HUMANITAS Winner Mike Leigh Featured in Paste's 'The Greats'


leigh_mike_mainWhenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

“Let me begin by quoting Alfred Hitchcock,” Mike Leigh said at the start of an interview he gave in the fall of 2010. “‘A woman who spends all day washing and cooking and ironing doesn’t want to go to the movies to watch a film about a woman who spends all day washing and cooking and ironing.’ And, in my experience, Mr. Hitchcock’s assertion is rubbish because I really think people are greatly stimulated and enriched by experiencing in film—just as we can from novels and other art—experiencing things that resonate with what our lives are about.”

Leigh’s career is all the proof he needs to back up his claim. The British writer-director, who has been nominated for seven Academy Awards and won the Palme d’Or, has largely focused on “regular people,” exploring how limited prospects and a sometimes self-defeating attitude can crush individuals. Leigh doesn’t bother ennobling the common man; his characters are often painfully flawed and troublesome. But his insistence on realism and a certain amount of evenhandedness has produced an oeuvre keenly invested in the rhythms of working-class life. Consequently, he’s unlike just about any other contemporary filmmaker: Nobody so consistently travels the terrain that’s been his métier.

Born in February 1943, Leigh grew up in Manchester, the son of a doctor. (His mother was a midwife.) The young man didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, though: “I grew up … going to the movies a lot, as much as they’d let you,” he once said. He gorged on British and American movies—“I didn’t see a film that wasn’t in English until I was 17 when I went to London to be a student”—and he aspired to become an actor. His father wasn’t impressed. In a 1994 interview with The Boston Globe’s Jay Carr, Leigh recalled, “He described my ambitions as ‘the moonings of a stage-struck girlie.’”

Undeterred, he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, but he found the school’s acting style limiting. “[I]t was a very mechanical approach to acting,” he told The Believer in 2008. “You learned the lines and the moves. You didn’t discuss the play or improvise. Since then, the culture of drama schools has completely changed. Improvisation—the cornerstone of my process as a director—is now a standard part of actor training.”

Leigh’s destiny wasn’t as a performer. He moved into directing and writing, first for the stage and then for British television. His milieu was determined by a thought that struck him as a boy: “I used to sit in the cinema thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could have a film in which the characters were like real people instead of being like actors?’” His early work emphasized improvisation and experimentation, and by the time he moved to feature films, he began concentrating on an unusual creative process. Rather than giving an actor a script, Leigh has a conversation. As he explained to Big Think, “I say to any actor that is going to be in [one of my films], ‘I can’t tell you what it is about. I can’t tell you what your character is because you and I are going to collaborate to make a character, to invent a character and also you will never know anything about this film except what your character knows at any stage of the proceedings.’”

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UncategorizedJosh Neimark