Cinema Seattle. Presenter of the Seattle International Film Festival

Feb 2002 - Volume 10, Issue 1

Goddesses in Cinema


by Deborah Girdwood


2001 was a year for honoring the classic women in cinema. There was the New York Film Forum’s fifty-film retrospective of "The Ladies They Talk About: The Women of Pre-Code"; and fun new books like COMPLICATED WOMEN: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood by Mick Lasalle (2001, St. Martins Press) and FAST-TALKING DAMES by Maria DiBattista (2001, Yale University Press). The Grand Illusion Cinema highlighted two repertory series celebrating Hollywood’s women: BLONDES: HOLLYWOOD’S PLATINUM GODDESSES and BITCHES IN HEAT.

Then there was my favorite new movie of 2001, David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE - the icing on the cake. A perfectly post-modern, surrealistic thriller variation on the manufacturing of a Hollywood actress, MULHOLLAND DRIVE is rich with philosophical rumination on the differences between Blondes and Brunettes, and on the actress as a hairdo, a dress, a voice. Pop culture tells us that nostalgia is ubiquitous, but it is not simply the superficialities. There is nothing enviable in the dated Hollywood representations of Female, but the very idea (which Lynch so lovingly explores) that there is so much going on behind the curtains is as terrific and inspiring as a run in a secretary’s stocking.

The otherworldly dimension of the iconic actress as real" is of course just another layer to the many myths we embrace in the movie theatre. After all, the women on screen reflect and project women in the audience more than we are willing to admit. As a member of the Drew Barrymore generation, I find it easier to look to the actresses of my mother’s and grandmothers’ vintage, preferring to examine my peers in a future time capsule. For example, this past year I found myself repeatedly checking out a certain book from the Seattle Public Library, HOLLYWOOD AND THE GREAT FAN MAGAZINES (edited by Martin Levin, Arbor House, 1970). It is essentially a bound collection of articles from fan magazines like Photoplay from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The articles manufactured the "real" stories behind the screen goddesses: their courtships, marriages, and divorces, the mental strain, odd operation, and problems with childbearing.

Such sordid" material is par for the course by today’s standards, and when attributed to such classy womenfolk, is actually inspiring. I started to peek into questionable biographies, because knowing that Bette Davis took snow baths in Maine and made her family seaweed pudding gets me up in the morning. Subsequently, I was excited to hear last month about a gal from my own generation, a Miss Winona Ryder allegedly caught shoplifting with a bag full of pills. In the current wave of "you can do it all" feminism, let’s hear it for human frailties! Perhaps this is the key to the stubborn appeal of the Hollywood actress - the two-layered existence, both real and ideal.

The pre-Code comedies have always been loved, not just by critics and academics who love movies from this period, but by regular people - women and men. They’re racy, funny, earthy, and sharp like the female characters who dominate them. These were the rapid-fire voices my grandmother, as a newly married, post-flapper in the early 1930s, might have envied on screen, played by women she perhaps read about in the magazines. She experienced one of the most significant events that has ever happened to women in America, the remarkable convergence between the advent of sound technology in the movies, "the talkies," and the sudden churning of women’s voices in politics, art, and at large in American society.

The pre-Code movies come from the period of movies influenced by the liberated excesses of the socially progressive 1920s, before Joseph Breen’s censuring Production Code of 1934. There was early concern about gangster and crime pictures, so the movies of the era leaned towards relationship comedies, created for a more female demographic than the movies of today. I don’t think American cinema has ever been so frank. Sure, we had bold sexual exploration in the late 1960s and 1970s with the emergence of counterculture and R-rated movies for mature audiences. But, after seeing a good dose of pre-Code cinema, it is hard to get past all the erect nipples and psychosis exploited by the maverick, macho version of free love.

If you’ve seen something like THE DIVORCEE with Norma Shearer in 1930, you’ll know what I mean. When Shearer’s character is cheated on by her husband, she is understandably upset despite her professions of being "modern." She immediately, and quite shockingly, "settles the account" with her husband’s best friend in an act of very human revenge. It doesn’t escape me that THE DIVORCEE was written by Ursula Parrott. Many of the best comedies benefited from the writing talents of witty women like Dorothy Parker and Parrott. Thanks in part to their insertion of real experience, the pre-Code female character busted out of her conventional seams seeking vengeance in a male world, the right to her own sexuality, professional dreams, and respect for her complex existence. As Simone de Beauvoir says, "One is not born, but rather becomes a woman." (But then Marlene Dietrich says, "It’s very nice to be a woman, no? Why do you have to meddle?")

Women today are of course still alluring on screen, but rarely do they spit fire the way they did pre-Code. Mae West, who wrote many of her wittiest lines, is as quick with a come on as a put-down. In THE LOVE GODDESSES, a really fun documentary from 1965 on the evolution of great actresses in cinema, there is a wonderful section on West, including clips of her best lines such as when she quips, "Am I making myself clear, boys?" and then slyly sneers, "Suckers!" West moans her lines, basically convincing the fumbling male he’s going to like sex, and like it a lot, as she worshipped the idea of herself as a potent sexual being. And, of course, she made sex funny (before the Code and a stifling society made her camp).

The women of the pre-Code era thus led the way to sex the way modern characters never do (not without serious repercussion or a lot of confusion). Whether wearing a tux and kissing a society lady on the lips in MOROCCO (1930), or singing about the hot voodoo in her blood (while wearing an ape suit!) in BLONDE VENUS (1932), the imported Marlene Dietrich exuded definitive European and exotic influences. In RED-HEADED WOMAN (also 1932), when Jean Harlow’s character asks a shop gal if her dress is see-through, she is only satisfied when the answer is, "Yes!" No American filmmaking since has so warmly celebrated the snappy, assertive, and racy side of women, while revealing their capabilities for extreme rage, despair, and triumph. Though clearly, these females were not feminists by any stretch of the imagination, more often they provided a case study for why America needed/needs feminism.

After the Code went into effect, it was mostly Broadway comedy writers who could get around the restrictive guidelines and still talk about taboo subjects. So came about the screwball comedy - full of fast, overlapping dialogue, inverted situations and dynamic relationships. After all, as the Depression put a puzzling cap to the roaring twenties (sound familiar?), things truly did get screwy. Divorce became a vehicle for accepting mature behavior in romantic comedies, with the feisty couple ending with reunion, like in THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937) with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant or the favorite of the genre, HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) with Rosalind Russell and Grant. The pursuit of exploring reality as a relationship evolved throughout the 30s, and perhaps climaxed with the supreme comedy of manners, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940). By this point, Katharine Hepburn (then dubbed "box office poison") demanded MGM make this very important project for her, commissioning the play from Philip Barry and practically producing the picture herself. The resultant smash restored her career and I’d venture to say stands the test of time as an endearing coming of age portrait of a modern woman in love.

Sadly, the Code’s tightening restrictions and a changing society came to see such healthy behavior punished. Challenging, forward women were never again so genuinely provocative. More desirable, psychologically complicated, sleazy and dangerous, the women on screen got pretty bitchy. Barbara Stanwyck helped establish the new paradigm when in BABYFACE (1933) she was the hard-boiled woman of easy virtue who deftly manipulates her way to the top of the bank. She perfected the role in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) as the ensuing femme fatale, hitting her sharp high-heeled stride by shocking the American public with her flagrant disregard for morality as she murders her husband and double crosses the (also quite unscrupulous) insurance man who loves her.

The portrayal of women characters as manipulative, cold and calculating resounded for the men who had returned from war in Europe only to find the sweet young thing they had left behind had survived without them - both financially as workers and emotionally as independent humans. When combined with the influential ideas of Sigmund Freud, a threatening and dark picture of the female developed that perhaps (in Hollywood cinema at least) has not since come into focus. That said, I hope I don’t sound too much like my grandmother.

Deborah Girdwood is co-founder of the Northwest Film Forum. This February she will introduce the February 28th 7 & 9pm screenings of PHILADELPHIA STORY in conclusion to the TIMING IS EVERYTHING: THE ART OF THE SCREWBALL COMEDY series at the Grand Illusion Cinema.


While we’re at it, this is certainly a good issue in which to recognize the women in cinema who really acted, and I don’t mean performed. There’s a great tradition that I hope will continue of Hollywood actresses taking leadership roles in social and political causes in America. Bette Davis, the highest paid woman in the country in 1942, founded a Hollywood canteen for WWII GIs passing through town. The darling of the 1950's, Audrey Hepburn, spent the end of her life making over fifty trips to the Third World acting as a hands-on advocate, challenging our Congress to address poverty and basic human needs around the globe in 1989. Of course Jane Fonda’s controversial protests of the war in Vietnam, and even her little known documentary, VIETNAM JOURNEY (made by Fonda in 1974 with Haskell Wexler and her leftist politician husband Tom Hayden), are highly commendable as activism, as is Elizabeth Taylor’s ongoing public work in response to AIDS. Besides appearing on television specials and giving formal speeches, let’s see what today’s actresses do. √źDeborah Girdwood

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