Frears, Stephen Arthur

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Stephen Arthur Frears

British filmmaker Stephen Frears (born 1941) has directed critically acclaimed films in both the United Kingdom and the United States, showing an eagerness to explore new themes in a wide range of film genres.

Training Combined Film, Theater, and Television

Frears was born on June 20, 1941, in Leicester, England. As a child he attended Gresham's School, a prestigious boarding school in Norfolk. After studying law at Trinity College, he decided to enter the film industry instead. He had some theatrical training at London's Royal Court Theatre, and in the 1960s he worked as an assistant under top British directors Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, both known for their ambitious films covering a wide swath of English society.

In the late 1960s Frears, like several of his British cinematic contemporaries, worked in television as a director and producer. At the time, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) often espoused a progressive agenda that encouraged content pertaining to ordinary British citizens. Out of this era came filmmakers Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, who built their careers making socially conscious slice-of-life films. Although he has not kept strictly to social-realist styles in his own films, Frears has approached his films with class consciounesss in mind. As he reflected to Cynthia Lucia of Cineaste, “I come from the privileged middle classes. I can see that working-class people who have to struggle more in their lives are better equipped to deal with life.”

In 1971 Frears made his feature film debut with the mystery comedy Gumshoe, starring Albert Finney. A satire of detective films of the 1940s, the film features a score by the legendary songwriting team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Returning to British television, Frears worked on a series of films with writer Alan Bennett. Frears would continue to work closely with writers, making his own contribution as a director almost invisible in order to showcase the screenplay. “I do come second,” Frears told Lucia, of his relationships with writers. “I don't invent the films. I have a clear sense of that. What the writer has done, I admire. Maybe it has become less like that in recent years. Maybe it's a completely dishonest position. For all I know, it may just be entirely an act of self-concealment on my part.”

Frears frequently switched between television and feature films, a practice he would continue throughout his career. “All directors should be made to shoot pilots or B movies,” he told Tobias Grey of Variety. “It keeps you on your toes, and it's an antidote to self-importance.” In the late 1970s, Frears learned that his mother was Jewish, a fact that had been hidden from him during his childhood. He was brought up Christian and his mother died before he could talk to her about the subject. The moment was a creative turning point for Frears: he stopped making films about the England he grew up in and moved away from personal projects. Frears told Lucia that “I'd … grown up to be a rather secretive person. If I think about it, since secrets were being kept from me, I'm not surprised.”

Depicted Immigrant Family

In his next few movies, Frears explored issues of race, class, and sexuality. In 1985 he received international attention for My Beautiful Laundrette. Written by first-time screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, the film was made with a modest budget and intended for BBC television. Set in a crumbling London during the prime ministership of Margaret Thatcher, the film follows a young man caught between his Pakistani immigrant family and his lover, a homeless thug played by a then-unknown Daniel Day-Lewis. My Beautiful Laundrette was later released theatrically and earned Kureishi an Academy Award nomination for Original Screenplay.

Kureishi and Frears joined forces again in 1987 for the comedy Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, which likewise explored the sexual underground in lower-class London. In the same year, Frears directed Prick Up Your Ears, a biography of playwright Joe Orton, played by Gary Oldman. Based on a book by theater critic John Lahr, the film follows the short, troubled life of Orton, who is killed by his abusive lover, played in the film by Alfred Molina.

Frears made his Hollywood debut in 1988 with the costume drama Dangerous Liaisons, starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer. This frequently adapted story involves a cruel game of sexual deception played between beautiful and vicious aristocrats. The film won three Academy Awards and earned several nominations. An international success, Dangerous Liaisons was also recognized by the British and French film academies. In 1990 Frears stayed in Hollywood to make the post-noir film The Grifters. Based on a novel by Jim Thompson, the film follows the exploits of three con artists, played by John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and Annette Bening. The Grifters received attention at the Independent Spirit Awards and the Academy Awards, including a Best Director nomination for Frears.

Just as Frears seemed to be on the brink of establishing himself solidly in Hollywood, however, he suffered setbacks. The media satire Hero and the costume drama Mary Reilly both failed at the box office. Frears continued to experience success with the British made-for-television features The Snapper (1993) and The Van (1996). Based on books by Roddy Doyle, the two comedies concluded the so-called Barrytown trilogy that had begun with The Commitments, directed by Alan Parker. The stories are set in the tightly knit community of working-class Dublin. With its bittersweet tale of a scandalous pregnancy and a stellar ensemble cast including Colm Meaney, The Snapper earned a theatrical release and several awards in both Britain and the United States.

Adapted Hit Novel of Music Shop

Back in Hollywood, Frears tried his hand at Westerns with The Hi-Lo Country, featuring actors Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup as cowboys in love with the same woman. Some critics thought Frears was out of his element in this typically American genre, but with High Fidelity (2000), based on the popular novel by Nick Hornby, Frears was back on familiar territory. With his old colleague John Cusack as producer, co-screenwriter, and leading man, Frears seamlessly adapted the novel's original North London setting to Chicago, Illinois. Cusack appeared as a melancholy but charming record store owner trying to keep up with adult relationships. With excellent musical references and a supporting cast that included Jack Black, High Fidelity was a commercial success.

For his next challenge, Frears revived the long-dormant practice of live television drama with Fail Safe, starring George Clooney. Hosted by Walter Cronkite, the dramatic thriller was aired live in black-and-white on CBS, on April 9, 2000, and received several nods at the Emmy Awards. In the same year, Frears was honored with a tribute at the Toronto Film Festival. He remained modest about his success. He told Grey, “Personally, I make films for people who go to the pictures, ordinary people, the kind of people who don't often get to go to festivals.”

Over time, Frears established a balance between his British and American activities. Several of his British films of the early 2000s explored racism and class divisions. Made for the BBC, Liam (2000) looked at the anti-Semitism brewing among the working class in 1930s Liverpool. “It's absolutely inappropriate for the commercial cinema, but it's the kind of film I grew up making for the BBC,” Frears told Matt Wolf of Variety. For the first time in years, Frears was making a movie about life in the England he grew up in. Liam was also his first film to take on a Jewish subject since the point when he learned his mother was Jewish. In response to critics who charged that the film was anti-Semitic, Frears told Lucia, “I was insistent on casting Jewish actors. I wouldn't cast non-Jews to play Jews. Maybe that is a sort of anti-Semitism, I don't know; but I got into trouble.” Like My Beautiful Laundrette and The Snapper before it, the madefor-television Liam received a theatrical release.

In 2002 Frears explored the theme of illegal immigration in the thriller Dirty Pretty Things, starring Audrey Tautou and Nigerian-British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Returning to the social-realist themes of his earlier films, Frears worked with a multicultural cast to create a tense thriller rooted in unusual raw material: the brutal exploitation of immigrant service workers in London. Steven Knight, creator of the original Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay, and Dirty Pretty Things won a British Independent Film Award for Best Independent Film.

Frears's The Deal (2003), originally aired on Britain's Channel 4, was a docudrama—a film that recounted actual events but lightly fictionalized them and used professional actors to portray the individuals involved. Based on the book The Rivals by James Naughtie, the film follows the politicians Gordon Brown (played by David Morrissey) and Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen). Next, Frears teamed with British superstars Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins for the comedy Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005), based on a true story about nude shows at the historic Windmill Theater in London. Frears then reunited with screenwriter Peter Morgan forThe Queen, a follow-up to The Deal. Starring Helen Mirren as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the film traces the political aftermath of the death of Princess Diana. Originally made for television, The Queen received a theatrical release in 2006. It was showered with awards, including five Academy Award nominations and an Oscar for Helen Mirren.

After The Queen rose to international success, Frears found himself receiving honors and film festival retrospectives. However, he continued to work on small personal projects for British television. Few directors have been associated with as many high-profile, ambitious international successes as has Frears, yet general evaluations of his art are rare. As John Woodward told Maev Kennedy of the London Guardian, “Stephen Frears has been so modest about his success over the years, and about the range of genres that he has completely mastered, from Gumshoe to The Queen by way of The Grifters and Dangerous Liaisons, that sometimes he seems to have made himself almost invisible.”

Frears has been married twice, to Mary-Kay Wilmers and then to painter Anne Rothenstein. Each marriage produced two children; his son Will Frears, born to Frears and Wilmers in 1973, is a theatrical director. In addition to filmmaking, Frears has taught at the National Film & Television School in Beaconsfield, England, where he holds the David Lean Chair in Fiction Direction. He also taught a master class at the Zurich Film Festival in 2006, where he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Explaining the attraction of teaching, Frears told Grey that “If I was doing nothing I'd make another film, and I don't always want to make a film. So it provides work for idle hands.” In May of 2007, he became the first British director to serve as jury president of the Cannes Film Festival. Despite his high-ranking status in the world of cinema, Stephen Frears went on that year to direct the television series pilot Skip Tracer for CBS.


International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, 4th ed., St. James, 2000.


Cineaste, Fall 2003.

Guardian (London, England), May 18, 2007.

Variety, September 4, 2000; April 26, 2004; September 25, 2006; May 14, 2007.


“Like Pulling Teeth (Or Stealing Kidneys): Stephen Frears On Dirty Pretty Things.” Indiewire, (January 3, 2008).