Family & Companions
An unflinching director who often showcased a complex and erotic side of women rarely seen in conventional Hollywood movies, Jane Campion emerged from her native Australia as a celebrated and decorated auteur. Following her award-winning days as a student filmmaker, Campion arrived on the scene with "Sweetie" (1990), a stylish and disturbing look at the destruction of a family by a psychologically disturbed sibling. But it was her multi-award winning romantic drama, "The Piano" (1993) that introduced her to a worldwide audience. Passionate, moving and unrepentantly erotic, the film was lauded for its lush visualization of the complex emotions of a woman's sexual awakening. The film earned many awards, including an Academy Award for Campion's screenplay, though the director had great difficulty repeating her success. In fact, several of her subsequent films were rather uneven - though never dull - despite her continued exploration of the power of female sexuality, as she did with "The Portrait of a Lady" (1996), "Holy Smoke" (1999) and "In the Cut" (2003). While some critics may have deemed her work as polarizing, a vast majority praised her originality and willingness to push boundaries, which demonstrated that Campion remained a daring and provocative filmmaker all throughout her career.
Born on April 30, 1954 in Wellington, New Zealand, Campion was raised in a theatrical family by her father, Richard, a theater director and cofounder of the New Zealand Players Company, and her mother, Edith Armstrong, an actress who performed at the Old Vic in London, England. Displaying an early aptitude for art, she developed an eye for the unusual and idiosyncratic, which was later manifested in her later films. Although interested in acting, Campion decided to earn her bachelor's degree in anthropology while attending Victoria University in Wellington. After graduating, she tried pursuing her artistic ambitions in Venice and London, but wound up studying painting at the Sydney College of the Arts in Australia, where she began to experiment with film, shooting her first short, "Tissues" (1979), about a father who had been arrested for child molestation. Moving on to the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Campion made several award-winning shorts, including "Peel" (1982), which centered on a power struggle over discipline between a child and his father. The nine-minute short won the Palme d'Or for Best Short Film at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. For her senior thesis, she directed "A Girl's Own Story" (1984), which introduced the themes of women, sexuality and rites of passage that were prevalent in her later work.
While in school, Campion worked with the Women's Film Unit, a government-sponsored program for whom she directed "After Hours" (1984), a short film about a female office worker who is fired from her job after claiming sexual harassment by her boss. After a detour into television with "Two Friends" (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1986), Campion made her feature debut with the darkly stylish "Sweetie" (1990), a disturbing study of familial tensions brought about by a mentally unstable young woman (Genevieve Lemon). Acclaimed for its visual style, strong performances and comic originality, "Sweetie" earned the Best Film prize from the Australian Critics Awards while winning an Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Feature. Campion's second feature, "An Angel at My Table" (1991), was originally intended as a television movie. Working from a script by Laura Jones, which was adapted from the autobiography of New Zealand writer Janet Frame, Campion fashioned a biopic that detailed an unconventional story. Tracing Frame from her awkward childhood through a nervous breakdown, which resulted in stays at mental institutions, to her eventual fulfillment as a writer, Campion once again displayed a flair for observant detail and lush visuals. The film was an intimate look at an atypical central figure - a shy, plain woman who sought to define herself through her writing.
When she was fresh out of film school in 1984, Campion began working on a screenplay about the colonial past of New Zealand. Over nearly a decade, she developed the project into what became her most acclaimed feature to date, "The Piano" (1993), an intensely erotic story told from a female perspective. The story was fairly simplistic: a mute woman, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), enters into an arranged marriage and moves halfway around the world to the New Zealand wilderness with her illegitimate, but strong-willed daughter (Anna Paquin) and her piano. Her new husband (Sam Neill) refuses to transport the instrument and sells it instead to George Baines, a settler gone native (Harvey Keitel). But George agrees to return the piano if Ada teaches him how to play, which results in increasingly charged sexual encounters. Once again, Campion's hallmarks of gorgeous photography - the landscape almost became another character - and strong performances aligned to produce a remarkably original Gothic drama. "The Piano" earned numerous awards, including the Palme d'Or at Cannes - the first for a female director. Campion also became only the second woman nominated for the Best Director Oscar. Although she lost in that category, she did win for Best Original Screenplay, as did Hunter for Best Actress and Paquin for Best Supporting Actress.
Campion's long awaited follow-up was an adaptation of Henry James' novel, "The Portrait of a Lady" (1996), written by Laura Jones and starring Nicole Kidman. Despite initial promise, critics were divided upon its release. Some found the film static and miscast, while others praised its intelligence and the director's injection of sexual matters only hinted at in James' novel. With a poor showing at the box office to go along with the mixed critical reaction, Campion suffered the first chink in her armor. She next collaborated with her sister, Anna, to co-write the screenplay for her next directing effort, "Holy Smoke" (1999), a satirical drama in which an Australian family hires a noted cult deprogrammer (Harvey Keitel) to retrieve and restore their errant daughter (Kate Winslet) from an Indian guru. Their subsequent battle of wills, which Campion once again amplifies with an overpowering sexual component, drove the always compelling narrative. While the film started on a promising note, with Campion joining forces with another fearless actress, the ultimate execution was flawed, murky and ultimately unsatisfying.
A planned reunion with Nicole Kidman was in store for Campion's next effort, "In the Cut" (2003), an adaptation of Susanna Moore's novel. But the in-demand actress required Kidman to cede the role to another. Campion cast a maturing Meg Ryan - who was looking to break out of her stereotypical adorable roles - as a troubled New York writing professor who, after getting involved in a crime, becomes embroiled in an erotic and dangerous affair with a police detective (Mark Ruffalo). Once again, Campion put the psychosexual politics of her characters in sharp relief and had a willing collaborator in Ryan, who gamely agreed to a controversial full-frontal nude scene. But again, the outcome was uneven, with the director's singular vision bogged down by the conventional thriller elements that were grafted onto the story. After writing and directing the 17-minute short, "The Water Diary" (2006), which was shown at Cannes, Campion made a surprisingly tame romantic drama, "Bright Star" (2009), which detailed the brief three-year affair between Fanny Browne (Abbie Cornish) and English poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), who died tragically from the effects of tuberculosis at the age of 25.
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Directed first short film, "Tissues," while a student at Sydney College of the Arts
Made first short film, "Peel"; also wrote and edited
Directed the short film, "Passionless Moments"
Directed the short film "After Hours" for the Women's Film Unit in Australia
Shot her thesis film, "Girls Own Story"
Directed first Australian TV-movie, "Two Friends"
Made feature directing debut with "Sweetie"; also co-wrote with Gerald Lee
Helmed second feature, "Angel at My Table"
Acted opposite her mother Edith Armstrong in the comedy short, "The Audition"; directed by her sister Anne Campion
Received International acclaim for directing "The Piano"; also wrote
Directed Nicole Kidman in "The Portrait of a Lady"; based on a Henry James novel
Directed and co-wrote (with sister Anna) "Holy Smoke"; starred Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet
Directed Meg Ryan in the erotic thriller, "In the Cut"; also wrote
Wrote and directed the 17-minute segment, "The Water Diary" for an eight-part feature titled "8"
Debuted her film "Bright Star" at the Cannes Film Festival