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 Hepburn 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 prefers the saint or the sinner? 

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?

Out of the Past vs. Lady Bird

I have been thinking about the choices a director makes when making a film. What does a well-made film look like? I watched two films back-to-back on the plane to Italy, Lady Bird written and directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan, and Out of the Past directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Robert Mitchum and the femme fatale played by Jane Greer.

I recognize it’s unfair to compare these two disparate films as one was a coming-of-age story, the other a film noir. One was made just this past year while the other sixty years ago. One was the directoral debut by a female while the other by an established male director. There is nothing similar about these two films.

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Unless you consider the quality of each film as an artistic offering. While Lady Bird was nominated for the top writing and directing awards of 2017, I could not help but scratch my head as to why this was so other than it was a political move on behalf of the Academy of Motion Pictures. I just didn’t think it was an interesting story or directed well. The scenes seemed desultory like mud thrown on a wall with little thought. I wouldn’t have noticed as much if I had not just seen Out of the Past. Wow! What a film. Tourneur took his time to frame each scene. He blocked his characters to take advantage of the space. There was movement. There were silhouettes. The staging was aesthetically balanced. Even the costumes played a visual role–don’t you love how Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) started the film wearing white, but as her devious nature became more apparent, her wardrobe darkened? The characters were interesting–Kirk Douglas was an affable villain. Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey was the anti-hero, private detective who you couldn’t help but root for since he tried to leave his notorious past behind and make an honest attempt as a working man and who fell for the girl-next-door. His relationship with the deaf and mute boy (Dickie Moore) revealed Bailey’s goodness in spite of his tough-guy bravado. Every character was interesting and added to the plot purposefully. It was a beautiful film to watch.

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Then there’s Gerwig’s effort. This, a Best Picture contender? It was not structurally interesting. The choppy editing to elicit the passage of time killed whatever emotional investment I had in Lady Bird’s friendships. The only aspect that was quasi-interesting was Laurie Metcalf’s performance as the overpowering mother. The brother and father were a wimpy, wasted pair in a lame plot. I genuinely like Saoirse Ronan as an actress, but her character here in this film was downright boring.

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Out of the Past in 1947 was not nominated for an award but was superbly constructed compared to Lady Bird. Maybe if I had not seen both back-to-back it would not have been so glaringly obvious. If you haven’t seen Out of the Past, I highly recommend it. Watch it for the plot. For what a well-made film should look like. For pure entertainment. For the record, I’m all for women directors. Jane Campion and Julie Taymor know what they’re doing. I just wish they’d pass along some tips to Greta Gerwig.

The Evolution of the Femme Fatale

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Welcome to the Lucky 13 Film Club spotlighting the bad luck charm, the femme fatale. Virtuoso BILL WHITE at Cinema Penitentiary Diaries agreed to be the guest contributor this month. Thank you, Bill! He discusses her roots and fermentation through the 1960s:

Vamps, vixens, sirens, ghosts, wasp women, nightclub singers, faithless wives, …..If you are contemplating suicide by woman, you have plenty of options.  The femme fatale, or deadly female, has been a central figure in literature and myth since mankind developed an imagination.  In films, it all started in 1915 with Theda Bara as The Vampire in A Fool There Was.  And so many fools have since followed the deadly female to destruction, be it physical, moral, spiritual, economic, or social. Some, like George O’ Brien’s The Man, in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, F.W.Murnau), escape through love, faith, and redemption. Others, like  Emil Jannings’ professor Rath, victim of nightclub singer Lola in Joseph von Sternberg’s 1930 The Blue Angel, are not so lucky.

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Marlene Dietrich’s Lola has been a prototype for the predatory nightclub singer that has persisted for nearly a century, with Rita Hayworth’s Gilda one of its most popular incarnations.  By the time Janet Leigh’s Cherry showed up in the 1966 adaptation of Norman Mailer’s novel An American Dream, this character type had gone beyond both its Berlin Cabaret origins and film noir trappings to become a vengeful harridan of the deadliest order, with her final line, “What did you expect from a whore?” still awaiting an answer fifty years later.

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But not all femme fatales are vengeful witches. In Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur) Simone Simon plays Irena, a woman who, terrified that erotic arousal will turn her into  murderous leopard, avoids sexual relations with her husband. Not so with Shirley MacLaine’s serial widow in the frothy comedy, What a Way to Go, who keeps marrying men who are destined to get rich and die young, although she doesn’t mean them any harm. Then there are the bad girls who prove deadly only to themselves when they try to reform.  Gloria Graham’s Debbie Marsh (The Big Heat, 1953, Fritz Lang) and Jean Peters’ Candy (Pickup on South Street, 1953, Sam Fuller)  are examples of tramps whose turning of a new leaf gains them nothing but a bullet in the gut.

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Then there are the relatively decent chaps who are enchanted into a life of crime by sociopathic females. In Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950),  Bart Tare (John Dall) loves shooting guns for the sport of it, but his girlfriend Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), loves killing people with them. Bart soon joins her in the killing, and they both end up dead.  But usually the victim of the femme fatale has a touch of larceny in his heart to begin with. It sure doesn’t take much for Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) to seduce Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into maximizing her husband’s insurance policy before knocking him off in Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic, Double Indemnity.

Wilder’s picture might be the model for subsequent film noirs on the order of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), but it is by no means a universal standard by which to measure the femme fatale.   In fact, the beast comes in so many guises that I don’t believe such a standard is possible.  We have the biblical femme fatale, marvelously embodied by Hedy Lemarr in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 Samson and Delilah,  the female ghost in endless Japanese tales, most memorably portrayed by Machiko Kyô as Lady Wakasa in Kenji Mizoguchi’s unforgettable 1953 classic Ugetsu,  Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, perhaps the most evil personage of modern drama, played by Ingrid Bergman in Alex Segal’s 1963 television movie, and the vampire heroine of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 gothic serial, Carmilla,  which inspired countless films beginning with Carl Dreyer’s 1932 Vampyr, and including Roger Vadim’s 1960, Blood and Roses, which starred his wife Annette.

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The sixties continued with a further evolution of the femme fatale, including Francois Truffaut’s 1969 throwback to the noir era, Mississippi Mermaid, featuring Catherine Deneuve, as well as modern variations on the siren archetype in Monte Hellman’s 1966 western, The Shooting.  And as long as we have stupid guys and devious gals, the femme fatale will continue to evolve.

Cindy’s take on it:  1970s to the Present 

Sex-appeal is a common denominator with all femme fatales through the decades. She exudes a powerful spell–the anticipation of sexual passion via body language combined with an aura of mysterious detachment. It is a heavy perfume few men can ignore.

The Emasculaters 

They are out to punish. These heartless emasculaters get off manipulating others. Often, they coax out the worst in a male to actualize their perverted prophesy. After driving him to violence they justify, “See? I told you, all men are pricks.” Debra Winger in Black Widow (1984), John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1994), and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992) are a few that come to mind.  

The Complicated 

If a Madeleine Elster enters your life, you better run for the hills. Confused and a little crazy, men feel drawn to them and become a little crazy themselves. In one scene they’re slapping them, and in the next, they risk everything to save them. Why? Because deep down, men feel the troubled sexpot will save them. In L.A. Confidential (1997), Veronica Lake look-alike, Lynn Bracken, played by Kim Basinger, fits this mold.  Michelle Pfeiffer has made a career by playing sizzling-and-confused to perfection.

For Freedom 

Surviving in a patriarchal world ain’t easy. Girls don’t wish to grow up to be prostitutes; they are pawns and victims of male predators. Some femme fatales use their beauty to acquire eventual freedom from their oppressors. No better examples for this category exist than Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (1974) or Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981). 

The Kick-Ass Present 

After Linda Hamilton’s performance in Terminator 2, a redefining of sexiness pushed femme fatales to a level of ultra-independence. As genders have become androgynous, in the last 15 years, the femme fatale has changed. She has become a super-hero (or villain).

Sexy and proud, she controls her own life. She can think and fight. She can kill as well as GI-Joe. Gone is vulnerability and dependency on a man. Do you agree?

My favorite femme fatale is Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946). Who is yours? 

How do you see the evolution of the femme fatale

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