11 November 2008

There's Nothing Like a Dame


I love women.

I find women, on average, far nicer to look at than men (sorry, guys). I also find females endlessly fascinating. The clothing, the smell, the voice, the walk. Very nice. But it's not just sex or sensuality. Women are more at peace with the world. They are by nature nurturing and sensitive.

I think so highly of women I married one. As an extra blessing of that union I fathered two daughters.

I now confess that most of my friends over the years have been males. Us guys speak the same lingo. The vast majority of women wouldn't dream of wasting time blathering about linebackers or the Stanley Cup.

Thankfully movies have done an excellent job at various times of celebrating women. Some would says films have often idealized women. Balderdash! They've merely represented them. What follows is ten examples of ten very different women in powerful roles that I believe represent some of the finer qualities of women. I tried to include a variety of types of women. I admittedly leaned to more physically striking women.

Barbara Stanwyck as Jean Harrington in The Lady Eve (1941). She's a high class grifter who falls for a mark Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), the scion of a beer fortune. Stanwyck's seduction of Fonda is the hottest G-rated scene you'll ever see (see picture, above). Who wouldn't melt in her arms? But Harringotn is also tough. When alerted to Harrington's past, Pike drops her like a bad habit. Hell hath no fury, folks. But Harrington doesn't just get mad, she gets even. What better revenge than to make the poor sap fall for her again?
Stanwycyk as Harringon is tough, smart and beautiful. The ultimate triple threat. It's a man's world? Not where Jean Harrington is concerned.

Sophia Loren as Cesira in Two Women (1960). Women can endure far beyond the capabilities of your average man. A woman with a child can endure beyond anything the world has ever seen. Witness Loren as the mother of young teenage daughter in war torn Italy. Yes she's strikingly beautiful, but the real beauty radiates from within this extraordinary character. What she goes through you'd not wish on your worst enemy and Cesira is a woman you'd want as your best friend. Cesira's courage throughout is one of film's most powerful tributes to womanhood.

Pam Grier as Jackie Brown in Jackie Brown (1997). The power and the glory of a seemingly ordinary woman. Jackie is a stewardess and a smuggler for one bad mutha of a crook, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). When Jackie is busted she's given the chance for freedom if she sets up Robbie. She agrees. But our Jackie has had enough of being used whether by her bosses both legit and illegitimate, the cops or society. This is a tough middle aged black woman who's going to use her toughness for a big score, even if it meets triple dealing. Jackie betrays vulnerability and fear but nothing that will stop her. Grier was given the role of a lifetime and made full use of it creating an indelible character who finds a way out of the urban jungle.

Greta Garbo as Queen Christina in Queen Christina (1933). We go from modern day L.A. to 17th century Sweden and its royal court. Garbo plays a very different sort of Queen. One comfortable in bed with either gender! But it is a man who she falls for, a Spanish emissary no less. The Protestant queen in love with a Catholic? Here's a real scandal! Christian seduces Antonio (John Gilbert) and they share a room -- in an inn! Yes, this is a movie that earned a lot of exclamation points. Mostly because our heroine doesn't let being the ruler of a powerful European country stand in the way of sex or love with the partner of her choice. A women not shy about flouting convention can be fascinating, especially when played by Garbo.

Elizabeth Taylor as Gloria Wandrous in BUtterfueld 8 (1960). The story of a high class hooker may not seem fitting for such a list. But forget what Taylor's Gloria does and focus on how and why she does it. This is not a particularly good film but Taylor is magnificent in it. At the beginning of the movie she's leaving an evening's assignation with an expensive... shall we say, souvenir. Gloria takes as good, if not better than she gives. Sure she's forced by circumstance into men' beds but Gloria is in charge of what Gloria does. The movie and most of all Ms. Taylor's performance deserved a better more satisfying ending. Ultimately this is the story of a woman who made some poor life choices, yet managed to remain true to herself thoguhout.

Marlene Dietrich as Helen Faraday in Blonde Venus (1932). My God she even looks fantastic in a gorilla suit. Women can be complicated and they can screw up just like men do. Dietrich's Faraday makes her share of mistakes. But Faraday is one of the most devoted mothers of film and a good wife too. When her husband goes to Europe to seek a cure for radiation poisoning, Faraday the housewife returns to the cabaret in a nightclub act for the ages. Why? To fund hubby’s trip. Trouble ensues when she falls for a wealthy young man played by Cary Grant. When her husband (Herbert Marshall) returns cured and outraged at the betrayal Faraday takes to the road, son in tow. Ultimately she hits the skids losing it all. Only to bounce right back to the top. Faraday encompasses more strength, talent, beauty, vulnerability and capacity for love than even any woman could dream of, let alone three men in one. What a dame!

Diane Keaton as Annie Hall in Annie Hall (1977)
>. There are so many great lines, so many memorable moments in this landmark film that its easy to forget Keaton's transformative performance as the title character. As much as anything else this is the story of one woman's growth. from insecure, fumbling, giggling innocent to smart, talented sophisticated, self-assured Manhattanite. Director Woody Allen has an amazing capacity to direct women in brilliant performances (Keaton, Mia Farrow, Diane Weist, Scarlett Johannson, Penelope Cruz, Mira Sorvino). In Annie Hall Keaton is everything from cute to sexy, from naive to knowing from novice to star.

Katherine Hepburn as Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby (1938)
. What's this? You say. Hepburn was nothing but a ditzy broad in this film. Seemingly yes. But what did Vance want and what did she get? Yes, like many women she set her sights on a target and gets him or it. In this case it was Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant). She fumbled and bumbled her way to this ultimate goal and tickled our funny bones along the way. Some people (aka idiots) don't think that women can be funny. They've never seen this movie. And speaking of idiots, Vance is not one. She may be a bit eccentric but she's a smart, good looking woman who knows what she wants.

Asia Argento as Vellini in The Last Mistress (2007). Speaking of knowing what you want...She can't have him, want get him. Not happening. She doesn't stop. Really this pick is about the ability of some women on screen to just make us guys melt into a useless puddle. Argento is physically stunning. She plays a woman who would seem to be quite skilled in the art of making love. In some circumstances throughout history that's all a woman has had and Argento's Vellini knew how to use it in this tale set among the aristocracy of 18th century France. Argento does what great actresses have done throughout film history: seduce audience members.

Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Obviously women do not have to be young and beautiful to succeed in the world or on screen. Witness Darwell's unforgettable performance in this John Ford classic. As the matriarch of an extended family of Midwestern farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl, California-bound Darwell is as emotionally strong as Goliath was physically. Unlike Goliath there was no David to slay her. She kept on no matter what. Ma Joad was not just strong but wise. She understood reality and faced it head on. And never mind wants. She dealt in a world where can and will were all that mattered.

That was hardly enough was it? No Bette Davis character. Nothing from Jeanne Moreau, Joan Crawford, Kate Winslet, Jean Simmons, Norma Shearer, Simone Signoret or Faye Dunaway. This'll obviously have to be part one. Look for part two in the weeks to come.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

What? No Bette Davis? No Scarlett O'Hara? Oh well, i liked the list anyway

Anonymous said...

No, I am even more incensed there is no Mae West. Grr.

Christina said...

Loved the list. Can't wait for part 2. I thought Diane Keaton was an interesting choice, but makes a lot of sense now that I think about it.

But Richard - this post was linked on IMDB! Congrats! I read articles on that site all the time and this headline looked interesting and when I clicked it - boom! Your homepage! I was so surprised and happy for you! Soooo great. :)

Anonymous said...

What about Nicole Kidman in Portrait of a Lady?

Anonymous said...

Meryl Streep? No? Seriously?

Anonymous said...

I love this list. I haven't actually seen any of these movies, but I am a woman, a sexual egalitarian and a film lover, and I'm frustrated by the way women often receive eye-candy roles with little or no character development. I'd honestly rather see a more "traditionally feminine" woman who has a complex, interesting role in the story than a gun-toting girl who has no real purpose in the story. These movies sound wonderful; I'll have to check them out.

Also, I have a question for you. I suspect that many men actually prefer these types of complex, independent female characters to the pure eye candy they are often given. As a man, what's your perspective on that? Can you confirm it, deny it, what?

Papageiena said...

Don't forget Scarlett O'Hara, 'Lion in Winter's Queen Eleanor, Auntie Mame, Lillian Gish in 'Night of the Hunter', and anything with Meryl Streep! :) A fine list! I'm eager to see more.

And I echo anonymous 1:12 PM's curiosity. Independent or eye candy?

Richard Hourula said...

Eye candy is nice while the woman is on screen. But what lasts in a man's heart and mind is a woman of substance. A men of any sort of depth is going to be more interested in a woman of strong character who has an interesting take on life. Those are the kind of women I tried to include on this list and will have in part two coming this weekend.

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