HomeEntertainmentPerspective | Which comes first, the muse or the moviemaker?

Perspective | Which comes first, the muse or the moviemaker?

Maybe it’s time to rethink the way we think about muses.

With the arrival of “Kinds of Kindness,” the latest film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and starring Emma Stone, the cliché of an artist and his muse has risen its hoary head once more. It makes sense: Not only is this is the third time the pair have worked together (the film had its limited opening on Friday), but the first two outings netted Stone a supporting actress Oscar nomination (for “The Favourite” in 2018) and a best actress win (for last year’s “Poor Things”). Clearly, Stone meets the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of a muse: “a person (often a female lover) or thing regarded as the source of an artist’s inspiration; the presiding spirit or force behind any person or creative act.”

Well, hold on there a minute, Nigel. For one thing, Stone has been happily married to someone else since 2020. For another, the whole notion that a female muse just kind of stands there while a male artist makes art may be ready for the cultural dustbin. Stone herself said as much at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, when a reporter asked Lanthimos if the actress was his muse and Stone quickly cut in to respond, “He’s my muse.”

If we stand back to take in the entire history of the movies, in fact, it’s clear that many relationships that have been popularly labeled “artist and his muse” are in fact collaborations between two artists goading each other to new heights. Start with D.W. Griffith, the father of American cinema, and Lillian Gish, who assembled the building blocks of screen acting at the same time her director was inventing film grammar during the first two decades of the 20th century.

Jump ahead to such fabled pairings of moviemakers and movie stars as Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, and Yasujiro Ozu and Setsuko Hara. All but the last two couples were romantically involved, and though working together arguably ended up bad for the relationships, it didn’t hurt the art. More to the point, all these duos deserve to be regarded as true partnerships between visionary filmmakers and creators whose mediums are their own bodies, voices and imaginations. Even those actresses disparaged in their time as clay in the hands of dictatorial directors are essential to the films in which they appeared. Try to imagine Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” without Karina or von Sternberg’s “Shanghai Express” without Dietrich. You can’t.

Historically speaking, the gender divide has never done any favors for women artists. Look to the 19th century, when painter Berthe Morisot was long ignored as a founder of impressionism alongside Edouard Manet, for whom she posed, and Camille Claudel was better known as Auguste Rodin’s model and lover than as a great sculptor in her own right. And let’s not talk about Pablo Picasso and Françoise Gilot or Dora Maar. Against the insistence of their times and immediate posterity, these were all two-way creative relationships, each side at best inspiring the other to push further into unknown territory.

It’s worth pausing a moment to ask: Where does inspiration even come from? As someone who writes for a living, with or without pretensions to art, I’ve always agreed with Oscar Madison of “The Odd Couple” when he says of beef gravy, “I thought it comes when you cook the meat.” Laugh all you want, but there’s truth in there: The art is in the doing, the alchemy of mind meeting medium in an improvised gavotte that only later gets formalized into a dance routine, a frame, a page, a staff of music. Or a movie, that medium in which preparation — preproduction — is paramount yet nevertheless relies on the spark of the moment to make a great take (and then relies on the magic of a good film editor to bring it to life).

Actors are critical colleagues in this adventure, often working more instinctively and inarticulately than their directors (who have to be able to explain everything to the front office) but with no less creative fire. It helps to look at some of the non-gendered duos in the medium’s history. John Ford made 14 movies with John Wayne, and while their working relationship could be fraught — Ford was a master of on-set cruelty — the star’s iconic presence fed into the director’s simultaneous creation and dismantling of the frontier myth in surprisingly complex ways. Cary Grant meant different things to Alfred Hitchcock (sophisticated poise ruffled by dark undercurrents) and Howard Hawks (male propriety undone by female chaos) but responded to both directors with perfect pitch.

Robert DeNiro is the flawed, violent everyman that a sickly boy who grew up to be Martin Scorsese fantasized about. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the anxious, overthinking everywoman who wanders befuddled through Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said” (2013) and “You Hurt My Feelings” (2023). Does anyone think that the five films Julianne Moore has made with Todd Haynes, including “Safe” (1995), “Far From Heaven” (2002) and “May December” (2023), aren’t a true collaboration? Does anyone not think Mia Farrow once spurred Woody Allen to his most assured, creative period of filmmaking and reaped a bouquet of great roles as a result?

The truest artist-muse relationship may be that in which the former works with the latter because no other individual talent will bring the art to the exalted level that lives in the artist’s imagination. You can see this in the worlds of classical music (composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears) and dance (choreographer George Balanchine and ballerina Suzanne Farrell) and even high fashion (designer Hubert de Givenchy and actress Audrey Hepburn).

And, yes, there are examples in which the so-called muse brings little to the party except a certain beauty or style. Edie Sedgwick was Andy Warhol’s It Girl for a marvelous mayfly moment, and Pattie Boyd is responsible for two monuments of classic rock, George Harrison’s “Something” and Eric Clapton’s “Layla.” While it can be a mistake to confuse infatuation with inspiration, pop-culture history would be poorer without either woman.

“Kinds of Kindness” and Stone’s fruitful working collaboration with Lanthimos serve notice that we may have finally moved beyond the restrictive artist/muse dichotomy. In truth, the evidence was available at least a few years back, when Greta Gerwig progressed from co-starring in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” (2010) to co-writing Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” (2012) and “Mistress America” (2015) to writing and directing “Lady Bird” (2017) to directing last year’s box-office bonanza “Barbie” from a script she and Baumbach wrote together. As with Stone, who’s musing who is no longer the point when everyone’s pushing everyone else to do their very best work.

Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at tyburrswatchlist.com.

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