Now Playing at a Theater Near You: A Heroine (or Anti-Heroine)

By Omar P.L. Moore  |   The Popcorn Reel

April 15, 2007

Women taking charge at any and all costs, with femme fatales potentially waiting to be sprung into action in films in theaters now


Flying high, flying low and riding in cars without boys: Heroines and anti-heroines abound in recent big screen portrayals to hit theaters in America and elsewhere across the globe.  (Clockwise from top left, Carice Van Houten in "Black Book", Halle Berry in "Perfect Stranger", Connie Nielsen in "The Situation", and Tracie Thoms in "Death Proof", part of the double-bill feature film event movie "Grindhouse."  (Photos courtesy clockwise: Sony Pictures Classics; Sony Pictures; Shadow Distribution; Dimension Films/The Weinstein Company)

Women make a big impression on the big screen in recent films that have been playing in North America and in several other countries of late.  The women have sex appeal, they are rough around the edges, they are heartbreakers, loners, assassins, revenge-seekers, saviors and spies.  They are doing things their way on their terms.

In "Planet Terror" (the first half of the "Grindhouse" double feature that has fizzled at the U.S. box office) Rose McGowan saves the day as a one-legged assassin.  Correction: Miss McGowan's character Cherry Darling has two legs -- one of which is an AK-47 rifle -- which dispenses deadly rounds of heat in rapid-fire fashion.  Like a sexy witch on an invisible broomstick, Cherry flies through the air with the greatest of ease, a Hell's Angel of sorts, reborn in heaven and deposited from there to sort out the kind of anarchy and decay on Earth that is found exclusively in Troma movies.  And she succeeds.  Pulsing with sensuality and irony, McGowan gives Cherry a comical, sympathetic, heroic yet unsentimental bent.  For sure, Cherry isn't your "Titanic" Kate Winslet heroine of ten years ago, but she gets the job done, even if she embarks on a one-woman killing spree in the process.

Cherry Darling is a character that is a clear parody or caricature of women in 1960's and '70's America grindhouse-type films, or pulp films.  Her antics or her character are not to be taken too seriously.  Some other characters however, arguably were spawned as a product of their time in history or came out of the times.  Foxy Brown, a film character who was seen by some as a figure of empowerment and positive affirmation for American blacks who went to the movies in the early and mid-1970's, featured in several so-called "exploitation" films.  Foxy appeared to be modeled after Angela Davis, the political figure, activist, author and freedom fighter.  Pam Grier played the Foxy character in several films, and her character was seen by some as a parody, or worse, and insult, and to others as a diminishment or derivation of Melvin Van Peebles' politically galvanizing Sweet Sweetback character from his seminal 1971 film "Sweet Sweetback's Baaadassss Song".  Pam Grier went on to play the title role heroine in Quentin Tarentino's "Jackie Brown" in 1997.

The second film of the "Grindhouse" set also features women making bold and brave moves.  In "Death Proof", first Sydney Tamiia Poitier (the daughter of the legendary Sidney Poitier, whose own Mister Tibbs character galvanized film-going blacks in the 1960's), then Tracie Thoms, Zoe Bell and Rosario Dawson, seek vengeance against Kurt Russell, who plays Stuntman Mike, a psychotic car driver who believes in both the need for speed (at 200mph) but also in the need to kill.  If speed kills, then Mike has thrilled.  It's just that the trio of women who finally confront him are casual everyday girls next door.  Or so Mike thinks.  They are Charlie's Angels in waiting -- or precisely like three women who failed to make the cut at the audition for the film "Charlie's Angels" because they curse far too much.  But with the beauty and astuteness of this lively trio -- and the fact that they pack a punch, a kick and a wallop -- the original Charlie's Angels of television (Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett Majors --at the time-- and Jaclyn Smith) have nothing on them. 

Nor, for that matter, do Thelma and Louise.

And speaking of that fated film duo, it was not long ago in America when some men within the United States were feeling threatened by the antics of the characters played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon (both of whom were Oscar-nominated for their roles in the film, and both of whom went on to win Oscars in later films.)  There were complaints that the men in "Thelma & Louise" were depicted as idiots, buffoons and just plain no-good weasel rascals.  The 1991 film featured some men who had a modicum of intelligence (Harvey Keitel's police detective character), but all the men were seen not only through the main characters' eyes (and the film's Oscar-winning scriptwriter Callie Khouri's) but also via the vision of male director Ridley Scott.  (Incidentally, it was Scott, and then later James Cameron respectively, who fashioned Sigourney Weaver's heroism as Ripley in the first two "Alien" films.)

Scared hero, not: Jodie Foster as a vigilante in the upcoming "The Brave One", opening in North America in September.  (Photo: Warner Brothers)

Conversely, some women felt affronted by the women portrayed in Nancy Meyers' films "What Women Want" and "Something's Gotta Give."  Especially in the case of "Something's Gotta Give", some movie-going women were heard to say things like, "that film was a slap in the face to women over 35 everywhere."  The director Meyers also wrote both films.  Where the issue of heroine are concerned, the women in those films however, were not necessarily seen as heroines per se, any more than the character Beloved (played by Thandie Newton) in Jonathan Demme's underrated 1998 film of the same name (based on Toni Morrison's best-selling novel) was.  If anything, they were damsels in emotional distress.

There are other 2007 releases that while not approaching the visceral, physical heroine of Luc Besson's "La Femme Nikita" played by Anne Parillaud in the 1991 film, or the revenge-minded women who violently avenge their own horrific violations at the hands of men in "Baise-Moi" (2000), have women who not only assert themselves but do it with command and authority.  (Demi Moore's "G.I. Jane", another film directed by Ridley Scott, attempted to defy male expectations of a woman in the rough and tumble world as a U.S. marine.  On screen, Ms. Moore's character clearly did, but male movie-goers were nonplussed.  The film did not especially well around the globe.) 

In the worldwide blockbuster hit "300" Lena Headey's Queen of Sparta character literally demonstrates that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, as she drives a stake through the stomach of the scheming and nefarious character played by Dominic West.  The Queen stands her ground as both a monarch and a mother while her onscreen husband Gerard Butler is off doing the fighting in the battle to save Thermoplylae from the overwhelming onslaught of Persian forces.  She survives the attack on her virtue, maintaining a resolution and strength that isn't necessarily authentic within the confines of the comic-book epic film by Zack Snyder, but is intended as seriously as Mr. Snyder's intent to deliver a grand motion picture spectacle is.

Another heroine is the multi-faceted character of Rowena, played by Halle Berry in the film "Perfect Stranger", which recently opened in the U.S. and Canada (April 13.)  She is a journalist who investigates the murder of her childhood friend, and she comes up against several unknown entities.  She has to lock intellectual and sensual horns with Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis), an executive and playboy whose marriage isn't necessarily as rosy as appearances suggest.  The end results are quite surprising and Miss Berry's character is left standing, but in ways that wouldn't have seen possible given the way James Foley's film starts.  In comparison, Joel Schumacher's "Veronica Guerin" (2003) saw Cate Blanchett play the real-life journalist whose name serves as the film's title and as a woman serves a dual role: both as a heroine and as a martyr to journalists everywhere.  Guerin exemplified courage in real-life, bravely and intrepidly doing her job in adverse circumstances -- and was murdered in the process -- and Blanchett captures that fortitude and toughness on screen in her film portrayal.  Speaking of journalist portrayals, Connie Nielsen is remarkable as Anna Molyneux, an American journalist risking life and limb in Iraq while trying to grasp and understand the quagmire of the current ongoing conflict there, while getting to know the ordinary everyday citizens of Iraq, in "The Situation", directed by Philip Haas, now playing in various American cities.

Sexy heroines, silent heroines: Sydney Tamiia Poitier in "Death Proof", from "Grindhouse", and Molly Shannon in the current film "Year Of The Dog" (with friend Pencil.)  
(Photos: Dimension Films, Paramount Classics/Paramount Vantage, respectively.)

Diane Lane in 20th Century Fox's Unfaithful - 2002 Uma Thurman as The Bride in Miramax's Kill Bill Vol. 2
Scandalous heroines, sassy heroines: Diane Lane in her Oscar-nominated role in "Unfaithful" (2002), and Uma Thurman as The Bride in "Kill Bill Vol. 2" (2004). 
(Photos: 20th Century Fox and Miramax Films respectively)

In another vein, while Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor character in the 1991 film "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (also directed by James Cameron) may have been thought of by some as a man-emulating, un-feeling character, Uma Thurman's Black Mamba character, who sliced and diced her way through "Kill Bill Vol. 1", became a heroine with a heart as The Bride in the much better "Kill Bill Vol. 2".  Quentin Tarantino directed those films, and directed "Death Proof" as well.

But the question becomes, if a woman displays similar physical prowess to men, is she seen as the female version of a man, or just exhibiting qualities that they as women have had all along?  And how does one define "heroine" (or "hero", for that matter)?  Does it mean that a woman has to always be physical to be heroic?  To always prevail in the process?  Strength and power (and triumph) need not have anything to do with physicality or brawn. 

On the contrary, on another level, Diane Lane exercises a more cerebral and internal power and desire as an heroine (or anti-heroine), a fully-realized woman in Adrian Lyne's 2002 drama "Unfaithful".  She is a housewife who has a husband in Richard Gere's businessman Edward Sumner, who loves her and their son dearly, yet is cuckolded by Lane's Connie character who decides to embark upon an affair with Olivier Martinez -- because she can.  This capacity to embark on an affair without any justification to do so troubled some men (and women) to no end, presenting an unsettling feeling -- an all-too real reminder that the human impulse predominates reason (also see Cate Blanchett's character in "Notes On A Scandal", arriving on DVD in the U.S. during the week that this essay was originally written.) 

Interestingly enough, the very same scenario of Michael Douglas' Dan Gallagher lawyer character having his proverbial cake (his onscreen wife Anne Archer) and eating it too (with Glenn Close as his on-screen mistress) didn't trouble film audiences nearly as much -- or at all -- in Lyne's 1987 cult-classic "Fatal Attraction."   The only thing that troubled many men in the audience was that Mr. Lyne crafted such a terrifying story of the consequences of adulterous male behavior on the big screen.  The only thing that troubled some women was the portrayal of Close's Alex Forrest as what they saw as a marauding, psychotic career woman.  In both Lyne films however, one theme is consistent: the family that kills together stays together.  And while Alex Forrest as a character is not ostensibly a heroine, some may view her as a fantasy in the minds of some jilted women who have been dealt one of the unkindest cuts of all.

One woman who may be viewed as a heroine (at least to animals and animal lovers) is Molly Shannon's Peggy in the Mike White film "Year Of The Dog".  Unlike Alex Forrest, she is no "bunny-boiler", as the British would say.  On the contrary, Peggy's an animal lover, not a fighter.  ("Year Of The Dog" opened in New York and Los Angeles on April 13, and expands to other American cities a week later.)  Peggy is lonely and isolated from other human beings, but by choice, as she has long-ago lost faith in the capacity of human beings to be sincere and good.  She is at once compassionate and reckless, trusting in the sanctity of animals, whom she sees as kindred souls who have no axe to grind.  When Peggy's longtime dog companion Pencil suffers, she suffers even more deeply, and then proceeds to make one or two human beings (or more) suffer as well.  The more parallels between the film's juxtaposition of human relationships with human-animal relationships, the more powerful and urgent Mr. White's tragicomedy becomes.

Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct Sharon Stone in Columbia Pictures' Basic Instinct 2
Anti-heroines and femme fatales of the recent past in film: Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct" (1992) and "Basic Instinct 2" (2006), and Linda Fiorentino as one of the most memorable big
screen anti-heroes or heroines of the last quarter century and beyond, in "The Last Seduction" (1994).  (Photos: Columbia/Tri-Star; Sony Pictures; Barnsholdtz Entertainment)

There are heroines and femme fatales of yesteryear in film such as Barbara Stanwyck or Lana Turner in "Double Indemnity" or "The Postman Always Rings Twice", American films from the 1940's, and to a large extent those examples and others from American film history loom much larger than any recent film sirens.  Still, there are some films over the last ten or twenty years that have memorable.

One example is Linda Fiorentino's brilliant portrayal of a single-minded temptress and manipulator whose sexual power melts men in powerful positions in John Dahl's "The Last Seduction."  Fiorentino's Bridget Gregory/Wendy Kroy is one of the most indelible and enduring characters in recent film memory, even if the 1994 film itself got just a fraction of the box-office attention worldwide that such films as "Basic Instinct" received.  "The Last Seduction", an independently-made film, is a much more intriguing study of women and the power that they wield against underestimating men than anything in "Basic Instinct" even suggests, let alone shows.  As for Sharon Stone's seminal vamp character Catherine Tramell in Paul Verhoeven's "Basic Instinct" in 1992, she was more an anti-heroine than a villain to Michael Douglas' police detective character, whom in the unrated DVD version of the film is seen raping his police psychiatrist (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn.)  What does that make Mr. Douglas' onscreen character, besides an obvious rapist and villain (and after that question is answered should anything else matter?)

Mr. Verhoeven cultivates a heroine out of Ellis/Rachel, the lead character in his current film "Black Book" (which opened this month in the U.S. and has already played in the director's home country of Holland last year.)  The original Dutch title of the film, "Zwartboek", the film is an epic drama set during the closing years of World War Two and examines the real-life betrayal of Dutch Jewish citizens by their fellow Dutch compatriots.  Carice Van Houten stars as a Dutch-born Jewish citizen, a dual character who spies on the Nazis and also betrays her own people in the Dutch Resistance as well.  Van Houten's character suffers great pain and humiliation at one point, but uses her brain as well as her beauty and sex to prevail, though at a heavy cost -- and without firing a gun.  By the time the film is over Ellis has been through hell and has the scars to prove it.  The one thing that tarnishes "Black Book" however, is its music score (and for that matter the scenes book-ending the two-hour, 21 minute film.)

Jodie Foster has portrayed anguished heroine characters, such as Sadie, a rape victim in Jonathan Kaplan's "The Accused" (is there anything "heroic" about being raped????  Of course not.  The heroism is in her courage and steely resolve after surviving her tortuous ordeal), and as Clarice in "The Silence Of The Lambs",  directed by Jonathan Demme.  Both roles won Foster lead acting Oscars, in 1987 and 1992 respectively.  (This September in the U.S. audiences will get to see Foster in the appropriately-titled "The Brave One", where she plays a vigilante that Charles Bronson would have been proud of.)  And in "Little Children", Kate Winslet's Oscar-nominated character is a heroine, even if she doesn't necessarily fit the "traditional" hero mold.  As Sarah, she finds her voice in a hypocritical suburban town in Massachusetts, which takes courage and bravery -- especially when you have a fear-ravaged, judgmental and morally flawed close-knit community on top of you and in every scrap of your personal business.

Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox captures heroism in women by allowing an intimate look into the lives of several women around the world in her epic six-hour documentary "Flying: Confessions Of A Free Woman", which opens in New York City on July 4 at the Film Forum and was shown earlier this year at Sundance.  Ms. Fox un-self-consciously films herself, and the women she converses with take turns with the filmmaker's camera filming themselves, first-person style.  The women engage deeply in conversations about the meaning of womanhood, sisterhood, daily travails, experiences and issues with the opposite sex, and other personal ups and downs with relationships, sexuality as a woman in a male-controlled world, family, expectations and many other matters.  The bottom line is that in "Flying", women get to tell their story in an uninhibited, uncensored way.  They discuss their hopes, dreams, frustrations, pains, joys and triumphs.  The courage and openness shown by the women involved, and their vulnerability as they talk about intimate situations and deeply affecting events in their lives would arguably make the women heroines for simply having the courage and fearlessness to tell their stories, stories that some would rather not listen to.

Heroine deux: Halle Berry as Jinx in "Die Another Day" (2002), and as Storm in "X-Men: The Last Stand" (2006).  Berry also played the title role in the film "Catwoman" (2004).
(Photos: MGM/UA; 20th Century Fox)


Yesteryear's anti-heroines and today's heroines: The poster for the 1944 film classic "Double Indemnity" featuring Barbara Stanwyck's electrifying role, and the poster for the recent film double-bill "Grindhouse", which features a one-legged assassin with a dangerous leg for a weapon (see poster "Planet Terror" above.)  Photos courtesy: Paramount; Dimension Films/The Weinstein Company

Finally, heroism is found in compassion and comfort of women in the film "In The Land Of Women" (opening across North America on April 20.)  A group of women provide both comfort and complexity for a young man (played by Adam Brody) slowly recovering from the heartbreak of having a relationship ended by the woman he loves.  He has to take care of his ailing grandmother in Michigan, and he leaves Los Angeles to do that, getting away from the location of the heartbreak in the process.  The pain of that ordeal is never too far away however, until the passion and faith of one of the new women he meets in his new surroundings makes him forget.  Jonathan Kaplan also directs this film, which also features Meg Ryan. 

Of all the heroines however, women like Sharon D. Allen can be counted.  Ms. Allen is a sergeant in the Ohio National Guard, and she can currently be seen on both the big screen now and the small screen (beginning on April 16 on PBS television) in North America, in the documentary "Operation Homecoming: Writing The Wartime Experience", a film by Richard E. Robbins which chronicles U.S. soldiers who have served in Iraq and write about their feelings and reflections of the experience of being there.  Women and men alike find hope and pain amidst despair in the country that has been besieged, and Ms. Allen reveals that if one serves in Iraq and returns home to America without any issues whatsoever, she would assiduously question such placidity.  Ms. Allen is real, and although she speaks with a sanguine demeanor, possesses an inner strength and calm, yet plain-spoken manner that the fictional on-screen heroines lack in comparison.  The ordeals and experiences that Ms. Allen and her fellow cohorts have are expressed onscreen in urgent, compelling and vivid fashion.  Mr. Robbins' film is one of the unique documentaries on the subject of Iraq, one which audiences around the world, but especially in the United States, need to witness.

So right now at your local theater or multiplex there are women on the big screen taking charge -- a new wave of women -- that are neither buffoons (nor stereotypes -- for the most part), but are figures who possess or take on heroic qualities in a variety of ways.  Whether heroines or anti-heroines, seeing more of them in American films in particular, as well as in cinema in general, is a more than welcome sight.

Originally published on April 15, 2007.

Soldier heroines and "subversive" heroines: Sharon D. Allen, Sergeant, Ohio Army National Guard in the documentary "Operation Homecoming: Writing The Wartime Experience"; Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis as the title characters in "Thelma & Louise".  (Photos: The Documentary Project; MGM/UA)

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