Glitz, glamour, and all things girly seem to be the defining themes of Old Hollywood films, at least when it came to the women portrayed on the Silver Screen. But most classic Hollywood actresses had more to offer viewers than meets the eye. Despite the oppressive nature of the film industry during the "studio era," many of the best actresses fought for parts that not only defined their career but also gave viewers a glimpse of themselves: complicated modern women. In this post, we'll look beyond the gowns and furs to examine the lessons we can learn from some of the best leading ladies in Hollywood history.
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Enamored with All things Old Hollywood
It was only recently that I truly discovered the value of classic films. Truth be told, I've always had a soft spot for anything historic or vintage, so my adoration of classic Hollywood movies isn't all that surprising. What has surprised me is my newfound appreciation for classic film actresses and the parts they played. And the more I learn about classic Hollywood actresses, the more I'm convinced they were the last true goddesses.
Thinking back, I remember the first standout female performance that both captured my imagination and my heart. When I was ten, my grandmother took me to a local theater to see the 50th-anniversary re-release of Gone With the Wind. For ten-year-old me, Margaret Mitchell's larger-than-life novel paled in comparison to the larger-than-life performance of Vivien Leigh. A few years later when I read the novel for the first time, I realized just how much this actress embodied the character of Scarlett O'Hara, making her performance even more incredible.
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Against the Odds
The more deeply I dive into the lives and careers of major Hollywood actresses of yesteryear, the more I realize how little the times have changed for the Hollywood industry. I speak primarily of the "Me, too" movement that recently swept Hollywood by storm. Unfortunately, the phenomena of sexual assault, discrimination, and sexual harassment are not new to Hollywood. In fact, some of the women listed below reportedly had sexual encounters with high-powered Hollywood execs, many likely unwanted. The primary difference is that classic era actresses were perceived to have been complacent in the male-dominated film industry of the classic film era.
While it's easy to misinterpret actresses like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell as over-sexed and exploitative, it's important to consider how impervious the old Hollywood infrastructure was. Societal and cultural changes may have been reflected on the silver screen, but that doesn't mean they were happening in the boardroom. Studio-era Hollywood was very much a place of domination, degradation, and demoralization, especially for the women on contract to the studios.
The studio told them how to act in public, what to wear, who to marry, how much to weigh, and when to do just about everything. Not only did these women face sexual discrimination, harassment, and/or assault, they also endured a form of modern indentured servitude. They tolerated this treatment in exchange for the right to exercise their creativity, talents, and skills. And despite the discrimination, they still showed up dressed to the nines, delivered their lines, and paved the way for modern actresses we've grown to know and love.
Learning to Appreciate the Past
Over the past few years, I've gained a greater appreciation for the depth and soul great female actors bring to a film. Not only did the women of Hollywood's classic era (1920-50s) play their part in the development of the movie industry, they also played the hell out of their parts. What's especially endearing to me is the unique qualities each of the great actresses brought to their films, their parts, and their legacy.
That got me thinking. What can modern women learn from the leading ladies of the Silver Screen? The more I thought about it, the more I began to realize the answer is complex. Not only can we learn a great deal from the characters they played, but modern women also stand to inherit great wisdom from studying the women themselves.
What Can We Learn from These Ladies?
Glamourous, talented, driven, and demanding, these women are true heroines of stage and screen. The lasting legacy they've left in the film industry is undeniable. So, I once again pose the question, "what can modern women learn from classic Hollywood actresses?" While they may not be the pillars of feminism you're used to, the following famous women have a lot to teach us.
I've simply listed some (not all) of my favorite classic Hollywood actresses and the qualities they embody either in their performances, their lives, or their legacy. The information I share about each comes from years of watching TCM and various bio-pics. I've also been enjoying You Must Remember This, a great podcast for anyone interested in Old Hollywood. To further illustrated my point, I've added a clip from my favorite film(s) for each that I strongly encourage you to watch!
Witty- "showing or characterized by quick and inventive verbal humor"
Though a talented dramatic actress, Myrna's signature characters were full of wit and sass, not to mention great facial expressions. Her long career was remarkable, filled with hit after hit. In my opinion, her standout performance has to be the first Thin Man film, The Thin Man. She's captivatingly beautiful, funny as hell, and holds her own alongside funnyman William Powell.
Poise- "graceful and elegant bearing in a person"
Although she's not my favorite, Joan definitely deserves a place on this list. Ms. Crawford's career spanned decades and includes many memorable performances. She learned to use her star-power to her own advantage, playing the studio execs against each other to advance her career when needed. But what's most impressive about Joan is the grace and poise she portrayed both on-and-off the screen. While shit might have been hitting the fan personally, Joan never let her guard down long enough to lose her cool in public. Her portrayal of a mother desperate for her daughter's love in Mildred Pierce showcases her cool disposition in the face of danger and drama.
Ferocity- "showing a heartfelt and powerful intensity"
Vivien's piercing stare and signature raised eyebrow played a pivotal role in her portrayal of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. And that fierce character is only one of many played by the British actress. Her intensity coupled with her charm brought the character of Scarlett to life on the screen. And the other strong female characters in her filmography are equally as inspiring. Vivien's long battle with illness, both physical and mental, never once shows on the screen. Her dedication to the characters she played in intense.
Brilliance- "exceptional talent or intelligence"
A rising star in Germany in the 20s, Dietrich burst onto the Hollywood scene in the 30s with remarkable acting and brilliant lighting in the remarkable film Shanghai Express. Her brilliant performance did much to solidify her place in the Hollywood scene for many years. She oozes talent in later films Rancho Notorious and Touch of Evil. And her stage and singing career was just as impressive as her films. Talent like this has to inspire you.
Bravery- "courageous behavior or character"
You may be wondering "who is Claire Trevor?" But, let me assure you, she deserves her place on this list. Probably best known for her roles in a string of film noirs, Trevor delivered stellar performances on the silver screen time after time. Often mistreated by life and her leading men, Ms. Trevor brought a quiet strength and vulnerability to her characters. Watching her rebound from heartbreak in Raw Deal or drown her sorrows in Key Largo is unforgettable. Though she was beautiful, she was never the studio bombshell. Maybe that gave her the freedom to take on roles other studio babes weren't willing to play, like prostitutes, alcoholics, or dangerous dames. She's a great example of a woman not afraid to take life (or a scandalous character) by the horns.
Ambitious- "having or showing a strong desire and determination to succeed"
By far my favorite actress on this list, Bette is renowned worldwide for her killer instincts and amazing ability to bring characters to life. She oozes intensity while remaining feminine. Her filmography is impressive and contains hits like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, The Letter, and Jezebel. But it's her knock-out performance in All About Eve that sets her apart from all the others. Known for her discipline and strong work ethic, Bette can teach us a thing or two about ambition.
Steadfast- "resolutely or dutifully firm and unwavering"
Every single Stanwyck film I've ever seen has one thing in common: Stanwyck is stunning. Not only is she beautiful, she's beautifully strong. Stanwyck is the epitome of feminine strength, as well as skill. She brings a killer work ethic to every single role, making her one of the most steadfast and hardworking actresses on the list. Her prolific career is even more impressive when you find out she never signed a contract with a major studio, making her a free agent in an era of modern servitude. Stanwyck didn't shy away from complicated roles like that of her scandalous character in Baby Face. She later set fire to hearts in The Lady Eve and then singed the screen in Double Indemnity. If only we could all be as reliably amazing as Stanwyck.
determination- "firmness of purpose, resoluteness"
Liz is unlike most of the actresses on this list in some ways. Liz grew up in the spotlight, having debuted at the tender age of 12 in Lassie Come Home. Her 20+ year career would include some of the most well-known classic films. Her portrayal of Egyptian royalty in Cleopatra is infamous, while her stellar performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is the stuff of legend. But it's her scenes in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that display her talent and her ability to simultaneously portray strength and vulnerability unlike any other. Her determination oozes off the screen in all her movies, and her commitment to charitable causes in her later years make her a marvelous role model.
Exciting- "causing great enthusiasm and eagerness"
Jean was, and still is, one of the most talked about starlets of early Hollywood. Her ability to seduce audiences while making them laugh out loud was invaluable in the eyes of the studios. She could give as good as any man when it came to zingers and punch lines, making her a box office draw that delivered time after time. Although she was known as the "Platinum Blonde," Jean debuted a crown of fiery red hair to star in one of her best films, Red Headed Woman. And watching her share the screen with Myrna Loy in Libeled Lady is sure to have you in stitches. Known for her satin gowns, luminous skin, and one-of-a-kind voice, Harlow took Hollywood by storm after appearing in her first film, Hell's Angels. She lights up the screen with her beauty and charm, making her one of the most exciting ladies on our list.
Confidence- "feeling or showing confidence in oneself; self-assured"
You either love or hate Katherine Hepburn. And, depending on the film, you might vacillate between the two camps. Her stern voice and sarcastic wit make it easy to see why some dislike her. Yet, she is revered as one of the greatest actresses of all time. No matter which side of the fence you stand, you have to admit Katherine's confidence is remarkable. Not only was she confident on screen, but her life (and fashion choices) make her a legend. After all, she was rocking the menswear look way before Diane Keaton. Her best, in my humble opinion, is Adam's Rib, in which she starred with long-time lover Spencer Tracy.
Elegance- "the quality of being graceful and stylish in appearance or manner; style"
Poise and grace spill onto the screen anytime Greta makes an entrance. Her subtle sexuality coupled with her sultry voice is the epitome of elegance. And her notorious need for privacy added to her allure, giving her a reputation for being cool and aloof. But in her films, her stunning beauty and warmth invites audiences to fall in love. Chances are you'll fall for Greta, too, after watching Ninotchka.
Patience- "the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset"
The voice of a vixen with a seductive stare, Lauren showed up on the Hollywood scene as a relatively unknown. But she became an overnight sensation thanks to the help of a great film, To Have and Have Not, and the tutelage of her future husband, Humphrey Bogart. While there are other terrific Bacall films, her films with Bogie (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo) stand out from the rest. Her quiet yet strong presence teaches us, the audience, patience as we wait for climatic scenes that seem to never come. While other actresses and roles thrive on drama, Bacall's reserved characters remind us that scene chewing isn't the only way to win over an audience.
Vulnerability- "the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally"
Controversial, sexy, sad. These are just a few of the words one could use to describe Marilyn Monroe, easily one of the most indelible actresses of all time, though not for her acting skills. Ms. Monroe was a knockout, and she knew it. Both she and the studios who employed her used her sex appeal to entice and seduce audiences. Her characters were often over-sexualized and uber feminine. There probably wasn't a man alive who didn't want her or a woman alive who didn't want to be her at some point. Yet, her ability to connect with audiences was uniquely feminine and vulnerable. While some might suggest Some Like It Hot or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as the best Marilyn vehicles, I think River of No Return is where she really shines.
Playfulness- "fond of games and amusement; lighthearted"
Carole's career was tragically cut short when she died in a plane crash in 1942. Prior to her death, she was a superstar, drawing massive audiences and earning the respect of critics. At one point, she was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. Her playfulness shone through on screen, making it easy to see how superstar Clark Gable could easily fall in love and marry her. Just watch My Man Godfrey to see Ms. Lombard in action.
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