Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Eight Leading Ladies

Claudette Colbert, "Skylark," 1941.
Claudette is funny in Skylark, a somewhat forgettable film from 1941.  She plays a woman thinking about leaving her workaholic, inattentive husband, played by Ray Milland, and flirts with the idea of having a fling with the lawyer handling her divorce, played by Brian Aherne.   But her husband makes an attempt to woo her back, promising to work less, and she stays with him, even though she had gone through with the divorce.  In the real world I picture the husband making the same mistakes and she eventually leaves him for good, but not in this saccharine story.

Catherine Deneuve, "Belle de Jour," 1967.
Luis Bunuel's surreal Belle du Jour is a puzzle to me.  I can't figure out if Deneuve, as the frigid housewife by night, prostitute in a high class brothel by day, is a repressed woman finding freedom in her alter ego, or just another objectified woman at the mercy of her misogynistic customers.  I guess that's Bunuel's point!
Faye Dunaway "Bonnie and Clyde" 1967.
I'm always impressed with the subtle way Dunaway, as Bonnie Parker, pushes Clyde to bigger and not-so-better things.  Bonnie is the one who wants the fame; Clyde seems to enjoy the thrill of living on the edge, and he likes his notoriety.  But Bonnie writes the poem that "tells their story."  She's the movie star.  Nowadays I imagine her finding her fame on a reality TV show.

Jane Fonda "Klute" 1971.
I had never seen thw detective film Klute before.  Fonda plays Bree, a neurotic prostitute at the center of a missing person case being investigated by Private Eye John Klute, played by Donald Sutherland.  Fonda won an Oscar for her performance, and she's pretty good at playing a call girl who seems to relish the seeming power she has over her clients, but underneath feels unfulfilled and lonely.
Some of her fellow prostitutes wind up murdered, and Fonda's bravado and strength seems to wither away as the danger gets closer and closer to her.  I think we are supposed to get the idea that Bree maybe isn't the personification of liberated feminism she pretends to be.  It's a fitting film for the ambivelent feelings people had towards Women's Liberation in the early 1970s.
Zsa Zsa Gabor, "Queen of Outer Space," 1958.
Zsa Zsa's performance is as stiff as a board in this schlocky '50s sci-fi picture made in the wake of "Forbidden Planet."  But the plot is interesting as an example of how "powerful" women were portrayed pre-Women's Lib.  A crew of male astronauts crash land on Venus.  They discover women control the planet, and there are no men.  (No old women or children, either, but for some reason that goes unexplained.)  The leader of the women wears a mask, although she seems quite lovely.  She's an authoritarian ruler, and it's discovered by the astronauts that she is in position of a death ray aimed at Earth to stop future aggression by men from that planet.  Zsa Zsa is the leader of a small resistance group intent on overthrowing their autocratic ruler.  She depends on the help of the men to overthrow the leader, whose face is revealed to be horribly disfigured from a previous war with men. 
I guess pretty girls can get the guys, but ugly girls are bitter and crazy!

Greer Garson "Random Harvest" 1942.
Random Harvest is one of my favorite romantic films.  Ronald Coleman plays a soldier with amnesia; he wanders out of the hospital in which he's being kept, and is nursed back to health by Greer Garson.  They marry, have a child, and create a life together.  He never remembers who he is.  Then one day on a business trip he gets hit by a car, and his memories come rushing back.  He's the scion of a wealthy family.  But he forgets his life with Garson!  He takes over the families' business interests.  She learns to forget him, until she applies for a job with his business.  She ends up his secretary!  He never remembers her, until he ends up in the town where he first met her, and his memories come rushing back.  It's a beautiful film.

Maureen O'Hara, "Do You Love Me," 1946.
Maureen plays a mousy music school dean who, upon meeting a charismatic band leader, takes off her glasses and becomes a glamorous gal, torn between the band leader and his lead singer.  It's a silly film, and Maureen is somewhat miscast.  But some of the musical numbers are fun.

Barbara Stanwyck, "There's Always Tomorrow," 1956.

My goodness, what a great, but depressing, film.  Fred MacMurray is a toy manufacturer, whose wife and three children take for granted.  Stanwyck is an old employee he once flirted with.  She looks him up when visiting town, and he thinks he might find with her what's lacking at home.  Stanwyck is interested in his work, and seems genuinely interested in his well being.  She pays him attention.  But she's a career gal, and has no interest in stealing him from his family, especially after she's confronted by MacMurray's teenaged son and daughter.  Ultimately she moves home, leaving Fred to his meddling, ungrateful children and a wife who still doesn't seem to care for him. 
I think Sirk pulls all the right melodramatic strings in this film.  MacMurray is truly put upon, although I wonder if he could be happy with his home life if he made more of an effort.  And I understand why Stanwyck bails.  MacMurray comes with too much baggage! 

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