A review of Lady Director by Joyce Chopra

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

Lady Director
Adventures in Hollywood, Television and Beyond
by Joyce Chopra
City Lights
Nov 2022, $17.95, 232 pages, ISBN: 978-0872868687

A fascinating insider view of the film industry from a director’s perspective, Joyce Chopra’s  memoir is at once conversational and discursive. Born in 1936, when it was simply assumed that men were the breadwinners and a woman’s job was to run the household, Chopra has also had to contend with endemic sexism in her profession throughout her career.

Lady Director begins before the beginning, as it were, with an account of her immigrant Jewish forebears escaping Russia at the start of the 20th Century and settling in Coney Island, where Joyce would be born several decades later.

Chopra recounts her formative years, through high school and eventually college at Brandeis University, founded in Waltham, near Boston, only five years earlier.  Brandeis offered educational opportunities to Jewish students and professors who had been turned away by other institutions with anti-Semitic quotas. Chopra, born Joyce Kalina, pinpoints her original interest in film to a semester abroad in Paris, where she frequently went to the Cinémathèque française and became aware of filmmakers like Francois Truffaut. “There for the first time I heard the word ‘film’ used instead of ‘movie’,” she remembers.

Only, how to break into the male-dominated world of film? Not that that was her explicit goal when she graduated, but one thing she did not want to do?  “There weren’t many jobs available for a young woman of twenty-one with a degree in comparative literature,” she writes, but she didn’t want to become a secretary. If she did that, “I would irrevocably land on the slippery slope to nowhere.”

Joyce and a friend open a jazz club in Cambridge where a freshman at Boston University, Joan Baez, performs and Club 47 begins showcasing folk acts – Tom Rush, Judy Collins, even a young Bob Dylan. She also meets her first husband there, Amarjit Chopra.

But finally, after two years of running a club and studying film on the side, she is “burning to find a way to become a film director,” especially after seeing the young French artists she’d become acquainted with in Paris, like Jean-Luc Goddard, making movies of their own. She sells her interest in Club 47 (located at 47 Brattle Street, hence the name) to her partner and after a largely frustrating return to Europe moves to New York and lands a job with the legendary documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, working on a project called Primary, about the 1960 Democratic primary fight in Wisconsin between Hubert Humphrey and JFK. “I had landed in the midst of a revolution in filmmaking.” It was what the French called Cinéma vérité, capturing “real life” via a groundbreaking technique using a handheld 16mm camera to record the unscripted action.

Though what she longed for was to make fiction films, Chopra began her directing career doing documentaries. Having amicably split with her first husband, she marries Tom Cole, the true love of her life, and together they pursue a lifelong collaboration. Joyce at 34 is a documentary first broadcast on PBS in 1973 about the birth of her and Tom’s daughter Sarah Rose (now a dean at the University of Virginia and on the English department faculty). Winning a prestigious prize at the American Film Festival, it was groundbreaking and controversial. Chopra recalls the amusing story of an investigative journalist storming out of a theater muttering, “I want my money back. I thought it was a film about James Joyce, not some ugly dame having a baby!”

Chopra finally breaks into directing fiction films. The funding and legal details of film-making have always been bewilderingly complex and precarious, but the clash of personalities accelerates. She recounts the disasters of her work on the movie adaptation of Jay McInerney’s novel, Bright Lights, Big City and Diane Keaton’s The Lemon Sisters, but also her triumphs, notably Joyce Carol Oates’ story, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been – the film ultimately titled Smooth Talk – and Oates’ novel about Marilyn Monroe, Blonde.  She also collaborated with Gene Wilder on a number of projects and worked on a variety of other directorial efforts in both television and cinema whose unique challenges she likewise chronicles.

Chopra also writes about an abortion she had in the 1980’s at the age of 44 and mentions the landmark Roe v. Wade case and its positive impact on women’s health. “Instead of slinking around like a criminal, unsure if I would live to tell the tale….” She also tells about working with Harvey Weinstein, his bullying and insulting behavior long before #MeToo brought him down.

In her mid-80’s, Joyce Chopra continues to be creative and energetic. After her husband Tom’s death in 2009 (multiple myeloma), she worked on a number of film projects involving at-risk youth, climate change, and other social issues. And now there’s this book!

While my main takeaway from Lady Director is what a dynamic and creative life Joyce Chopra has led, it’s no less true that she has been a trailblazer for women working in the film industry and stands as a real role model for future generations. Mainly, though, she tells a spellbinding story of ups and downs, successes and loss, that anybody will admire, particularly if the reader has even the slightest interest in the field of entertainment and how the sausage is made.

About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His latest book, Catastroika, was published in May 2020. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is). Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.