The mother of modern movies

To Jane Campion, she's a hero. Now, with `Little Women', the world is waking up to Gillian Armstrong. Quentin Curtis met her
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HALF-WAY through a question about the reasons for the proliferation of women directors in her native Aust-ralia, Gillian Armstrong cuts me short. Could it be, I'd wondered, to do with government grants, or freedom from studios, or . . . ? "No, no," Armstrong chirpily interrupts. "All to do with me."

The first point to make is that it was a joke. Armstrong went on to her real answer (that because it is young the Australian industry is meritocratic). But it was a joke that flirted daringly with the truth. Gillian Armstrong is a pioneer and a role model. Before Armstrong made My Brilliant Career in 1978, no Australian woman had made a feature film for nearly 50 years (oddly, there were a few female directors in the 1930s). In the rest of the world there hadn't been a woman director of comparable stature for a similar stretch of time - since Leni Riefenstahl, a bizarre bed-mate for the radical liberal Armstrong. Since Armstrong started, the antipodes have given us a number of talented distaff directors, most notably Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof) and Jane Campion (The Piano), both of whom acknowledge their debt to Armstrong. To them she is the mother of modern women's film.

Armstrong's pleasure at such a progeny is tinged with a fear of being forced into a sexual ghetto. "I'm proud of being a role model," she says, "and of being a feminist - even though you're not allowed to say that any more. But I still see myself as mainly a director. Freedom will only come to women film-makers when we're accepted as individual artists." Armstrong has compounded the problem of being viewed as female, rather than a film-maker, by tackling characters spurned by male directors. Her films contain some of the strongest female roles in recent cinema: the heroine (Judy Davis) of My Brilliant Career, shirking convention for a career as a writer in 1890s Australia; Diane Keaton's prison-warder's wife in Mrs Soffel (1984), who runs away with an inmate; the cabaret singer reuniting with her daughter in High Tide (1987). You would think Armstrong was in danger of stereotyping herself with her latest film, Little Women, if she hadn't made such a luminous triumph out of it.

The thought occurred to Armstrong herself. She was initially reluctant to take on Little Women, whose heroine Jo March's struggle to be a writer is very close to that of Davis's Sybylla Melvin in My Brilliant Career. It was meeting Winona Ryder, who was one of the originators of the project, and being "inspired to put her on the screen as Jo", that persuaded Armstrong. Also there was a desire, shared by Ryder and producer Denise Di Novi, to "make a film that was positive about human values and the family, in the current climate of cynicism and trendy violence".

Among other plaudits, including three Oscar nominations, the film has won a Christopher Award from the Catholic church in America. Arm-strong, who also won a Christopher for My Brilliant Career, says she's accepting it "as a humanist award". The Christo-pher raises the question of just what sort of a book Little Women is - radical or reactionary? Some American conservatives have seized on the film as a reaffirmation of family values; feminists over here have charged the novel with fostering a conformist view of women's place in society. Armstrong thinks that is an anachronistic reading, and is sanguine about the novel's family values: "I would be the last to say that there was only one way a family should operate. But I'm happy if the film makes people put a value on the family. It's about family being there for one another."

You can understand Armstrong's bemusement at being hailed by the moral majority. She once told an interviewer: "I really think that it's impossible to say love will last forever, and I believe relationships should be a lot more flexible." That was 10 years ago, and she described it as her "one small rebellion in life", suggesting that she wouldn't marry or have children. She has since done both. Born in Mel-bourne in 1950, but living in Sydney, she now shares baby clothes with Jane Campion, as well as a cinematic sensibility. Of her husband she will only say: "The Armstrongs came to Australia as ministers to save the souls of the poor convicts, and now I live with the descendant of a convict." A sceptical inquiry into marriage and parenthood has run through her work. Not just in her feature films, but in a series of documentaries, which, in the manner of Michael Apted's Seven Up, have returned to a group of working-class Sydney girls, at the ages of 14, 18 and 26, and reported on the ravages dealt them by relationships and pregnancies.

This note of wariness - the spiky, irreverent humour best displayed in Armstrong's second movie, the rock musical Starstruck (1982) - is usually accompanied by a full-throated howl of emotion. She admits that both High Tide and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1993), which both dealt with family betrayal, were too jaggedly demanding for some viewers. "You either go with it, and it works," she says, "or you run away from it." With Little Women most people have gone with it. Armstrong herself wept when she saw the rough cut, and she and Ryder sobbed when they rehearsed the scene where Susan Sarandon's Marmee returns home to care for the fevered Beth. Armstrong describes as her proudest moment a screening for studio executives when she realised she'd reduced 20 men in suits to blubbering wrecks. The final test, she says, will be in her native Australia, "the land of the cynics".

Sooner or later most Australian directors swap cynicism for lucre, taking the trek to Hollywood. The first wave of emigrants included Peter Weir and Fred Schepisi, a hero of Arm-strong's with whom she worked as an assistant; after them followed a second generation including Phillip Noyce, with whom Armstrong was at film school. Today's younger directors tend to make just a single feature before leaving. Armstrong has paid more dues to her native industry than most. The cynics might say the reason for that was the failure of her first studio picture, Mrs Soffel. But Little Women has brought her back into favour, and it looks likely that her next project, an adaptation of Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, will be financed in the States.

Over the years Armstrong has got used to being treated as something of a freak by journalists. In the early days, male reporters would express surprise that she wasn't bigger (she stands a shade under 5ft 6ins), and that she was "quite reasonably attractive", as if they had been expecting to confront some monstrous amazon. She no longer does interviews in restaurants, to forestall cheap comments about the aggression with which she attacks her fish. And she insists on a right of veto over photographs accompanying interviews. She describes it as "almost a political motivation - apart from total vanity". Yet she is not party political, and has resisted all overtures from feminist groups, some of which have attacked her work for having a "man's slickness" and for depicting conflict between women.

Both Little Women and My Brilliant Career have been criticised for glamorising their heroines. Armstrong argues that these women are not meant to be ugly, just insecure about their looks, in a way that women were then, and are now, with society placing such a premium on feminine appearance. But she is also attacking a myth about female accomplishment: that women only succeed because of sexual frustration, as compensation for failing to catch a man. This was a central factor in presenting a Jo, in Winona Ryder, who didn't have the usual tomboyish connotations.

It's been a key concern in Arm-strong's career too. "As one of the first women working in a man's world, I was supposed to be aggressive, stony and tough," she complains. "But maybe I was actually just good." There is no doubting her quality - though toughness goes with the territory in directing, and underneath Armstrong's surface bonhomie there's a steely control. But hers is a feminism that isn't afraid to wear frills. "There are gross preconceptions about female achievers," she says. "That's why I always wear my lipstick."

! `Little Women' (U) opened on Friday, and is reviewed in the main paper.