When we first see Dian Fossey — portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, nominated for an Oscar for her performance — in the biopic Gorillas in the Mist, she’s briskly walking up stairs at a sprawling college campus in Louisville, Kentucky. She looks pristine, as do her surroundings. She’s well-dressed, her hair perfectly coiffed, her eyes glowing with hope and curiosity. She’s the image of health, intelligence, cleanliness, and acceptable American womanhood in the 1960s.
That will not last.
Dian Fossey, a zoologist, primatologist, and anthropologist, was a controversial figure because she approached her work with primates in their natural habitat in a radical and unconventional way. But it was, of course, also because she was a woman in the wild. Before Cheryl Strayed wrote her book Wild about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, and Reese Witherspoon made a feminist masterpiece of it on the big screen, there was Gorillas in the Mist: a film that tells Fossey’s complicated story, three years after she was murdered in 1985 in her cabin in Rwanda.
The film celebrates the beautiful creatures Dian was sent to track by famed anthropologist Louis Leakey and her profound connection to them, which led to her living on a mountain, endangering her life in the process. She ultimately positioned herself to battle frustrated poachers protecting their way of life, despite the illegal killing of gorillas.
Dian’s arrival in the Republic of the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in Africa illustrates a rejection of all that was traditionally feminine in her previous life — an engagement to a man, not to mention her blow dryer, which she insists on having in the early part of her journey. By the end, she’s stripped herself of all those aesthetic concerns, at least outwardly.
Fossey established her own site in 1967, named the Karisoke Research Center, in a rainforest camp in Rwanda, where much of the film’s story focuses. Throughout the film, as she journeys away from that woman in the first frame, we watch her fall in love not just with her African surroundings and gorilla subjects, but with her own power. At one point Dian bellows, “Get off my mountain!” — which could be viewed as a problematic or colonial statement as she is a white woman claiming ownership of a land not hers. In that moment, she perhaps reveals a deeper desire to detach from people whom she felt controlled or judged her. In Africa, she’s hated by poachers, but she’s unapologetically claimed her agency.
The film also explores Dian’s relationship with photographer Bob Campbell (Bryan Brown). The two begin an affair after he becomes the sole photographer of her work with the gorillas. The photos serve as documentation of the emotional bond that Dian developed with them. But the images are also a foreshadowing; Dian long ago gave up notions of being a traditional woman or wife, a decision that ultimately impacts their relationship. Fossey’s friend Rosamund Carr (portrayed by Julie Harris) confirms that her heartbreak over the end of her relationship profoundly affected her, confirming the film’s accuracy as well.
At times it seems so clear that Dian should leave, where she looks worn out and miserable, as well as genuinely sick (Fossey had asthma, and was also a smoker). The inspiration that made her eyes glow in the first few scenes is gone, replaced by a determination to not surrender and a desire to control her environment. Her fearlessness, however, is admirable; her drive, awe-inspiring. She spent years sacrificing her own needs to do work that had never done before, work that would have long-term impacts. Weaver shows not only that Fossey was devoted to studying her creatures, but that, at a certain point, they were her true love, for better or worse.
In 1967 women were on the verge of a revolution, forging their path by demanding equal respect and opportunities. Fossey didn’t fight that battle in everyday society, but she lived and died as a symbol of defiance of the expectations put on women. Just by doing work that she loved and believed in, Fossey made a statement about women’s value in the world.
Gorillas in the Mist doesn’t rob you of mourning. But it also doesn’t paint Fossey as a fool or victim. Her death was a horrific tragedy. But the movie shows you her fearless leadership, as she faced peril. She had every opportunity to jump off the track and move far from her mountain. But she refused.
Adapted from the screenplay from Fossey’s autobiography, screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan offers insight into Fossey’s mentality. Phelan recalled her visit to Fossey’s cabin, in Linda Seger’s screenwriting book Creating Unforgettable Characters. The visit occurred just weeks after Fossey’s death. With police tape everywhere, Phelan was unable to go inside. However, she peeked in her closet from a window. Hanging in the closet, she saw a ball gown, which she later learned was from the department store Bonwitt and Teller. That moment inspired Phelan to write the screenplay. Why was Fossey holding on to a ball gown in the middle of the wild? Phelan and Weaver’s performance show that Fossey lived by her own standards and didn’t care to be desired or liked. Perhaps she looked at that fancy gown in her closet and recalled her past life; perhaps she even longed for her former life. But she never fully returned to it.
As risky as her decision was, she stayed the course, refusing to be any other kind of woman than the one she became with the gorillas on that mountain.
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International carried on Fossey’s work in the Karisoke Research Center, “dedicated to the conservation and protection of gorillas and their habitats in Africa.”
See also at Bitch Flicks: Biopic and Documentary Week: ‘Gorillas in the Mist’
Jessica Quiroli is a minor league baseball writer for Baseball Prospectus and the creator of Heels on the Field: A MiLB Blog. She’s also written extensively about domestic violence in baseball. She’s a DV survivor. You can follow her on Twitter @heelsonthefield.