Feminine Iconology Revisited, Part One

The 101st International Women’s Day took place in March 2012. To mark that hugely important milestone, MostlyFilm dedicated two days to some of the most iconic, glorious females in Hollywood. One writer, one actress, one decade. You’ll have to imagine that a single person can represent an entire gender for an entire ten year span. Bear with us on that, whilst we revisit the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

Of course, the limitations of the brief mean that some big names have been missed. No Elizabeth Taylor, Louise Brooks, Jane Russell? Huge names, but that’s fine, it’s not a competition. There’s no thesis presented here, just personal choice. Each writer chose an actress they felt represented their decade, from the 1920s to the 2000s. You may draw your own conclusions of the evolution of the role and perception of women in the movies, of course.

We did not set out to create a definitive list – that would be absurdly arrogant – and no doubt you will have your own views on who best represents each decade. That’s why we have a comment box…

1920s – Lillian Gish
by Jen Corcoran

With a career spanning more than 75 years, Lillian Gish is regarded as one of the great heroines of American cinema. Having risen to prominence in the 1920s as the muse of film pioneer DW Griffith in films such as Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1922), her career as an actress was linked to the birth and development of cinema itself.

Lillian Gish began her career as a child actress in the theatre. Her experience in stage melodrama evolved well in response to the similar demands of pre-talkie cinema. With her large, expressive eyes and wistful gestures she was often cast as an ‘extravagant victim’ in silent film’s early melodramas, at the mercy of men and nature. One of cinemas great tragediennes, she was able to turn such female victimisation into the source of her power.

The story of Lillian Gish is rarely told without reference to DW Griffith, who was fixated on her ‘exquisitely fragile, ethereal beauty’. The pair collaborated on some twenty movies together, and were dedicated to the ‘art of cinema’. One of the most enduring images of Gish’s silent film years is the climax of Way Down East, in which Gish’s character floats unconscious on an ice floe towards a raging waterfall. It was Gish herself who suggested that she trail her hand and hair in the freezing water, despite the very real danger at hand. Gish even directed one film, Remodeling Her Husband (1920), whenGriffith took his unit on location—he told Gish that he thought the crew would work harder for a girl. Unfortunately Gish never directed again, telling reporters at the time that directing was a man’s job.

Though Gish left Hollywood for a time following problems with MGM after the failure of The Wind in 1928 – a film now recognised as one of the most distinguished works of the late silent period – she continued to perform to worldwide acclaim in theatre and the movies until 1987. In summing up her career, Gish said, ‘I was never interested in money… I just wanted films I’d be proud of because I felt they were permanent.’

Jen Corcoran is a London based writer with a fondness for bleak foreign arthouse and female narratives. Follow her on Twitter.

1930s – Katharine Hepburn
by Kate le Vann

For so long I couldn’t bear her. Her affected voice. That baboon’s face, skin stretched over sharp cheekbones. The big old trousers.

Films from the 30s are full of witty, nonchalant women who bamboozled their leading men. Hepburn wasn’t one. Always held up as a feminist icon, she liked to be taken down a peg or two in (and out of) her films. She scrambled after the love interests, shrill and spinsterish, haughty but submissive, always in pursuit, always desperate. Her best film, The Philadelphia Story, opens with her taking something like a punch in the face and comes to a head when she also swallows the blame for her father’s infidelity. The reason – no one has any trouble accepting this – is she’s too perfect.

Moviegoers don’t like perfect women and Hepburn was labelled ‘box office poison’ at 30. Freckled, gaunt, an undeniable ham, still she seemed to think she was special and everyone seemed to believe her, and that was enough. But it was never her confidence that put me off. It was that she tried so hard.

Then I read her autobiography and flipped. In Me no one is harder on Miss Hepburn than Miss Hepburn, but for all her faults, she loves herself. So you do too: she’s a sweetheart and a nutter. There’s no real insecurity. It’s not that she doesn’t trust herself to be amazing. She’s just not sure you’re bright enough to recognise amazing when you see it.

In her first book, The Making Of The African Queen, she writes herself as a pampered weakling even as she shits in a bucket in a wooden shack teeming with creepy-crawlies, just because at one point in the weeks of filming she asks for a mirror. She’s touchingly mopey about the presence of the hot young Lauren Bacall, as if only one woman at a time can earn Bogie’s admiration. Always in pursuit, always desperate.

But not unliberated. She had something rarer than witty, nobler than nonchalant. She was weird and she didn’t change, and she didn’t settle. That’s the cool side of neediness: it’s not minding how bad you look when you go after exactly what you want.

1940s – Lauren Bacall
by Concetta Sidoti

If you believe the legend, Nancy ‘Slim’ Hawks – wife of the director Howard – spotted a model born Betty Joan Perske on the cover of a magazine and urged her husband to cast her.

In Howard’s film To Have and Have Not, the young woman – now renamed Lauren Bacall – was presented to the world as Nancy’s double: her character Marie was given Nancy’s nickname and her distinctive hound’s-tooth suits. Bacall’s natural nasal tones had been banished by a couple of weeks of vocal training: when she arrived on set, she had a distinctive low, sexy voice that became her trademark. If Howard Hawks – famous for his roving eye – had any ideas about romancing this 19-year-old who had been styled to look so much like his wife, he was beaten to the punch by the other big man on set.

Humphrey Bogart was 25 years older than Bacall, but the chemistry between them could not be contained. It exploded all over this film and reverberated through The Big Sleep in 1946, Dark Passage in 1947 and Key Largo in 1948. With this quartet of noir-tinged thrillers – and her familiar “chin tucked in, eyes glancing upwards” look – she made a mark on Hollywood cinema and on this decade, but her performances transcended the idea of a femme fatale, a woman that a man back from the fighting in Europe had to be afraid of or kill off. She was a man’s match, and Bogart and Bacall were a double act that worked for comedy as well as drama. There’s the smoulder of “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve?” and “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle”, but also the exquisite comic timing of their prank call scene in The Big Sleep.

It is widely acknowledged that Bacall made her best films with Bogart – her lead roles in the 1950s, as for most actresses, were just not as interesting; but I believe he made his best films with her, despite Casablanca, In a Lonely Place (a film he wanted her cast in) and the rest. His age meant of course that their partnership could not last long, but one of the best things about Bacall is that she’s still around: she kept working until a few years ago and, if asked, will be fearsomely rude about young actors.

1950s – Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn
by Anise

Marilyn Monroe/Audrey Hepburn

The 1950s.  Classic Hollywood’s ladylike glamour was still going strong, and was as gorgeous as ever – but it was changing. Developing into something more modern.

This was the decade of the ultimate silver screen sex bomb. Certainly the likes of Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth and Jean Harlow were bewitchingly beautiful in their time, but the bar was raised when Marilyn Monroe shimmered through the decade.  Sexy, sassy, vulnerable and endlessly talked about, Marilyn and her curves owned the screen.  Blonde this (gentlemen prefer them). Ditsy that (How to Marry a Millionaire). Innocent this (The Seven Year Itch). Funny that (Some Like it Hot). She fits in so well with the Hollywood sex-bomb myth, that it can come as a surprise when you remember that other actresses were also available.

The flipside of the Marilyn Monroe coin – the alternative to her oversexy, knowing but ultimately sweet character – can also be found in this decade.

Where Marilyn shimmered her way through the 1950s, Audrey Hepburn daintied through hers. Elegant, European-exotic, gamine (always gamine), and (just like Marilyn) endlessly talked about, Audrey probably gave poise its deportment lessons.

In her look and attitude Audrey set a template for starlets which is still in use today – you can see the fragile waif on any red carpet, sticking out her chin and thinking of Holly Golightly (I know, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was in 1961).  Audrey was also an early example of Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  That bloodless, female monstrosity of a stock character pollutes (all too often indie) cinema.  Audrey’s spontaneous, ‘just-living-life’ characters in Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany’s provide us therefore, with a terrible premonition of things to come – proto-Zooeys, if you will.  I know that Funny Face punishes Audrey by making her go boating with Fred Astaire, but still, the point stands.

Anise tweets, pins and listens to obscure latino hip hop.

1960s – Shirley MacLaine
by Jean Dolores Grey

What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you read ‘Shirley Maclaine’? Is it a flame-haired, feisty, good time gal?  An ebullient tomboy trading jokes and witty retorts? Perhaps it is the charitable, political woman she modelled in later years, or you may know her from Bewitched, in which case, let us move swiftly on. Whichever side of her you came across first, matters not – they are all her.

Maclaine was born into a theatrical family.  She played male leads in school productions – mainly due to her height but also, because she wasn’t a ‘natural beauty’. This, coupled with the fact that her brother was so darned beautiful, must surely have been a challenge for the young actress. Still, she carved herself a name by being funny. Acerbic, quick, using body language and facial expressions to accentuate jokes, she entertained without alienating.

Often cast as affable but downtrodden (My Geisha, What a Way to Go), or brassy but with a good heart (Irma La Douce, Gambit), off-screen she was complete the opposite – fiery, unapologetic, intelligent and challenging.  Her strong personality was evident early – the lady  was not afraid of controversy – when The Children’s Hour nearly didn’t make it to screen due to its nods toward homosexuality (which was illegal in 1961). The film had to be subtly changed, using music to cover conversations about the relationship between the two main characters, so as to protect the audience’s delicate sensibilities.

Through the 60s, there was a shift in the female roles she played – imitating what was going on in the wider world. Her characters evolved from benign entities to something more sassy, and realistic. But, as the last line from her first film of the 60s suggests, she was always ready, early or late in her career, to come out all guns fighting: Shut up and deal.

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