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.
Tomorrow is 11/11/11 -- Remembrance Day times 3, or Veteran's Day if you're in the U.S. The day marks the official end of World War I, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Yes, it's designed to remember veterans and fighters, but I think it can work just as well for the brave, cinematic women who used to grace the big screen -- who were both stars and fighters, who faced rigid systems and accomplished amazing feats during times of inequality, moral choking, war, and political paranoia.
Below are eleven of Hollywood's most powerful lost fighters -- women we could so desperately use today, to see how their power, talent, and social work would have manifested without such rigid social and political structures. If only women always had equality, if there was no Hays Code, segregation, and prejudice. We still managed to see some of their greatness, but maybe we could've seen even more of it.
We know Myrna Loy as Nora Charles, the smart, spunky, laid-back drinker who solved mysteries with her husband, Nick. And surely, her iconic character is one of the fundamental feminist icons in film – a woman who was an equal to her husband, who was more progressive and real than the decades of film that followed. Their relationship “’recognized and fostered’ the image of female competence on the screen.”
But this spunk and determination wasn’t just an on-screen persona. Loy put her acting career aside to help during WWII. She worked closely with the Red Cross, found herself on Hitler’s blacklist for her efforts, helped run the Naval Auxiliary Canteen, and raised funds. FDR appointed her as an assistant to the director of military and naval welfare for the Red Cross. Outside the war, she was a founding member of the Committee for the First Amendment, a group conceived to support the Hollywood Ten – the group most impacted by McCarthy’s ridiculous Communist hunt. She was also the first Hollywood celebrity to work with UNESCO. She was a power on and off-screen, the sort with charisma and star-power who had so much verve that her impact today would surely be impressive.
Challenging MGM in the ‘30s: "Why does every black person in the movies have to play a servant? How about a black person walking up the steps of a court house carrying a briefcase?"
In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first black actress to win an Academy Award for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. It’s a feat that’s still quite rare in Hollywood, but one that was even more monumental considering the context. Segregation riddled the South, some fifteen years before the civil rights movement started. The soon-to-be Oscar winner couldn’t even attend the premiere of the film in Atlanta; all black actors were banned from attending and were excluded from the souvenir program. She once had to fight to keep her house because of the color of her skin; upon her death, after an Oscar and much success, she was banned from being buried in the Hollywood Cemetery.
Yet there she was, the child of slaves winning an Oscar and being one of the first widely recognized African-American actors. One can’t help but wonder what she might have been in a different time. Though there aren’t even a whole bunch of characters for black actors today, beyond Tyler Perry and the Klumps, there is the chance to be something other than a maid. Even with Oscar-proven talent, McDaniel’s career was well shackled into the world of servitude, something she was criticized for, but as she said: “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.” She succumbed to breast cancer over a decade before she could hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, before segregation was abolished. Two years after her death, Dorothy Dandridge would become the first black woman to be nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her work in Carmen Jones.
“You can best fight any existing evil from the inside. “
Because of her longevity, it’s impossible to think of cinematic feminism and inspiration without Katharine Hepburn coming to mind. Her straight-forward attitude was always there – straight through to her death in 2003. Some knock her for being on-screen as she was off-screen – an actress who never really morphed into anyone else. But considering the time in which she was a star, we can let it slide.
Hepburn oozed independence – not as some out-of-the-spotlight piece of quirk, but as a star – an influential and fearless actress who transcended negativity and was such a powerhouse that almost every film she took part in was a starring role – right through to Love Affair in 1994. Though there was an initial backlash to her boyish demeanor, she made it work for her, a classic Hollywood actress synonymous with slacks and strength – detractors never being able to truly dampen her star power and impact. It’s something we’re severely missing these days – the dominate stars who succeed in spite of their differences – a distinct antithesis to the tired status quo.
''I strike people as peculiar in some way, although I don't quite understand why. Of course, I have an angular face, an angular body and, I suppose, an angular personality, which jabs into people.''
Just before the start of the second World War, the Vienna-born and Jewish Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler left her controlling, Hitler-consorting husband and within a year, she’d met Louis B. Mayer and became an actress. She became the seductive star of films like Algiers, Samson and Delilah, and Ziegfeld Girl. But she wasn’t only an actress. As she rose to fame, she also joined with her composer neighbor and patented a “frequency-hopping spread-spectrum invention” that would use a piano roll to make radio-guided torpedos harder to tamper with. Though she didn’t gain much notoriety for it then, her idea helped open the future world of Wi-Fi and cell phones.
She retired from the film world decades before her death, but there’s something magical about a woman, back in the ‘40s, who could capture mainstream hearts and become a star while also being an inventor. We’ve seen little morsels of that idea, the once television stars who became neuroscientists and mathematicians, but it would be nice to see a woman front-and-center who has it all – who can seduce and act, and then sit down for a moment and revolutionize communications.
"I'm a sworn enemy of convention.”
We now know her as the woman of songs (both for her eyes and Vogue-ishness) and classic films, but there was more to Bette Davis than her acting. Sure, she was a famous leading lady; the first person to earn 10 Oscar nominations for her craft; a woman who pulled in off-norm roles; the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute; an actress whose work spanned from the 1920s to the 1980s, age never stopping her.
She also battled the studio system that shackled her, with her name legally dragged through the mud as she tried to get out of a contract with Warner Bros. (A contract, mind you, that treated her like an indentured servant, that not only dominated her work, but also included clauses such as the possibility of being required to support political parties she was against.) She was the only white member of Hattie McDaniel’s acting troupe for black regiments. She helped form the Hollywood Canteen. She was the first female president of AMPAS. She was powerful, diverse, bitchy, and brave.
“Hollywood always wanted me to be pretty, but I fought for realism.”
With Norma Shearer, it’s the potential of what could’ve been. She was a feminist pioneer of cinema - one who triumphed silently and aurally. She was an actress who evolved from the girl-next-door into a sexually liberated woman: "the exemplar of sophisticated [1930's] woman-hood... exploring love and sex with an honesty that would be considered frank by modern standards … the first American film actress to make it chic and acceptable to be single and not a virgin on screen (La Salle).” But this was her pre-Code image. She won an Oscar for The Divorcee, but then the Hays Code descended like iron shackles.
Unable to continue down her progressive path, the cinematic restrictions forced her into a world of noble, period characters. The Code shadowed the progressive, accepting creations of the past, to the point that people can barely see beyond the skirts and meatloaf of Donna Reed. Shearer is nearly forgotten today, when it might just be a bit more possible for her to play Rhett Butler:
“Scarlett is a thankless role. The one I’d really like to play is Rhett.”
It’s easy to imagine the outspoken, brash, and strong woman as the social fighter and activist – the person who isn’t quite as soft and “feminine.” Then there’s Audrey Hepburn to remind us of the possibilities of human experience – that help is a human emotion rather than a liberal, brash, or progressive one. Hepburn is just as well known for her humanitarian work as she is for her many cinematic successes – like earning an Oscar in her first starring role (Roman Holiday). Driven by the struggles she faced in the Netherlands during WWII (to the point where she would eat tulips for food), Hepburn never forgot the importance of helping the less fortunate. She was a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, she tirelessly worked for the cause, travelling across the world even months before her death.
Though a fashion icon, Hepburn also dared to partake in the rare bits of progressive fare that were allowed during the days of the Hays Code. The same year she starred in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, she co-starred in one of Hollywood’s first lesbian-themed dramas (adapted from a stage play), The Children’s Hour, in a time when the Code wouldn’t allow references to lesbianism, when New York wouldn’t allow mentions of homosexuality on the stage. Hers was the power of softness mixed with strength and purpose – thriving publically without letting it warp her privately.
“The 'Third World' is a term I don't like very much, because we're all one world. I want people to know that the largest part of humanity is suffering."
In a time when women were still fighting for their rights, Rosalind Russell was the anomaly – a feminist icon not only for being His Girl Friday, but also for playing a number of other professional women. Though she was known for her dignified roles, she hated them (quote below). She took the meaty roles she could – often taking roles once meant for Myrna Loy – and balanced drama with humor that earned her multiple Oscar nominations.
She also conceived and co-wrote the story for the film The Unguarded Moment, about a teacher sexually harassed by a student, which would have been a starring vehicle if not for her busy work schedule. It seems like that is her first (and one of only two) writing projects, but as she explained in her autobiography, she often worked on the movie scripts she starred in – but without credit. She worked tirelessly on stage and screen for decades; she helped hone her roles; she made professional women seem natural; and she even (like her fellow actresses) devoted much time to charity work.
"Being typed as a lady is the greatest misfortune possible to a motion picture actress. It limits your characterizations, confines you to play feminine sops and menaces and the public never highly approves of either. An impeccably dressed lady is always viewed with suspicion in real life and when you strut onto the screen with beautiful clothes and charming manners, the most naive of theatergoers senses immediately that you are in a position to do the hero no good. I earnestly want to get away from this. First, because I want to improve my career and professional life and, secondly because I am tired of being a clothes horse — a sort of hothouse orchid in a stand of wild flowers."
Lena Horne was an all-in-one package. She was an actress, singer, and dancer; she was a star. But she was also a woman whose morals were just as important as her creative work. Her parents were activists, and that spirit was certainly present in her as well. When she worked as a contract player for MGM in the ‘40s, it was stipulated in her contract that she would not be relegated to the role of servant or sidekick. She chose small roles sometimes edited out of films when they played in the Jim Crow South over the career trajectory that faced talent like Hattie McDaniel.
At the height of her cinematic fame, she was blacklisted in Hollywood as a result of McCarthy’s Red witch hunts. She decided she was done with Hollywood, and ultimately, would only act in two more films – Death of a Gunfighter and The Wiz. She gave up cinema to be a star. She turned to the nightclub stage and television variety shows while also becoming an active member of the NAACP – attending the March on Washington, and speaking at rallies. Recently lost, one can only begin to imagine how much of a force she would be if she’d entered Hollywood today, being both a consummate performer and a strong, opinionated, and socially active woman.
"I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become. I'm me, and I'm like nobody else."