In Character: Women in cinema who refuse to play by the rules

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Production still from Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles 1975 / Director: Chantal Akerman / Image courtesy: British Film Institute

‘In Character’ is a major cinema project, developed in response to the works featured in the QAGOMA exhibition ‘Cindy Sherman’. It’s a project about those women in cinema who refuse to play by the rules, writes José Da Silva.

For the past six months I’ve been watching, re-watching and deliberating on almost 200 works, revisiting those figures that rebel against their social strictures and play with our expectations for the behaviour, desire and physicality of women onscreen. Uniting these films is the transcendence of their leading performances, given by some of cinema’s most fearless actresses. These singular performances enable the characters to move beyond the conventions of genre cinema to become unforgettable portrayals of women in art and daily life.

‘In Character’ brings together 65 works across its three-month program, from noir to comedy, horror, exploitation, documentary and melodrama. The program is divided into four intersecting threads, each populated by ideas and personas inspired by Sherman’s photography. Like Sherman’s Hollywood headshots, society portraits, fashion socialites and clowns, the figures depicted throughout ‘In Character’ are exaggerated expressions of identity. Some confront us with complex characterisations of gender and sexuality; others are camp expressions of female archetypes. While many of the films have the appeal of being guilty pleasures, others offer courageous depictions of female autonomy, sexuality and filial responsibility.

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Production still from Sunset Boulevard 1950 / Director: Billy Wilder / Image courtesy: Paramount Pictures

Hollywood Babylon takes it names from the 1959 book by filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Like Anger’s salacious book, this program revels in stories of fame and infamy. It features images of struggling actresses and fading stars; overbearing celebrity mums and female rivalry on and off stage; obsessions with age, glamour and masquerade; and the allure of notoriety. The scope is unashamedly wide and features Bette Davis in All About Eve 1950, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard 1950, Divine in Pink Flamingos 1972, Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest 1981, Julie Andrews in Victor/ Victoria 1982, Madonna in Dangerous Game 1993, Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls 1995 and Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive 2001.

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Production still from Pink Flamingos 1972 / Director: John Waters / Image courtesy: Roadshow Films

The Lady of the House features narratives set within the domestic sphere. It includes films about the eccentric lives lived in cloistered mansions and apartments; the power dynamics between maids and their employers; and experiences of psychological and physical captivity. We also find women caught up in the mundanity of courtship, domesticity and homemakers under the influence of their environment. Again, the selection is diverse: it includes Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar 1954, Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion 1965, Edie Bouvier Beale and her mother Little Edie in Grey Gardens 1975, Kathy Bates in Misery 1990, and Julianne Moore in Safe 1995.

Dangerous Relations considers the depiction of difficult and unconventional relationships between parents and their children and wives and husbands; stories of jealously and infidelity, obsessive friendships and affairs; intergenerational love; and vampiric and otherworldly seductresses. This group of films reverberates with psychosexual pressure, evoked in performances by Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1966, Isabelle Adjani in Possession 1981, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct 1992, Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher 2001, and Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin 2013.

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Production still from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1966 / Director: Mike Nichols / Image courtesy: Park Circus

Women in Revolt focuses on women who are badly behaved and those who embark on a newfound sense of personal freedom by rejecting social expectations. We witness provocative displays of gender in the Pre-Code cinema of the 1930s and exploitation cinema of the 1960s and 80s; the rejection of patriarchy and maternal responsibilities; stories of vengeance and revenge and situation where office politics, infidelity and bullying have murderous consequences. This program includes Mae West in I’m No Angel 1933, Sissy Spacek in Carrie 1976, Kathleen Turner in Crimes of Passion 1984, Lili Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol 1996 and Penélope Cruz in Volver 2006.

While celebrating the performances of the actresses that embody these incredible characters onscreen, the program also acknowledges some of the uncompromising women behind the camera. Works by an acclaimed quartet of French filmmakers (Chantal Akerman, Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis and Agnès Varda) are presented alongside a newer generation and lesser known group of female directors (including Jennifer Kent, Lucrecia Martel and Bette Gordon). Cindy Sherman’s own directorial effort, Office Killer 1997, emphasises the close links between her studio practice and its many references to Hollywood and genre cinema. Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hillberg’s video montages also feature in the program, extending their interests into contemporary art. Moffatt’s videos survey the enduring dramatic modes and genres of Hollywood cinema, re-editing and juxtaposing film sequences to create ironic commentary on the roles of clichés of mothers, servants and ideas of love, lust and revenge played out in cinema.

Production still from Absolutely Fabulous 1992 / Director: Bob Spiers / Image courtesy: BBC

‘In Character’ also includes a group of special free events and screenings of the work of television comedians and writers. ‘In Character: Variety Hour’ will be something of a curatorial experiment, featuring contributions from Gallery curators and local comedians, and will include informal discussions, YouTube clips, live jokes, drag performances and the screening of selected episodes. ‘Variety Hour’ will focus on a wide range of women in comedy and television, including favourites Julia Davis (Nighty Night 2004–05), Roseanne Barr (Roseanne 1988–97), Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer (Broad City 2014–ongoing). Jennifer Saunders’s celebrated sitcom Absolutely Fabulous 1992–2012 is also profiled during the first three nights of Cindy Sherman Up Late. We screen six episodes of the show, which follows self-indulgent PR maven and fashionista Edina Monsoon (Saunders) and her best friend, magazine fashion director Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley), in their endless quest to remain relevant.

Production still from Mommy 2014 / Director: Xavier Dolan / Image courtesy: Sharmill Films