L13FC: The Actress as Saint or Sinner

Welcome back to this month’s discussion about the film industry. Have some fun and join in the conversation.

In literature and in film, females in the Judeo-Christian world throughout the ages have been portrayed as either saint typified by the Virgin Mary, or as fallen Eve, the sinner/seducer usually using her sexuality to control her situation. When I look at lists of popular actresses in the history of motion pictures, I’m struck by how that dynamic is visualized on the screen. It’s either or. That image stains the actress and it’s hard to shake it. In addition, with few exceptions, the youthful actress is innocent and naive while the mature woman is bitter and manipulative. If the actress has a long career, there are two faces to her. Good while young. Bad when older. Generally speaking, more actresses than not are cast in roles which fall into these two stereotypes.

Take one of my favorite actresses of all time, Shirley MacLaine. Her best films in youth portray her as sweet, innocent, and the adorable girl-next-door. Then she hit forty and the last half of her long career, she’s played nothing but cantankerous, conniving, and bitchy or “strong” women. I bet you can think of a dozen actresses who followed a similar path.

Best Classic Saint: Audrey Hepburn

Best Classic Sinner: Elizabeth Taylor

Then there are actresses who are remembered as one-dimensional. You associate her as the seducer/sinner or she was the embodiment of wholesome goodness. When they tried to veer away from their image, the public was disappointed. Meryl Streep is an interesting exception. She had the saintly features in youth, but she frequently played a sinner. Many of her characters from her earlier career were entangled in affairs or rejected maternal expectations. Then as Streep aged, she fell into the pattern of playing the mature woman who plays extreme personalities, often as the viper. Why is Streep considered the best actress of all time? Didn’t Katherine HepburnΒ buck the two stereotypes, too? Is there a correlation?

We’ve heard of child actors who can’t bypass their child image. We’ve heard of male actors who are only remembered for their villains. My question then: when you think of actresses and their best roles, do you find a pattern within yourself that prefersΒ the saint or the sinner?Β 

I see a shift today where more actresses are playing roles that blend mental and physical strength combined with ethical clarity. And they look hot in their clothes, too. Emily Blunt’s characters are like that. Many of Jennifer Lawerence’s characters have the right combination. It is the modern scriptwriter who is changing the visual identity of what it means to be a woman. Do you see it?

53 thoughts on “L13FC: The Actress as Saint or Sinner

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    1. That could well be true. I think another aspect pushing the trend are all the Marvel and DC Comic movies from the past 15 years. Major actresses have taken roles as kick-ass protagonists fighting for a good (usually, except for Cate Blanchett). Or the Hunger Games for Jennifer L. Or even the Harry Potter series for Emma Watson. It was a non-existent genre for classic actresses.
      This seeing women as warriors has impacted a generation of girls who now see themselves as strong individuals. Staying home to be a housewife and take care of the babies is not the norm anymore. Women are expected to have careers and support themselves and their families.

  1. It’s gotten so I can’t hardly tell the new actresses apart. Years ago in Hepburn and MacClaine’s time, each one had a character and personality of their own; and that’s what made them the best Hollywood had to offer.

    1. Interesting insight, GP, and I have to agree with you. Movies today feel generic and homogenized which give way to lack-luster performances. Back in the classic era, stars had privacy and protection from the media. Now the paparazzi hangs on every muscle twitch. I’m probably just getting old. Let’s face it, the classic era had dysfunction to an art form. Scripts from the classic era placed emphasis on dialogue and interesting stories which allowed actresses to convey their talent. Just a thought.

  2. First off, thanks for that photo of the gorgeous Ann-Margaret. She never looked better.

    Given my love for ‘bitchy’ queens like Davis and Crawford, and feisty ‘noirettes’ like Stanwyck and Lake, I obviously prefer the ‘sinners’. But I am also aware that some actresses are now much more versatile, and given more opportunity to be so. Take Charlize Theron, and the difference in her roles between ‘Monster’ and ‘Atomic Blonde’, for example. Like it or not, there is an element of finding an actress attractive too. I could forgive Liz Taylor a lot of clumsy acting in her early films, just because she looked so good. And as you know from my recent look at ‘Atomic Blonde’, I can watch and enjoy a so-so film, if I really like the actress starring in it.

    Then there are the ‘Act-tors’, those who treat the film set like a stage, and deliver their lines in a theatrical manner. Frances McDormand and Emma Thompson spring to mind. Some manage to separate stage and screen, with Judi Dench and Helen Mirren effortlessly crossing all genres. Few actresses are type-cast as ‘bad girls’ or vacuous eye candy these days, and the young rising stars appear to be choosing their roles with more care, less tied down by the old studio system.

    But most of them still seem to have to remove some or all of their clothes at some stage. When that stops, then they will finally have achieved what should have been the case from the beginning.

    Best wishes, Pete. x

    1. I picked that one for you, Pete. I’m not surprised you picked the sinners over the saints–it’s an unfair question, really, since we all could admire a raucous role as a virtuous one (Deborah Kerr could do both, yes?) Just wanted to compare classic era actresses to actresses today. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve had decades of watching the older films and studying the classic era star while the actresses today I don’t “follow” really, watching everything they do. Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman are probably the exceptions.
      You bring up an interesting point about nudity. T and A is still God, but I’m shocked how they’ve pushed the envelope in television series. (Westworld, Game of Thrones, period dramas, Sense 8, etc.) I can’t believe how much nudity and outright sex of all kinds is expected from actors (males and females).
      Judi and Helen are lovely British actresses who have endured with respect and they deserve it–I love Dench as Queen MacBeth from the 70s to today when she was M in Bond. She’s just so stereotypical “British”. Mirren is equally a graceful actress.

      1. Once the taboo was broken in cinema, it was only a matter of time before TV followed suit. Internet, cable, and satellite producers will follow the success of film plots to capture that audience, and they don’t have to worry too much about time watersheds, or broadcasting standards.
        I recall two French films that managed to shock (even) me, by showing ‘real sex’ on screen. ‘Baise-Moi’ (2000), mixed sex and violence in equal measure, and ‘Blue Is The Warmest Colour’ (2013), a touching lesbian love story with obvious ‘real sex’. Once I watched those two, I thought there was little left that won’t eventually be shown in the mainstream. x

        1. Yes, the new millennia is a definite era of few rules. Decency has flown out the window. I did watch an Ang Lee film that had real sex in it. I was caught up with the love story between two enemies that the sex did not make me blush or cringe.

          1. “Yes, the new millennia is a definite era of few rules. Decency has flown out the window.”

            This may sound awkward (or at least to you), but I personally have no problem with onscreen nudity whether it be on cinema screens or television πŸ™‚

          2. John, it is not awkward at all. Just a sign I am from a different generation. Not that I an a prude (well, maybe a little)but that what movies and television can get away with today compared to 15 or 25 years ago. I am a big fan of inference and subtlety. Gratuitous sex or violence is disappointing because it defeats the purpose of an imagination which is more powerful than the visual spectacle.

          3. β€œOnce the taboo was broken in cinema, it was only a matter of time before TV followed suit. Internet, cable, and satellite producers will follow the success of film plots to capture that audience, and they don’t have to worry too much about time watersheds, or broadcasting standards.”

            “Thank goodness the taboos relating to sex and violence was broken and yes, I am actually being serious about that πŸ™‚”

            “Okay, I’ll bite. Why do feel glad?”

            That second paragraph was actually in response to beetlepete and not you πŸ™‚ I was reiterating what I said to you, but it was never my intention for this to (intentionally or unintentionally) get blown out of proportions πŸ™‚ Personally, I love all eras of cinema regardless. I mean after all, some of my favorite filmmakers of all-time worked during that era (Ford, Hitchcock, Hawks). In fact, a lot of films from the production code era were very clever with innuendo (remember The Awful Truth?) I also see your point about imagination too. Nevertheless, I just want to clear up with you that I have no problems with films that use the imagination for taboos and I love them every bit as much as I love the ones that do it in a more graphic fashion. Case in point, Hitchcock’s Notorious had one of the most erotic kissing sequences at the time and this was during the production code era and that is my fourth favorite Hitchcock film so I would like to dispel any notion that I only love stuff from the late 60’s to now, but I think you already knew that about me πŸ™‚ Anyway, keep up the great work as always and keep those comments coming πŸ™‚

          4. John, it’s all good! I know you love the classics and my attempt at a point was to notice how far things have gone in cinema and film. I hope you realize I’m not a proponent of censorship. I don’t have to watch the shows and films that are too graphic for my tastes, do I?
            Notorious is my favorite Hitchcock film and one of the biggest reasons is in fact the balcony kiss/phone scene. Imagine that that was scandalous at the time!
            I often think about Hitchcock, if he were alive today and made films, would he resort to graphic scenes?
            I just think its classy and artistic NOT to show body parts and copulation. People are far sexier when they are wearing clothes. Okay, anyway, I’m glad you joined in the discussion! Thanks, John.

          5. “John, it’s all good! I know you love the classics and my attempt at a point was to notice how far things have gone in cinema and film. I hope you realize I’m not a proponent of censorship. I don’t have to watch the shows and films that are too graphic for my tastes, do I?
            Notorious is my favorite Hitchcock film and one of the biggest reasons is in fact the balcony kiss/phone scene. Imagine that that was scandalous at the time!
            I often think about Hitchcock, if he were alive today and made films, would he resort to graphic scenes?
            I just think its classy and artistic NOT to show body parts and copulation. People are far sexier when they are wearing clothes. Okay, anyway, I’m glad you joined in the discussion! Thanks, John.”

            Rest assured, I never assumed that you were a proponent of censorship πŸ™‚ And no, you certainly do not have to watch stuff that is too graphic for your tastes πŸ™‚ You are completely entitled to your personal opinion just like myself πŸ™‚ Once again, keep up the great work as always πŸ™‚

        2. “Once the taboo was broken in cinema, it was only a matter of time before TV followed suit. Internet, cable, and satellite producers will follow the success of film plots to capture that audience, and they don’t have to worry too much about time watersheds, or broadcasting standards.”

          Thank goodness the taboos relating to sex and violence was broken and yes, I am actually being serious about that πŸ™‚

  3. Ann Margaret, such a sweetheart in real life, only waited 3 years to turn from saint to sinner, Pocket full of Miracles to Kitten With a Whip. And Natalie Portman was saint and sinner in the same movie, Leon, The Profession, her first. I lean more to the older movies, actresses saint or sinner.

    1. I’m not surprised you lean toward the classic dames. I’m happy to hear Ann was a sweetheart. I get a kick out of older films and how men and women treated each other as opposed to movies today, the man tries to catch the woman instead of a woman trying to catch a “good man” to marry. Certainly, her sex appeal helped.

    1. I stumbled on it, Keith, and had to get it. I wish I could buy one and frame it. It says so much! I LOVE the film and it fit perfectly with today’s discussion. Speaking of which, what says you regarding contemporary actresses and classic actresses? Thinking of your favorite performances, are the actresses sinners or saints?

      1. It’s a fascinating discussion. As I read I also thought of Elizabeth Taylor as the perfect example of an actress easy to put in the sinner category. At the same time I instantly thought of Ingrid Bergman in a more saintly light.

        As for modern actresses I do think the line has blurred. Today women are tackling a wider assortment of roles and are harder to pigeonhole. That’s a really good thing.

        1. I put Ingrid in the “saint” box, too. I am such a fan of Emily Blunt (I know you are, too.) Everything she does reminds me she’s the epitome of the perfect modern woman. Didn’t you love “A Quiet Place”?

  4. Great post πŸ™‚ I really do not have an answer here to all of this although I love a lot of the actresses you mention. One person you should have mentioned was Catherine Deneuve (one of my favs) πŸ™‚ She played both saints and sinners and was always perfect at it πŸ™‚ Anyway, keep up the great work as always πŸ™‚

  5. I guess I prefer sinners, Cindy. They have much more interesting roles. Take Scarlett and Melanie in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett is by far the better role. The same with Blanche and Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. Any actress worth her salt longs to play Blanche. The ingenue, traditionally is the most boring character.
    That said I like noble “saint” characters like–Joan of Arc, Esmeralda of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Marge of Fargo and Rachel Cooper of Night of the Hunter. These are great female roles and they are all heroines. They are as much fun to watch and are as interesting as Bonnie of Bonnie and Clyde, Laurie of Gun Crazy and Lilly of The Grifters. Great post Cindy. Fun and different.

    1. Hi Pam, and thank you for your excellent contribution. Yes, ingenue are not as fascinating as the motives and expertise of the manipulative. Deborah Kerr played an interesting role as Sister Clodagh, but my oh my, it’s Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron that stays permanently in my memory. My favorite actress is Ingrid Bergman and she played saints beautifully. Even as a “sinner” in Notorious, while many other actresses probably would have played the temptress better, I still love her and her performance in just about everything.

  6. Interesting post. Meryl Streep said in an interview that she knew exactly when she stopped looking young: she started to receive offers to play harridans. There is definitely a double standard. I hate to say this, but my experience is that men prefer the Audrey Hepburn type … beautiful, poised, congenial. Actors like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, who had strong personalities and played strong characters, are usually dismissed by my male friends. Plus there is the “chick-flick” label, which I hate with passion — you don’t call The Godfather a “dude-flick”…

    Anyhow, I never thought Kate Hepburn was particularly interesting, or trend-setting. For example, in her movies with Tracy, she was all too willing to defer to his (superior) judgment (she did the same thing in their private lives).

    One thing that truly drives crazy is the stereotype of the powerful woman as cold, ruthless, unhinged creature. You see it in Network (Faye Dunaway), Working Girl (Sigourney Weaver), Michael Clayton (Tilda Swinton), and more recently, Miss Sloane (Jessica Chastain) and Zero Dark Thirty (Chastain again). Misogyny seems to be part of the American DNA: a strong woman is a BITCH, a strong man is … STRONG. Hope one day we get over this nonsense.

    1. You are so right! Especially CHASTAIN. Her characters annoy me when she is playing the ruthless woman. I don’t know why women can’t be viewed in films as strong and nice. If they are, they slip from memory. Gritty roles are unattractive and those actresses who play them often are perceived as bitches. An actress’s star power has always been tagged with beauty and the more graceful (Audrey H., Grace Kelly) the more desired by men. We are visual creatures.
      The influence of movies/TV cannot be overstated as a culture shaper.

  7. Since the second wave of feminism, a la 1960’s Women have been able to choose more varied roles (comparatively); unlike before that. AND today, with the somewhat extremist, third wave of feminism, they can make sure they don’t fall into the stereotypical roles. Pre-60’s, Hollywood was still at large, a male dominated industry (to some extent it still is). Of course women are bolder and more outspoken, mainly thanks to the feminist movements of the past. Actresses like Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep paved the way for modern actresses.
    Having said this, I have to say, there was something very unique about almost every single actress in the past. They each had their own identity. Today, majority of them are like factory dolls, they look the same, feel the same, talk the same, walk the same, dress the same, et al. Few exceptions today include, stars like Kate Winslet, Angelina Jolie and Marion Cotillard, who’ve made a mark, and still manage to keep their own identity, without falling prey into being just another pretty face.

    1. Nuwansen, thank you for your fine imput. I agree that the ladies of the past had a distinct personality that seems missing today. Ironic isn’t it, that when the studio system “owned” the actress, she had more personality than the fallen industry today that puts out generic “factory dolls”. I’d grant you Marion Cottillard, but not so much with Winslet. Yes, to Jolie. I haven’t seen her directorial effort with “First They Killed My Father” but I heard it was good. She seems like a mess, but I don’t buy magazines showcasing the efforts of the paparazzi. She definitely has a personality just a scary one.

  8. Gee what a fascinating post, so many places you could take the discussion. I think you do sometimes get that Madonna/whore complex with actresses but then we’re all stereotypes as you mentioned trying to re-invent. Angelina Jolie often got sinner roles but look at some of passion projects, very maternal. I think the roles are still limiting for some and lack nuance but hopefully we’re getting better. Here’s something to think on, maybe the roles are more varied but you still get categorised in terms of off-screen persona as likeable or rebellious. Should it matter if Kristen Stewart looks awkward on the red carpet if she’s doing good work. Is part of I like about Jennifer Garner her sunny disposition in interviews? That shouldn’t matter should it? We’re all trying to charm each other in all walks of life but we should we be so narrowly catergorised?

    1. Great addition to the discussion, Lloyd. Thank you. I think it is human nature to box people up in categories–it’s how we process information. We are a visual species and make snap decisions about someone based on their appearances. The actress and the woman are one person yet have two identities. Some are what they seem to be on the film, others are far removed. The point is the art–creating a performance that becomes an artistic expression. I try hard to focus on the performance and nevermind about the person because I don’t believe half of what I read and frankly, it’s not my business to know what goes on behind closed doors. That brings up another discussion–Can and should you follow the artist if she/he is morally corrupt?
      Thanks for the partaking!

      1. This is a question I have been struggling with for a long time. I’ve struggled with it with Mel Gibson, Woody Allen and the list goes on. I guess a few rules to think of. First you’re innocent until proven guilty, second depending on the crime most can pay their dues and get a shot at being a better person and moving on and finally films are a collaboration of many people so why should those people be punished for the crimes of one person. I will still watch Miramax classics but hope Harvey Weinstein faces justice for the terrible crimes he committed. But the rest I struggle with. I’m not sure.

    1. Inese, that’s a fine example. The whole film revolves around power and how females used it. Uma’s character was corrupted and she was interesting to watch. So, too, was Glenn Close. She should have won the Oscar…

  9. A supremely excellent post, Cindy. With a lot of good for thought. You make a lot of good points here. There are actresses who manage to occupy both camps of saint and sinner. I think even more so today.

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