Unsung Auteurs: Joyce Chopra

November 25, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: vital feminist pioneer Joyce Chopra, who directed the 1985 cult wonder Smooth Talk.

The art of confessional storytelling is now so profoundly prevalent – not just in film and literature, but now even much more so in the sea of over-sharing that is social media – that it’s difficult to believe that it hasn’t always been there. People have not always been so prepared to lay themselves bare, but one of the first was unquestionably filmmaker Joyce Chopra, who initially made her own life the subject of a ground-breaking documentary with 1972’s Joyce At 34. A vital piece of feminist filmmaking, the 27-minute doco is a revealing self-portrait in which Chopra captures herself at an important crossroads in her life: enjoying a burgeoning career in documentary filmmaking, Chopra is also pregnant, and must navigate a life now rippled with decisions that must be made.

“The idea was suggested when I was about eight months pregnant by a friend who was a sociologist teaching at Harvard,” Chopra explained to Brooklyn in 2016. “I don’t know why she was interested in this, but she said, ‘Oh you should document the question: Would your relationship with your mother change when you become a mother?’ And I said, ‘Oh please, that is the most narcissistic idea.’ You can’t make a film about yourself because I’d never seen anything like it. And I thought about it a bit and I thought, ‘Well, it is a good idea.’ So I enlisted the help of a young woman who was then a senior at Radcliffe, [future filmmaker] Claudia Weill. Claudia borrowed a camera from her then-boyfriend and we proceeded to make the movie. I didn’t really know what we’d be doing, other than we’ll start with filming the birth of the baby and then see how it goes. Then it evolved much more [into] how to be a working mother.”

Joyce Chopra being filmed by Claudia Weill for Joyce At 34.

Though rarely referenced today, Joyce At 34 remains an essential artefact in the long and still going conversation around the intersection of work, motherhood and personal identity. It’s also an engaging, honest and deeply moving look at early parenthood. It was Joyce Chopra’s first major work after a fascinating early life in which she had opened the essential early 1960s Boston music venue Club 47, which had played host to iconic talents like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Chopra then moved into filmmaking, working in various capacities with cinema verite pioneers D.A Pennebaker and Ricky Leacock, before eventually making her mark with Joyce At 34.

From there, Chopra would continue to break new ground with a number of fascinating short documentaries that delved into the lives of teenage girls and young women, decades before they would document themselves on TikTok and YouTube. The films are richly varied: 1975’s Girls At 12 follows a group of twelve‐year‐old girls in a middle‐class New England neighbourhood; Clorae And Albie, explores the lives of two young black women in vivid detail; 1978’s That Our Children Would Not Die charts the health care crisis in impoverished Nigeria and its effect on women and children; and 1980’s Martha Clarke: Light & Dark is a portrait of the eponymous dance choreographer.

Laura Dern and Treat Williams in Smooth Talk.

After so effectively examining the lives of young women in her documentaries, Joyce Chopra stayed the course for her extraordinary 1985 fictional feature debut Smooth Talk, an expert adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (Chopra’s screenwriter husband, Tom Cole, brilliantly reshaped it for the screen) that boasts the brilliant Laura Dern at a key moment in her early career, fresh from Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask and just prior to 1986’s Blue Velvet with David Lynch. Though filled with sunlight and youthful promise, Smooth Talk is also driven by a looming sense of fear and threat, as Dern’s preternaturally flirtatious fifteen-year-old is preyed upon by Treat Williams’ leery innocence slayer. The film is a stunning examination of burgeoning sexuality and its corruption, and announced Joyce Chopra as a director of real gifts, with Smooth Talk taking out the Grand Jury prize at The Sundance Film Festival.

“I’ve always been interested in teenage girls,” Chopra told Another upon Smooth Talk’s DVD restoration in 2020. “I had made a documentary called Girls At 12. I spent many months following three best friends at 12 years old, as they go into their high school as freshmen. They changed so much during that one year. They became so boy crazy. So it’s a subject near to my heart. Joyce’s short story was in a collection of stories. My husband [Tom Cole] was a short story writer, so I was reading that [particular] collection. It haunted me when I read it. It stayed in my brain for many, many years. I always wanted to do picture films, but I didn’t know how to go about it. I didn’t know any women who were doing it; it didn’t occur to me to go to Hollywood to do it. I produced a play of my husbands for public television, and the people who were producing it said, ‘You know, if you come to us with an idea for a screenplay and you wanna direct it, we’ll produce it.’ That was amazing. And right before that, a director friend of mine challenged me to stop talking about being a director and go out and option a story. And I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll call Joyce Carol Oates’ agent, because she’ll know who Tom Cole is from the short story collection’. And I optioned it for 5,000 dollars! So that’s how it came about. I never forgot that story. It’s so strong, and dark.”

Joyce Chopra

Though Smooth Talk is now unfairly unrecognised as one of the best looks at adolescence from the 1980s (a decade famed for its teen flicks), it was strongly received upon its release, which makes the four-year gap until Chopra’s a next film a surprise. While Smooth Talk was a stunning look at youth, 1989’s The Lemon Sisters looks at three adult women (Diane Keaton, Carol Kane and Kathryn Grody) struggling with everything that life has thrown at them. Bonding as the eponymous Atlantic City singing group, they are now all at a loss, in strikingly different ways. A singular female-centric film in the 1980s (“A movie starring three women and directed by another is so rare in macho-or-die Hollywood that The Lemon Sisters deserves credit just for being made,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers in an otherwise unflattering review), The Lemon Sisters was savaged by reviewers and fared worse at the box office, and very sadly effectively ended Joyce Chopra’s big screen career.

Since the film’s disastrous failure (many, many, many male directors, however, have been permitted by Hollywood to bounce back from far worse), Joyce Chopra has worked solely in television, directing episodes of TV series like Crossing Jordan, Law & Order, and Everwood, as well as a host of television films that range from the tawdry (the Jackie Collins adaptation Hollywood Wives: The New Generation, the call girl story, LA Johns) and the curious (the Gene Wilder penned and starring Murder In A Small Town) to the rock-solid (a mini-series adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ Marilyn Monroe novel, Blonde) and the warmly engaging (An American Girl On The Homefront). Joyce Chopra’s occasional return to short, youth-focused documentary filmmaking (2008’s Gramercy Stories, 2015’s The Dream Lives On), however, showcase a director – now in her eighties – who still burns with a passion to tell meaningful stories.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Mike Newell, Gina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.


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