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chapter 15 Negotiating the Politics of (In)Difference in Contemporary Hollywood an interview with kimberly peirce Denise Mann (UCLA) Kimberly Peirce, the writer-director of Boys Don’t Cry (Killer Films/ Fox Searchlight, 1999), became the toast of the town after her lead actress , Hilary Swank, won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for her performance as the transsexual Brandon Teena and after Chloë Sevigny was nominated in the supporting actress category for her role as Brandon’s girlfriend. Boys Don’t Cry is a fact-based dramatization of the events leading up to the tragic murder of Teena Brandon, a Nebraskan teenage girl living as a young man. After Fox Searchlight picked it up at Sundance, the film went on to win critical accolades at several major film festivals, including Toronto, London, Venice, and New York. The film represents a radical effort by a woman director (already a rarity in Hollywood) to challenge the stereotypical views typically associated with representations of sexual difference . Peirce’s accomplishment is that much more profound when considered against the backdrop of a Hollywood system governed by a complex and multifaceted web of institutional and cultural tensions. Our conversation traces the challenges she faced as a newly anointed “auteur,” as a woman director, as a New York-based independentminded director, as a former Sundance “labbie,” and, finally, as an openly gay director whose socially conscious films grapple with the politics of sexual identity. Making Boys Don’t Cry outside the Hollywood studio system was probably Peirce’s first and last experience of true independence, given that first-time filmmakers typically operate below the radar of the Hollywood system; however, after her film’s high-profile win (for actress Hilary Swank) at the Oscars in 1999, Peirce became increasingly subject to the often Draconian development, financing, and production rigor associated with the Hollywood mainstream; therefore, when Peirce and I met in late September 2004, we talked about her transiT4989 .indb 303 T4989.indb 303 2/27/09 6:58:05 AM 2/27/09 6:58:05 AM 304 denise mann tion from being a New York–based independent filmmaker to working within the Hollywood system proper. We talked first about her breakout independent film, Boys Don’t Cry, and then shifted to Silent Star, which at the time she believed was going to be her next feature project. As it turned out, Peirce’s Silent Star would not survive the Hollywood development-production machinery. There are many possible explanations for this, the most likely being that the project broke several of the cardinal rules that prevail in Hollywood today: by telling a self-referential story about Hollywood history, a topic that is viewed to be of limited interest to those outside Hollywood; by focusing on a disreputable hero, who plays two women against each other; and finally by showing the seamy side (vs. the glamour) of the entertainment industry and, more to the point, by showing the Hollywood film industry succumbing to a Foucauldian disciplinary impulse as it instituted the Production Code to protect its economic interests. Notably, Peirce’s next film, Stop-Loss, is based on a politically sensitive topic of a different sort: the war in Iraq while the battle is still being waged. Hollywood has been notoriously gun-shy about making films about unpopular wars until sufficient time has elapsed to make it palatable to the mainstream audience. In contrast, at the time of this writing, a number of Iraq-themed projects by well-known male writers and directors, among them In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis) and Redacted (Brian De Palma), were released to disappointing box office numbers. The Invisible World (Ridley Scott) and Stop-Loss were both about to be released. Contemporary filmmakers like Peirce become immersed in the complex sets of negotiations and compromises that inevitably accompany participation in the Hollywood entertainment industry, which makes the task of interviewing them challenging. My goal at the start of the interview had been to extract evidence of the series of adjustments that any independent filmmaker must make as he or she moves from the margins to the Hollywood mainstream, and in particular to trace Peirce’s cultural legacy as part of the New York “downtown cinema” movement that some media scholars argue can be traced to the American avant-garde underground filmmaking tradition of late 1960s1 ; however, as we spoke, I realized that her career trajectory was uniquely colored by her status as a...


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