March 17, 2009

Whatever happened to female stars and their stories?

This evening, temporarily alleviated of the homework burden that has been crushing me all semester (and preventing me from writing on this here blog), I watched Now, Voyager (1942), a Bette Davis film. The film was uneven, and it many ways was like several films stiched together, but it certainly had its moments and Bette was of course wonderful. This was actually only the third Davis film I've seen, after All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? which I know, of course, is shameful and I really do intend on working through her filmography. Having previously seen her as the washed-up, hardened, and not entirely sympathetic Eve and the crazed and cruel Baby Jane, it was interesting to see what she brought to a more sympathetic and victimized character. It seems that even when her movies get campy or melodramatic, she has the ability to ground them.

The strengths of Now, Voyager are not only in performance, however. It is a genuinely insightful look into a layered and complex female character. When you think about it, there were a lot of films like that in the 40s, perhaps in response to the liberation of women that occurred during WWII. But when you think about it even harder, women probably had equal representation on screen from about the start of film (even D.W. Griffith was really invested in his heroines) to maybe the 60s/70s or so. There were stars then, with a capital S: your Stanwycks, your Crawfords, Davises, Hepburns, Monroes. These women could sell anything on name alone. Movies were just as willing to delve into their troubles, their hopes and dreams, and their psyches as those of men.

Female stardom certainly hasn't stopped, but I would argue that even though these stars still exist, they are used differently. Take someone like Julia Roberts, for example - definitely a big female star and a name that sells movies. But she always appears in either big ensemble casts (Ocean's Eleven, Full Frontal), smaller ensemble casts (Closer, America's Sweethearts) or most often, movies that weigh her equally with her costar (The Mexican, Pretty Woman). There are only a couple of movies in her filmography that are really all about her. While this also happens with male stars, it seems to happen less.

So what happened? I have a theory: women got choices. Not just actresses, but women in society. They were let out of kitchens and into the world, where they could go to work and even divorce. So many of the classic Hollywood female-driven films center on how the heroine is trapped or has limited options. The plot of Now, Voyager would have no dramatic tension today: Charlotte Vale is trapped by her domineering mother (um, move out, duh) and the man she falls in love with is married - but unhappily so (get a divorce, duh). Other notable films like this include Leave Her to Heaven (Ellen just wants to be loved, but has very few ways of making that happen) and Baby Face (the only way to get to the top is to sleep your way there), and arguably some noirs like The Postman Always Rings Twice because somehow or other, murdering your husband is always a more viable option than divorce. Really, any major star of this time had one of these films - Mildred Pierce, Kitty Foyle, Summertime, Gone With the Wind, even Audrey Hepburn is trapped in Roman Holiday as a result of being a princess. But when women no longer had these constraints, Hollywood didn't know what to do with them anymore. Their primary female conflict was lost.

So while I don't think we'll ever quite have another Bette Davis, or Katharine Hepburn, or Joan Crawford, I'm not completely in agreement that "they just don't make em like they used to." I am willing to believe that the newfound ability of options to women inadvertendly created a female movie role ghetto.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

You may address the question in a different manner:

Would we have the same perception of the golden age film divas if they had the same media coverage as the one contemporary actresses have?

Reality is just what we know.

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