He has won world renown – and an Oscar – for his roles in films by some of the greatest male directors. Now Sir Ben Kingsley, star of Gandhi and Sexy Beast, says he is determined to produce and star in movies directed by women – because they are better at understanding male vulnerability.
The veteran actor is calling for the entertainment industry to give women a greater role behind the camera, and is planning various productions with female directors and writers.
He told the Observer: “I do feel that it is through the prism, the lens, the perspective of the female eye – the loving female eye – that a man is almost given permission to be vulnerable.
“I’m sorry to say that I’ve only worked with possibly four female directors. If you look at my CV, I’ve done a lot of movies, so that’s a terrible imbalance.
“The ladies I have worked with have an extraordinary ability to put [male vulnerability] on screen. There’s only one male director – possibly two – who really gets this and understands its value as a currency, as a character trait, as something that has its place in our humanity and must always have.”
Winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film, he has also worked with Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Roman Polanski and had Oscar nominations for Bugsy, Sexy Beast and House of Sand and Fog.
Kingsley was speaking ahead of the UK release on 10 June of his latest film, Learning to Drive, a charming, feelgood drama by three women: director Isabel Coixet, producer Dana Friedman and writer Sarah Kernochan.
He plays a lonely Sikh taxi driver and driving instructor in New York who is awaiting the arrival of a bride his family has arranged for him. His clients include a fiery Manhattan literary critic who is trying to rebuild her life after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. She is played by Patricia Clarkson, who had an Oscar nomination for the 2003 comedy Pieces of April.
This is Kingsley’s second collaboration with Coixet, a Spaniard he describes as one of the most talented directors he has worked with. He appeared, also with Clarkson, in Coixet’s 2008 Philip Roth adaptation Elegy.
He said: “It is that lens … through which Isabel looks that sees that which a male director might be in denial about.”
Commenting on the few male directors with such sensitivity, he singled out Scorsese: “[His films] Raging Bull and Shutter Island are about male vulnerability.”
The sexes have very differing approaches, he says: “It’s in your DNA.”
Recalling his time with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he spoke of directors bringing out “cracks in the armour” and “flaws” in Shakespeare’s characters with which audiences can empathise.
“My finest hour with the RSC, I think, was my Hamlet, directed by a woman … Hamlet is a man of questions, of uncertainty. He has completely lost faith in his mother, and therefore in his lover. For Hamlet, the female is betrayal and loss and so to have a wonderful woman – Buzz Goodbody – directing us allowed us to explore those, actually at times humorous, cracks in Hamlet’s armour.”
That 1975 production was proclaimed by critics one of the greatest Hamlets anyone could remember.
A 2014 report by British producer-writer Stephen Follows revealed that women accounted for only 23% of crew members on the 2,000 highest-grossing films of the past 20 years. A mere 5% of directors were women.
Asked what is holding them back, Kingsley said: “I can’t really give an articulate answer … but I don’t want whatever it is to hold them back any more. We just have to make broader choices.”
Singling out Kathryn Bigelow, whose Iraq war film The Hurt Locker led to her becoming the first woman to win a best director Oscar, he said: “It was amazing … [As] a film about men in battle, it was beautiful.”
Ultimately, he says, it is about good and bad storytelling. Although his agents weed out the worst, he does see some awful scripts: “I get to maybe page one or two and it’s through the shredder.”
In Learning to Drive, there is “no romance in a classical way”, Coixet said, and the lead character is a fiftysomething woman “because the world is full of them”.
She is particularly critical of the language used about women in scripts: “In every page are the words ‘beautiful’, ‘sexy’ … Even the way they describe sex is so Barbara Cartland at her worst. ‘The muscles’, ‘the sweat’, ‘she moans with pleasure’. The writer of Learning to Drive just depicted a love scene with … humour.”
Kingsley’s production company is planning a film about the Shah of Iran, with him in the title role: “Out of several projects on our slate, a high percentage are written by women and a considerable percentage will be directed by women.”
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