The life and career of writer and director Mary Harron
By Matthew Hillier, Contributor
How do you write for both counterculture and the mainstream? How do you adapt one of the most misogynistic characters in print to the big screen as an advocate of women’s rights? But most importantly, how do you juggle the cultures of both Hollywood and the quiet streets of Toronto? Well, for writer and American Psycho director Mary Harron, it isn’t a question of how, it’s a question of if you can tell your own story in the most personal way.
Harron grew up in two very different places. She spent her time caught between Los Angeles and Toronto. Harron’s father was Don Harron, the noted Canadian comedian, actor, director, journalist, author, playwright and composer.
Harron’s parents divorced when she was young. Soon after, Harron found herself with a new stepmother and a new lifestyle on her plate. Her stepmother, Virginia Leith, was discovered and subsequently starred in the Hollywood newcomer at the time Stanley Kubrick’s first film Fear and Desire.
After just getting used to the glitz and glamour of living with her stepmother and father in Hollywood, Harron found herself having to adapt again when her biological mother married novelist Stephen Vizinczey and moved to Toronto. His most famous work was inspired by Harron’s mother and was titled In Praise of Older Women. As you’ve most likely noticed already, Harron found herself stuck between two very different worlds.
Harron’s work before breaking into the film industry is characterized primarily by not belonging to any set niche. Her early writing for the magazine PUNK landed her the first American interview with the band Sex Pistols.
I Shot Andy Warhol
In a sudden turn of events, she started reviewing dramas for The Observer. Then she made nature documentaries, then she was a producer on PBS’ The Edge. Working there, she seemed to hone in a unique would-be assassin in the form of Valerie Solanas whose attempted assassination of Andy Warhol and writing of the S.C.U.M Manifesto (Society For Cutting Up Men) made Solanas infamous.
After some research, Harron pitched a documentary around this unique figure to the other producers at The Edge. The documentary based around Andy Warhol’s attempted assassination eventually morphed into Harron’s first film I Shot Andy Warhol.
The controversial character seemed to be of particular interest to Harron who aimed to depict the character of Solanas as something different from how others had so far framed her as. The film, despite its controversy, won a sole acting award for Lili Taylor’s performance as Solanas.
No stranger to controversy and with one risky win on her back, Harron tried her hand at adapting American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. The film, already surrounded by controversy for its violence, also gained attention from Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment (C-CAVE). The organization negotiated with restaurant owners to deny Harron locations to film on.
The film seemed to be carrying the futures of both Harron and lead actor Christian Bale. Harron had cast Bale, who was still finding his footing in Hollywood at the time. In good faith, he stayed Harron’s top pick even when Edward Norton and Leonardo DiCaprio were suggested as leading roles.
When the controversial film was released, it was polarizing for both audiences and critics. It gained praise for its acting and commentary on corporate culture and criticism for its violence and negative portrayal of women.
Many of her films like American Psycho deal with the perspective of an outsider. Harron strips away the prestige and self-congratulation by portraying a perspective that is free from the baggage of trying to fit in.
A great example of this perspective is her portrayal of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. A major challenge in adapting Bret Easton’s book was the character of Bateman. The book portrays him as an insufferable, unstoppable and deplorable yuppie who is obsessed with a self-image and seems to hold contempt for everything.
A good question you may be asking is why did Harron choose to adapt this character? And by extension this novel into a film, given her love of framing the outsider and her strong feminist views?
I think to best answer this, we have to look at Bateman’s characterization in the film. Bateman is an outsider inside of the mainstream world of 80s business. Bateman frequently expresses his wish to fit in. He listens to all of the mainstream music of the decade and has seemingly memorized reviews and critiques and regurgitates them verbatim. In addition, he has rehearsed incomprehensible contradicting statements regarding politics and political correctness.
All of this seemingly pointless robotic behaviour is all in Bateman’s vain attempt as an outsider to fit in with a world that looks down on him. Frequently, characters get each other mixed up as everyone looks and acts in an incredibly similar fashion. Often, characters think Bateman is a different person altogether and insult Bateman accidentally by calling him a loser or a dork to his face.
Bateman’s uncomfortable mask of sanity is based on the delusion that he fits into this world and when it’s challenged, he often snaps. Harron’s depictions of Bateman in the film are an almost comedic example of someone trying and failing to fit in.
It’s no wonder the film is considered a dark comedy as Bateman’s struggle to fit in is often awkward, uncomfortable and hilarious to someone watching the film. This portrayal has earned Bateman the status of a cult legend.
Scenes from the movie are widely used in memes, in everything from basic reaction images to edited green screen videos that can put Bateman wherever the creator’s heart desires.
The Notorious Bettie Page
Harron is a prolific advocate for women’s rights and it isn’t hard to see the influence that this has had on her work. Her films The Notorious Bettie Page, Charlie Says and American Psycho deal with how culture’s framing of women can lead to dehumanization and even violence.
In The Notorious Bettie Page, Harron uses the infamous pinup model to frame an era that dehumanizes women who work in pornography, while also profitting from the very thing they say they despise.
In the film, Bettie Page doesn’t turn away from her life as a model out of shame or even for the perceived greater good, she does it because she wants to escape the culture she has lost herself in.
Betty never indicated in the movie that she regretted her work as a pinup model. Harron’s film, while highlighting the injustice of the era, also brings to life to how women are dehumanized in order to be treated like tools by industries that exploit them.
Harron’s life and artistic work seem to intertwine in such a unique way that her work is unmistakably hers. A childhood of balancing two very different worlds and a career mostly working in male-dominated spaces, give her work a tone and feeling that can’t be replicated.
Giving anyone else the task of writing like Harron would be a tall order as every film she has made has been a passion project that she injects her perspective into. Often her perspective boils down to two things, that we need to acknowledge the fact that it’s important to listen to outsiders and it’s important to not be ashamed of that status — the only way to look at something properly is from the outside looking in.