and that’s not good either. Whatever we do is wrong.” Even now Chopra is still amazed by this scene, boundary-breaking in its depiction of a prior generation of women saying things aloud that were just then only starting to be discussed. The frame is crowded with women, accompanied by the sound of them talking over one another, eager to share their stories. “We just couldn’t believe what we were filming,” Chopra said. “And it went on after we finished, they kept talking and talking and talking.”
Nowadays personal documentaries are commonplace, so much so that at times they feel de rigueur. But that wasn’t the case when Chopra made Joyce at 34, which, she’s often told, might be “the first documentary that’s about a private person, that's not about a politician [or] sporting event. All the films that Leacock and Pennebaker made were all [about] public figures. It was kind of weird. They said, ‘What do you mean you’re going to do a film about you having a baby? What kind of subject is that for a film?’”
Chopra made two subsequent documentary shorts, Girls at 12 and Clorae and Albie (both 1975), for the Education Development Center in Boston. Both are extraordinary, though the first is significant for introducing Chopra’s longstanding investment in the experiences of teenage girls. Girls at 12 depicts its subjects as they begin coming of age; it’s a simple premise, but Chopra doesn’t get in the girls’ way—they remain mysterious entities, with no overburdened attempts at figuring them out or casting judgment—allowing for maximal insight into their incipient but still poignant lives. “One of the 12-year-olds, Mary Anne, she died when she was 14, in a car accident,” Chopra told me. “Her mother got a copy of the film. She wrote to me, and she said, ‘You know, my mother watches the movie every day. This is so long ago, but I understand it.’”
Clorae and Albie follows two Black women, friends since childhood, as they embark upon different paths in life. Both are intelligent but have never felt comfortable pursuing more advanced education owing to the lack of diversity in these spaces. Clorae has three children, but, in a moment to which Chopra most likely related, she declares, “I love ’em and all that, but if I lose me, I can't love nobody.” In another scene, Albie shows off her shoe collection, revealing bits of her personality as she explains each pair. Chopra has a knack for finding subtle ways to fully realize her subjects in both her documentary and feature work. While discussing the relative difficulty of editing these two short films in comparison to Joyce at 34, Chopra writes, “Instead of a clear dramatic arc, the momentum came from an engagement with characters you cared about.”
I asked Chopra forthrightly if she’d ever felt forced into making documentaries, as the opportunities for women to direct feature films were incredibly limited in the 1960s and ’70s (as they still are now, just to a lesser degree). When Joyce at 34 won an award at a festival, she writes in her memoir that Variety observed “women had won the documentary awards because very little money had been involved in making them; it was highly unlikely that film studios would ever trust women with the larger sums needed to produce a feature.”
“I don’t even know if I had ever seen any documentaries before I got a job with people making them,” she said of her experience working with Drew Associates. “I didn’t want that job, but I went there because… I had been looking and looking and looking, and I couldn’t get anywhere. I said, at least I could start, I don’t know, at least I’ll touch film. But it wasn’t my first choice, by any means. I loved doing it, I loved learning the craft of all that and making them, but it wasn’t my heart’s desire. I wanted to create a whole world, which is fiction film, where you create everything.”
Chopra decided finally to take a leap of faith and, after directing a production for PBS’s American Playhouse, began to think about what kind of material she’d like to make her own. Again turning to the plight of young girls and women, she decided upon a story she’d recently read, Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966). As luck would have it, a mission of American Playhouse was to help directors produce their first features, and the program came on to support financially. Her husband set out to adapt the story; Chopra counts the days they spent collaborating among the happiest of her life.
The result of their work is Smooth Talk (1985), perhaps Chopra’s pièce de résistance. Laura Dern, in her first starring role, plays Connie, the teenage girl entranced by an older man who shows a vexing interest in her. The phenomenal supporting cast features Mary Kay Place and Levon Helm as Connie’s parents and Elizabeth Berridge as her sister. Treat Williams stars as the older man, Arnold Friend, whose presence looms large over both Connie and the film. Chopra’s depiction of sexual awakening and, subsequently, intimidation from this bad guy channels the dread of Oates’ story. Not only that, it captures the dread of being a woman altogether, of realizing the ill-fated “consequences” we face when we allow our sexuality to blossom. Dern is perfect in the role, and Place lends another layer of pathos as Connie’s mother, who struggles with connecting to her aimless, boy-obsessed daughter. To say Williams is good in the role feels almost to condone Friend’s actions, but it’s nonetheless true that his is also a riveting performance.
Smooth Talk was critically acclaimed, but as has often been the case with so-called lady directors, early success does not necessarily guarantee its continuation. While pursuing an adaptation of Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City, she attracted the attention of Sydney Pollack’s production company, which was also trying to develop an adaptation of the novel. They hired her as the director for this long-gestating project, along with Cole to adapt the script.
Lady Director details the alleged reasons for Chopra’s firing shortly into filming, though it’s difficult to determine the real reasons in scenarios like this. The studio said one thing; Chopra says another. As she writes, because “much had been made of Smooth Talk and of [my] being among the first females hired to direct a big Hollywood picture, the producers had to go out of the way to publicly discredit me, claiming that I was behind schedule and over budget.” James Bridges was hired to replace her. Wondering why the press was so interested in the story of her firing, she proposes that “it served as a warning to other women as well. ‘Ladies, beware! Trespassing into our all-male precinct may prove fatal to your health.’”
Soon thereafter Diane Keaton sent her a script that would later become The Lemon Sisters (1990), which starred Keaton, Carol Kane, and Kathryn Grody in the lead roles. After a disagreement with Keaton over her choice of production designer, the actress requested that Chopra quit. She went on to finish the film anyway, but things only got worse in editing, as the film was being produced by Harvey and Bob Weinstein at Miramax Films. Chopra did her best to have some input into the process, but she showed up to editing one day to be told by Harvey Weinstein, “Go away, Joyce. No one wants you here.” A few weeks later, when Keaton’s cut of the film tested poorly, she was brought back into the fold. But the damage had been done, and it was a critical and commercial flop. Caryn James of the New York Times noted that “[a]mong the other wasted talents is the director, Joyce Chopra, who once made the exquisite, troubling little film Smooth Talk and seems to have lost her judgment here.” Not lost, but rather, not appreciated, indicative of a context to which critics and audiences alike are often not privy to.
After a brief respite, Chopra transitioned to the world of made-for-TV movies, starting first with Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Smart Story (1991), starring Helen Hunt as Smart. She made a variety of such films through to the early aughts, working with acclaimed actors like David Duchovny, Elizabeth Montgomery, Dennis Farina, Yaphet Kotto, Gene Wilder, Cherry Jones, and Farrah Fawcett, all at different stages in their lives and careers. Most notable among these, and certainly the most unexpectedly relevant as of late, is her 2001 adaptation of Oates’s novel Blonde as a three-part miniseries for CBS.
I watched Chopra’s series in preparation to write on Andrew Dominik’s recent adaptation of Oates’s fictional interpretation of Marilyn Monroe’s life, which has since solicited a deluge of controversy. Chopra’s Blonde is the superior of the two (though, as she writes, she was hesitant to take the job; among her neighbors in Connecticut were both Arthur Miller and Richard Widmark, the latter of whom was the basis for one of Oates’s characters who, in the novel, is implied as having raped Monroe). The Australian actress Poppy Montgomery stars, playing Norma Jean and Marilyn with a keen awareness of the intended differentiation between the two “characters.” The rest of the cast is similarly superb, from Patricia Richardson as her mother and Patrick Dempsey and Jensen Ackles as the sons of Hollywood royalty with whom she has a three-way relationship.
I remarked to Chopra that I viewed exploitation as a prominent theme in her work (such as in Happy Mother’s Day and Smooth Talk), and this preoccupation is most evident in Blonde. It remains open to debate whether Dominik’s film exploits Monroe further or instead accentuates the exploitation she experienced during her lifetime. Chopra’s adaptation, on the other hand, is decidedly sensitive to this aspect of Monroe’s legend, refraining from explicit depictions of the abuse. In-film “interviews” with figures from Monroe’s life punctuate the series, further illuminating how the absence of Monroe’s voice has long plagued depictions of her life. Without Monroe present to tell her own story, the filmmakers here work to emphasize that the story being told—both in the narrative and in real life—is tendentious. I’m reminded of Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (1985), wherein figures in the titular traveler’s life speak directly to the camera about her but yet with no definitive insight into her being. Chopra’s version is also just more compelling than Dominik’s, insomuch as a film ultimately about Monroe’s suffering could be, owing to Chopra’s interest in communicating something about a person and their lived experience; a tome the size of Oates’ novel represents an instance where a miniseries is preferable to a more conventional feature-length adaptation.
Critics, however, did not agree, ultimately lauding Montgomery’s performance but not the series overall. “All efforts to add psychological weight,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle TV columnist John Carman, referencing the aforementioned in-film interviews, “seem stilted and pretentious.” Contrast this with the critical response to Warren Beatty’s Reds twenty years prior; while not a one-to-one comparison (the interviews in Beatty’s film are with real people), the concept is hardly unique to Chopra’s effort, begging questions of why here it might seem pretentious. “The resulting portrait is as plain and familiar as bark,” Carman continues in his dismissive review. “Monroe had a horrendous childhood and spent her life in search of the father she never knew.” As if such facts are boring and not worthy of exploration. Dual accusations of pretension and plainness are confusing, yet nevertheless representative of the paradoxical criticisms often faced by disenfranchised filmmakers.
Yet there’s some truth to this characterization: Chopra’s singularity is due to her unassuming experimentation and efficient storytelling, techniques that might seem to be at odds. Her films are so abundant with that rare form of empathy that doesn’t dare sentimentalize, but rather lets a story—be it a real person’s or a character’s—speak for itself. The directness with which she elucidates her experiences in her memoir, both personal and professional, is radical, much like the conversation she captured between her mother and her retired teacher friends in Joyce at 34. Joyce at 86 is just as frank, just as willing to lay herself bare to the world, letting readers into the inner workings of a lady director.