Bridget Gregory: “You’re my designated fuck!”
Mike Swale: “Designated fuck? Do they make cards for that? What if I want to be more than your designated fuck?”
Bridget Gregory: “Then I’ll designate someone else!”
[Linda Fiorentino to Peter Berg, “The Last Seduction” (1994)]
It’s always interesting to see how women have been portrayed in various dramatic roles over the decades in film and on television. As society’s views of women have changed so have their characters. This has allowed actresses to have more opportunities to choose far more varied and challenging acting roles. In the past, women have been shown to be emotionally, mentally, and psychologically tough. However, now those characteristics have been reinterpreted for women in new and original ways along with even showing women acting physically tough in roles previously reserved solely for men. This change in how women have been portrayed will be what this month’s blog post will further discuss and which I have titled, “Tough Girls.”
In early films, women were portrayed in a more subservient way and definitely shown as being more fragile. The only “tough girl” roles for women back then almost always seemed to be either someone devious and manipulative or a fallen woman (AKA prostitute or madam). Usually, these characters either suffered a bad end, were redeemed to be what the 1930s viewing public would consider a decent person again, or self-sacrificed themselves to help/save someone else. An example of this was the film “Rain” (1932) based on a short story by Somerset Maugham, about a prostitute (Joan Crawford) and the attempts of a missionary (Walter Huston) to “save her soul” while temporarily stranded on a South Seas Island. Despite fine direction by Lewis Milestone and a role seemingly tailor made for Crawford, this movie was a flop. Even worse was its remake, “Miss Sadie Thompson” (1953), a 3-D musical (I’m not kidding!) starring Rita Hayworth, and which was quickly changed into a regular flat screen print only two weeks after its release maybe because Columbia Studios were worried that, anatomically speaking, the censors wouldn’t approve of how Hayworth would have “projected out” to the 3-D eyeglass wearing public. High art it was not! High camp it definitely was! Another one was “Marked Woman” (1937) with Bette Davis as one of a bunch of bargirls (AKA prostitutes) at a NYC nightclub owned and run by bigtime gangster Eduardo Ciannelli (who played more bad guy and Italian gangster roles than Imelda Marcos had shoes), and who constantly mistreats them all. When Bette suffers a personal tragedy and turns on the guy, he enacts revenge on her (Guess why the movie has the name it does!). However, she still self-sacrificingly leads the girls into testifying against him and ultimately, triumphs. Despite the “dated” corniness of it all, Davis’s “tough girl” performance, met the Hollywood stereotype of a fallen woman redeemed by self-sacrifice for others while also keeping the censors off of Warner Bros. Studios back. This now leads into focusing on Bette Davis as, maybe, the standard bearer for tough girl women roles everywhere.
Davis became a big-time star with her breakout performance in “Of Human Bondage” (1934) which was based on the famous Somerset Maugham novel (Yeah, him again). Here she played Mildred, a crude cockney waitress who is disdainful towards Phillip (Leslie Howard), an intellectual and a medical student with a club-foot who is obsessively in love with her. This pre-code drama shocked the viewing public then by showing a woman that was unashamedly cruel, manipulative, selfish, and uncaring who uses Phillip, along with others, over and over until she ultimately dies from syphilis after becoming a prostitute. Davis was famously ignored come Oscar time by not even being nominated that year, but she sure patented her “tough girl” persona from that time on. She was also ably assisted later in her career by director William Wyler who directed her in the following “tough girl” roles:
- “Jezebel” (1938): Davis, in an Oscar winning performance, played a vain, selfish, deceitful, and head strong Southern belle causing turmoil all around but by the film’s end redeems herself by risking her own life in caring for her former fiance incapacitated during a yellow fever epidemic.
- “The Letter” (1940): Davis played Leslie, the wife of a rubber plantation owner in Malaya, who kills her secret lover and then claims self-defense while manipulating and lying to everyone around her. This Somerset Maugham short story (I know! I know! Him again!) was altered due to the censors demanding that she had to be punished in the end. Despite that, Davis was so ice-cold cunning in the role that she couldn’t top this “tough girl” performance until…
- “The Little Foxes” (1941): Here Davis played Regina, the only female sibling in a fading aristocratic family at the turn of the century deep South, stuck in a loveless marriage to a sickly husband, and with no legal right, as a female, to any of her family’s fortune. Here Davis played her character as someone even more cold blooded, conniving, and emotionally dead than ever before. It was almost as if she assumed the persona of a mob boss dismissively saying, “It’s just business…” before ordering the elimination of any family member who stood in her way. As Regina, Davis sends shivers down your spine.
While she would continue to do other types of tough girl performances in her career, other actresses would also give fine performances too. As examples, for Barbara Stanwyck you had “Double Indemnity” (1944) and “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946), for Olivia de Havilland you had “The Dark Mirror” (1946) and “The Heiress” (1949), and for Jane Greer you had Greer giving maybe, the coldest and most manipulative “tough girl” performance of them all during this time with “Out of the Past” (1947). Here she played Kathie, the girlfriend of Whit (Kurt Douglas), a big-time criminal who hires P.I. Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) to find her after she shot and then stole $40,000 from him. Jeff ultimately does, but not before Kathie and Jeff become romantically involved. From that point on, it’s one double cross after another with Greer’s Kathie coolly playing both sides against the middle without skipping a beat. Greer gave the performance of her career in crafting a character who, while not overtly sexual, was subtly sultry, quietly smart, and always calm and controlled while oozing psychopathic menace. In “Out of the Past,” Greer’s Kathie is summed up best when Mitchum’s new girlfriend Ann, later says, “She can’t be all bad. No one is.”, and he responds, “Well, she comes the closest!” She sure does Dear Reader! She sure does!
During the early nineteen fifties, tough girl roles were briefly being created for women in Westerns. Unfortunately, these films were absolutely terrible. First, you had “Westward the Women” (1951) with Buck Wyatt (a snarling Robert Taylor) as a wagon master hired to bring 138 women in Conestoga wagons from Chicago to California for marriage to the lonely men of a small town. The movie records their journey there when, after most of the men hired to escort the women quit suddenly after a disagreement, the women assume the rest of their duties to continue the trip. Well, after surviving such catastrophes as (1) a stampede, (2) an Indian attack, (3) a flood, (4) a volcanic eruption, (5) a flying saucer attack, and (6) no hair dryers, the survivors reach their destination and Buck even changes his manly attitude towards women doing guy stuff. The End! Then you had “Rancho Notorious” (1952) with Marlene Dietrich as Altar, the owner of a horse ranch that is a hideout for outlaws and which is the destination for Arthur Kennedy seeking revenge for the murder of his fiancée. Dietrich, who was never much of an actress, looked more “rough” than “tough” here since she was too old for the role. Also, since she couldn’t get away with her looks anymore, she now had to rely on her acting. Oh Boy!!! About the only thing worse than her lame attempts at acting “tough” was the repetitively bad droning ballad with its lyrics being used as narration throughout the entire film. By the time this fiasco was over, I wished that Kennedy would have just shot the Damned ballad singer instead.
Lastly, you had maybe the worst “tough girl” Western of them all, with Joan Crawford’s cringe inducing performance in “Johnny Guitar” (1954). Here she played Vienna, a saloon owner hated by Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) because maybe, just maybe, she originally stole Emma’s sometime boyfriend or maybe, just maybe, she was attracted to Vienna herself! That’s right folks! You now had your first pseudo-Lesbian Western with such manly men as Scott Brady, Ernest Borgnine, Ward Bond, Sterling Hayden, and even Ian MacDonald (who played the Big Bad Guy in “High Noon”) no match for the testosterone emanating from these two cross-dressing Babes circling each other like a pair of bikini clad blonds in a mud pit reaching for six-shooters instead of each other’s hair! Well Dear Reader, after you’ve finished cleaning yourself up after spitting out whatever you’ve been trying to drink, let me tell you more about Crawford’s tough girl (??) performance. If erupting into hysterics is supposed to be her version of being “tough,” well then, she gets the booby prize! Between her Vienna acting overtly subdued and indifferent to everyone, but then suddenly turning almost like a light switch being flipped on into being curt, rude, and defiant while batting her big fake eyelashes like a pair of giant fly swatters at anyone she sees, I almost defy you to not wish that you were wearing some Depends as a safety precaution. Oh, and as for her being a romantic attraction for anyone in this film, Crawford is about as enticing as a bottle of Maalox. However, this film did have some rewards. As an additional artistic side benefit, you got the chance to see Sterling Hayden (as the aforementioned “Johnny G.”) strumming some fake guitar strings and sounding like a howling basset hound while trying to sing! To conclude, this motion picture basically put an end to any further efforts in providing any serious lead acting roles for women in Westerns for the nineteen fifties.
Up to this point I have been showing the difficulties for women in having believable roles in portraying fully developed tough girl characters. However, that has changed for today where there are more roles available than ever before. Two areas where that is especially true are for action films and SY/FY superhero films/series with a number of women now being major action stars. Some examples are Jessica Chastain [“Ava” (2020) and the “The 355” (2022)], Sigourney Weaver [“Aliens” (1986)], Mary Elizabeth Whitehead [“The Thing” (2011), “Birds of Prey” (2020), and “Kate” (2021)], Scarlett Johansson [“Lucy (2014), “Ghost in the Shell” (2017), and “Black Widow” (2021)], and maybe the biggest one of them all, Charlize Theron [“Aeon Flux” (2005), “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015), “Atomic Blond” (2017), and “The Old Guard” (2020)] along with so many others. Some of the ones that I just mentioned may have had bad/weak performances. Some of them may have been lousy films or box office failures. Some of them may have even reinforced female stereotypes too. However, a number of them like Weaver in “Aliens” or Theron in “Atomic Blond” also had terrific performances showing characters with believable depth and complexity along with mental and physical toughness.
Now, of course you did not have to have women just being action stars to be every bit as tough as men in other roles. For example, in film, you had Sigourney Weaver as naturalist Dian Fossey for “Gorillas in the Mist” (1988), Meryl Streep as the fashion magazine editor from Hell in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), and Charlize Theron as journalist and political commentator Megyn Kelly in “Bombshell” (2019). For cable series you also had two good ones that I want to mention. The first one was the Emmy winning British law enforcement series, “Prime Suspect” (1991-96, 2003, and 2006) starring Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, an officer in the Metropolitan Police. Her no-nonsense character constantly fought against sexism in the workplace while proving herself to her fellow colleagues and also, in later years, dealing with such hot button issues like child sexual abuse, institutional racism, and prostitution. Mirren is terrific in the role, but despite her toughness in handling various crises on the job as well as dealing with her doubting male peers, she also showed the toil that such work had on her character’s personal life with difficulties in maintaining stable relationships, having an unexpected pregnancy terminated, and dealing with her own alcoholism. Mirren won two Emmy Awards for the role and she deserved it. The other series I wanted to mention was the legal drama, “Damages” (2007, 2009-12) starring Glenn Close as Patty Hewes, a high stakes litigator for her own law firm. Her character is ruthless, brilliant, manipulative, and willingly corrupt if it serves her purposes. Due to the physical abuse that she suffered, while young, from her father, an honest judge in public but a sadist in private, her character has an all-consuming hatred of individuals in positions of power who abuse or torment others. Close, who could give Bette Davis a good run for the money, is mesmerizing. She won two Emmy Awards, and the show itself won numerous Emmy Awards too. Close’s Patty is one “tough girl” that isn’t made of shoe leather. She’s made of Titanium Steel!
Despite what happened in the nineteen fifties, “tough girl” Westerns now have also greatly changed for the better, and there are two that I want to highlight. The first one is the film, “The Quick and the Dead” (1995), a revisionist Western starring Sharon Stone as “The Lady,” who rides into the Western town of Redemption ruled by the ruthless outlaw John Herod (Gene Hackman). Herod is hosting a fast-draw elimination tournament for anyone brave enough to enter with the final winner/survivor, the recipient of a large cash prize. The Lady enters the event and as the various faceoffs and other various characters (Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Keith David, etc.) along with their accompanying stories unfold you also slowly find out the real reason for The Lady’s entry into the event. Stone, who was popular with the viewing public at this point in time, had the good fortune to not only sign on for this homage to Spaghetti Westerns with a woman in the lead role, but also signed on as the co-producer which allowed her to choose the film’s director. Her pick was Sam Raimi who, while his direction was over the top and visually excessive, still managed to not totally be a distraction from the main storyline. She also was instrumental in getting both Crowe and DiCaprio, who were not big-name actors at this time, cast for this film even personally paying DiCaprio’s salary so he could be a part of the cast. Her performance, while not complex, is adequate and manages to hold your interest. Her gunslinger character riding into town on a mission (while channeling her inner Clint Eastwood), is believable, more so than Joan Crawford any day of the week. If you are not taking anything too seriously, Stone’s tough girl performance is a fun ride.
Even better was the Netflix Western miniseries “Godless” (2017) written and directed by Scott Frank (“The Queen’s Gambit”). Here, the storyline involves a young fast-draw shooting outlaw, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) on the run from his former murderous outlaw gang led by his father figure leader, Frank Griffin (Emmy winner Jeff Daniels) who will destroy anyone in his quest to hunt down and kill Roy. Roy will ultimately end up in the town of LaBelle where, due to a mining accident which killed most of the men, is now run almost exclusively by women. Previously, Griffin had already completely razed another town that briefly hid Roy killing every man, woman and child. Soon enough, he will do the same to La Belle unless Roy, the town’s former sheriff (Scott McNairy), and the women stop him. Unlike “Westward the Women,” these women are already used to running a town by themselves, and a number of them already know how to handle a gun. Also, the series, thanks to Scott’s fine screenplay and direction, fully fleshes out believable and complex characters with detailed backstories for everyone including Griffin and the outlaws. There are various terrific “tough girl” characters both in small and large roles with the two major female roles anchored by Michelle Dockery and Emmy winner, Merritt Wever. Dockery plays Alice, a tough, single mom ranch owner who gives Roy early safety. Wever plays Mary Agnes, the widow of the former town mayor and who is also smart, tough, independent, and able to use a gun. Oh, and did I fail to mention that she is also now openly gay and secretly carrying on a romance with a former prostitute who is now the town teacher? This is one Western with a Lesbian element that is believable, not trite! As one of the best Western series that I have seen in years, “Godless” is must see viewing.
Lastly, recent films for neo-noirs, especially neo-noirs with femme fatales, have really changed incorporating a different kind of “tough girl” interpretation than most of those that were made, not just in the late nineteen forties, but also, prior to the nineteen eighties. Films like “Body Heat” (1981) started the ball rolling, but the last motion picture that I want to highlight and praise is the movie, “The Last Seduction” (1994) directed by the underrated John Dahl (“Red Rock West”). “Seduction” starred Linda Fiorentino as Bridget, on the run after stealing $700,000 from her husband Clay after she masterminded a drug deal that he later executed. Temporarily hiding out in Beston, a small town near Buffalo while having Frank (J.T. Walsh), her sleazy lawyer, start divorce proceedings, she has a one-night stand with Mike (Peter Berg). Shortly after, as cover, she takes a job at an insurance company where Mike also works while figuring out how to finally get rid of her husband and maybe, using a dimwit like Mike to help her.
Florentino’s modern femme fatale is way different than all the other tough girls in noir films. First, she is unabashedly evil while not showing any remorse or sensitivity from the very beginning all the way up to the very end. Second, she’s a brunette, not a stereotypical noir blond. Third, she aggressively and without hesitation initiates sex whenever and wherever she chooses without any care or concern. Fourth, (Spoiler Alert) her character gets away with her schemes! No retribution! No comeuppance of any kind! What’s more, watching Fiorentino’s scene stealing performance, you don’t really care. Her Bridget is a psychopath of the first order, unemotional unless she’s putting on an act, and always in control of any situation, especially around men. The really funny thing is that they all know what type of person she is, but it doesn’t really faze them at all. This is reflected in the hardboiled and hysterical dialogue from the great original screenplay by Steve Barancik:
Mike: “I’m trying to figure out whether you’re a total fucking bitch or not.”
Bridget: “I am a total fucking bitch.”
Bridget: “You still a lawyer, Frank?”
Frank: “Yeah. You still a self-serving bitch?”
Unfortunately, Fiorentino’s incredible and acclaimed performance was denied an Academy Award nomination that year because it came out on HBO before it was released to theaters. However, you’ll never look at another film noir with a tough girl femme fatale in quite the same way after seeing, “The Last Seduction.”
Well, that sums up this month’s Blog Post for my analysis of the evolution of “tough girl” roles for women. So Dear Reader, the next time you are in a bar, and a woman like Bridget comes into the bar, but the bartender ignores her and, like Bridget, she says,
“Who’s a girl gotta suck around here to get a drink?”
Don’t buy her a drink!