Tuesday 22 January 2019

Jan Etherington: 'Strong film roles for women will put the polish on silver screen once again'

Rachel Weisz
Rachel Weisz

Jan Etherington

Rachel Weisz, actress, Oscar-winner and all-round toast of Tinseltown, believes today's leading ladies are rarely given roles as interesting and multi-faceted as Hollywood's early queens of screen.

"Films in the 1940s and 1950s had very strong women, who could be villainous and vulnerable and were allowed to be complicated," she says.

And she's right. Back then, stars like Bette Davies, Myrna Loy and Vivien Leigh were playing gutsy, powerful characters, and - especially in the case of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy - exchanging whip-cracking dialogue with their screen partners.

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"A woman's picture" meant a strong storyline, in which a female lead was often fighting against the odds, always showing character and grit whether she won or lost. If there were tears, they were likely to be for a social injustice - not because some guy had just walked out the door.

In part this was because many of the screenwriters were women. Anita Loos wrote the film 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes', starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell - although the characters were never as spiky as in her original book.

Women writers were evident in other fields. The acid-tongued essayist and poet Dorothy Parker's reviews and poems for 'The New Yorker' were world-weary, funny and incredibly moving, while in television, Lucille Ball may have played a ditsy housewife in 'I Love Lucy', but she owned a TV studio and her bandleader husband worked for her.

From Raymond Chandler's sirens - "A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window" - to Myrna Loy playing a maid in 'Love Me Tonight' (whose response, when asked "Could you go for a doctor?" was to fling herself on the chaise longue and growl: "Certainly! Bring one in!"), these women had confidence. But they also had humour.

Mae West, "the vamp of high camp", whose star quality brought Paramount studios out of the red, could find a double entendre in a lullaby. She was no man's plaything. She laid her cards - and her curves - on the table.

As we moved into the 1960s, the choice, for women in film, seemed to narrow. You could either be laughed at or lusted over - starched, scary matrons or waifs in need of looking after.

The latter, useless in any kind of crisis, mostly screamed or fluttered. Their reward was sex with the hero, and being a Bond Girl was deemed to be desirable, rather than demeaning.

And now? Rachel Weisz's latest film - 'The Favourite', set during the reign of Queen Anne, in which she co-stars with Olivia Colman and Emma Stone - is, she says, "really quite unusual" in having three leads who are "textured, layered and complex" women.

It was written before 2018's seismic campaigns for equal treatment (campaigns which, it should be noted, many actresses from previous decades would have longed for), as was the towering Frances McDormand's vigilante role in 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri', for which she won last year's Best Actress Oscar.

But what these films hopefully show is that writing smart, strong, satisfying roles for women - which brought the post-war generation flocking to the cinema - is becoming the (new) Nouvelle Vague. Even if it's as old as Mae West's jokes.

© Daily Telegraph, London

Telegraph.co.uk

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