Anyway, one area of film studies that I find has been interesting me a lot lately is character analysis. It's fascinating to relate one's personal experiences and one's personal understanding of the human race to comprehend a certain character's actions or thoughts. I've been reading about character categories, the different roles a character can play in the development of a movie. In this post, I will analyze one of my favorite types of characters: The powerhouse lady.
|Amanda and Adam Bonner: gender equality on Adam's Rib (1949)|
I remember the first time I saw the movie "Adam's Rib" (1949). I don't remember how I got a hold of it, what led me to watch it, but I do remember it was one of the movies that made me fall in love with Katharine Hepburn. I loved how her character, Amanda Bonner, still one of my favorite movie characters ever, was so strong, so opinionated, so independent. I loved seeing her in court, defending her client with all her strength and saying the truth in such a fearless way. I couldn't help but notice the obvious feminist content, but, being a recent fan of Old Hollywood, I didn't quite realize until the end of the movie how groundbreaking that character must've been for 1949. Only about 30% of women had a job at that period. Less than 2% of lawyers were women. Of those, only 20% were married. After all the boring math is done, it turns out only 0.4% of lawyers were married women. Amanda Bonner was one of those. She was fierce, she stood up to the men and she said what she thought. But yet she wore a long black dress with red lipstick to the party and cried with her husband about their newly-purchased ranch and the "darling dogs" illustrating the landscape. They called each other "Pinky" and never failed to kiss good night. Little did I know the woman who played her was an advocate and a symbol of such lifestyle. Feminine, but not frail.
"Feminine, but not frail" is the main premise of the powerhouse lady. The powerhouse lady fears no man - she fears no woman, either. Much like Margo Channing, Bette Davis' character on "All About Eve" (1950), right, who is a successful actress who leads her career under her own terms. The powerhouse lady is conscious of her position as a "doer", as opposed to a "watcher" in life. Movies with a powerhouse lady usually center around her and her endeavors as a convention-defying, free-willed, independent-spirited individual. Powerhouse ladies are usually very successful in her profession, sometimes in professions that are mostly exercised by men, like in Nina Yakushova, Greta Garbo's character in "Ninotchka" (1939), left, a successful Russian government agent. However, a powerhouse lady is by no means "manly". She has usually polished and elegant looks, she is usually depicted by an attractive (I'd call Greta Garbo more than simply attractive, if you ask me) actress and is still associated with some personality traits usually credited to women. Who can forget Tess Harding, Katharine Hepburn's character in "Woman of the Year" (1942), in high heels and pin-curled hair, attracting the eyes of all the fellas in the newspaper?
Being a powerhouse lady also means being conscious of one's absolute equality to men. In fact, in movies with powerhouse ladies, one's womanhood is almost never the main subject of the movie (with Adam's Rib and another few obvious exceptions). Usually there are brief remarks about sex (it was still the 20th Century, the mentality was different), like in "Ninotchka", when the Russian agents meet Garbo on the station and one of them cracks: "What a lovely surprise, a lady comrade." Greta, very serious, answers: "I hope my womanhood won't be an issue." And, for the rest of the movie, it wasn't.
|Meet John Doe: Barbara Stanwyck is a successful and|
intelligent journalist. Her romantic relationship doesn't
change her powerhouse status.
|Mildred Pierce: Joan Crawford survives a|
struggle on her own
|Greta Garbo, the twenty-year-old who didn't |
speak English and became one of the biggest
movies stars the US has
In analyzing powerhouse ladies, one notices a pattern in actress choice. These women usually carried out lifestyles that related in one way or another with the powerhouse ladies they played. Real-life powerhouses, if you will. Greta Garbo came to the United States by herself when she was twenty years old, and, with very little English and without knowing anyone, she fought her way to the top of the acting game. She relay on her talent (and, my dear, she was talented), her perseverance and her intelligence to become who she is. Katharine Hepburn was secure enough to disregard convention and live her life under her own terms from birth to death. She cooked her own meals, changed her own tires and swept her own bedroom, always shrugging off unnecessary help. She, too, relay solely on talent, perseverance and intelligence to become who she is. Bette Davis was an outspoken, opinionated woman, who sued her own studio, became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and, in her later years, advocated against sexual repression. She, you guessed it, relay on talent, perseverance and intelligent. These three are, to me, the three biggest representatives of real-life powerhouse ladies in Classic Hollywood.
Who is your favorite Hollywood powerhouse lady? Let me know in the comments!