Thursday, October 22, 2009

Some More of My Favorite Women in Film

[I was only thinking of actors and characters who are women, interesting, and thought-provoking--and whom I like--but as I compiled these two posts, I started to notice how often women writers and/or directors were also behind creating their characters. Maybe I'll write more about them later.]

Emma Thompson, as writing-blocked writer Karen Eiffel, and Queen Latifah, as the publishing agent sent to make sure Eiffel finishes her book, in Stranger Than Fiction (USA, 2006)
This movie stars Will Ferrell, who I've never liked much, and Manic Pixie Dream Girl Maggie Gyllenhal; but the compelling pair who stays in my memory is Thompson and Latifah. I think Emma Thompson doesn't have the range for some of the heavier roles she's played (e.g. Carrington) but she's perfection in slighter roles, like here. QL is another actor I've not enjoyed in starring roles (maybe because they weren't great roles?), but is terrific here as a suit. Also, I'm a sucker for seeing writers on screen. (I like the bare room. All the work is in her head.) And how many examples are there? Well, there's Cathering Keener as Harper Lee, in yesterday's post, and there's...

Anne Bancroft as writer Helene Hanff (links to NYT obit), who wrote the book the movie was based on: 84 Charing Cross Road (UK/USA, 1987). As much as anything, this movie is a good portrait of the differences between Americans and Brits. It's also a perfect romance: they never meet.
I found the photo at The House Next Door, in a good write-up of AB by Dan Callahan.

I never saw this HBO production, but I couldn't pass up this photo of Anne Bancroft and her real-life husband, Mel Brooks (in "Opening Night", an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, 2004, photo by Barry Wetcher / HBO, from Those pink gloves! That happy long-lasting marriage between two artists! Bancroft died a year later in 2005, aged 73.

And another writer:
I'm surprised how much I like Amy Adams. She has a bit of the annoying manic pixie girl about her, yes, but she's too real to be a dream: when she throws a frustrated fit on the kitchen floor alongside the chicken she has failed to stuff properly, in Julie and Julia (USA, 2009), she was a real person, and I could relate. It's hard to show writing on-screen, since it's an interior activity. Using cooking as a stand-in works wonderfully here.

And another woman who plays close to the manic dream girl edge but is way too much her own woman to fall over it: Reese Witherspoon. Here in one of my favorite roles of hers: lawyer Elle Woods who "takes on Capitol Hill and never loses her sparkle and bounce." From Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde" (USA, 2003).

Pamela Brown, in I Know Where I'm Going! (UK, 1945, written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
I couldn't find a photo of the scene I wanted: Pamela Brown striding into a room, tossing dead rabbits about, accompanied by her big, wet shaggy hounds, who jump onto the couch. A regular Athena, worth the whole movie, even if there were nothing else worthwhile. But there is.
Photo from movie review of IKWIG at The Criterion Contraption, whose blogger is in the process of watching and writing about all the movies put in the Criterion Collection.

Marianne Sägebrecht, a German actor, as Jasmin, with CCH Pounder, a Guyanese-American actor, as Brenda, in Bagdad Cafe, (1987, West German director Percy Adlon's first US film). (Nice review at are the hills going to march off? blog.) Jasmin brings together a compelling group of oddballs in a movie that never quite came together for me. Still, interesting women, interesting relationship.

I was really looking for a photo of Sägebrecht in the director's better movie, Sugarbaby/Zuckerbaby (West Germany, 1985), but I couldn't find any. In it, MS plays a mortician who sets out to seduce a subway conductor many years younger and pounds lighter than she. As a one-time mortuary science student myself, my favorite part is when Marianne talks about how dead people need love too. Review by Janet Maslin, the NYT.
Oh, here--I simply hadn't searched hard and long enough. Here she is, from the director's site: Percy

Everyone lists this in their "best of's", and I'm going to too: Linda Hunt as male Chinese-Australian photographer Billy Kwan, who wrestles with the age-old question, "What then must we do?" about human suffering, in The Year of Living Dangerously (Australia, 1982, directed by Peter Wier).
Screencaps from the film blog Stinky LuLu.

Mia Farrow as Tina Vitale, with Woody Allen as Danny Rose, in Broadway Danny Rose (USA, 1984, directed by Woody Allen)
This is my favorite of Woody Allen's films and the only time I've really cared for Farrow onscreen. Tina Vitale is the opposite of the waifs Farrow often plays. She's an ex-mobster's moll whose life philosophy––do it to the other guy before he does it to you––wriggles up against the love and forgiveness philosophy of Danny Rose--a talent manager for hopeless losers.

So far as I know, the first-ever woman in film wearing panties, holding an axe, quaking in a small enclosed space, who isn't about to get chopped to bits: Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, in Alien (USA, 1979, directed by Ripley Scott)
I was tricked into seeing Alien when it came out by a "friend" who assured me it wasn't very scary. I cursed that friend from my movie seat where I'd assumed the fetal position, so far as possible. Though I never risked seeing the movie again, or any of the follow-ups, who could forget Ripley?

Marilou Berry as aspiring singer Lolita Cassard, with Agnès Jaoui as her music teacher in Look at Me/Comme une image (France, 2004, directed by Agnès Jaoui).
It's hard to talk about women and body-image without falling into Oprah mode, but in this movie the character Lolita's outwardly visible struggle––to be "seen" as acceptable by her narcissistic father and to make her way in a weight-obsessed world––is more about mirroring the invisible work of creation than in cultivating "healthy self-esteem". And that's why this movie is interesting: it's not about a message movie about a fat girl who learns to love herself (like director Patricia Cardoso's Real Women Have Curves, 2002, which was more like an after-school special, kinda lame, I thought, despite America Ferrera's sparkle and bounce). It's about an artist forging an authentic creative voice. And about one of the themes I keep coming back to: how being the hero of your own life may start with leaving the House of Fatherly Authority, even if that means you have to take the bus.

Giulietta Masina Le Notti di Cabiria/Nights of Cabiria, (Italy, 1957, directed by Masina's husband, Federico Fellini)
I can't stand to watch her heartbreaking roles more than once--I still haven't recovered from La Strada--but you can't make a list of amazing women in films and not include Giulietta Masina.

Angelica Huston as Maerose Prizzi in Prizzi's Honor (1985, directed by AH's father, John Huston)
This movie appears to be about the twisted romance between assassins Kathleen Turner and Jack Nicholson, but in classic Italian-family style (yeah, I recognize it), the person who pulls the strings is the woman behind the scenes who never lifts a gun. Maerose is a pro at manipulation--the photo above is her putting on her martyred daughter look--and my favorite scene is when her grandfather, the don, sees and admires her Machiavellian plotting, saying it's too bad she's a girl because she's just like him. A very funny, and very accurate insight into the way power flows.

Elaine May wrote, directed and starred (with Walter Matthau) in A New Leaf (1971). This quirky comedy is one of my all-time favorite movies, but it's little known. Elaine May plays an absent-minded, terminally clumsy botanist, and a rich one--perfect for impoverished playboy Matthau's plan to marry a rich woman and kill her off. Except it turns out, to his dismay, they're a perfect match.

Nobuko Miyamoto as the woman tax inspector Ryoko Itakura, digging in the rain for evidence among the bad guy's trash, in A Taxing Woman (Japan, 1987, director Juzo Itami, N.M.'s husband).
This is one of those battle-of-wits-between-the-sexes films, sort of a screwball comedy crime caper, but the woman never melts--in the rain or in his arms.
Nice review at Film Walrus, where I got the photo.

I asked my father who he thought was an interesting woman in film, and he said Dolores del Río. I scoffed, thinking she was just a matinee idol he'd loved as a boy, and she was, but she also is an interesting woman: a Mexican actor who, during the silent era, was considered the female equivalent of Rudolph Valentino (according to Wikipedia). Now I have to watch some of her movies.


Jennifer said...

I need to see "Broadway Danny Rose"! I debated including Farrow in "Purple Rose of Cairo," which is I think my favorite Allen film, but like a lot of Hepburn's roles she's just too lost and drifting to really admire. There are roles I feel empathy with but don't admire, and Farrow tends to play those. I wanted to include Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale as well, and just couldn't, quite. There's a kind of fragility that I can enjoy and even love, but just can't hold up as inspiring.

Fresca said...

Your thought process here is a lot like mine.
I too rejected JG in "The Wizard of Oz" as slightly too "babe lost in the woods". Maybe I would choose the Wicked Witch as more interesting now, but that would be an intellectual choice--I'm just going with my ones I remember as favorites.

We could make a fun list of runner ups.

This all is making me want to rewatch a bunch of films---haven't seen Purple Rose since it came out!

Anonymous said...

Hey! Just rewatched SWEET & LOWDOWN by Woody Allen with my Jim last night and kept trying to think of who the actress was who was playing Hattie. I love her. Turns out it was/is Samantha Morton, who I was intrigued by in LONGFORD which I rented a few months ago and I know I've seen her in one or two other things, too.

About Helene Hanff--she was/is the cousin of Jean Hanff Korelitz the writer I met on Molivos before she began her sojourn/studies in England/Ireland. Check out Helene Hanff's birth-family surnames in the article I sent ya a few minnies ago. How a bout a date for watching that Ann Bancroft movie about her and having lunch here some time in late fall or winter when you're finished with Finland and tiny movie-making about small fish. I'll eat the kippers and pickled herrings and serve you tea and crumpets and borscht or something you like!

Love You and YOur Heart and Mind!


Fresca said...

Oh, yeah, Samantha Morton.
She's amazing.
"Longford" was one of the most disturbing movies I've ever seen. I rather regretted watching it, even...

Thanks for the info about Helene Hanff. I added a link to the NYT obit of her you sent.

Manfred Allseasons said...

Pamela Brown - one of the many, many pleasure of IKWIG!

Fresca said...

Yes, I like Wendy Hiller too, but Pamela Brown, at least in that role, wins.

Peter said...

Pamela Brown haunts me too, especially in the scene you mention with her tossing the dead limp rabbits.
Somewwhere there's a pic of her(in the same scene) sitting in front of a huge fireplace with those big hounds between her and the fireplace as she sits straddling a huge shotgun gun, cleaning it.
Needless to say it captures her vibrant, vital, "Diana the Huntress" character.
Your taste in the other women in film is certainly classy.
Barbara Stanwycck, in, The Lady Eve, captured my imagination. Thought you''''''d dig her (if you haven't seen it)