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August 13, 2005

Real female characters in film

Amanda sets Friday's movie challenge: list your favorite well-drawn female characters in movies. I found this exercise much more difficult than I expected.

Here are my picks:

  • Julie Christie as Constance Miller, McCabe and Mrs Miller.
  • Emily Watson as Bess McNeill in Breaking the Waves.
  • Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman Sebastian in Notorious.
  • Mariel Hemingway as Tracy in Manhattan.
  • Misa Uehara as Princess Yukihime in Hidden Fortress. She's on the list because she's the most well-rounded female character I can think of from Kurosawa.

Amanda asks:

Which brings me to the movie that didn't make the list--Breakfast at Tiffany's. Say what you will about her faults and annoying behavior, but Holly Go Lightly is a real human being. As such, I love that movie. [...] Anyway, discuss! Any movies you would put on the list? Or am I completely off-base about Breakfast at Tiffany's? Have at it!

I have to agree. I respect Breakfast at Tiffany's, but I don't enjoy it very much precisely because Holly is such a well-drawn and convincing flake. It's just too irritating.

My discussion question is whether Kaye is a well-drawn character in The Godfather and the The Godfather, Part II. (House rule: The Godfather, Part III is irrelevant to all discussions of The Godfather.) Sometimes I think Kaye's character is incredibly badly written and a prime example of bad storytelling about female characters. But sometimes I think that Dianne Keaton infuses the character with astonishing depth, despite the limitations of her role as dutiful Mafia wife.


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» Friday Movie Challenge from Jim Snowden's Second Omnibus
In some ways, and this is pretty sad, television has been kinder to women than film has. (Roseanne, Maude, The Sopranos, and Mary Tyler Moore leap to mind.) Still, I can think of some, and here they are: [Read More]


Yes, I know you're talking about movies. But I'd like to nominate Starbuck from the new Battlestar Galactica miniseries anyhow.

Well, I'd say Lady Kaeda [sp] in Ran, the female child in Red Beard, and the conflicted girlfriend of the killer in Stray Dog. Of course, many of his male characters aren't well-rounded either, in that a lot are Noh or samurai archetypes. Even the most dramatic performance (the lead character in Ikiru) is kind of one-note, as brilliant as Shimuro's one note is. According to the commentary I heard, only one movie, Waga seishun ni kuinashi (No Regrets For Our Youth) has a real female lead (I haven't seen it).

I don't know why I love femme fatales, but I do; one of my favorite performances is Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction. Also, I'm sure it was on Amanda's comment thread (I'm scared by 100+ comments): Pam Grier in Jackie Brown.

Pam Grier/Jackie Brown is an excellent choice.

I thought about including the girlfriend in Stray Dog, but she didn't strike me as all that well rounded as a character. She was more of a cipher, I thought. The girl child in Red Beard is more fully realized, I think. I haven't seen "No Regrets" yet.

Diane Keaton in Annie Hall

Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep

Ana Morelos in Y Tu Mamá También

I would nominate Franka Potente in both Run Lola Run, and The Princess and The Warrior.

Both characters are resourceful, they drive the action instead of the action driving them and have incredibly strong willpower. (Lola so much so, that she gets to do over that same 20 minutes until she gets it right)


I guess I don't really get the question. I watch indies and foreign films, but still seems I could come up with hundreds even from mainstream movies. Do we mean heroic, like Pitch Black or La Femme Nikita? Or complex and deep, like almost everything Ingmar Bergman put on film? Almost everything with Glenda Jackson or Nicole Kidman?

I just watched Breaking the Waves last night for the first time and read a review where Lars von Trier got Watson to study Nights of Cabiria and Passion of Joan of Arc, both of which I have also seen recently. Didn't much like Breaking the Waves, a weird movie but did like Dogville, seen a month or so back. Is that a bad portrayal of a woman in Dogville? Or women, there are a few important female characters?

Okay, there may be less than men, maybe a lot less, though male actors are asked to play cartoons quite often. Willis has probably never got the parts he deserves, or has been seduced away by blockbuster bucks. But the number of good or interesting portrayals of women in films are way too high to easily count.

I know, I know, the age factor, as a jerk guy do I get points for sitting all the way thru "Looking for Debra Winger?" Short careers based on looks are the norm, for both sexes in showbiz. This is an attitude looking for a problem.

Here are two that haven't been mentioned:

Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen in Out of Africa
Barbara Stanwyck as the title character of Stella Dallas

Ok there are maybe things to discuss. Take one of my favorites, Radha Mitchell, of "Pitch Black", which probably everyone has seen. I hope everyone has also seen "High Art", with Ally Sheedy. But there is also "When Strangers Appear" in which Mitchell plays a sailor trying to set an around-the-world solo record, and has 70 percent of the screen time to herself. Not a great indie, but a good and well rounded performance.

But Radha also is often forced into "wife and/or girlfriend" roles, an example being "Phone Booth". Yes, the roles could have been reversed, with Radha on the phone, but coulda is not shoulda, and the multi-million dollar bet is not easy.

Could also mention Hope Davis, whom I have loved for years. But how many would know who she is?

And in a supporting role: Carolyn Farina as Audrey Rouget in Metropolitan.

I'll second any votes that Laura Linney's Sammy Prescott (You Can Count on Me) gets. But that hardly seems fair, since You Can Count on Me is really an extended character sketch. It has almost no plot, so if it didn't have authentic, believable characters--superbly portrayed--it would have failed miserably. This isn't to take away from the movie at all--it's just to say that it seems more significant to find well-drawn female characters in a movie whose point isn't necessarily drawing its characters well.

As for the assigned discussion question: I think the writing of Kaye's part is much too erratic, and too clearly serves the dramatic needs of the movie. Keaton does wonders with what she was given. But ultimately Kaye's character is there only to serve as a foil for Michael's in the first movie and as device for showing his decline in the second.

If you want a well-drawn mob wife, I nominate Edie Falco's Carmela from The Sopranos. I think she's the only character on the show who is consistently a *character*. With the possible exception of Tony, all the other characters occaisionally seem to do something just for the sake of creating a story line, or simply behave erratically. Carmela does change throughout the course of the show--but the arc she travels is steady, believable, and compelling.

Myrna Loy in Best Years of Our Lives.

Holly Golightly annoys the hell out of me because she strikes me as an admiring self-portrait of Truman Capote, and without the (thoroughly unrealistic) feelgood happy ending, you can see her going down the road to where he ended.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a great movie, but I've never thought much of Mrs. Miller -- those 70s movies are so brilliant and so misogynist. I thought the end of the movie was a remake of High Noon. The lone hero defends his town, but instead of being saved by his helpmeet (it's Gary Cooper's meek Quaker wife who kills the last bad guy) he dies in a snowbank while his lover is on the nod.

I am not sure I understand what 'real' or 'well-drawn' really mean. Does it mean I think the character is written that way, or that the portrayal makes it that way?

The point is very well taken with respect to roles for women, but I would not concede that men are protrayed as anything like 'real' in movies.

That said, Sally Field in Norma Rae and Debra Winger in Officer and a Gentleman were, for me, very real portrayals. They rang true with the working class women I knew, though note for note they were still movie characters, not people.

Others that leap to mind for reasons I cannot begin to explain:

Shelley Duval in The Shining.

Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish.

Shirley MacLaine in Used People.

Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday

I'll nominate every Gong Li movie.

Kaye in the Godfather movies seems real enough to me, and admirable enough; but she's not really a main character. If her character is rounded at all, it's only because of the actress's quirky mannerisms. If her character changes at all, it's only to the extent that she believes a lie and then learns the truth. Pauline Kael called her the "moral center" of the story. Maybe a moral center should be constant.

You may not like this, but I like all three of the female leans in The Hours.

Lots of films in the silent era were more adult, in the sense of real, then what has been made in the last half century or so. Mary Pickford in Tess of the Storm Country, Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life are examples of stunning performances. In the mid-century, Ozu's Tokyo Story with Setsuko Hara. The Prime of Miss Jean Brody with Maggie Smith was outstanding.

Getting off film, I argue that Brunhilde in Wagner's Ring operas (and particularly in Die Walkure) is the most interesting and perfectly drawn character in art and literature.

I've been watching All About Eve the last couple of days (yes, more than once), and I don't care what any of you say, I think Bette Davis as Margo Channing is absolutely the most admirable female character --- well, aside from all that drinking and smoking --- that I've seen in forever.

Especially this: "Not mouse, never mouse! If anything, RAT!" Some how, some way, I'm going to find a way to say that to someone.

do I get points for sitting all the way thru "Looking for Debra Winger?"

Why do you want points? Does it suck? I haven't seen it yet.

I think the Little Mermaid Ariel was sufficiently complex for an animation. And she's the first female cartoon character, as far as I know, who actually expresses lust, and pursues her object of desire.

In fact, I can't think of any other movie plot that is primarily about a female striving to fulfill her sexual desires. But I'm not a film devotee, so if there are any other such movies (other than pornos), let me know.

I'd have to say that Hope Davis's character in Next Stop Wonderland is pretty well drawn.

I'm straying off into documentary shorts, but to answer Nancy's question, "No American Dream" by Julia Ostertag Isernhagen is an interesting essay about a woman trying to fulfill her sexual America.

But what about Jennifer Jason Leigh's character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Sean Penn steals the movie, but the movie is about her. Catherine Breillat's Romance?

The challenge has morphed from Sheerly Avni's "Ten Hollywood Movies That Get WOMEN Right" to Amanda's and Lindsay's question about real FEMALE characters--so how about more focus on girls? I can think of plenty of flicks featuring boys (as varied as Stand By Me, Rushmore, and Happiness) but only a few that feature interesting girls. Toby already mentioned Stacy in Fast Times; how about Mattie in True Grit, Enid in Ghost World (okay, maybe more of a young adult), and Addie in Paper Moon? Seems like pretty slim pickings to me, but I'm not that much into films and maybe I'm missing some good characters out there.

For girls (or is it young women?), I thought both Thora Birch (Enid) and Scarlett Johansson (Rebecca) in Ghost World were good characters and good performances.

"In fact, I can't think of any other movie plot that is primarily about a female striving to fulfill her sexual desires."

Haven't seen Mermaid, but Disney made a movie bout a chick just wanting to hook up and kick the stud out fore breakfast? Who'da thunk it? Usually there is a conflation of sexual desire and at least a hope or delusion about romantic love in fact, there seems to be a lot of that goin around among us ordinary people. And movies that feature women looking for only sex, even most I remember made by feminists of both sexes or even lesbians, show either romantic love or complications and dissatisfaction in going for pure-d sex only.

Looking for Mr Goodbar
Sayle's Lianna
Better than Chocolate

You want more, I can come up with a bunch. A lot of women are out there making indies.

Spike Lee's 1st movie comes pretty close to a woman who wants only sex but keeps getting dudes who fall in love with her. IIRC, she is fairly happy by herself.

Now you can say that movies are made about men wanting only sex, but not many of them are uncomplicated. Alfie is pathetic and contemptible. American Pie, horny teenage boy fantasy, if viewed closely, ends in four couplings, all of which are initiated by the females, and only one of which is romantic. If you want to say that this fantasy of being thrown into bed by an aggressive attractive female is just a male fantasy, you would be right, but concepts like submissive, compliant, and male power may not apply.

do I get points for sitting all the way thru "Looking for Debra Winger?"

Why do you want points? Does it suck? I haven't seen it yet.

It is a documentary made by actress Rosanna Arquette about the problems women have in the film industry, especially in getting satisfactory parts and any work at all after age 40. It consists primarily of interviews with actresses, sometimes in groups. No men, IIRC, are interviewed. I think it is somewhat one-sided and shallow, although I think the issues and questions it raises are important and fair.

Points would be for a straight inadequately enlightened male sitting thru two hours of women complaining about sexism.

Not as many as I'd like, and not many recently, but the following female characters have stayed with me:

Geraldine Chaplin as Emily, a recently released prisoner who tracks down her old lover and partner in crime, in the Alan Rudolph film "Remember My Name."

Patricia Clarkson as the Joy, the sarcastic mother who is dying of cancer in "Pieces of April.

Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, the brave, decent and very pregnant police officer in "Fargo."

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