Film and Theatre

Selfish Cinema: Questions of Gender and Control in Adaptations of Ayn Rand for the Screen

This lecture examines onscreen representations of the work and legacy of influential, pro-capitalist writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, infamous for her theory of selfishness as a virtue. It explores two films: King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (1949), based on Rand’s 1943 novel, for which she was screen writer, and Chris Menaul’s The Passion of Ayn Rand (1999), an adaptation of Barbara Branden’s biography of Rand, starring Helen Mirren. The Fountainhead tells the story of Rand’s ideal heroic man, Howard Roark (played by Gary Cooper), an individualistic architect whose single-minded desire is to design and execute his vision of what a building should be: formally, functionally, and aesthetically. In her collaboration with Vidor, Rand demanded - and obtained - a degree of control over the film that was almost unprecedented for a writer in Hollywood at the time, made all the more extraordinary by the fact that she was a woman in a very male-dominated industry. In the film, Roark functions as Rand’s onscreen representative and his literal, architectural edifices convey in physical form the audacity of Rand’s philosophical one. The Passion of Ayn Rand, by contrast, paints an intimate portrait of Rand’s personal life and details the emotional control and manipulation she exerted over her husband, lover, friends and followers. In Menaul’s film, stripped of a heroic (male) onscreen representative or alter ego, the Randian character as a female selfish subject is rendered both vulnerable and monstrous in ways that I argue are specifically gendered. More broadly, then, the two filmic examples enable me to explore the gender politics of film adaptation and biographical representation, as well as of the philosophy of selfishness. 

Lisa Downing is Professor of French Discourses of Sexuality at the University of Birmingham, UK. She is the author of numerous books, articles, and chapters on sexuality and gender studies, film, and critical theory. Recent authored books include: The Cambridge Introduction to Michel Foucault (Cambridge University Press, 2008), Film and Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters (co-authored with Libby Saxton, Routledge, 2010), The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer (University of Chicago Press, 2013), and Fuckology: Critical Essays on John Money’s Diagnostic Concepts (co-authored with Iain Morland and Nikki Sullivan, University of Chicago Press, 2015). She is currently editing a volume entitled After Foucault for Cambridge University Press, and writing a monograph on female selfishness, of which the seminar paper at Edinburgh is a part. 

Film reel

Selfish Cinema: Questions of Gender and Control in Adaptations of Ayn Rand for the Screen

Prof. Lisa Downing of the University of Birmingham will be giving a seminar titled "Selfish Cinema: Questions of Gender and Control in Adaptations of Ayn Rand for the Screen”.

Lecture Theatre 1
Appleton Tower
Edinburgh
EH8 9LE