It’s unclear who (if anyone) will play Man Ray in an upcoming feature film about photographer Lee Miller, starring Kate Winslet as the model-turned-Surrealist-turned-World War II correspondent. In a way, that’s the point. The multitalented Miller is often pigeonholed as Man Ray's assistant, but this project casts her as the protagonist—with newly announced supporting roles going to her husband Roland Penrose (Jude Law), son Antony (Josh O'Connor, who portrayed the child of a very different British power couple as Prince Charles in The Crown), and French Vogue fashion director Solange D’Ayen (Marion Cotillard). After production expectedly begins in 2022, Miller will be introduced to cinematic audiences as the heroine, mirroring the growing scholarly and curatorial interest in her photographs that exposed the bizarre in the everyday, and documented wartime atrocities.
Lee focuses on an eventful decade in the photographer’s life, from 1938 to 1948, based on the biography written by Antony Penrose, The Lives of Lee Miller (originally published in 1985 and being rereleased this year by Thames & Hudson). After a brief modeling career, Miller studied photography under Man Ray in Paris and then moved to England where she photographed for British Vogue. Her difficult assignments included covering the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, and she’s also known for an eerily victorious shot of her soaking in Hitler’s bathtub on the day he committed suicide (taken by colleague David Scherman).
“The rights to make a Lee Miller movie have been optioned several times over the years but for some reason or another it never got made,” says Ami Bouhassane, Miller’s granddaughter, who is trustee of the Lee Miller Archives and co-director of Farleys House & Gallery. “Maybe we just needed to wait for the world to move on to a time like now when the film could be driven forward by, written and directed by women? Lee would not have labelled herself a feminist but…I feel sure she would have approved of this.”
Lee will be directed by Ellen Kuras (who was the cinematographer for I Shot Andy Warhol, a 1996 film about art historical antihero Valerie Solanas), and screenwritten by Liz Hannah in collaboration with the Lee Miller Archives (Hannah wrote The Post, which cast Meryl Streep as art-loving newspaper publisher Katharine Graham).
The Miller biopic is one of a handful of women-led film and TV projects initiated recently, dedicated to translating 20th century American women artists to the screen.
It was announced in 2019 that television writer Amy Sherman-Palladino would bring her fast-talking Gilmore Girls sensibility to Abstract Expressionist characters like Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan and Elaine de Kooning for an Amazon Prime series based on the book by Mary Gabriel, Ninth Street Women (2018). De Kooning is also the subject of a standalone feature being produced by Rose Pictures, based on a 2017 biography by Cathy Curtis, A Generous Vision. (The biography was optioned in 2019, but production has stalled due to the pandemic.)
“Maybe one day female artists [of] the past will be truly valued and re-inserted properly back into to the male canon history as the true equals they are,” says Bouhassane. Popularizing their personas with entertaining plotlines and beloved actors might be a shortcut to place them there.