Searching for film molls with gumption: Under Howard Hawks' direction, the women in his films often ate their cake and kept it too, and they were real,
giving men as good as they got. Above, Mr. Hawks with his "To Have And Have Not" and "Big Sleep" star Lauren Bacall, who scorched the celluloid in her
big screen debut in "To Have And Have Not" in 1944. (Courtesy: UCLA Film Archives)
In Today's American Films, Where Have Howard Hawks' Movie Women Gone?
By Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com SHARE
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Last month film critic Manohla Dargis of The New York Times openly disdained the comedy romance "He's Just Not That Into You" in her review, targeting one of the film's central characters, Gigi, played by Ginnifer Goodwin. Remarking about a scene early in Ken Kwapis' film in which Miss Goodwin's character concludes an evening out with a date, she writes that "Gigi comes across less like the bubbly young thing she's meant to be and pretty much like a crazy person." Ms. Dargis then reminisces about the American film days of 1991 and Ridley Scott's "Thelma & Louise" and that ill-fated duo's take-charge, take no-prisoners stance against certain imbecilic members of the male population. Those women had moxie, gumption, guts. Women who told men where to get off.
Ms. Dargis -- who quite rightly noted that lately today's American movie women are full-time materialist-loving creatures, especially in romance films -- could have gone further back in American film history to the golden days of cinema in the 1930s and 1940s and the women whom on many occasions dominated the scene and kept men honest -- whether in romance or not -- in the films of Howard Hawks. Whether in such films as "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) or "His Girl Friday" (1940), fast-talking farces that were a staple of Mr. Hawks' movie repertoire, or more sensual or glamorous Hawks' efforts like "To Have And Have Not" (1944), "Monkey Business" (1952) and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953), the women were always clearly drawn, uncompromised and, well -- real.
As much as Cary Grant made life difficult for Rosalind Russell in the frantic press room of "His Girl Friday", it was Ms. Russell who towered over everyone else in the film, playing a savvy journalist who breaks through on her own terms and talent. (Ms. Russell would shine prodigiously in the film "Auntie Mame" some 18 years later, as well as on Broadway.) Katharine Hepburn showed Mr. Grant a thing or two in "Bringing Up Baby" as Mr. Grant's absent-minded professor succumbed to his, shall we say, parental responsibilities to a baby leopard, displaying a highly attractive air about her. Famously a tomboy, Miss Hepburn was a rather sexy presence in several scenes in "Baby", even if that sexiness wasn't by design. (In the 1966 film "Summertime", an older Miss Hepburn smoldered with a sensual power that resonated in her role as a spinster finding love on a summer vacation in Venice, in David Lean's colorful romance.)
More typically, screen siren Marilyn Monroe upped both the sex appeal and the ante in both "Monkey Business" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" but in those films it was Ginger Rogers and Jane Russell respectively, with the latter carrying forth strong sexuality in the most subtle way in 1953, who kept men in line. Ms. Russell's character was the complete opposite to Miss Monroe's material girl, wanting pure, sincere love with a man, without jewels and sapphires attached.
In the 1930s a strong, sensual and highly intelligent woman on the big screen in America was celebrated in some quarters and scorned in others. With women in America gaining the right to vote in 1920 thanks to heroic efforts of the suffrage movement, there was pride among women in seeing powerful and assertive leading ladies on the silver screen and not all of them were femme fatales like Lana Turner or Barbara Stanwyck. Howard Hawks had a little something to do with the self-affirming, unself-conscious women who populated the 46 films he directed, drawing them as fully-dimensional beings in the screenplays he wrote. Even though Mr. Hawks didn't write the scripts for any of his films mentioned here, it was his direction on the set that gave women who acted for him the freedom to be who they were.
Perhaps the most profound example of a woman of substance in the thirties and forties of American films is Lauren Bacall, an ingenue-type model who got her start in movies at the behest of Mr. Hawks' wife. Ms. Bacall struck such a memorable film debut in "To Have And Have Not" that it's hardly believable that she hadn't ever acted before. "You know how to whistle, don't you? You just put your lips together and blow," Ms. Bacall said during that film to Humphrey Bogart, the man who would become her real-life husband soon after (perhaps to the chagrin of Mr. Hawks.)
Miss Bacall was just 19 years old at the time, and shaking in her boots in rehearsals but one wouldn't know it when watching "To Have And Have Not". She galvanized what could have been a sleepy film, turning it into a classic, all-time knock out. The sexy thing about Miss Bacall was her brazenness, her confidence, her cool -- and how she brought ol' Bogey to a slow burn, melting him down into the palm of her hand. She may have been called "slim" by her co-star (the nickname Mr. Hawks reportedly called his own wife), but Lauren Bacall was (and still is) anything but slim pickings on the big screen.
In the thirties and forties and beyond in American cinema there was Bette Davis, a force of nature in films like "Jezebel" (1938), the brilliant 1946 film "Deception" (where she towered) and the masterful "All About Eve" (1950), but Ms. Davis was a bit rougher around the edges than some of the other women who lit up the silver screen in those bygone days. Never looking to be Rita Hayworth or Kim Novak or Grace Kelly, Ms. Davis did things on her own terms, a thinking woman's lady on the big screen, with, as the British sometimes say, "a touch of devil" in her.
So if all of these women (along with the celebrated later arrival of Audrey Hepburn, Belgium-born but adopted as an American film treasure,) ruled so magnificently on the big screen in American films of the golden era, where on earth are these types of woman today in American cinema? Has the Howard Hawks' type of film woman come and gone, never to be heard from again? Did they die with the legendary director? It is sad to say that women of substance in today's American films have become extinct, as American society is slowly but surely opening more doors to women, as far as cinema goes with some exceptions, things have remained very much status quo, in fact, have arguably got worse.
Patricia Clarkson is one of the few American actresses today who comes close to capturing the independent, confident, sensuality and
toughness seen in the actresses on screen in Howard Hawks' films of the thirties, forties and fifties. Seen here in "Married Life" (2008),
Miss Clarkson, currently in the film "Phoebe In Wonderland", radiates a warmth, power and appeal that is all-too often unbalanced in
roles for women in Hollywood films today. Traces of this sultriness and strength are shown in "No Reservations" (2007), among
other films. (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
When the most recent "Friday The 13th" film features a subversive, drug-influenced homage to Miss Bacall's "To Have And Have Not" line, spoken in the slasher-horror by a teenage girl character who is probably the same age as Miss Bacall was when she made her debut, then you know you have gone way past backwards. The horror film, always a showcase for sex and violence, with sexualized violence almost always directed at women, shows women exploited and discarded as playthings or prey to such an extent in Marcus Nispel's "Friday" horror film that it appears that the writers of the screenplay treat women worse than Jason Voorhees ever does. It is the saddest, most disturbing depiction and treatment of women in an American film released by Hollywood since "9 1/2 Weeks" (1986), an utterly depressing and unsexy film from Adrian Lyne, who the following year crafted "Fatal Attraction", with a strong if much-maligned character played by Glenn Close. The venom directed at Ms. Close's Alex Forrest character was from many women as well as men. Similarly, much dither and anger was thrown Katharine Hepburn's way when she played tomboyish and non-typical (for the time period) women on the big screen, and for a time sought refuge on the theatrical stage on Broadway.
Today's American movie women, if affirmative or strong at all, don't have sufficiently well-rounded personas or characters. Viola Davis, the Tony Award-winning stage actress and Oscar-nominated actress (for last year's film "Doubt") said in an interview with The Popcorn Reel last December that while she doesn't mind playing strong women, the characters she plays are "strong with absolutely no sense of vulnerability." The one-dimensional woman character in film which Ms. Davis alludes to is amplified in what she said about vulnerability: "And then you try to interject it -- there's just no room for it. They have no past, they have no sexuality. They have nothing. And I'm just -- I'm waiting for people to see us. Just to see, just to see us. In all of our beauty, in all of our frailties, and in all of it. And have the courage to put it and bring it to life." Ms. Davis also pointed to Angela Bassett's portrayal in "Strange Days" as a limousine-driving heroine who doesn't get to really display much of a sensual side at all.
And then there are extreme opposites, women in American cinema who play characters who get to show all sex but little strength or nuance. Some point to Halle Berry's Oscar-winning performance in "Monster's Ball" (2001) as an example, where Ms. Berry's character bared all, sexed up and sizzling for the big screen, although she displayed some subtleties in other moments, even if she was not a substantive being. Bai Ling, who some would not consider an actress at all, seems to show more skin than the average bear (or bare). Then there's Jodie Foster, a great actress who seems to play roles that Katharine Hepburn would have relished. Miss Foster, to her great credit, creates a strength of intelligence that makes her characters sexy, bold and fearless ("The Silence Of The Lambs", "Contact", "The Brave One"). Uma Thurman had similar intelligence but added emotional warmth, substance and a touch of the maternal in her role in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill Vol. 2" (2004), in contrast to her existence as a non-stop killing machine in "Kill Bill Vol. 1" (2003). Angelina Jolie shined in "Changeling" in an impressive role as Christine Collins, the real-life Los Angeles woman whose child was kidnapped under mysterious circumstances in the late 1920s.
While the previous examples are significant, none of those performances scorch the screen the way the Stanwycks, the Bacalls, the Russells and the Hepburns of yesteryear did. Is it that today's class of American actress simply isn't as talented? Is it the time we live in? The screenplays? The Hollywood studio system? Take Kate Hudson. She has arguably made some of the worst mistakes in what could have been a great big screen career following the euphoric heights of "Almost Famous" (2000). Ms. Hudson has gone steadily downhill since her Oscar nomination for her work in Cameron Crowe's film, finding herself planted in one airheaded role after another, most recently January's "Bride Wars", in which she faced off against Anne Hathaway, a younger, more accomplished actress.
Conversely, Cate Blanchett would have no problem fitting the Howard Hawks' screen woman mold. Her resume has sparkled with determined and richly complex characters, even nodding to Katharine Hepburn in her Oscar-winning portrayal of the Connecticut icon in "The Aviator" (2003), as well as playing the mighty British monarch Elizabeth I twice. She has even played Bob Dylan to marvelous effect in "I'm Not There" (2007). All the portrayals mentioned here resulted in Oscar nominations for Ms. Blanchett. Last month Kate Winslet finally won an Oscar, triumphing for "The Reader". Ms. Winslet has confronted men on the big screen in a forceful intelligent way, most memorably in last year's "Revolutionary Road". Although Ms. Blanchett and Ms. Winslet are not American, that hardly of course, prevents them from being able to tap into and effectively embody multi-dimensional women on the big screen, even if they don't have the kind of quick-witted charm that Lauren Bacall, Jane Russell or Rosalind Russell had. (For the record, the Russells are not related and neither are related to Theresa Russell, most famous for her role in "Black Widow" (1987) opposite Debra Winger.)
While Linda Fiorentino is perhaps the most recent actress to play a character who shows the most authentic mix of smoky sex appeal, charm, intelligence and appeal in American cinema standing up to and not necessarily standing by her man, rivaling Miss Bacall's 1940s film debut -- the terrific 1995 film "The Last Seduction", in which Miss Fiorentino plays a tough, assertive and sexy woman who is uncompromising in the way Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis were -- very few American actresses in the last forty years possess in their screen roles the strength of character and confidence as women that Howard Hawks' big screen beauties did. One big screen debut of the last thirty years that was notable was Cathy Moriarty's in "Raging Bull" (1980), playing Vicki, the wife of Jake LaMotta.
Today there are two American actresses who would consistently fit the bill as Hawks' film women of strength, substance, intelligence and sensuality. One is Gena Rowlands in her heyday of the sixties and seventies, who made weakness her strength in the most beautiful way in the characters she played in films directed by her husband John Cassavetes, while showing a physical appeal that made her both vulnerable and sexy (particularly in "Faces", "A Woman Under The Influence" and "Opening Night"). The other is Patricia Clarkson, the veteran stage and screen actress whose prowess and possibilities lie just beneath the surface of every role making her every bit as wise, enchanting and enticing as she can be. There's no doubt Ms. Rowlands and Miss Clarkson would have made Howard Hawks and the women he loved in his big screen classics very proud indeed.
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Related: Interview with Viola Davis, December 2008