Unsung Auteurs: Tamara Jenkins

March 25, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: the deeply humanist Tamara Jenkins.

The stats don’t lie: female filmmakers have a tough time not only breaking into the industry and getting their first film made, but then continuing to forge on with new projects. Despite achieving great critical acclaim and solid box office, many female filmmakers are far less prolific than their male counterparts, often through no lack of effort and perseverance. One such talent is writer/director Tamara Jenkins, who has three terrific films to her credit, but should rightfully boast a far lengthier resume. Her films are funny, wise, insightful and deeply personal, and we’d all be richer for it if there was more work from her to enjoy.

Natasha Lyonne in Slums Of Beverly Hills.

58-year-old Tamara Jenkins first came to world attention in 1998 with her debut feature, Slums Of Beverly Hills, a semi-autobiographical story about a poor Jewish family being shunted from one fringe Beverly Hills address to another in search of quality schooling. The film won critical acclaim and is now a minor cult classic. With that film, Jenkins demonstrated an ability to deal with dark subject matter with devastating wit, and mined much of her own life for the film’s subject matter. Despite the film’s positive press, Jenkins didn’t deliver a follow-up until 2007 with The Savages. “A combination of things caused the delay,” Jenkins told FilmInk upon the release of the film. “Making a movie was a huge transition for me. I went from being a weird performance arts person to making my first feature in a studio environment, and it wasn’t a natural transition. I’ve become better at it, but it wasn’t easy. I had to try and regain my balance, and figure out what I wanted to be doing after Slums Of Beverly Hills. Then I got lost in various misadventures.”

Tamara Jenkins on the set of The Savages.

A true original, The Savages is the tartly funny tale of two adult siblings. Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) is a frustrated playwright who temps for a living. Her brother, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is a neurotic college professor writing books on obscure subjects. Their lives are put in freefall when they get the call that their father (Philip Bosco) has dementia. Suddenly, Wendy and Jon are forced to put their already arrested lives on hold and live under one roof, while trying to figure out what’s best for the man they’ve been estranged from for most of their adult lives. The film won rave reviews, and scored two Oscar nominations: Best Actress for Laura Linney and Best Original Screenplay for Jenkins.

Tamara Jenkins on the set of The Savages.

The Savages was born out of those aforementioned misadventures. Frustrated with all the dead ends (she had spent many years working on a biopic about American photographer Diane Arbus), Jenkins began putting her energies into theatre projects with friends. She found it “cathartic” to do “weird performance pieces about my family” in fringe theatres along the East Coast. “I told this story about taking my dad, who was suffering from dementia, on a plane cross-country,” she told FilmInk in 2007. “And the audience response was amazing. People could really relate to it, so that’s where the story began to become something that seemed significant to me. Nobody I knew had a parent dying of old age. I was only in my thirties, and I remember a real sense of isolation. But now ten years later, everyone around me is dealing with the diminishing health of their parents. It’s become even more relevant. I’ve definitely adapted things from my own experience and from stories that my friends have told me. When you write, you’re greedy, desperate and hungry – you’re grabbing things from all over the place.”

Tamara Jenkins and Kayli Carter on the set of Private Life.

Tamara Jenkins’ next film was even more personal, and it took even longer to make it to the screen than her previous one, despite the heat that had bubbled around The Savages and its subsequent Oscar nomination. 2018’s Private Life stars the brilliant Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as a middle aged couple whose marriage starts to stagger and shake when they endeavour to have children through IVF and other means. Like her previous two films, Private Life is stunningly honest and authentic, and deeply personal, with Jenkins looking to her own struggle to start a family with her partner, screenwriter Jim Taylor (Election, Sideways), for inspiration. “You take something that’s personal and has an autobiographical element to it,” Jenkins told Vulture in 2018, “and then fiction takes over and you’re at the mercy of the narrative demands of whatever you’re doing, and you make shit up.”

Tamara Jenkins with Paul Giamatti on the set of Private Life.

That ability to meld fact with fiction has resulted in three fine films from a writer/director with a true sense of personal vision. Tamara Jenkins clearly has a knack for crafting bittersweet stories out of difficult subject matter, and trades in topics that people normally don’t want to discuss, let alone pay money to watch in the cinema. The fact that her films end up resonating deeply with audiences is a testament to her skill as a storyteller. “I understand that if I made a certain kind of movie it would make life a lot easier and I’d get to work a lot more,” she laughs. “But if you have an interest in something that’s not Hollywood – something that’s challenging and that has rough edges – then it’s a lot harder. But that’s what interests me. And if I only get to make one movie a decade, then my plan is to make movies that I want to see.”

If you liked this story, check out our features on fellow unsung auteur Stewart Raffill and other great female directors.


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