The news came early this morning that movie director Tony Scott had committed suicide by leaping from a Los Angeles bridge, and many of the remembrances today have focused on his most famous action movies, including Top Gun, and his kinetic visual style. But my thoughts were as much on who Scott told stories about as much as how he told them.
Scott frequently directed black stars, including Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop II, Wesley Snipes in The Fan, Will Smith in Enemy of the State, and his frequent leading man Denzel Washington in Man on Fire, Deja Vu, his remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and Unstoppable. And while action movies with male main characters made up the bulk of his career, Scott also created a number of fascinating, unsettling roles for women.
Scott made his feature directorial debut in 1983 with The Hunger, a vampire erotic horror movie starring Catherine Deneuve as Miriam Blaylock, an ancient vampire who promises eternal life and youth to her lovers: David Bowie as her husband John, who is finding out the limits of that promise, and Susan Sarandon as Sarah Roberts, a doctor studying aging who comes to the attention of the couple after John begins to age rapidly. Miriam’s a fascinating combination of rapacious and tender, and the movie holds her responsible for the harm she does to John, as well as the years that she’s given him. And Sarah’s tough and confidently sexual. “Don’t you snarl at me, you lethal son of a bitch,” she tells a monkey in her research lab after he kills his mate. After she has sex with Miriam, she’s fickle at dinner with her boyfriend, who asks her with exasperation why she ordered a steak she isn’t eating. “I thought I wanted it,” Sarah shrugs, preserving her right to change her mind.
For a movie that treats vampirism as a metaphor for lesbianism, The Hunger is remarkably subtle about the fluidity of sexuality. “Is it a love song?” Sarah asks Miriam of the song the latter is playing on the piano. “I told you it was sung by two women,” Miriam tells her. “It sounds like a love song,” Sarah says. “Then I suppose it is,” Miriam tells her nonchalantly. Miriam loves who she loves, without being constrained by a sexual identity. And it’s for her dishonesty that Miriam is punished, not for loving women. As for Sarah, she ends the movie kissing a young woman gently. Miriam may have expanded Sarah’s sexual horizons, but it’s Sarah who understands that love’s only real when it’s chosen, rather than when it’s compelled by blood and magic.
Domino, Scott’s fictionalized 2005 account of the life of Domino Harvey, the daughter of actor Laurence Harvey, who became a bounty hunter, is a less successful movie. It’s splashy and excessively complicated, featuring Mo’Nique as an exaggerated scheming employee of the California DMV, Dabney Coleman as a casino boss, and Riz Abbasi as an Afghan freedom fighter. But it’s also one of the last truly unusual movies Keira Knightley did before devoting herself to period pieces like The Duchess and Anna Karenina and Manic Pixie Dreamgirldom. As Domino, a boarding school burnout and former model, Knightley gets at how boring the expectations for pretty girls can be. If you’ve only ever been valued for your face and your body, the movie suggests, you might want to smash a fist into another girl’s face, chop off your hair, and make your entrance into rooms following the barrel of a gun if only so people start to notice the threat you present before they get around to your looks.
Yes, Scott made lots of movies about tough men and the women they fall for. But other action directors could take a note from him in remembering that women can tote a gun as the lead rather than simply as a love interest, and that love interests have priorities and principles of their own.