Born in Ontario, Canada, Harron grew up with a family that was entrenched in the world of film and theater. Her father, Donald Harron, is an actor, author, director, comedian, and writer. Harron’s first stepmother, Virginia Leith, was discovered by Stanley Kubrick and acted in one of his first films. She also had featured roles in other movies such as the 1956 version of A Kiss Before Dying and The Brain That Wouldn't Die (Leith’s brief acting career partly inspired Harron's interest in making The Notorious Bettie Page). Harron’s stepfather is Stephen Vizinczey, a novelist and screen writer, and another of her stepmothers is the singer Catherine McKinnon. Harron’s sister, Kelley Harron is an actor and producer.
Harron moved to England when she was thirteen and later attended Oxford University. Whilst in England she dated Tony Blair who would later become the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She then moved to New York City and was part of its 1970’s punk scene. She helped start and write for Punk magazine as a music journalist -- she was the first journalist to interview the Sex Pistols for an American publication.
In addition to her films, Harron was also the executive producer of The Weather Underground, a documentary looking at the radical activists of the 1970’s. She has also worked in television, directing episodes of Oz, Six Feet Under, Homicide: Life on the Street, The L Word and Big Love. She is currently developing a film based on the book Please Kill Me which details the 1970’s New York punk scene of which she was so much a part.
She lives in New York with her husband, filmmaker John C. Walsh, and their two children Ruby and Ella Walsh.
Harron’s first movie, I Shot Andy Warhol, released in 1996, is the story of the real life Valerie Solanas. After a life filled with hardship and abuse, she becomes radically embittered by patriarchy, and decides to shoot the famous pop artist Andy Warhol as a statement against the arrogant domination of male power figures. Failing to attract serious recognition from Andy Warhol, who says he will look over a play she wrote and wants produced, Valerie is filled with resentment and shoots Warhol, but does not kill him. Solanas has received recognition because of this movie and her extreme views in the now infamous SCUM Manifesto, a book detailing her ideas for ridding the world of men. In the movie Harron uses the character of Solanas to represent the outrage that many women feel towards the repressive patriarchy. While the movie speaks to larger issues of power, it also shows how oppression affects someone on an emotional and personal level. Harron related to Solanas’ struggle:
While Solanas was never able to produce her play, Harron was able to make her movie and was able to tell Solanas’ story. I Shot Andy Warhol does not glorify Valerie Solanas; it pleads her case by showing that she was the product of a larger system of cruelty, and was not a lunatic, but a frustrated member of society.
Harron’s second film, like her first, is also about deconstructing gender. Like Solonas, Bateman is influenced by the roles of gender in our society. In the movie, Bateman faces the pressures of manhood, of making money, and of gaining power while denying emotions. He is forced to such an extreme, inhuman state of apathy, materialism, and detachment, that he begins killing people at random to confirm his power, which is all he has. Harron again uses a single character to communicate larger themes and tensions concerning gender and power in America.
The Notorious Bettie Page, released in 2005, is about the 1950s pinup model who became a cult icon of sexuality and who helped popularize pornography. Harron shows Page as the daughter of religious and conservative parents, as well as the fetish symbol who became a target of a Senate investigation of pornography. For this project, as well as for I Shot Andy Warhol, Harron had to do historical research and interviewed several friends of Page’s, as well as her first husband. Page was legally bound to another project and was thus unable to do an interview, but not being attached to Page meant that Harron was free to create a subjective representation of Page. Harron saw Page as an unwitting feminist figure who represented a movement for women’s sexual liberation, ironically similar, yet dissimilar to Solonas’. About the film, Harron says in an interview:
Like Page, Harron also does not follow a strict feminist ideology, but has instead openly explored issues, instead of tying herself to a single perspective on gender. She is not aiming to create political films, but may end up doing so anyway, in her attempt to express a woman’s point of view. She says in an interview:
As executive producer:
Harron was also a researcher on a 1987 documentary about Andy Warhol.
Film: What Once Seemed So Controversial Is Now Stylish, but Not Very Scary ; American Psycho (18) Mary Harron, 101 Mins
Apr 23, 2000; There's a sureness of touch to American Psycho as early as the opening credits. Drops of red fall across the screen, then stream...