Laura Mulvey coined the term “male gaze” and spearheaded the psychoanalytic and feminist turn in film theory. (Photo courtesy UChicago Film Studies Center)

Women on screen

Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey honors Miriam Hansen with a look at Max Ophüls.

There are few scholars who have shaped the way an entire field is taught. Laura Mulvey, says Daniel Morgan, chair of the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, is one of them.

Mulvey, a film theorist, coined the term “male gaze” and spearheaded the psychoanalytic and feminist turn in film theory. Her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is read widely even outside of her main field of cinema studies. When she came to speak at the Logan Center for the Arts last month, her cross-disciplinary star power filled all 129 seats of the screening room, with late guests crammed beside the entrance and crouched on the aisle stairs.

Mulvey’s talk, “The Cinema, the Female Star, and the Paradoxes of Mass Culture: Reflections on Max Ophüls’s La Signora di Tutti,” served as the second annual Miriam Hansen Memorial Lecture.

Hansen, the lecture series’ namesake, died in 2011, more than two decades after she first arrived at UChicago and helped create the Cinema and Media Studies program. Perhaps best known for her landmark 1991 book, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film, she was a leading figure in the “historical turn” in cinema studies, the study of cinema as a modernist medium, and the study of silent film and mass culture.

A professor at Birkbeck, University of London, and Hansen’s close friend, Mulvey considers UChicago a home away from home. She has taught and lectured here, and from her friendly conversation with UChicago faculty members before the event, it’s clear that she retains ties to the cinema faculty. “Welcoming her is more like a welcoming back,” said Morgan, who went on to argue that film scholars “need to be able to say why what we do matters.” Mulvey, he believes, is just the person to do so.

Choosing to lecture on Ophüls came naturally to Mulvey, who often discussed the German-born director with Hansen. Hansen herself had done quite a bit of work on Ophüls—particularly his 1933 film Liebelei—and in 2008 she invited Mulvey to campus to lecture on him. Ophüls was known for creating films in the “woman’s film” genre, and a number of his works are narrated from the female protagonist’s perspective.

Inspired by Hansen’s work on Liebelei, Mulvey reflected on La Signora di Tutti, or Everbody’s Woman. The 1934 drama is told as an extended flashback of the life of Gaby, a famous actress, as she lies dying after a suicide attempt. “The work,” Mulvey said, “is clearly about the need to constrain woman.”

She went on to describe the film’s two modes. La Signora di Tutti functions as both a domestic melodrama and an examination of the film industry itself, featuring both patriarchal and capitalist anxieties. Gaby’s sexuality is regulated and manipulated by the forces of cinema, Mulvey argued. While private scandal interferes with the film studio’s public relations construction of Gaby as a wholesome actress, her screen persona’s voice and body are harnessed by an industry determined to commodify her.

“At the heart of La Signora di Tutti is its contention that the film industry is complacent with the repression of sexuality,” Mulvey explained. The film, she thinks, reveals “Ophüls’ political, one might even say proto-feminist, intentions.”

In her parting words, Mulvey meditated on the relationship between her “great friend” Hansen and the director of “some of the most beautiful films ever made.” Both were Jewish intellectuals; both were modernists. Hansen shared Ophüls’s deep love of the cinema. And although Hansen was born two generations after Ophüls, through his works and her own “she lived the period.”