Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
There’s a really easy way to get some killer female-lead films on the big screen: mine history. Instead of dueling Capotes or Prefontaines or Monroes, instead of really tired and reductive female characterizations, Hollywood could whip up a whole sea of excellent, cinematic stories if it just did its homework. Women have contributed a whole lot more to our world than the history books would let us believe. Beyond the Marie Curies, Amelia Earharts, and Eleanor Roosevelts is a world of women who could rock the socks off the big screen.
You might have gotten an inkling of this potential from Meryl Streep’s recent Vogue piece. She’s the National Spokesperson for the National Women’s History Museum; entirely fueled by private funding, they’ve been trying to get Congress to authorize the purchase of land near the National Mall. As Streep describes it, “history was written by the other team.” She compares the well-known story of Benedict Arnold, America’s first traitor, to the first woman to take a bullet for her nation, Deborah Sampson – a name that is almost universally unknown.
Browsing through NWHM’s online exhibits and biographies for film-worthy stories is like fishing at a fish farm. The site is bubbling with any number of really inspiring and dramatic lives that would easily thrive on the big screen, and many who could wipe the dramatic floor with the male biopics we’re used to – with danger, intrigue, and all the pre-requisites mainstream cinema loves. What follows are some of the most awe-inspiring, matched with a little armchair casting to get the ball rolling.
The choice offered up by Meryl Streep herself, Deborah Sampson dressed as a man and fought in the Revolutionary War for eighteen months as “Robert Shurtlif.” Her father had abandoned their family, and at the age of ten, Sampson became an indentured servant mixing hard manual labor in the summer with schooling in the winter. Later, as a free woman, she couldn't resist the fight for Independence. Near the war’s end in 1782, she enlisted and her unit fought a number of small hand-to-hand battles in New York. As Streep describes it: “She enlisted on the American side under a man’s name, wore boys’ clothing, was cut with a British saber across her forehead, and took a musket ball in her thigh. And her compatriots carried her six miles to the doctor’s, and he stitched up her head and she wouldn’t let him take her pants off—because he would discover she was a woman!” She cut the musket ball out and sewed herself up before heading back out to fight for another 18 months.
Sampson continued to live as a man until meeting and marrying a farmer in 1785. Her work was praised by the likes of John Hancock and Paul Revere, and though she became a wife and mother, she also became one of the U.S.’s first female lecturers as “The American Heroine.”
Who to Cast: Saoirse Ronan
For her age, the actress has a great roster of experience that would help her play a war hero, from super-toughness in Hanna to gun-toting in the upcoming Violet & Daisy, plus great dramatic talents to make the story more than just female arse-kicking.
After a childhood where Nelly Bly saw first-hand how women struggled to survive without rights, the teen was incensed by a sexist article by Erasmus Wilson called “What Girls Are Good For.” (Spoiler: He said they were only good for house work and watching children.) She wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, who was so impressed that he hired her. Her specialty was social justice, but it was not just an intellectual pursuit; she put herself in the center of her assignment. Bly went to Mexico and uncovered political corruption that got her deported from the country; she had herself committed to report on cruelty in insane asylums; she went to jail to investigate the treatment of female inmates; she worked in a sweatshop to reveal the treatment of workers. If that’s not enough to wow you, she also emulated Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and accomplished the feat in 72 days.
Bly retired in her thirties to marry a rich industrialist who was 72 – the perfect old-man, young-woman romance Hollywood loves. She ran his business after his death, helped create what would become the 55-gallon drum, and treated her workers uncharacteristically well, even by today’s standards. Unfortunately, the gyms, libraries, and health care given to her workers ate into her inheritance, and she moved to Europe just before WWI. Upon returning after the war, she never held the same fame, but she worked as a journalist until her death at age 58.
Who to Cast: Carey Mulligan
Mulligan has the right mix of youthful features and telling eyes that would work beautifully here for a young woman wise beyond her years. The role would allow her to not only embody Bly, but also the women she temporarily became during her investigative journalism.
The most recognized name on this list, and it’s telling that Hollywood has never dared to tell her story, outside three television appearances. Her life was not flashy with around-the-world trips and death-defying feats. It was the slow-burn drama of a woman who never let the struggles of life keep her from speaking her mind and passions. Born to slaves, Truth was sold from man to man, beaten, and mistreated. After losing her love (he was beaten and died for their relationship), she was forced into marriage with another slave, and as soon as New York began to work to emancipate slaves, she fled.
Truth became one of the first black women to take a white man to court and win. (The owner of her son had illegally sold him.) After working for a number of years, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth, explaining: “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” Truth traveled as a Methodist, preaching about the abolition of slavery. She was practically a Terminator for social reform. To Sojourner, it wasn’t just one fight; she fought for every belief. She gave countless speeches (like “Ain’t I a Woman?”); she worked to recruit black troops for the Union Army; she fought against segregation, worked for racial and women’s rights, prison reform, and spoke against capital punishment. She worked until her death at the age of 86.
Who to Cast: Viola Davis
Davis is already an Oscar-nominated actress (Doubt), and courted much praise for her work as Aibileen Clark in The Help. She has the critical respect, a similar look, and the forceful presence needed to make Truth come to life again.
Marie Dorion (“Madonna of the Oregon Trail”) was a Native American born to an Iowa tribe. After marrying a half French-Canadian, half Sioux Nation man and starting a family, the pair became involved with western expansion. In 1811 the couple was hired to lead men working for John Jacob Astor to his fur-trading post in Oregon; they were to travel through the Rockies. She was pregnant when they set out (presumably unaware), and though several members of the team died from severe snow and food shortages, she survived and gave birth. The child did not last a week, but she did, making it to Fort Astoria after 11 grueling months.
Undeterred by the challenges of the first job, the pair accepted another Astor assignment to help secure a monopoly on the fur trade between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean. Though she was raising two little boys, she set off with her husband, and the family camped on the Boise River. When word came that her husband could be in trouble with a local gang at a nearby post, she set off in the dead of winter, with a horse carrying her two boys, to find him. Her husband and most of his team were dead. (The lone survivor didn't survive the trek back.) What greeted her at base camp was even more horror – all the remaining men had been scalped and dismembered. Worried for her family, Dorion packed some food, once again put the boys on the horse, and went west, travelling some 250 wintry miles over 3 months -- on foot -- until she found safety with the Walla Walla tribe.
Who to Cast: Julia Jones
Jones is currently playing the lone female werewolf, Leah, in The Twilight Saga, whose angry demeanor makes it easy to imagine her having the perseverance to trek through the winter, save her sons, and be the lone adult survivor.
Nothing could stop Virginia Hall. After studying in France, Germany, and Austria, the American-born Hall set out to become a diplomat, until a hunting trip accident resulted in the loss of her lower leg. Sporting a wooden leg as World War II started, Hall quickly found herself volunteering for Britain’s Special Operations Executive. Under many aliases, Hall worked in and out of occupied territories, coordinating with the French Underground, mapping zones for supplies and commandos in German-occupied France, and finding safe houses for soldiers.
But her contributions weren’t merely organizational. She trained Resistance forced to wage guerrilla warfare on German soldiers, and the Gestapo was after her, releasing fliers stating: “The woman who limps is one of the most dangerous Allied agents in France. We must find and destroy her.” They never managed to, Hall earned the Distinguisher Service Cross (the only civilian woman to receive one during the war), and went on to have a 15-year career in the CIA when the war ended.
Who to Cast: Anna Friel
Anna Friel was visually meant to play Virginia Hall, but she’s also got the experience to back it up. Fans of Pushing Daisies are familiar with how well she can change her accent, and it’s about time she nabbed a meaty role like this.
These are only a few. Cinematic accounts could be made about Phillis Wheatley, one of the US’s first African-American writers, Belle Boyd, who shot a soldier for being rude and became a Confederate spy, Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to declare herself as a presidential candidate in 1870 before women could even vote, Alice Coachman, the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal, Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher scientifically researched sex in the Victorian era (before Kinsey), Cynthia Ann Parker, the woman abducted by Native Americans….