#DirectedByWomen “Not Ready to Back Down”: Barbara Kopple’s Unshakeable Celebrity Subjects

“My style of filmmaking is very much to let the people speak. I’m filming them because you haven’t heard these people,” explained filmmaker Barbara Kopple in 1992 on her approach to making documentaries. Then 46, she’d been the sole director on only three features. All were about workers’ unions, and she’d won Oscars for two: Harlan County, U.S.A. in 1976, and American Dream in 1991.

Kopple thus began her career as a documentarian making films about capital-I Important issues. She seemed particularly interested in juxtaposing the struggles of working-class Americans with the comfortable lives of the uber-wealthy who call the same country home. Looking through her extensive and always-growing filmography – the 72-year-old still averages a film a year – it’s clear that her affinity for people at the bottom has never faltered. But beginning in the 1990s, as she continued to make these sorts of explicitly political films, she also began to dabble in celebrity portraiture.

Documentary portraits of celebrities come to exist for myriad reasons, and serve different purposes depending on whether, and to what extent, the subject is involved in their production. Posthumous documentaries, like this year’s McQueen or Gilda, often chronicle a star’s ascent to fame, and later their deterioration and/or death. A star may wish to set the record straight about something in their personal or professional life – like a series of rumours, as with Beyoncé’s Life is But a Dream (2013), or the dissolution of a marriage, as with Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012) – to help control the narrative being created around it. Occasionally, the subject has a filmmaker in their inner circle who convinces them to open up on camera, as Griffin Dunne did for his 2017 portrait of his aunt, Joan Didion. And, on a more basic level, there might just be enormous commercial potential in telling the star’s story.

Kopple’s celebrity portraits don’t fall neatly into any of the above categories. Having roots in vérité – she got her start working with the Maysles brothers, of Grey Gardens (1975) and Gimme Shelter (1970) fame – her strength is in following subjects around while they’re at their most active. She might do so for years and “never worries whether the work might be timely or timeless,” suggesting that she’s not here to help them save face during a scandal or necessarily influence public opinion of them. It would also be entirely inaccurate to classify her work as cash-grabby – she’s as likely to profile a local activist as she is a global superstar. (Regarding her personal relationships to her subjects, the only “in” I’m aware of is that Kopple served as a mentor to Cecilia Peck, daughter of Gregory, which likely helped in Kopple’s making of In Conversation with Gregory Peck in 1999.)

For her first attempts at celebrity portraiture, Kopple profiled two controversial figures of the 1990s: Mike Tyson and Woody Allen. This wasn’t to absolve them of their bad behaviour but to fill in the parts of their stories that needed filling in. With Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson (1993), made and released while Tyson was serving a six-year sentence for rape (though he was ultimately released after three), Kopple highlights how racism played a role in coverage of the trial and devotes substantial screen time to Desiree Washington, whom Tyson was convicted of assaulting. And in Wild Man Blues, the film that has Kopple following Woody Allen’s 1996 jazz-band tour through Europe, she affords Soon-Yi Previn – known for little more than her name and the scandal attached to it – an actual voice, through which Previn reveals a surprisingly strong personality.

But with the new millennium, Kopple’s celebrity portraits begin to look a little different. Though still centring on the rich and famous, they more closely resemble the films she got her start making – the ones about weary coal miners and underpaid meatpackers. As Patrick Mullen wrote earlier this year, these newer films have a way of “looking beyond the success stories of their subjects and finding greater interest in the social forces that fuel [their] fires.”

On March 13th, 2003, a week before the United States began its invasion of Iraq, the Dixie Chicks were in London for the first show of their Top of the World Tour. While introducing “Travelin’ Soldier,” lead singer Natalie Maines took a moment to set the record straight for their English fans: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

It’s fair to say that Maines’s comment cleanly divided (more like cleaved) the group’s career into two parts: before “the incident” (to use their own lingo), and after it. Within days, the chart-topping band became the subject of national scorn. To country music fans – a historically conservative group – the Dixie Chicks epitomized all things ungrateful and unpatriotic. Radio stations refused to play their music (“It’d simply be financial suicide”), the ones that did were met with complaints from listeners, and many of the group’s shows were picketed.

Rather than recede and apologize, however, as is the norm with celebrity “gaffes,” the group doubled down on the comment, leaning into the controversy. As Maines declares in Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing (2006), “Now that we have fucked ourselves anyway, I think we have a responsibility… to continue to fuck ourselves.” Her comment exemplifies the resoluteness that characterizes Kopple’s subjects – this sense of having a backbone, of following through. When conservative pundits argued that it was especially offensive for Maines to make her anti-Bush comment on foreign soil, she responded, “I said it there ‘cause that’s where I was.”

Shut Up & Sing was Kopple’s first celebrity portrait of the aughts. It jumps between 2003, when the comment was made, and 2005, as the Dixie Chicks record Taking the Long Way, their first studio album since becoming country music’s most hated band. Throughout, the group is unyielding, continuing to steer their sinking ship instead of jumping overboard. In a particularly harrowing scene, they get ready for their Dallas show after receiving a credible threat that Maines will be shot dead if they go onstage. She somehow remains the calmest of the three, and after upping security measures at the venue, they move ahead with the performance.

By the time Taking the Long Way was released, Bush’s approval rating was way down, with 59% of Americans calling the war in Iraq a mistake. Kopple and Peck give us a montage of various cable news networks discussing the war’s senselessness. “You guys were absolutely right,” Howard Stern tells the Dixie Chicks on his radio show. The film ends back at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London in 2006, where the incident occurred three years prior. “We’ve returned to the scene of the crime,” Maines says, as the crowd goes wild. “But all week, um, the only thing people keep asking is, ‘What are you gonna say? Do you know what you’re gonna say?’ And… as usual, I didn’t plan anything, but I thought I’d just say something brand new and just say: Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”

Kopple wouldn’t put out another celebrity portrait until 2013, when she finally found a subject whose stubbornness equaled that of Maines and the Dixie Chicks: actress and mental health advocate Mariel Hemingway. Running from Crazy details the Hemingway family’s history of mental illness and suicide. Besides the Kennedys, the Hemingways are known as “the other American family that had this horrible ‘curse.’”

Mariel, the youngest child of Ernest Hemingway’s son, Jack, explains to a support group that she’s “always kind of been running from crazy.” When she and her daughter, Langley, attend a ceremony for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, they’re asked to take a string of beads for each loved one they’ve lost to suicide. Mariel takes seven, each for a separate Hemingway.

In a sense, Kopple finished the film that the late Margaux Hemingway – Mariel’s older sister and fellow actress – had started making about the family in the early 1980s. Prior to her own suicide in 1996, Margaux was obsessed with learning more about their grandfather, filming interviews with his friends and visiting the places he’d loved and written about. Ernest died three months before Mariel’s birth, and her family’s famed legacy has always burdened her. But despite having to manage her own mental health issues – she tells us of her struggles with depression, along with her history of disordered eating and compulsive exercising – she’s taken it upon herself to do everything she can for mental health awareness.

This idea of running from impending doom is what unites Mariel and the late Sharon Jones, the next celebrity subject in Kopple’s filmography. Jones, a soul and funk singer, is diagnosed with stage II pancreatic cancer at the beginning of Miss Sharon Jones! (2015), but takes her diagnosis as yet another speedbump in a challenging life. She was the only one of six kids to finish high school, worked as a corrections officer at Rikers Island, and then “told she was too dark, too short” to make it in music. In one remarkable scene, she receives news that her brother has died moments before having to go onstage. She takes a minute to compose herself, then begins the show as scheduled: “Sure, there’s death, but… people came to see us. The show must go on.”

The film follows Jones as she puts out an album and prepares for a tour – “a reason to get better,” as her manager says. When she does vocalize that she’s “scared,” it’s in reference to her upcoming work schedule, and not her ailing health.

Beginning with Shut Up & Sing, Kopple’s celebrity portraits have remained stories of women dealing with the hands they’ve been dealt. Most recently, she profiled Gigi Gorgeous, chronicling her childhood as a pre-Olympic level diver; her initial coming out as “Gregory Gorgeous,” the YouTube-famous gay teenager; and her second coming out as a trans woman in 2012. This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous (2017) differs slightly from Kopple’s previous films in terms of style – instead of the usual vérité, it’s mostly comprised of Gigi’s own footage, both from her YouTube channel and personal logs.

“YouTube was a creative outlet for me,” Gigi tells us. By 18, the Toronto-born influencer was making tens of thousands of dollars a month as Gregory. She organized meet-ups (I attended one in 2011) and spoke candidly about being an LGBTQ+ youth, which made the channel popular with other queer teenagers, especially closeted ones. “For what it’s worth, here is me with my arms wide open. I will embrace any of you,” proclaims Gigi in one of her older videos.

When her mother died in 2012, she “decided right then and there that I wanted to be a girl.” Gigi’s father has had the most trouble with her transition, but she’s never made herself smaller around him or waited for him to catch up. Her father, brothers, and manager are the only talking heads in the film – Gigi has long shared what she wishes to through self-filmed videos, so those are largely what Kopple pulls from.

Gigi is the latest in Kopple’s string of staunch, unwavering celebrity subjects. Even in her early films, about working-class men and traditionally masculine subject matter, she pays special attention to the women in these stories whom other filmmakers might overlook. The Dixie Chicks opted to get louder when ordered to “shut up and sing,” with Maines going so far as to repeat the comment she’d received death threats over. Hemingway and Jones made it their missions to follow through with their lives’ work, even in the face of health challenges, loss, abuse, and – in Jones’s case – misogynoir. Gigi Gorgeous came out as trans while in the public eye and amid pushback, some of which came from her own family. These films have been described as only “quietly political” compared to Kopple’s previous work, probably because their subjects are celebrities, and female ones at that. But they’re completely aligned with Kopple’s original desire to “let the people speak,” and these women’s voices have been deafening.


by Sydney Urbanek

Sydney Urbanek is a writer and the founder of Reel Honey. Based in Toronto, she writes about film, music videos, and chronic illness. She knows the “Telephone” choreography but please don’t ask her to do it. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @sydurbanek.


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