Recently I mused on how hard it is for women to work in films after they reach forty years old. But even before reaching forty let’s be honest; in 2011 it’s still hard for actresses to find quality roles compared to their male counterparts. That’s not to say of course that throughout the history of film there hasn’t been some extraordinary female characters. When researching the column this week, it wasn’t surprising to see that the characters to make my top ten list of all time greatest female film characters are all independent, smart and strong ladies who more than hold their own against any male character.
1. Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) in His Girl Friday (1940) Without a doubt my favourite screwball comedy. I know a large part of that has to do with the fact that at the heart of this film is a strong career woman. Hildy is a generous, loving woman but there’s no way that she belongs at home in the kitchen; she’s meant to be hitting the streets and matching wits with her partner in crime Cary Grant.
2. Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) in Breakfast at Tiffanys (1961) The epitome of New York chic, Holly is a survivor and the life of any party. While she’s willing to let people into her life on a superficial level you have to work damn hard to earn the love of Miss Golightly, and after all her fabulous suitors struggling writer Paul is the only man who seems right for the job. While the film is damn near perfection, I also encourage you to read the original novella by Truman Capote. It’s in fact enormously different but incredibly sastisfying.
3. Clementine Kruczynki (Kate Winslet) in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) While Winslet is known for her period films, my all time favourite performance of hers is as the wild and unpredictable Clementine. Clementine loves with her whole heart and doesn’t put up with bullshit from any man. But most of all I love Clementine because she’s fearless and willing to take risks, especially with love.
4. Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) in Blue Angel (1930) When I went to film school I watched countless amounts of pretentious garbage. But then one day a professor put this film on and introduced me to an actress called Dietrich, and the love affair continues to this day. The film that launched Dietrich’s career, Lola is a cabaret singer who is in complete control of her sexuality and knows how to use it to her advantage.
5. Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) in Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) The last great film Woody Allen has directed, is all about the ladies. All while Johansson and Hall are excellent in it no one in this films compares to brilliance of Penelope Cruz as unstable artist Maria Elena. I knew Cruz was a good actress after seeing her in Almodovar films, but until this I’d never seen an English language film with her that I’d enjoyed. Maria Elena is like an explosion that’s ready to go off at any minute; while she’s wild to the point of just plain crazy she’s so fascinating, so full of life and sexual energy, that you can’t help but want to be around for every moment.
6. Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) in The Hours (2002) It was a pretty tough call between the Streep and Moore character in this film, but when pressed to make the call, Clarissa wins out. I mean really, she is portrayed by the greatest living actress after all. Clarissa is so fasinating to me because she’s hardworking, fiercely loyal and ultimately compassionate even under the hardest of circumtances. Streep’s scenes with Ed Harris are some of the best two character moments ever put onscreen in my opinion and if you haven’t seen this movie yet I suggest you get to it!
7. Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) When you think of Martin Scorsese, women’s director is most definitely not a term that springs to mind. And while I am a huge fan of his gangster movies I was extremely surprised a few years ago to see something completely different from him, the story of a single mother who hits the road with the dream of making it as a singer. Burstyn is perfect as the sassy waitress/aspiring singer and her scenes with Kris Kristofferson have some of my all time favorite onscreen chemistry.
8. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in Lost in Translation (2003) Before she became a sex symbol, Scarlett Johansson gave a strong and wonderful performance as Charlotte, a headstrong young newlywed who is more than able to keep up with Bill Murray. Charlotte may have a bit of a wise-ass side to her but she’s so genuine that it’s hard not to want to have your own adventure with her in a far off land.
9. Marie Browning (Lauren Bacall) in To Have and Have Not (1944) The movie where Boogie met Bacall. Like Dietrich, Marie, aka “Slim,” is a woman completely comfortable in her sexuality and knows exactly how to use it. In the forties you couldn’t just have two characters go at it so it was all about the double entrendre wordplay, and Boogie and Bacall where some of the all time best at delivering seemily innocent lines that where just dripping with sex. I love this character because she chases Boogie just as much as he chases her, and the film doesn’t force her to die some horrible death because she’s a woman who realishes in her sexuality.
10. Amelie Poulin (Audrey Tatou) in Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amelie Poulin (2001) I will always love any Tatou film but to date nothing has compared with the magical Amelie. This character is the perfect guide to the film’s romanticized view of Paris; as such a sweet and naive girl who is always willing to fight for the injustices in the world, it’s absolutely impossible not to fall in love with her.