CATEGORIES Movie NewsFormer British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who died Monday at 87, had a much greater impact on the world of film than just inspiring an Oscar-winning role for Meryl Streep in 2011's "The Iron Lady."
The woman who led Great Britain from 1979 to 1990 cast a long shadow over filmmaking in her country during her time in office, inspiring much reaction (pro and con) among filmmakers, inspiring some classic movies, and unwittingly giving major career boosts to some of our era's greatest movie talents.
The conventional wisdom about Thatcher's impact on pop culture was that performing artists, being a lefty, proletarian bunch, hated her with a passion. Certainly the British musicians of the '80s, from Billy Bragg to Pink Floyd, composed numerous bitter protest anthems condemning her as a war-mongering tyrant who was strangling the working class. But the movies British filmmakers created during her three terms in office were a lot more ambivalent, balancing their contempt for her administration's jingoistic patriotism and its apparent disdain for foreigners and gay people with their grudging admission that the entrepreneurism that she inspired wasn't all bad.
The emblematic movie of the era was 1985's "My Beautiful Laundrette," written by Hanif Kureishi. He was no fan of Thatcher's, calling her "vulgar" and saying she "actively hated culture, as she recognized that it was a form of dissent." Nonetheless, his breakthrough film had a more nuanced view of her policies and their effects. The central character, Omar, is a Londoner of Southeast Asian descent who is trying to start a business and to romance on the sly a gay white punk named Johnny. The result is a comedy of manners that juggles Omar's conficting issues -- immigration, cultural assimiliation, the closet, entrepreneurialsm -- as he tries to find a place in a world that seems hostile toward him on all fronts. The film helped put on the map its director Stephen Frears ("The Grifters," "The Queen") and its co-star, Daniel Day-Lewis, who played Johnny. It also elevated Kureishi, who continued to explore similar issues of money, sexuality, and melting-pot culture of the Thatcher years in his next film, "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid."
Part of what made Day-Lewis a star was his chameleonic versatility. In the U.S., released on the same day as "Laundrette" was "A Room With a View," in which he played a stuffy upper-class twit named Cecil. (Critics marveled that the gay, peroxide-haired punk and the snobby, brunet aristocrat were played by the same actor.) "Room" also turned out to be emblematic of the Thatcher period.
On the surface, the period comedy (an adaptation of E.M. Forster's 1908 novel) seemed to be a celebration of traditional English virtues (and English xenophobia), but its agenda was more subversive. For one thing, it featured an unusual amount of male frontal nudity. Also, Helena Bonham Carter's heroine ends up not with Day-Lewis's traditional British exemplar but with Julian Sands' free-spirited bohemian. The movie made stars out of Bonham Carter and Sands, and it marked the first major worldwide box office success for the Merchant/Ivory producing/directing team that dominated literary and period filmmaking for the next decade or so (with such movies as "Howards End" and "The Remains of the Day").
Like "Room," many films commenting the Thatcher period while it was happening were allegorical pieces set in the past. It wasn't hard to see "Chariots of Fire," for instance, as a flag-waver about 1980s Britain even though it celebrated British Olympic athletes of the 1920s. Cult favorite "Withnail & I," set at the bitter end of the 1960s, seemed to be just as much about the excesses and privations of 1987, the year it was made. Same with "A Private Function," starring Michael Palin and Maggie Smith, a satire about the theft of an illicit pig raised for a ceremonial dinner, set during the years of postwar food rationing but also clearly commenting on the present (it came out in 1984).
Other satires approached the Thatcher years through surrealism.
"Withnail" writer/director Bruce Robinson and his star, Richard E. Grant, teamed up again in 1989 for "How to Get Ahead in Advertising," a contemporary satirical allegory about the extremes of commercialism and materialism in the Thatcher era. Grant plays an ad-man who develops a boil on his head that soon develops a mouth and a mind and eventually threatens to take over from the original head. Bill Forsyth's gentle 1984 comedy "Local Hero" involves a Scottish seaside village whose residents are only too eager to sell their land to an American oilman, only to have everyone's plans run aground as the magic of the place begins to reveal itself.
In Monty Python's 1983 feature "The Meaning of Life," the opening short, "The Crimson Permanent Assurance," spoofs the high-finance world of the greed-is-good decade by potraying financiers literally as marauding pirates. Python's Terry Gilliam went on to lampoon England's government -- both its creeping totalitarianism and its blundering ineptitude -- through the elaborate, dreamlike, retrofitted sci-fi of 1985's "Brazil."
The decade closed with Peter Greenaway's scabrous "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," an ornate and gruesome allegory about a philistine gangster (representing ruthless and crass Thatcherite commercialism much as Grant's boil did) who dines on lavish meals while despoiling culture (in the form of the Lover, the meek scholar who has an affair with the gangster's wife, who exacts an equally brutal revenge on her husband). The movie provided major career boosts for writer/director Greenaway as well as stars Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren.
Still, there were some films that looked at Thatcherism straight on, without the disguises of allegory. In "Educating Rita," a Cockney hairdresser (future "Harry Potter" actress Julie Walters) broadens her horizons with literary college classes, only to find that her entree into the world of highbrow culture has alienated her from her family and her working-class peers. Nineteen eighty-eight saw the release of "High Hopes," in which an enervated old-school socialist rails against the yuppies who've taken over his London neighborhood. It marked the first theatrical feature director Mike Leigh had made in 17 years and re-launched his career.
Throughout the next quarter-century, Leigh would make celebrated films analyzing the fallout of the Thatcher era, from "Life Is Sweet" to "Secrets & Lies" to "Another Year." (Fellow class-conscious directors Ken Loach and Alan Clarke would take up similar banners.) Even mainstream British comedies and dramas in the 1990s seemed to reflect the sense that Thatcherism had made life much harder for working-class Brits -- see, for example, "The Full Monty," "Brassed Off," and "Billy Elliott." The movie "V for Vendetta" -- set in a dystopian future but based on Alan Moore's graphic novel published serially from 1982 to '85 and openly inspired by what the author saw as Thatcher's totalitarianist tendencies -- was still criticizing the former prime minister in 2006, a decade and a half after she left office.
The 2011 film "The Iron Lady" caused controversy over its portrayal of Thatcher even before it was released, since its star wasn't British and was known for holding political views well to the left of the woman she was portraying. Even though Meryl Streep ended up giving an unassailably convincing, Oscar-winning performance, the controversy continued. Thatcher fans were upset that the movie had focused so much on their heroine's dementia in the years following her retirement, while Thatcher haters found Streep's portrait far too sympathetic.
Both sides seemed unhappy that the movie focused more on her personality and indomitable will than on her policies, achievements, and failiures -- the reasons, after all, for her historical importance in the first place.
By the way, Streep was hardly the first actress to play Thatcher on the big screen. That honor belongs to Janet Brown, who played the then-prime minister at the end of 1981's "For Your Eyes Only." In a comic scene where she's on the phone with James Bond to thank him once again for saving the world -- unaware that she's actually talking to a parrot while 007 gets frisky with his latest conquest -- Brown's Thatcher comes off a pompous housewife.
Somewhere between Brown's dotty dowager and Streep's force of nature, there are probably countless interpretations of Margaret Thatcher, awaiting their close-up in the movies. Meanwhile, her legacy on screen, as in life, will continue to define her nation for years to come.