In the American film industry, a cinematic failure will occasionally sink the career of a male director. When it comes to female filmmakers, however, one wrong move can effectively spell the end, or at least make their future path a much rockier one. There is no crueler example to be found than the literally-exploding-with-potential Lizzie Borden, whose first two indie films were groundbreaking feminist mini-landmarks. But when she “went Hollywood” with her third effort – and failed miserably and abjectly – Borden was never really given a second chance. Born Linda Elizabeth Borden, at the age of eleven the nascent director announced her desire to take the name of the notorious axe murderer Lizzie Borden, who killed her parents and inspired a grim children’s nursery rhyme. “At the time, my name was the best rebellion I could make,” Borden has said of her childhood need to kick against the pricks, which would also foreshadow her furious brand of filmmaking.
Initially dabbling in art and art criticism, Borden made the move to film, making her debut in 1976 with the experimental documentary Regrouping, which chronicled the inner workings of a women’s collective, and its ultimate dissolution. The film was barely seen (and is often not included on Borden’s resume), but its gritty aesthetic provided something of a stylistic framework for what was to come. The director’s true debut is often cited as 1983’s Born In Flames, which Borden made for just $30,000 over a stuttering five-year period. “Before ‘indie’ was a brand, it was sometimes called guerrilla filmmaking, and in Born In Flames, the feeling of a movie arising from its filmmaker’s fierce passion converges with its very subject,” wrote The New Yorker in 2016. Desperately in need of rediscovery in today’s political climate, the film is set in the near future – with America now a socialist state – and features a fractured women’s revolution against male oppression. Boasting fine performances from a cast of non-professionals (including a young Kathryn Bigelow), an energetic cut-up style that mixes fact with fiction, and a climax involving, yep, a bomb detonated in one of the World Trade Centre Towers, Born In Flames is truly incendiary cinema.
Borden backed it up beautifully in 1986 with Working Girls, another doco-style work, but this time far more settled in tone. With a cast of excellent unknowns, Borden simply and without fuss or affectation chronicles a day in the life of an upscale brothel in New York City, largely through the eyes of Molly (the wonderful Louise Smith), a lesbian whose partner is unaware of what she does for a living. The film shows the nuts-and-bolts workings of a brothel unlike any film before or since, and is incredibly sympathetic to the sex workers at its core, who deal with their often strange and difficult clients with a winning mix of tenderness, humour and understanding. “I was moved less by the movie’s conscious attempts at artistry than by its unadorned honesty,” wrote Roger Ebert upon the film’s release. “Lizzie Borden has created characters who seem close to life, and her movie helps explain why the world’s oldest profession is, despite everything, a profession.”
Working Girls was so good (and ultimately, despite its subject matter and gritty indie doco style, wholly accessible) that Borden was unsurprisingly handed the reins on a much bigger project, via a six-million-dollar budget and Allan Moyle’s script for the thriller Love Crimes, courtesy of famous indie headhunters Miramax. The story of a tough-minded DA (Sean Young) who gets caught up in the web of a con man and sexual predator (Patrick Bergin), Borden brought in screenwriter Laurie Frank (Making Mr. Right) to rework the material to her liking, but soon fell victim to the notorious brand of interference peddled by studio heads Harvey and Bob Weinstein in what was the fiefdom of Miramax. Scenes were removed, others were reshot, the tone was shifted, and the ending was changed; by the time that Love Crimes limped into cinemas, it was a different beast to that initially envisioned by Lizzie Borden. In short, the film was profoundly awful, and it died a quick death at the box office. It also tragically put the brakes on what was Lizzie Borden’s quickly accelerating film career. “I went to movie jail after I did this awful movie, Love Crimes,” Borden told Flavorwire in 2016. “I should have taken my name off it, but I was bullied into not taking my name off it. There are things in it that I didn’t shoot. It’s just not my movie, really.” There are many, many, many things to hate Harvey Weinstein for, and you can add the destruction of Love Crimes – and, in effect, Lizzie Borden’s career – to an already horribly elongated list.
Since Love Crimes, Borden has only directed in a disappointingly piecemeal fashion, contributing the segment “Let’s Talk About Sex” (starring a young Bryan Cranston!) to the steamy 1994 portmanteau film Erotique, and helming episodes of TV’s Red Shoe Diaries and Silk Stalkings, along with content for The Playboy Channel. Currently sitting on a script called Rialto (which is about a female abortionist in the 1950s, and was very nearly made with Susan Sarandon back in 2001) and directing for the theatre, as well as getting work as a script doctor, Lizzie Borden remains in career purgatory, and it’s a damn shame. There is, however, hope, and Lizzie Borden is thankfully still out there. “I’ve told myself that if I come back, it has to be with something that I really believe in, something like Rialto or some TV pilots that I wrote about citizen journalism or Ana Mendieta…things with real substance,” the director told Cinema Scope. “Most stuff that comes along just isn’t worth doing. If people haven’t heard of you for a while, they think you aren’t doing anything, but you have to stay optimistic. Use that Susan Sontag ‘aesthetics of silence’ argument, and stay quiet until you have something to say.”
Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls will be released soon by Criterion. If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.