Badass Women In Cinema: Margo Channing

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All this month I have been highlighting badass women of cinema. Sooner or later I had to come to a character played by Better Davis. Along with Katharine Hepburn, Davis portrayed some of the most complex and strong female characters of Hollywood’s Golden Age. With so many options to choose from, I picked Margo Channing from All About Eve. The film is one of the best of the entertainment industry. While Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) may get top billing in the film’s title and the showier role, it’s Margo Channing who proves herself a force to be reckoned with.

All About Eve follows Eve Harrington as she weasels her way into Margo Channing’s inner circle. Harrington is a fan who comes to all of Channing’s performances. After Channing’s friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) arranges for Eve to meet Margo backstage, Channing decides to take Eve under her wing. Skeptical about it is Channing’s maid, Birdie (Thelma Ritter). Birdie doesn’t buy Eve’s story and from the beginning suspects something is amiss. Birdie is proven right. Eve eventually usurps Margo as a young rising star after using her to get her foot in the door of show business.

But Margo Channing, in true Bette Davis fashion, doesn’t go down without a fight. All About Eve is famous for its sharp writing, Edith Head costumes, and its stellar cast. But one of the things that has always stood out to me, and the main reason I selected Margo Channing as one of my cinematic badasses, is that the film openly addresses ageism in the entertainment industry. Channing is worried that since she has just reached age 40 if she will have much of a career. She’s a Broadway star and the parts simply aren’t there for older women. We even see this in movies of today. With a few exceptions (Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, etc.), movies of today rarely have rich characters for older women to play. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

Margo Channing is a badass in the beginning because she fights for the kind of quality roles she had when she initially became a star. Channing is rightly angry when Eve becomes her understudy through some shady manipulation of the people around Margo. I also love how Margo calls out playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlow) for complaining that Margo is bossy and touting Eve who does as she’s told by director and playwright. Would he say the same of a man who spoke up during a production? I doubt it. Margo is strong because of her wit, unwillingness to let the industry cast her aside because of her age, and because she lives life on her own terms.

Even though, in the end, Margo does settle into retirement, it’s when she’s ready. Margo decides to marry Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) because she’s in love and she’s ready for the next phase of her life. Margo does not go softly into the night. You can see the decision was hard for her. Channing’s life had always revolved around the theater and her career. But she has nothing left to prove. That part of the story doesn’t feel forced. And that aspect makes it such a classic.

All About Eve is so great that I’ve made it this far without mentioning George Sanders’ Addison Dewitt, the tabloid reporter who helps Eve push Margo out of the limelight. As far as classic movie cads, they don’t get much slimier than Addison Dewitt. It’s easy to see why Sanders earned an Oscar for the performance.

Margo Channing is a badass for fighting ageism and sexism. She’s strong without ever feeling preachy. All About Eve could have been a soap opera in lesser hands. But Bette Davis (my vote for greatest actress ever), hits all the right notes. Better Davis, and her character Margo Channing, were women decades ahead of their time.

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Badass Women In Cinema: Mrs. Brown and Velvet Brown

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Welcome to week three of my blog spotlight on badass women in cinema. It isn’t often a movie has two strong and compelling female characters, especially in the decade of the 40s. But National Velvet is such a movie. It’s a film that has a special place in my heart. I saw it for the first time when I was a horse crazy teen. The fact that there was a movie with a girl who was more interested in pursuing her dreams of being a great rider than chasing boys struck a chord with me then. It hasn’t lost any magic since that first viewing. But what sets National Velvet apart is that its protagonist is supported in her journey by, in my opinion, the greatest mom in movie history.

The plot of National Velvet is not that complicated. Velvet Brown (Elizabeth Taylor) wins a troublemaking horse named the Pie in a raffle. With the help of Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney), who she ends up bringing home after running into by happenstance in the country one day, Velvet chases her dream of competing in the Grand National steeplechase. Velvet and her family are not wealthy. They own a butcher shop run by her father (Donald Crisp) and are of modest means. Velvet’s father is skeptical of the whole notion. But Velvet’s mother (Anne Revere) believes everyone should take a chance at their dreams.

Velvet and her mother are badasses because of their unwillingness to let society’s perception of women as the weaker sex get in the way of their dreams. What’s particularly fascinating about the mom character, is that she has a back story worthy of its own movie. We learn that she was the first woman to swim the English Channel. And, in a great plot twist, her swimming coach was Mi Taylor’s father. When Velvet goes to her mother and tells her that she thinks the Pie can win the Grand National, mom is instantly supportive. Even when Mi tells her how hard the training is going to be and that it what all be folly for nothing, she tells him, “what’s ever been wrong with folly?” Mrs. Brown then takes Velvet to the attic where she presents her with her prize money for swimming the English channel to use as her entry money for the race.

National Velvet is great for so many reasons. One of them is that it gives equal screen time to Velvet and her mother. So may family relationships in movies today are dysfunctional to the point of being melodramatic. Not so in this movie. The bond between Velvet and her mother is beautifully written and acted. It’s worth noting that Anne Revere won an Oscar for her supporting performance.

Velvet is a badass because she does something unprecedented: being the first woman to ride in and win (until her gender is discovered and she’s disqualified) the Grand National. No matter what people tell her she can’t do, she does. It’s also great that even in the end, when she gets all the media attention for her feat, she doesn’t let it go to her head. She remembers the sage advice that her mom gave her. The Grand National was gong to have to last her all her life, and she would have to move on after it was over. Elizabeth Taylor played flashier roles in her adult life. But National Velvet remains her favorite film of mine.

Velvet’s mother is a badass not only for her athletic achievement of swimming the English channel. She’s a badass because she’s not the typical housewife that let’s the husband make all the decisions. She stick’s up for Velvet and her dream, as well as for Mi when Mr. Brown isn’t onboard with him staying with them and working to earn his keep instead of wandering the roads. But Mrs. Brown is never overbearing. She challenges her husband when necessary, but never feels pushy. The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Brown is a true equal partnership, a rarity in movies, especially at that time. Mrs. Brown is the glue that holds the family together. It’s a great performance by Revere.

National Velvet was a big part of my youth along with The Black Stallion. I love it as much for its fascinating female leads as the excitement of the climactic race. It’s simply one of my favorite films ever.

Badass Women In Cinema: Eleanor of Aquitaine

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Greetings, readers! This is week two of my look at badass women in cinema for Women’s History Month. This week’s choice was tough. Katharine Hepburn made a career out of playing badass women. Which one to write about? After much consideration, I have chosen Eleanor of Aquitaine from The Lion In Winter. This is simply put one of the best written and acted films you will ever see. In a cast that includes Peter O’ Toole, Anthony Hopkins, and Timothy Dalton, it’s Hepburn’s fiery Eleanor that steals the show.

The plot, to get you up to speed, goes like this,

It’s Christmas 1183, and King Henry II (Peter O’ Toole) is planning to announce his successor to the throne. The jockeying for the crown, though, is complex. Henry has three sons and wants his boy Prince John (Nigel Terry) to take over. Henry’s wife, Queen Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn), has other ideas. She believes their son Prince Richard (Anthony Hopkins)should be king. As the family and various schemers gather for the holiday, each tries to make the indecisive king choose their option.–IMDB

It sounds like an episode of Game of Thrones with all the medieval intrigue. But the film never feels like overdone melodrama. The cast of talented actors handles the material with the right notes.

But back to Katharine Hepburn. Why do I consider Eleanor a badass? For starters, anyone that can go toe to toe with someone of Peter O’ Toole’s caliber as an actor deserves respect. Hepburn and O’ Toole play off each other just perfectly. I also consider her character Eleanor a badass because she can scheme just as well as the men. It’s not just the story of a king picking his successor. It’s about a queen who will not just bow to his whims and be a figurehead. Eleanor or Aquitaine makes her voice heard loud and clear. And it’s a testament to Hepburn’s skill as an actress that her character is feisty without ever becoming loud to the point of feeling obnoxious. The material could easily have been an invitation to overact. But Hepburn never falls into that trap.

Another reason I chose Eleanor of Aquitaine for this spotlight is that she’s strong not just with a gun/sword. She’s also strong with her wit and her convictions. Over the course of the film, we see that Eleanor is a complicated woman. She loves her children, especially Richard, and she cares deeply about her duty as Queen, But she also has a combative relationship with King Henry II. It pains her seeing family being pitted against each other. It’s a sublime and complex performance. She earned the Oscar for her performance.

Finally, I love that Eleanor just never has a moment that feels forced. You believe every emotion she expresses and that she believes every word she says. Hepburn’s performance is absolutely genuine. The closest example I can give in comparison is Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. Katharine Hepburn was one of the few actresses who was able to disappear into every role she played. Eleanor of Aquitaine stands as one of the greatest moments of her career, and that’s saying a lot.

The Lion In Winter has become one of my favorite movies since discovering it on TCM a few years ago. Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of the most complex and badass women in the history of costume dramas.

Badass Women In Cinema: Yu Shu Lien

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Match is Women’s History Month. To mark the occasion, I will be discussing some of my favorite badass women from cinema. Some are warriors, some broke gender barriers, and some were just characters that were ahead of their time. My first female cinema badass is Yu Shu Lien from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

I have to confess that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the first martial arts film I saw and also the first foreign language film I saw in a theater. What an experience! There are so many remarkable things about the movie. There are the amazing sword fights, the gorgeous score, the epic sweep of the story, etc. But what really blew me away was that this wasn’t just a martial arts film that was there to show us great swordplay. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gave immense depth to its characters, especially the women. My favorite is Yu Shu Lien. She’s played in an astonishing performance by Michelle Yeoh. American audiences may remember her from the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. She proved to be every bit Bond’s equal. Here she gets to not just kick butt, but also have a more complex character arc.

Yu Shu Lien is a professional bodyguard during the Qing Dynasty. Her fiancée we learn, was murdered. He also happened to be the best friend of Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a Wudang swordsman with whom Yu Shu Lien is very close. As you can imagine, this adds complications to their feelings for one another. Li Mu Bai has finally decided to retire. He wants Yu Shu Lien to take his sword called Green Destiny to his friend Sir Te. But Green Destiny is stolen from Sir Te by a masked thief. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien team up to find the sword.

So, why do I put Yu Shu Lien in the pantheon of badass women of cinema? Well, for starters, her sword fighting skills are phenomenal. Often in action movies it’s the men who get to have all the good fight scenes and there’s a woman who needs to be saved. Not so in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yu Shu Lien is as strong and capable of taking care of herself as anyone else.

Another reason I include Yu Shu Lien is that her character doesn’t take easy paths in life. Yes, she has feelings for Li Mu Bai. But once her fiancée is murdered, they don’t just suddenly become an item. She still feels a bond to her fiancee. And Yu Shu Lien has many moments where she could have shown her conflict in a big ugly cry or over the top acting. But Michelle Yeoh plays the character in a way that’s brilliantly subtle. You sense her pain in her eyes and her physical mannerisms. There’s no melodrama in her performance.

Finally, I really liked the way the relationship between Yu Shu Lien and Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang) was handled.Yu Shu Lien teaches her a lot about life, but never claims to have all the answers. She doesn’t sugar coat how anything is. And then a sister-like bond develops between the two women as the film progresses. I appreciated that Yu Shu Lien never talks down to Jen Yu. Their dynamic never feels forced. These are two complex, fascinating leading ladies. When Yu Shu Lien finds out that (spoiler alert!) Jen Yu has betrayed her, it’s not resolved in a style reminiscent of a soap opera. They settle it not with a war of words but with combat. It’s not only action-packed, but we’re more invested in it because the women have been so well-developed leading up to that point.

It’s not enough to give a woman a sword to make her a badass. She has to have emotional complexity and not just be eye candy who’s there to end up with her love interest. The relationship between Yu Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai is romantic without spelling it out in capital letters. Yu Shu Lien is wise, world-weary, and devoted to her duty. She remains one of my favorite characters in all of cinema.