At a time when substantive roles for actresses over 40 remain scarce, the British director Stephen Frears continues to make movies spotlighting heroines of a certain age.
Under his direction, Helen Mirren won the 2007 best actress Oscar for playing Elizabeth II in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in “The Queen”; Judi Dench portrayed a widow-turned-impresario in “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (2005); Angelica Huston received an Academy Award nomination for her turn as a swindler in “The Grifters” and Glenn Close was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as a scheming aristocrat in “Dangerous Liaisons.”
Exactly 20 years after that period drama, Frears — who learned only in his 20s that he was Jewish — has reunited with “Liaisons” co-star Michelle Pfeiffer, now 51, for another French period drama, “Chéri.” The tragicomedy, which opens June 26, is based on Colette’s 1920s novel about an aging courtesan who embarks upon a doomed love affair with the spoiled son of a former rival, played by a robustly bitchy Kathy Bates. “Chéri” marks Pfeiffer’s first leading role in a film to hit theaters since “White Oleander” in 2002.
In a phone interview from London, Frears, 67, is by turns irascible, self-deprecating, droll and evasive, but he is very direct when asked about his penchant for commanding, mature heroines. “My mother was a very powerful woman, [emotionally powerful], and I was essentially alone with her for the first eight years of my life,” said Frears, whose older brothers were away at school while their father was off at war and then medical school.
“My mother was rather an outsider who wanted to be an insider, to live a respectable life,” he said.
Frears’ mum, Ruth (née Danziger), was a former social worker and doctor’s wife active on charitable committees and in the Church of England. But she was born Jewish in Manchester, a heritage she kept secret from the future director and much of the family.
Stephen Frears only learned the truth at his grandmother’s 90th birthday party, which took place when he was a newlywed, in his late 20s. “A [guest] remarked how pleased our grandmother was that I had married a Jewish girl — and that our mother was Jewish,” the director recalled. Frears was stunned. “I had been taken to church by my Jewish mother,” he said. But Ruth never would discuss the matter and took her reasons to her grave when she died of a heart attack around the age of 70 in 1971. The filmmaker interprets her denial, in part, as a response to British anti-Semitism. “But I never got to the bottom of it,” he said.
His mother could at times be intimidating, “rather, I’m afraid, like Mrs. Thatcher,” he once told The Independent, referring to the British prime minister. “She had that same tone in her voice. Well, of course, it frightened me — just as it frightened Mrs. Thatcher’s cabinet. It drove me into a sort of — well, it didn’t produce the results my mother wanted.”
“I wasn’t a very good son,” he said in his gravelly voice over the phone. Frears describes himself as having been a dour, anti-social child, who went off to study law at Cambridge because the men in his family were professionals. He found the pursuit so boring that he gave it up to pursue a more fervent interest, the movies.
Ruth Frears died before her son ever made a movie, but his career choice, “would have driven her mad,” he said. “It would have troubled her enormously. She’d be worrying when I was going to get a proper job.”
As it turned out, Frears has become one of the current cinema’s greatest living directors, with two Oscar nominations and a resume of more than 30 films under his belt. His movies cross every genre and include the doomed gay romance “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985), which introduced the actor Daniel Day-Lewis; the frothy comedy “High Fidelity,” starring John Cusack; 2001’s “Liam” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” which explored Frears’ Jewish roots by touching upon themes of anti-Semitism; and “Dangerous Liaisons,” which had launched the director’s American career in 1988.
“It was a bit liberating when I realized what a Jewish industry Hollywood was,” Frears recalled. “For the first time I was working amongst Jews, and I remember Dustin Hoffman was very interesting the whole time we were making ‘Accidental Hero’ [in the early 1990s, which was titled ‘Hero’ in the United States], and people would suddenly take off on Jewish holidays, something I would never come across in Britain.
“I’m not at all religious,” he continued, “but it’s rather reassured me being Jewish, made sense of things, that sense of being an outsider from conventional English society.”
Frears’ affinity for marginalized but stalwart heroines — his mother’s legacy — “is very noticeable in my work,” including “Chéri,” he said. He took on the project when his longtime collaborator, screenwriter Christopher Hampton, who won an Oscar for “Dangerous Liaisons,” approached him with a script he had adapted from two Colette novels, including the semiautobiographical “Chéri.” Colette was a put-upon woman, if there ever was one: “She was married to this dreadful man who took her books and published them under his own name,” Frears said. “Then she had to escape him and ended up working in the music halls.”
The film, which so far has received both positive and mixed reviews, revolves around a courtesan (read: prostitute), Léa de Lonval, in the decadent Paris of La Belle Époque, when beautiful women could amass fortunes by seducing powerful men, but nevertheless remained outcast from polite society. Pfeiffer’s Léa falls in love with the titular youth Chéri (Rupert Friend) against her better judgment, and is devastated when he is married off to an 18-year-old virgin after their passionate six-year affair.
Pfeiffer, who is still a beauty at 51, did not balk at makeup and lighting that emphasizes her age; Frears himself is less graceful about the lines and wrinkles that crease his visage.
“It’s tough growing old,” he said. “It’s upsetting, just looking in the mirror and wondering ‘What happened?’
“I find that women deal with it better than men,” he said. “All the women around me who are of a certain age suddenly become rather happy. Of course I only know very strong women.”
“Chéri” opens on June 26.