Gawker had a chance to speak with Stephen Frears—the renowned British director of such films as My Beautiful Launderette, Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity, and The Queen—and get his views on this year's crop of Oscar nominees, George Clooney's politics, and why smart actresses are so sexy.
In Stephen Frears' 2000 comedy High Fidelity, record store owner Rob Fleming spends his free time making "Top 5" lists, everything from top five films to best album first tracks. So I asked myself, which top five list would I include Stephen Frears?
From what I've read, it might be Five Toughest Directors To Interview. "Frears is a journalist's nightmare (second only to the tape recorder that has silently quit on you)," wrote Indiewire's Erica Abeel. "Brusque, adverserial, the very opposite of forthcoming, like those social maladroits who refuse to hold up their end of a dialogue." And then there was this ominous message from the PR rep: "And just a head's up. He isn't a huge talker. I mean he is very good, but he is not one to give a long-winded answer."
For the record, when he spoke to us on the phone from his home in London, I found him to be quite charming with his bone-dry English wit and curmudgeon schtick while his erudite manner does occasionally make you feel like you're talking to a Cambridge professor who's precious time is being sucked away in a black hole of tedious questions from his students. One gets the feeling that his Top Five Personal Versions of Hell all somehow involve Nancy O'Dell, Billy Bush and a busload of loud, obese American tourists on vacation in Las Vegas.
So, what top five list would I put Stephen Frears in? While scanning his long resume of films on IMDB, it hit me. He has to one of the Least Known Directors With Highest Ratio Of Good Films. (Scoot over, Peter Weir.) Since his debut in 1971, his output has been consistently excellent and yet he's always exploring new emotional terrain and experimenting with unconventional story lines. It's easy to forget that Frears has been responsible for the 1984 cult film The Hit, My Beautiful Launderette, Prick up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, Liam, Dirty Pretty Things, Mrs. Henderson Presents, and The Queen. That last drama earned the 69-year-old his second Oscar nomination for Best Director, the first coming for The Grifters. Think about it: If Hero and Mary Reilly represent your worst films you are doing something right.
His latest, Tamara Drewe, which was released on DVD last week, is an adaptation of Posy Simmonds's long-running weekly UK Guardian comic strip about lust, love and infidelity in small-town England. Nobody will mistake it for Oscar bait—this British comedy falls in the category of charming and entertaining diversion. Gawker had a chance to speak with the director and get his views of this year's crop of Oscar nominees, George Clooney's politics, and why smart actresses are so sexy.
It seems like in order be nominated for an Oscar you need to make a "prestige film" like Lawrence of Arabia, Chariots of Fire, The Queen, which you directed, and The King's Speech. Does it bother you a smart comedy like Tamara Drewe or High Fidelity don't get as much respect?
That's life, isn't it? No, it doesn't come as a shock. It doesn't not want you to make the film. You make films because you love it, because it will give pleasure to people.
You directed six women to Oscar nominations—Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Annette Bening, Anjelica Houston, Helen Mirren and Judi Dench. That's amazing. So are actresses beating down your door to work with you?
No. I was lucky. Good material. Good women.
Helen Mirren won Best Actress for her role in The Queen. Was there a piece of direction you gave her during the shoot that stands out?
No, not in any grand sense. I remember right at the end we did a shot and I said to her, "When you do that line look in the camera." She did it and I thought, I bet she'll win the Oscar.
Did you say that to Helen?
No, I didn't. You know, she's a great actress. What you really do is create the film in which her performance can sit.
What do you think of the often-repeated complaint that there's no good roles for women in Hollywood?
Well, in a sense, it means that when a good role does come along you need a very good actress to play it. I know how the world works.
It's tough for women.
Let's talk this year's Oscars. Have you seen The King's Speech, which, like the Queen is about a British royal?
I liked The Fighter. The boy was very good and I thought the brother was incredible. Did Christian Bale get nominated?
I thought he was incredible.
How about Inception?
I'm a middle-aged man. I don't understand those sort of films. [Laughs]
How about The Social Network?
Well, it was so interesting, the physiology of Facebook. Again, I'm a middle-aged man. How it all happened, what led to one thing and one thing to another, I found all of that very, very interesting.
Were there any movies that you think should have been nominated but weren't?
Oh, I don't know. I don't lose sleep over it.
You worked with Oscar winner George Clooney on Fail Safe. What do you think of his forays into the political sphere?
I think he's tremendous. They wanted Orson Welles to run for the senate in Wisconsin. If he had run he would have been against McCarthy.
Maybe he should have.
That's what I think.
You've also directed some of the most beautiful actresses – Michelle Pfeiffer, Geena Davis, Audrey Tautou and now Gemma Arterton in Tamara Drewe...
One of us has had a tough life.
How do you keep from falling head over heels with your star?
I don't. I fall head over heels. I tie myself to the mast.
So your wife of 40 years is supportive of you being surrounded by all these beautiful women?
I have a good wife. She accepts them. It's a tough job I do, but somebody has to do it.
Tell me about Gemma Arterton, who plays Tamara Drewe. I remember her as a Bond Girl.
She's gorgeous. Very, very good actress. And she's really smart.
In your films, you have a way of making women incredibly sexy without having to take off their clothes. Instead, their weapons of seduction are often words, or just a look.
Thank you very much. Smart, in my book, is sexy.
Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Anjelica Houston, Geena Davis, Audrey Tautou, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench...
They're all smart. You have to be on your toes to keep up with them. They're highly charged, brilliant women. Sex is a part of their lives. That's all. I don't ever say, "Do something sexy." They just are sexy. And I find their minds very sexy.
What is it about Helen Mirren that you find so sexy?
Why not? Playing The Queen was the least sexy part she's ever done.
It's a far cry from Caligula.
I would of thought so. I hope so for the Queen's sake.
How was the feeling different being nominated in 1991 for The Grifters and then 16 years later for The Queen?
I don't remember it being different except that in 1991 nobody made a fuss about it where as by two-thousand-and-whatever the whole world went mad about those things. So I didn't change but the world changed.
What do you attribute that change to?
All you've done is talk to me about Oscars but in 1991 nobody talked to me about it. I mean, I was obviously very pleased on both occasions but now it's become this consuming event.
Is the title Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears a crown that wears heavy on your head?
It's not a title I use. No, no, no, no. It's just how the world changes. It's neither good nor bad.
High Fidelity was such a great book. Were you concerned that you might ruin it on film?
The truth is I knew people loved that book. So it seemed quite smart not to ruin it.
I think the movie is a classic.
Well, the first thing I did was to treat the book with respect. This is a very good piece of writing, this is a very good piece of work, let's treat it properly. Let's not piss all over it. Let's not think we can make a better film than the book.
This brings me to Tamara Drewe, which is a film adaptation of a long-running, beloved cartoon strip in London. Do you like the danger of taking on such well-known source material?
I don't really think about it. I knew moving the setting of High Fidelity to Chicago was very provocative but I knew from reading the script that it made no difference at all. But I knew everybody would think we made a terrible mistake. I like when the expectations are a bit defeated.
And what drew you—excuse the pun—to Tamara Drewe?
It was fresh. The idea of making the same films as everybody else doesn't interest me. It's the originality I like. Tamara Drewe was about England, it was about the middle-class, it was about the countryside. Things that people don't make films about.
Tamara Drewe is a story of lust.
Many of your films are focused around lust—Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, here in Tamara Drewe. Love, lust, scandal, adultery. Do you think that we're all ruled by our lustful desires?
I think some people are. I think I have been.
But you've been married nearly 40 years?
Sometimes the thing exists and you overcome it.
So just because you have the desires...
Doesn't mean you have to give into them. I choose not to.
I know you're next project is going to be about Las Vegas and gambling, but I have to ask you about one of the first films you made. It's a small gangster film called The Hit starring Terence Stamp, John Hurt and a terrific young Tim Roth. I think it's a hidden gem. Would you make something like that again?
We may do a remake of The Hit.
Wow. Exciting scoop. Who do you have in mind to play the Tim Roth character?
No, no, no. You're too early. It has to be written first.
There's no guarantee the American remake would be any good. Actually, it's likely it won't stand up against the original. Unless, of course, they get Stephen Frears to direct it.
Photos: Frears at the premiere of "Tamara Drewe" at Cannes in 2010 (Getty Images); the director with the cast of the film at Cannes (Getty Images); Frears with actress Michelle Pfeiffer at the Berlin Film Festival in 2009 (Getty Images); with director Martin Scorcese in 2003 (Getty Images); Frears in Sweden in 1989 promoting "Dangerous Liaisons" (Wikipedia)