Unsung Auteurs: Maggie Greenwald

April 8, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: powerful feminist voice Maggie Greenwald.

“I have sometimes been labelled a ‘political’ or ‘feminist’ filmmaker,” Maggie Greenwald replied when asked in 2016 about the greatest misconception that she had experienced with regards to her work. “While I am both, that is not the original intent of my work. My first interest and passion is to tell the story of a particular woman, her journey of freeing herself from society’s constraints, and realising her dreams or self.”

Maggie Greenwald

Though her name is far from instantly recognisable, 65-year-old Maggie Greenwald is one of the most gifted and daring female filmmakers currently working, and while her feature film resume is disappointingly brief, it’s studded solely with cinematic diamonds. You have to scratch away a little, however, to find them. Like so many talented female filmmakers, Greenwald has had a tough time getting her work on the big screen, and has instead focused her considerable artistic talent on small screen projects, directing episodes of popular TV shows like Madam Secretary and Nashville, as well as a host of television movies. And while the likes of 2011’s Good Morning, Killer, 2003’s Tempted (a steamy romance featuring a young Jason Momoa), 2002’s Get A Clue (with a pre-downfall Lindsay Lohan) and 2001’s What Makes A Family (a legal drama with Brooke Shields) are solid small screen fare, they don’t come close to the deeply idiosyncratic and often near-radical big screen indies that have seen Greenwald showered with critical praise and regular festival slots around the world.

Loretta Gross in The Kill-Off.

After debuting in 1987 with the barely released comedy Home Remedy, Maggie Greenwald delivered one of the best indie crime dramas of the 1980s with the pitch black and wonderfully downbeat The Kill-Off, which tracks a host of warped and battered losers in a wintry New Jersey resort town. Starring a brilliant cast of unknowns and fetid with corruption and desperation, this grimly funny scorcher kick-started a fascinating run of adaptations of the work of American pulp novelist Jim Thompson, which included The Grifters (1990), After Dark, My Sweet (1990) and The Getaway (1994). Though those films scored more attention, Greenwald’s was perhaps most in tune with the cult author’s grubby sensibility and deep, skin-splitting brand of nihilism.

Maggie Greenwald, Ian McKellen and Suzy Amis on the set of The Ballad Of Little Jo.

Her next film, however, remains her best. 1993’s The Ballad Of Little Jo bristles with the same kind of burnished brilliance that made Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller so unforgettable. A western like no other, the film stars a career-best Suzy Amis as Jo Monaghan, a young woman abandoned by her family who disguises herself as a man and sets out to make a new life for herself in the wild (and largely god-awful) west. Poetically written and visually stunning, the film tackles issues of identity and discrimination that are perhaps even more relevant today, and showcased a filmmaker of true originality. “After I made The Ballad Of Little Jo, I was labelled a feminist filmmaker and I didn’t like it – it was actually kind of a death knell for my career, in spite of the acclaim the film got,” Greenwald told Filmmaker Magazine in 2017. “I didn’t make a feature for seven years after that. There were a number of factors to that – among other things, the fashion of the time was white boy violence and mayhem after the rise of Tarantino – but over time I realised that just the very nature of making a film about a woman where she’s not solely defined through her romantic relationships made me a political filmmaker.”

Aidan Quinn and Janet McTeer in Songcatcher.

The aforementioned seven-year wait yielded 2000’s Songcatcher, which showcased the majestic talents of Janet McTeer (Tumbleweeds), who stars as Doctor Lily Penleric, a brilliant musicologist who travels deep into America’s mountain country in 1907 to document its long history of music making and oral storytelling. The film was true to the gritty feminist spirit that Greenwald had been heralded for (largely against her will) with The Ballad Of Little Jo, and boasted the same kind of rugged rural poetry, signalling a true auteurist talent. This, unfortunately, would take thirteen years to manifest itself again, as Greenwald moved back onto the big screen after a host of television projects with 2013’s The Last Keepers. A family based fantasy flick, it drifted far from Greenwald’s first two films, and is more in line with the director’s television work.

Maggie Greenwald on the set of Sophie And The Rising Sun.

Greenwald met the promise of her first two features with 2016’s Sophie And The Rising Sun, a romantic drama pulsing with political and social commentary. Set in 1941, the films stars Julianne Nicholson as Sophie, a fisherwoman who falls in love with Grover Ohta (Takashi Yamaguchi), a Japanese-American gardener who arrives in Sophie’s small Southern town after being dealt a savage, racially driven beating. Their relationship soon sets the town into a destructive spin, especially as America’s role in WW2 starts to escalate. It’s a tough film, but also a deeply romantic one. “The film is based on a novel of the same name,” Greenwald told Women And Hollywood in 2016. “As always, I fell in love with the powerful and compelling women characters, and the deep, complex relationships between them. I was also very interested in the way we see women fighting for their beliefs on their own terms. I’d like audiences to think about how unfortunately relevant this story is. Despite the intense racism that still pervades our society, we’ve become more accepting of interracial relationships. However, as a society we are still afraid of outsiders or people we believe are different. Our government did horrible things to Japanese-Americans seventy years ago, yet the same conversation is going on today about Muslim-Americans.”

Maggie Greenwald and Takashi Yamaguchi on the set of Sophie And The Rising Sun.

Passionate about politics and female characters, Maggie Greenwald might not be a hot new director setting the world on fire, but she’s doing what many creatives can only talk about: working steadily in a highly competitive field while also getting her own deeply personal, beautifully made and socially significant films completed and in front of audiences. Maggie Greenwald is a filmmaker to savour.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson and Tamara Jenkins


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