Love at first shot: When great directors meet their muse

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig - muse

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig

It was the 2010 character study of Greenberg (2010) that brought Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig together. He plucked her from an extensive audition process with only a few New York Mumblecore films to her name.

Clearly both on the same artistic wave-length, there’s a definite sense of love in the air between actress and director as they bring this clumsy, underemployed twenty-something to the screen.

Now three years on and it’s no surprise that Gerwig and Baumbach are officially a couple (Gerbach or Baumwig?) and have co-written a follow up film in which she will play the title character, Francis Ha.

She sings, she dances, she acts like a dork; the film is a striking black and white stage for her with a quirk factor off the charts, inspired by Baumbach’s adoration for his rare find.

The jury’s still out on the film, but Francis Ha (2013) most definitely belongs to the long and rich tradition of films built around a director’s muse; those that make a brave attempt to bottle the spirit of a talented actress on the big screen.

He does the leg work behind the scenes, and she does her thing on screen. It’s the perfect deal. And when they really get it right, they exploit each other’s gifts for all they’re worth and forge ahead as one into uncharted cinematic territory.

Here’s a look at some of the great director / actress pairings, preceding Gerbach, who were destined to be together for the sake of movie magic.


Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman - muse

Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman

Quentin Tarantino & Uma Thurman

They’ve only made three films together as yet, but Tarantino has well and truly found the key to unlocking Uma Thurman as a leading lady – both launching and re-launching her career.

It began with her fiendish turn as Mrs Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction (1994). She mastered his dialogue, won the Twist contest alongside John Travolta and overdosed on heroin all in one wild night. Tarantino had found himself an accomplice.

Behind the scenes, they began long discussions regarding remaking films such as Coffy (1973) and Gloria (1980) and thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to do that’. Ten years later and Thurman was thrown into the deep-end of one violent action set-piece called Kill Bill (2003-2004), in the process creating one of the great female action heroes in film history.

Tarantino put production on hold for Uma’s pregnancy and even referred to her as his Marlene Dietrich.


The Coen brothers and Frances McDormand - muse

The Coen brothers and Frances McDormand

The Coen Brothers & Frances McDormand

The Brothers and Frances met on their first feature Blood Simple (1984); a neo-noir film about a bitter divorce gone haywire. So it makes perfect sense that by the time the film was released, Joel and Frances were married.

Along with their nomadic male circus act touring the back roads of America, McDormand has been a staple of Joel and Ethan’s prolific career that spans three decades and a handful of genres.

Most of the time they’re drawing on her comedic strengths, as in Burn After Reading (2008) in which she plays Linda Litzke, a desperate middle-aged woman set on plastic surgery and online dating.

But the most iconic film to come out of this relationship is still the one that earned McDormand an Oscar for her efforts, Fargo (1996), in which she provided straight-faced humanity amidst an explosion of violence and stupidity as pregnant police detective, Marge Gunderson.


Carmen Maura, Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz - muse

Carmen Maura, Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz

Pedro Almodovar & Carmen Maura / Penelope Cruz

Over the last 35 years, the openly gay Spanish maestro has made cinema his instrument for exploring the feminine side in all its melodramatic glory. Mothers have never been more celebrated on film, along with lesbians, transsexuals and everything in between.

In 2006, the entire female cast of Volver won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival; so it’s tricky to whittle his muse list down. But we’ll go with his very first, Carmen Maura, and current, Penelope Cruz. Both embody the spirit of an Almodovar woman; strong, motherly and proficient in the face of chaos.

It was Maura who volunteered her weekends along with cast and crew to make his first 16mm feature; Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap (1980). They went on to make five more films together, culminating in Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), his first international hit.

Cruz’s first step into Pedro’s universe was Live Flesh (1997), in which she gives birth to a child on a bus. In All About My Mother (1999) she plays a pregnant nun with AIDS. In Volver, she plays mother and murderer. Almodovar stretched her wings and launched her international career far greater then any Hollywood love interest role could have.


Federico Fellini & Giulietta Masina - muse

Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina

Federico Fellini & Giulietta Masina

It’s safe to say Fellini must have been a pretty brave husband and Masina a pretty good sport about the whole thing. Their creative relationship was pretty much forged on her humiliation and abuse on the big screen.

In Nights of Cabiria (1957) she plays a lonely prostitute looking for love on the streets of Rome. And in La Strada (1954) she is sold off to a circus strongman, destined to move from place to place, making fun of herself as his side-kick clown.

But beneath the jokes and existential crisis, her optimistic charm remained strong. Together, they cemented her place as the female Charlie Chaplin and launched him onto the international stage – deservedly winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign film twice together.

In their 50-year marriage they made just six films together, but it’s about quality not quantity.


Woody Allen and Diane Keaton - muse

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton

Woody Allen & Diane Keaton / Mia Farrow

Nowadays he’s working with Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz, but to find the women who kicked his career into fifth gear, you have to look back at his earlier work with Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow.

Woody and Diane had a string of screwball comedies together (Sleeper, Love and Death and Play it Again, Sam) before they made Annie Hall (1977), his first masterpiece. It’s Movie Muse 101, built from the ashes of their one-year relationship, capturing every bit of her talents and eccentricities – to be continued in Manhattan (1979).

Then Keaton passed the baton onto Mia Farrow who went on to star in thirteen of Allen’s films; most notably, her salt of the earth performance as Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Fast forward to Hannah and Her Sisters  (1986) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and the painful end to their ten year relationship was almost worth it.

It’s hard to say whether Woody Allen has made a film for anyone other than himself, but nonetheless, the neurotic comedian must have some pull power behind the scenes.


Jean-Luc Godard & Anna Karina - muse

Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina

Jean-Luc Godard & Anna Karina

Godard and Karina met at one of the great crossroads in film history; late-1950s France, when film was groovy and the auteur theory was beginning to take hold. He was a bitter film critic looking to flip cinema on its head, and she was a young model looking for a career in the pictures.

So goes the casting call for The Little Soldier (1963):

“Jean-Luc Godard who has just finished “Breathless” and who is in pre-production of “Le Petit Soldat” is looking for a young woman between 18 and 27 who will be both his actress and his friend.”

He got more then he bargained for with Karina. In the space of their fiery four-year marriage, the French New Wave came and went, and they left behind half a dozen seminal films.

Most of the time, Godard used film to express the painful, incommunicable side to their relationship. But then of course he’d let her hair down in an infinitely re-watchable dance number (see Vivra Sa Vie, Band of Outsiders and Pierrot Le Fou).


John Cassavetes & Gena Rowlands - muse

John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands

John Cassavetes & Gena Rowlands

In most couples, there’s a more responsible spouse who keeps the other in check, but Rowlands and Cassavetes were both as nutty as each other and continually put their livelihood on the line to finance their projects.

She was right at home in his company of larger-than-life characters on the verge of mental breakdown in a conservative Middle America. Time and time again he asked her to bear her soul and she stood up to the plate every time.

She earned two Oscar nominations with Cassavetes for A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Gloria, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. See Opening Night (1977) for one of the most powerful female performances of all time.

Each one of the ten films they made together in their 35 year marriage was a deeply personal exploration of their own lives. They became mother and father to a new style of American independent filmmaking and the line between actress/director and husband/wife was never more blurred.


Andrew Towner does something in film. More to the point, he is a screenwriter based in Sydney. Favourite screenplays include all the usuals; Fargo, Being John Malkovich, Dr. Strangelove, Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, Shine, Home Alone, etc. After completing a Bachelor of Arts with a major in film, he has written for various publications including Popcorn Taxi, The Sci Fi Show and Penthouse Magazine – yes, they do reviews.

5 thoughts on “Love at first shot: When great directors meet their muse

  1. Hi Andrew, I enjoyed this article, and found the whole concept really interesting and different. I have never seen anything with Greta Gerwig, but i am up to speed on all of the others that are mentioned!
    Personally, I often find this relationship annoying, in that you can always expect to see a certain person, in the film of a particular director. It feels (to me) like ‘playing safe’. I think this especially applies to Coen/McDormand, and anything by Woody Allen, although I really rate films by both. ‘Gloria’ is an old favourite too.
    A very good piece, and well done to James for publishing it.
    Regards from England, Pete.

  2. some great, classic examples here. I’m glad you started off with Greta Gerwig; she’s only been in a couple of things that I’ve seen but she comes across as very likable and unusual, sort of like an updated Annie Hall for the Millennial Generation

  3. Any reason this is only male director-female actor muse? Perhaps it would have been even more interesting to include, for example, in relation to the director-muse relationship: herzog-kinski; scorcese-de niro/di caprio; burton-depp; waters-divine; jacobs-smith? And I’m struggling here to think of female director-male actor… just sayin’.

    • Plenty of male muse articles out there. Some good examples there though. Kinski-herzog for sure.
      Although De niro trumps Di caprio when it comes to collaborating with Scorsese. There’s a difference between recasting a bankable Hollywood star and being inspired to create a project because of a particular actor.

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