Though often maligned, the world of music videos has been a great gift to feature filmmaking. Sure, many believe that this short form brand of filmmaking floats on a constant current of style-over-substance, but without it, we would never have been excitingly privy to the extraordinary cinematic visions of Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Russell Mulcahy, Richard Lowenstein, Anton Corbijn, Michel Gondry, Jonathan Glazer, and many, many more. Quite a few Unsung Auteurs have also sprung forth from this world, including the always compelling and criminally under-appreciated Mary Lambert, who has crafted a lengthy career in genre and against-the-grain filmmaking.
Mary Lambert was born far, far away from the key bases of the American film industry in 1951 in Helena, Arkansas, the daughter of Martha Kelly and Jordan Bennett Lambert III, a rice and cotton farmer. While her family has an interesting position in public life (her younger sister is former US Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas), Mary Lambert certainly wasn’t born into filmmaking, and had originally dreamed of becoming a painter. She eventually graduated from the prestigious Rhode Island School Of Design, and from there moved into the heady world of music video production in the 1980s.
A rare, pioneering female voice in the exploding, MTV-inspired industry, Lambert crafted a series of stylish, energetic and often strikingly artful music videos for some of the world’s most popular artists, including Chris Isaak, Janet Jackson, Annie Lennox, Mick Jagger, The Go-Go’s, Whitney Houston, Mötley Crüe, Queensrÿche, Sting, Simply Red and Debbie Harry. Most importantly, Lambert was essential in helping superstar Madonna establish her indelible visual image via the artist’s now iconic music videos for “Borderline”, “Like a Virgin”, “Material Girl”, “La Isla Bonita”, and the highly controversial “Like a Prayer”, which was designed to push buttons. “We wanted to take certain things that are a given or a convention and say, why couldn’t it be this?” Lambert has said of the classic video. “Why couldn’t Jesus be black? Why can’t sexual ecstasy be equated with religious ecstasy? Is it wrong to enjoy sex? Is it wrong to enjoy prayer, for that matter? Why does it have to be a dull or confining thing? I knew there was going to be some controversy but I wasn’t prepared for how much. It was fun.”
While forging ahead with great success in the world of music video, Mary Lambert directed her first feature film with 1987’s dreamy, hypnotic Siesta, an adaptation of Patrice Chaplin’s novel. “I picked up the script in Annie Lennox’s dressing room,” Lambert explained to The Last Miles. “Patricia Louisianna Knop was the writer and had sent it to Annie. I was doing a lot of music videos and hanging out a lot and having a great time in my life! I fell in love with the script, which was very unusual. The narrative is very emotional and very non-linear and that was what always appealed to me about music video work: the ability to fracture a narrative and leave it open for different interpretations. Because I was sort of a hot young director at the time, my agent was pushing me to find a movie project and of course she was completely appalled when I chose Siesta! It was not as commercial a project as it could have been! But I became obsessed with doing the movie. It was a difficult project to birth but we did it. A lot of creative people were really drawn of the project because of the nature of the story.”
A true 1980s curio in the absolute best sense of the term, Siesta boasts a truly eccentric supporting cast utterly particular to that decade (Julian Sands, Gabriel Byrne, Jodie Foster, Isabelle Rossellini, Grace Jones), while the underrated Ellen Barkin is stunning in the title role of Claire, an American skydiver lost, bewildered and unaware of who she even is in the Spanish desert. Incredibly stylish, highly visual, near-hypnotic and very, very strange, Siesta plays out like a twisted cinematic tone poem, and highlighted Mary Lambert’s gifts for unconventional and visually based storytelling. “The film had some very positive responses, but it wasn’t a big financial success,” Lambert told Filmmaker Magazine. “It was nominated for the Best First Feature Award at The Independent Spirit Awards, and it screened at The Edinburgh Film Festival. The film was an attempt to do something different with narrative, to tell a story in a nonlinear way. In that respect, I think it was a little ahead of its time. I think it’s been copied…a lot of people have copied elements of it.”
While still highly active in the world of music video, Lambert shifted gears dramatically with her second film. Her 1987 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary was a striking detour into the horror genre. This creepy, expertly tailored tale of creatures unwisely raised from the dead was a sizeable hit, and an excellent distillation of Stephen King’s concerns into cinematic form. Though seemingly outside of Lambert’s artistic wheelhouse, Pet Sematary was personal for the director. “I could just see it the way I was able to see fairy tales when I was a little girl,” Lambert told The LA Times. “How this beautiful family would have this beautiful, idyllic house, but under the surface, there would be this horror because of bad decisions made. It was also the idea of obsession and obsessive love, which is what Siesta was about. And I do believe in hauntings. When a spirit lingers, it’s because the spirit can’t move on, and that’s real for me.”
The success of Pet Sematary set Mary Lambert up with a seemingly surprising sideline career as a horror and thriller director. She returned for the 1992 sequel Pet Sematary II, and has delivered the scares and thrills on a whole host of films, many for the small screen, including the likes of Face Of Evil (1996), My Stepson, My Lover (1997), The In-Crowd (2000), Urban Legends: Bloody Mary (2005), The Attic (2007), Mega Python Vs Gatoroid (2011) and Presumed Dead In Paradise (2014). Lambert also directed the excellent 1999 music-themed drama Clubland. All the while, however, Lambert was endeavouring to tell female stories. “My career is really littered with the projects I wanted to do that were about women,” Lambert told The LA Times. “They all got thrown back at me because most of the time it was like, ‘We can’t do this with a female protagonist.’”
While she managed to do that with 1991’s sadly forgotten Grand Isle – her strong adaptation of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, in which Kelly McGillis plays a way-ahead-of-her-time proto-feminist – Mary Lambert has spent much of her time working in episodic television, crafting fine episodes of shows like The Black List, Arrow, The Goldbergs and Law & Order. A superb purveyor of on-screen horror and suspense, but also a highly poetic and unconventional director, we hope that the seismic gender shift experienced by Hollywood lately might see Mary Lambert allowed to tell more of her female driven stories…
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.