The world remembers Old Hollywood in flashes of glitz and glamour: cigarettes smoked in white-gloved hands, soft curls, perfectly applied lipstick. Looking back through this time, everything seems perfectly romantic. Black and white films that still resonate through history are an homage to the grace of the women who captivated their audiences on screen and in reality with rapture. This was cinema’s “film noir” era, a genre popularized during the 1940’s- one that capitalized on the anxiety and pessimism during and following World War II. As a result, these leading ladies weren’t depicted as domestic princesses strutting around innocently in frilly aprons. Their wily, seductive characters often were centered around the criminal intentions of the men they were double-timing.
A common denominator with these “femme fatales” of the film noir era is that they didn’t want their legacy to be for their beauty. These women in their personal lives were prominent in entertainment and in society. They knew their feminine charms: how to make a presence in a tailored outfit, the power of a sultry look, and above all, the mastery of an elusive demeanor. This would never satiate them. The ambition and cleverness that elevated them in the film industry were the true measures of their talent. After the cameras turned off, it wasn’t the affections of suitors or the envy of young girls that proved the root of satisfaction- it was belief in their artistic capability and aspiration for extraordinary lives that moved them. Perhaps this is why so many of their life stories are cluttered with short-lived romances. Fierce women are hard to be tamed. (Can we get an Amen!)
Here we remember some iconic women in cinema who paved the way for a new generation of bad bitches on and off the silver screen:
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1. Ida Lupino
Watch: The Bigamist
“Any woman who doesn’t wish to smash into the world of men isn’t very feminine.”
Born to a theatrical family in London, Ida Lupino would later come to revolutionize what being a woman in American film (and later in television) meant. Besides being in fifty-nine movies herself, she also directed seven of them. On the topic of numbers…she has not one, but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Lupino had a reputation for being an early feminist filmmaker, as many of her works depicted “masculine” themes like sexuality and independence. She would never waver standing tall as woman in an industry ruled by men. Her career lasted forty-eight years and she remains to be an enduring example of the power of tenacity and skill, regardless of gender.
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2. Rita Hayworth
“We are all tied to our destiny and there is no way we can liberate ourselves.”
She was self-admittedly shy with an inferiority complex, but you would never be able to tell this of Hayworth by the vivacity she left behind in her work. Rita’s given name had much more flair- Margarita Carmen Cansino- but after being signed with Columbia Pictures, so began the process to Americanize her Spanish heritage. Rita said goodbye to her black hair, widow’s peak, and reputation as a Latina dancer to become the kind of superstar that could accommodate a less exotic typecast. Everything about her screamed glamour. She would become an idyll for the “pin-up girl”, and one of her five failed marriages would be to a Muslim prince. But we choose to remember her for the adversity she had to overcome to find success.
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3. Lauren Bacall
Watch: The Big Sleep
“I am not a has-been. I’m a will be.”
Hailing from the Bronx, Lauren Bacall started her life as Betty Joan Perske. After getting into modeling as a teenager, she shortly after appeared on a cover of Harper’s Bazaar. Being only 18 at the time, precocity seemed to be in her nature. Two years later she would be married to Humphrey Bogart, the King of Film Noir, and today what we might call something of a cradle robber (he was 25 years her senior). Still, their love was legendary. You can’t blame Bogart, who was likely infatuated with Lauren’s strong sense of self and what iconically became known as “The Look”, a glance she gave him during filming fueled by nerves. Bacall was a passionate liberal, and often helped with Democratic campaigns when her movie career waned. She passionately believed in the power of work, regardless of what kind it was.
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4. Ava Gardner
Watch: The Killers
“I want to remember it all, the good times and the bad times, the late nights, the boozing, the dancing into dawns, and all the great and not-so-great people I met and loved in those years…”
Ava Gardner found fame by chance. After an MGM agent saw pictures her brother-in-law had taken of her, he immediately pursued the North Carolina belle with a contract offer. It took her five years to find fame, but the alternative was a life of secretarial work that she had been studying for at the time she was discovered. After her Southern drawl was conquered and The Killers was released, Gardner found herself in a jackpot of star power. And after a few ill-fated flings, she found herself married to none other than a little-known musician named Frank Sinatra. The good times came and went and came again, divorce ensued, and her appearances in the industry dwindled. She would always maintain that she preferred the simple things to fame and fortune, it was all in her country blood.
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5. Ingrid Bergman
“Be yourself. The world worships the original.”
Despite having already made a name in the Swedish film industry, Ingrid Bergman sought a new frontier for her talents. She arrived in Los Angeles in 1939, leaving behind her husband and newborn daughter, unable to speak English, and expecting to go back to Sweden at the end of her project. By the end of her time, however, America decided they weren’t finished with her. She would return to the United States, to be on Broadway and in Hollywood. Her family would follow her, but she would soon after find herself in the clutches of an affair with her director in Stromboli, an Italian named Roberto Rossellini. This was comparable to the ferocious wake after Brad left Jennifer for Angelina, but Bergman would bounce back and continue to throw herself into successful projects despite temporarily being shunned by Hollywood.