After 12 feature films, this weekend finds Pixar finally delivering a story featuring a female as the lead character with Brave. Set in 10th century Scotland, a young lady named Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) tries to alter her fate as determined by tradition and deals with the consequences that decision brings to her and her family. In conjunction with this landmark and to remind Hollywood the impact they can have, we here at Cinema Sentries wanted to highlight some of our favorite actresses and female characters.
His Girl Friday tells the story of Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), ace reporter for a fictional New York City newspaper, who returns from a leave of absence to inform her publisher (and boss), Walter Burns (Cary Grant), that she is departing the newspaper business for good. She has become engaged to an insurance salesman (Ralph Bellamy) and plans to settle down as a homemaker in Albany. This greatly concerns Walter because he will not only lose his best reporter, he will also lose his ex-wife to another man - an ex-wife he still loves. Hoping to change Hildy's mind (about business and pleasure), Walter takes every opportunity to delay her marriage and her departure.
This movie is one of my all-time favorites from Hollywood's Golden Age, and many of the reasons are obvious - from the sparkling dialogue to the chemistry between Grant and Russell to the glorious list of character actors in supporting roles to director Howard Hawks and his ability to keep a live theater feel to the film (it was based on a stage play) by letting the actors do everything they need to and by keeping his direction engaged but not intrusive.
But the best part about this film is the character of Hildy Johnson. Let me get this out of the way now: Russell fully embraces and embodies her role as Hildy, and as is the case with many characters from movies that have had decades to grow on many generations of us, I cannot envision anyone else playing her. But this isn't about Russell as Hildy. This is about Hildy, and about how complete she is as a woman.
Like characters played during the same era by Katharine Hepburn and Myrna Loy, Hildy Johnson has a very strong sense of equality and empowerment. It's evident from the opening scene and is reinforced throughout the film, both by how she carries herself and by how she is respected and treated by her male peers. And it's important to note that of the 19 credited characters in His Girl Friday, Hildy is one of only three women, and the only major female character in the film.
But that empowerment is wonderfully complimented by Hildy's unwillingness to sacrifice her own femininity. She is the ace reporter of the newspaper, in a field dominated by men, and has Cary Grant...Cary Grant...by the onions; and yet she is engaged to Ralph Bellamy (!). She yearns for a traditional marriage and a normal relationship with her mother-in-law, and she desires a life of being a homemaker in upstate New York, far away from the madness of the big city.
It's the greatest empowerment I think a female character can have: not simply finding success in a man's world, but finding success in a man's world and being willing to walk away from it for what you want, even if what you want might be viewed by everyone else as "less than" what you had. Empowerment is about having power, and having the choice to do whatever you want to do is the greatest power of all. Hildy has that power and uses it as she saw fit. And even though the ending doesn't go exactly as she had originally planned, she is still in control of her own destiny and makes the choices she wants to make.
By the time she made The Lady Eve, Barbara Stanwyck was a Hollywood veteran who, it seems, was adept in practically any role--whether it was daring (and sometimes salacious) dramas, light comedies, or maudlin tearjerkers, the woman could do it all effortlessly, and with an abundance of charm and verve. But it was not until Stanwyck teamed up with writer/director Preston Sturges that the true depths of her talent as a comedienne were finally revealed to moviegoers.
When Sturges created Jean Harrington, the con artist daughter who gleefully takes after dear old dad (Charles Coburn), he created a female character for the ages--a witty, wily woman who is downed by the one thing she never thought would ever affect her--love. And the director could not have found a better actress for the part than Stanwyck. She simply sparkles in the role--there's no other word for it. From the moment she drops a half-eaten apple on Henry Fonda's head, to her hilarious monologue as she analyzes her unsuspecting new target in her compact mirror, to her oh-so-sweet, disguised revenge as the titular Lady Eve Sidwich, every moment Stanwyck is onscreen, your eye is drawn to her. It's not just the innate sexiness of the character--though heaven knows there is enough heat between Stanwyck and Fonda to light the screen on fire--but the very genuine feelings her performance elicits in the audience.
There's a lively luminescence to Stanwyck's character that makes her zaniness somehow understandable--we feel for Jean, and we're drawn to her even in her moments of deviousness and mischief. She takes an almost perverse pleasure in her ability to so thoroughly emasculate Fonda's "Hopsie"--and so do we, because even in the meanest, most indefensible moment of her revenge, we can see that Jean still has heart, because her regret and heartbreak are telegraphed in every flicker of Stanwyck's expressive eyes. It's a delicate tightrope she walks here--sway too much to one side, and Jean slides into "irredeemable bitch" territory; lean too much toward the other, and she's little more than a comic caricature. That Stanwyck walks that tightrope so easily, making us both laugh at and feel for Jean in the process, is a testament to her unerring--and virtually unparalleled--skill as an actress.
Charlotte "Charlie" Newton (Teresa Wright), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) selected by Brandie Ashe
There is a moment in Alfred Hitchcock's brilliant suspense film Shadow of a Doubt when Teresa Wright--voice steely and shaded with hatred, eyes boring a virtual hole into co-star Joseph Cotten--tells her murderous Uncle Charlie, "Go away, I'm warning you. Go away or I'll kill you myself." And even though Wright's character, also named Charlie, is a mere slip of a girl compared to her tall and hulking uncle, there is little doubt that she will make a formidable opponent should he ignore her advice.
Though most movie fans probably remember Teresa Wright for her Oscar-winning performance in 1942's Mrs. Miniver, the arguably best role of the actress' career was in Doubt. As young Charlie, who gradually comes to discover that her beloved uncle is the infamous Merry Widow Killer, Wright is the perfect combination of sweet and ferocious, determined to protect her family--namely her daffy and trusting mother (Patricia Collenge)--from the truth about his crimes. Charlie is a meaty and beautifully fleshed-out character--no fading flower, but a forthright and proactive heroine, unafraid to question her uncle's motives or to threaten him with the same violence he brings upon others. Wright more than does Charlie justice. She innately captures her character's progression from a naive, small-town idealist to a worldly and all-too-knowing adult and, in the process, more than holds her own against the pitch-perfect chill of Cotten's Charlie--a difficult task for any actress, let alone one as relatively young as Wright (who was only twenty-five years old when she played the role).
The two play off one another beautifully, and their rapport only serves to underscore the theme of duality in the film--the notion that these two characters are, in essence, mirror images of one another. Wright even adapts her movements to those of Cotten--aping his manner of walking, echoing his subtle motions at the dinner table--to the point that there is a palpably physical pull between the two characters, making young Charlie's attempts to escape her uncle's machinations in the second half of the film so effectively desperate. Though her Charlie is not one of Hitchcock's better-known heroines--perhaps because the character is so different from the sexy sophisticates played by Hitch favorites like Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman--Wright's performance is nonetheless an indelible portrait of a young woman who learns the hard way about betrayal and the dark and sinister secrets which can permeate even the most idyllic of locales.
Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), Annie Hall (1977) selected by El Bicho
As a result of their starring together in six films throughout the 1970s, from the early, funny ones like Sleeper to more serious work like Manhattan, Diane Keaton and Woody Allen became the decade's iconic duo of the silver screen. Their most successful pairing is arguably Annie Hall, which Roger Ebert described as "just about everyone's favorite Woody Allen movie."
Annie Hall finds comedian Alvy Singer (Allen), who recently turned 40, reflecting on why things didn't work out with Annie. The narrative a stream of consciousness as he relates memories from his life and their relationship. When first seen together, they aren't getting along. She's in a bad mood, which he contributes to by blaming it on her period, because she missed her therapy session, which he takes personally. They also have sexual issues, though he makes her feels like it's her issue alone, unaware that taking a woman to see a four-hour documentary on the Nazis might not set the mood for romance. Later, though earlier in the relationship, we see them having a grand time trying to make a lobster dinner. By the end, he realizes theirs was a love not meant to last and comes to terms with it.
Through the course of the film, Keaton does a marvelous job showing the character's growth and earned an Academy Award for the performance. Annie is a shy, awkward, Midwestern girl when she comes onto the Alvy at the tennis club, shortly after meeting each other. During a break-up, she reveals a great vulnerability calling him over in the middle of the night under the pretense of killing a spider. Alvy pushes her to explore new things like college and therapy, unaware that she'll develop past a point of no longer needing him. He eventually becomes aware when he tries to retrieve her from Los Angeles, where she moves to to pursue her singing career. He offers a marriage proposal but is met by a strong woman, confident that she knows what's best for her.
Mathilda (Natalie Portman), Leon (1994) selected by Mark Buckingham
Some actresses spend years and years honing their craft to deliver the caliber performance Natalie Portman displayed in Leon (aka, The Professional). Despite being only 12 years old at the time, having no formal acting experience, and playing opposite the title character, she steals the show from co-star Jean Reno, paving the way for the distinguished roles that followed -- the precocious and charming Marty from Beautiful Girls, the iconic Queen Amidala in the Star Wars prequels, the tenacious and fearless Evey from V for Vendetta, and took Oscar honors for her portrayal of Nina in Black Swan, to name a few.
Her meteoric and calculated rise came as a surprise to no one who saw Leon. The film (particularly with the added benefit of extended scenes in the director's cut) had her heaving and screaming and crying and playing assassin apprentice like no one else her age could (or probably should). The range of emotions displayed and believability of her sentimentality toward her mentor are uncanny, and make it as excellent of a watch now as when it debuted 18 years ago. You feel her fear, hate, love, distrust, all fueling her growing attachment to the hitman without a heart. Luc Besson couldn't have cast the role better. She faces off not only with Jean Reno, but also Danny Aiello and Gary Oldman, and looks like a pro every minute of it.
This movie put Natalie on the map for a reason, and if you haven't seen it yet, you owe it to yourself to do so. Absolutely go for the extended cut if at all possible; the fact that these scenes were left out of the American theatrical release for being "too controversial" (especially compared with some of the incredibly risque stuff cut from the original French screenplay) is a crime against good cinema.
Jo March (Winona Ryder), Little Women (1994) selected by Kit O'Toole
Female action heroes can be exciting--think Sigourney Weaver in the Alien films or Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raider flicks--but sometimes a female hero can be silently strong, supporting her family while forging her own identity. Few films portray such a character better than the 1994 remake of Little Women, and Winona Ryder's Jo represents a fighter. However, instead of fighting monsters, Jo battled gender stereotypes as well as the never-ending struggle to balance family and career.
As in the classic Louisa May Alcott novel, the story takes place during and after the American Civil War. Jo, the most headstrong of the four sisters, wishes to become an author, yet is keenly aware of her expected role: caretaker. Her youthful tomboyish streak often horrifies her neighbors, but is encouraged by her open-minded mother. One of her playmates is Laurie, a neighbor boy who would years later propose to her. Shocking her sisters (particularly Meg, who dutifully marries young and begins a family), Jo turns down the proposal, instead moving to New York to fulfill her dream of becoming a writer. There she encounters Friedrich Bhaer, a German professor who encourages her to develop her craft and engage in spirited intellectual debates with him and his colleagues. But when Beth becomes deathly ill, Jo is called home to care for her sister and parents.
At first Jo seems resigned to giving up her dream, or at least postponing it due to her love of family. Beth tragically dies, and Amy returns with a new husband: Laurie. Despite all the disturbing news, Jo soldiers on, willingly helping her mother recover from Beth's death. Subsequently the girls' Aunt March dies, willing her house to Jo. Jo's mother subtly encourages her to open her own school, which Jo at first resists. Meanwhile Friedrich Bhaer, with whom she had developed a budding relationship in New York, travels to Concord to find Jo. She successfully persuades him to teach at her school; he in turn proposes to her, and she happily accepts. In the end, she is able to balance work, family, and love without giving up her intellectual aspirations.
Yes, Jo does not pack heat or display bulging biceps. What she possesses is inner strength, which she calls upon in trying circumstances. She never gives up her goals of becoming a writer, even when society frowned on a woman undertaking such a task. During a family crisis, she postpones her new life without apparent regret to rally round her family. While her sisters also gather at the family home, it is Jo who functions as the family's backbone. Finally, she found love in her intellectual equal rather than the handsome and fun (but immature) Laurie. Ultimately she overcomes gender stereotypes to embark on a life she chooses, and that, to me, defines a heroic female character.
Valerie Solanas (Lili Taylor), I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) selected by El Bicho
Lili Taylor gives an outstanding performance as radical feminist Valerie Solanas, writer of the SCUM Manifesto and attempted assassin of artist Andy Warhol (Jared Harris). She fully commits to a character that is fully committed to her own askew view of morality, reminiscent of Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver.
Without making excuses for her actions, the film shows the hard life Solanas lived. She had an opportunity to overcome her troubled upbringing due to how well she excelled at psychology in college, but her rebellious attitude, particularly towards men, who she thinks "aren't even complete human beings," led to her barely eeking out a living on the streets of New York working as prostitute and hustling for change.
Abuse from father is likely the source for her deep distrust of men. She is brought into The Factory and obsesses over the idea that Warhol should produce her play Up Your Ass, but he has no interest. She grows angry when Warhol loses her script. Maurice Girodias (Lothaire Bluteau), the publisher of Olympia Press, offers to publish a novel by her; however, once she signs the contract, paranoia takes over and she thinks she's been cheated. In the end, she feels she only has one path for redemption.
Taylor is utterly captivating creating such a vivid portrait. She exudes a wide range of emotions, from righteous indignation for her cause to utter apathy as she lets men use her for sex. It's one of my all-time favorite performances by an actress.