Difficult Women: The Feminine Anti-Biopics of Mary Harron

Movies Features Mary Harron
Difficult Women: The Feminine Anti-Biopics of Mary Harron

This month sees the 70th birthday of Mary Harron, the Canadian filmmaker perhaps best known to the world for her work on American Psycho. The impeccable adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel was seen as an impossible endeavor for any director, much less one with a single credit to their name. Yet Harron and her regular screenwriter Guinevere Turner turned the ultraviolent tale into a razor-sharp satire of male entitlement and the yuppie era. There’s a reason it’s widely considered her best work in a dishearteningly small filmography, but outside of Patrick Bateman’s blood-fest, Harron helped redefine one of the most maligned genres in mainstream filmmaking—and do so with an unapologetically feminist lens.

Dennis Bingham, perhaps the most celebrated scholar of biopic studies, described them as “a respectable genre of very low repute.” The biopic, in its purest form, is the most middle of the middlebrow, one that aims for prestige yet is limited in its creative ambitions. This is a genre defined by the most obvious of tropes, to the point of being the stuff of easy parody. The biopic is also typically focused on men, particularly those considered “geniuses.”

We’ve all seen countless films about the troubled yet inspiring lives of brilliant white men who overcame adversity, drugs and tragic childhoods. The role of women in these stories is usually limited to that of mothers and spouses. As Bingham noted in his book Whose Lives Are They Anyway, when the biopic turns its gaze towards the feminine, they are often stories of tragedy over accomplishment. History is a fickle beast, of course. Yet for Harron, these stories are ideal opportunities to examine the kind of women the biopic genre would usually avoid like the plague. Her trilogy of female-centered biopics (her most recent film, Dalíland, focuses on the artist Salvador Dalí) take women who never would have been expected to receive the lavish Hollywood treatment—Valerie Solanas, Bettie Page, and the Manson girls—and gives them the stories they deserve.

Harron’s debut, I Shot Andy Warhol, has little interest in the iconic figure of its title. If biopics are intended to demystify or deify genius, then Harron’s response is to show the artist as little more than a jerk, a guy who floats through his own life while others around him do the heavy lifting. For Harron, the figure of true fascination is Valerie Solanas, the troubled feminist writer of the SCUM Manifesto who would eventually try to assassinate Warhol.

As played by the always-underrated Lili Taylor, Harron’s Solanas is flinty, burdened by a tough life and ill-prepared for the new era that Warhol came to define. She is mentally ill, but Harron does not lay the blame for the shooting at any one easily categorizable quality. There’s no attempt to justify what she did, merely a hunger to remind everyone that she was as much a human as anyone else in Team Warhol (this also, mercifully, means that Solanas’ transphobia is not downplayed.)

Hugely militant at the time, the SCUM Manifesto now seems kind of obvious, and also incredibly self-aware in its humor. When Taylor reads from the book, shown intermittently through the film as minor sermons to the audience, she seems harsh but not lacking in sense. Like all women past, present and future, she is terrified of being reduced to a mere thing, something that Warhol’s Factory does to everyone that enters its orbit. Warhol, played with detached curiosity by Jared Harris, doesn’t seek to actively manipulate her but his default mode of dealing with people fulfills that fear for Solanas and others like Candy Darling.

Through Solanas, Harron reveals a very different death of the 1960s than she would in Charlie Says: The exposure of the true rot at the heart of the supposed radical change promised through Warhol’s world and its capitalist fetishism. Joan Didion once said of the Manson murders that she remembers how nobody was surprised by the news. The attempted murder of Warhol and the Factory dream feels similarly unsurprising, with Solanas’ ideals too much for a time that thrived on the status quo with a slightly shinier paint job.

For her next biopic, Harron went for a less acidic presence but one still shrouded in controversy and patriarchal tension: Pin-up model Bettie Page. As the title suggests, The Notorious Bettie Page is eager to understand how such a label comes to be, especially for someone who, by all accounts, couldn’t have been less capable or interested in infamy. Gretchen Mol gives her best performance as the sweet and often naïve Page, a woman who channels her enthusiasm into kinky modeling and becomes public enemy number one in the battle of post-war puritanism. Some critics dinged the film for its supposed simplifying of history, but it’s in that genuinely uncomplicated view where Harron’s point is best made. For Page, there is nothing seedy or exploitative about her job. Really, she makes it seem delightful, her glowing smile as captivating as her skimpy outfits. It’s not even so much about sex for Bettie as it is good clean fun, a chance to be free of inhibitions and make others smile.

If Solanas’ feminism was driven by fury, Page’s is a softer sell, yet still not one that men seem eager to embrace. The men who buy the magazines she poses for are secondary to the work, to her own joy. They don’t even feature in any of her images, not even the most scandalous ones of bondage and ball gags. Harron does not go so far as to romanticize the industry, but she is clear-eyed in showing how a woman like Page could find real solace there from a world that has dealt her such hardships. Indeed, the most radical message of The Notorious Bettie Page is to support the idea that one can be a good Christian girl and still like to wear five-inch heels for some cheesecake photos. It shouldn’t be that hard to accept and yet…

Charlie Says suffered from being released amid the flurry of Tarantino fervor as he premiered his own (far more expensive and star-laden) Manson-era fable, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In that movie, Charles Manson barely appears, while his followers are dim-witted punching bags for Tarantino’s bloodstained historical rewrite. While there’s reasoning behind sidelining the cult to the point of utterly refusing to deal with their actions, Harron and Turner were eager to offer an insight into the minds of the brainwashed.

The three most infamous Manson followers—Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten—are shown not just in their drug-addled follower days but in prison, isolated from the other women as Karlene Faith, a grad student teaching college courses to prisoners, hopes to help them abandon their still-ardent adoration of Manson.

Leslie, nicknamed Lulu, is the newest member of the family, a barely-adult runaway who quickly falls in line with Manson’s erratic demands. Harron offers an empathetic gaze towards the girls (for they really are just girls), allowing a glimpse into the false idyll that Spahn Ranch becomes through a haze of pot smoke, acid trips and free(-ish) love. Manson (Matt Smith) is not a romantic figure, but his allure is undeniable. Yet, as Harron shows, one only has to be charismatic for as long as it takes to accrue power. Smith’s Charlie is hot-headed, often seductive but frequently petulant. His power is rooted almost exclusively in drugs and misogyny, his only real skill being that he’s an unwashed creepy hippie at a rare time in America when that carried some social capital. Even at his most repugnant, he still has more power than a group of teenage girls in desperate need of attention.

As we see the girls fade into endless trips and zealotry, the haze of flower power quickly dries up. They’re passed from man to man, forced to act as groupies for Manson’s failed rock star delusions, then pushed into the abject horror of mass murder. The freedoms he offers are conservative in practice, as much about “family values” as those they claim to despise. Charlie Says does not exonerate these killers, although it is evident where Harron’s empathy lies. Even in jail, the trio cling to their belief in Manson, as ludicrous as his promises were (including the claim that one day they’d all grow wings), because to let go of them would be to accept that everything that happened was for naught. Karlene Faith gives them feminist texts in an attempt to offer them a new view of the world, eager to provide an education-driven alternative to faux-hippie drivel.

Eventually, all three women are deprogrammed, but there’s no joy in this “freedom.” To be stripped of Manson’s power is to fully accept that they have done an irrevocably monstrous thing, a horror that will haunt them well into their old age (two of the women are still alive and behind bars, where they have repeatedly expressed their regrets over the Tate-LaBianca killings.) The truth shall set you free, but not really.

Academic Janice Loreck described Harron’s films as “anti-biopics” because of how forcefully they reject the genre’s norms. These aren’t just films about real women, but women who achieved fame for all the wrong reasons. There’s no examination of genius, rather a dissection of what it takes to make women like this. One is not born a killer or failed assassin or figure of indecency. Controversy is not created in a vacuum. The smog of patriarchy is one that we all breathe, as Brittany Packnett Cunningham noted. To ignore that in our study of history is to ignore history itself. Maybe that’s why so few women get biopics.

Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Pajiba.com. Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.

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