Classic movies are a veritable treasure trove for those looking for outstanding representations of women onscreen—under the studio system, budgeting allowed for the successful production of numerous female-driven and targeted films, especially now rarely seen genres like female melodrama.
Turner Classic Movies provides a consistently excellent showcase for these films, but their annual film festival, which just concluded its seventh year, gives fans a chance to engage on an even deeper level. From director Allison Anders introducing Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955) to three opportunities to see international superstar Gina Lollobrigida showcase her feminism, the festival abounded with opportunities to investigate and celebrate women in classic Hollywood. Lollobrigida will be profiled more in depth as our next Dame in the Game, but read on for more on the rest of the festival.
Thursday night, I kicked off the festival with a double bill of romantic melodrama—Dark Victory (1939) and Brief Encounter (1945). Both films feature complex female leads. In Dark Victory, Bette Davis plays Judith Traherne, a young heiress dying of a brain tumor, who is stubborn, capricious, but also courageous in her lust for life. Keith Carradine introduced the film and stated that Davis’ performance wipes everyone else off the screen – her vitality and grit are so luminous in the picture, they outshine every other aspect.
This was followed up by Brief Encounter, which is groundbreaking its portrayal of a housewife who falls into an affair with a married man. The film is told from Laura (Celia Johnson)’s point of view, narrated with her voice over as she recounts the memory of the affair and all the emotions pent up in it. We never are asked to judge her infidelity (and unlike many classic Hollywood films, she is not punished for it), but instead to sympathize and swoon along with her. The film, in its use of a framing device to poignantly demonstrate the shift in our understanding of a relationship, had a strong influence on this year’s Carol. It is thrilling to draw this connection between two films that privilege the female point of view and subjectivity, especially when one was made within the bounds of the austerity of war-time Britain.
Friday morning opened with a rare treat for feminist film-goers, a screening of Ida Lupino’s directorial debut Never Fear (1949). Museum of Modern Art archivist Anne Morra, who supervised the restoration of the film, was on-hand to introduce it in a conversation with TCM’s Trailblazing Women host Illeana Douglas. Morra reflected that “Lupino’s work provided a space to talk about women’s issues long before it was fashionable.” Morra also noted the sobering fact that MoMA has only preserved four films directed by women (and they have been involved in film preservation for eighty years). Through the foundation of Lupino’s films, Morra hopes to correct this.
Morra also spoke to Lupino’s role in film history, not only as a female director with an independent production company, but as an artist. Lupino, as seen in this film’s use of on-location scenes at a rehabilitation center, brought a new realism to cinema, even before the likes of noted pioneers Fred Zinnemann and Elia Kazan.
Lupino herself was a steely woman, having conquered polio at the start of her career just like the young woman in the film. Morra told a story of how while filming Never Fear, Lupino fell when scaffolding collapsed, but she continued working with a broken leg and bruised ribs. Never Fear, which was also co-written by Lupino, gives a glimpse of an artist just starting to develop her voice in its realism and depiction of complex women facing real-world issues.
Next up was the oft-forgotten He Ran All the Way (1951), which fell out of favor in the wake of the Blacklist, but features a stellar performance from John Garfield in his final role. From the female standpoint, the film is notable for Shelley Winters’ performance—Winters made a career of playing women who were simultaneously grating and heartbreaking. Her turn as Peggy Dobbs is no exception — in her devotion to her family, her neediness, her uncertainty, and her ultimate act of self-defense, she brings a gritty, gut-punch of a character to life in a deliciously paranoid, grim film.
Friday concluded with an in-person appearance from Angela Lansbury and a screening of The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Lansbury discussed her career with Alec Baldwin, and in just a fifteen-minute conversation managed to give a master class in acting. Lansbury discussed her penchant for playing characters, like the chilling mother in Manchurian Candidate, that are the antithesis of her own personality. She spoke to the importance of “leaving yourself at home,” which is given ample display in her wide-ranging career. Lansbury has played everything from a gutter-snipe maid to a scheming, incestuous mother to a murderous pie baker to an animated teapot. She credits her range to producers and directors being willing to see her in many different ways, which led her to consistently find her work rewarding and challenging –not a privilege many actresses can claim. She embraced this saying, “It’s a lot of fun to play a well-written villain.” Manchurian Candidate is an exquisite showcase of her range in her entirely believable portrayal of an obsessive mother (when she was only three years older than Laurence Harvey playing her son) – no one does calculating manipulation quite like Lansbury in this film.
Talia Shire was in the house for Saturday night’s 40th anniversary screening of Rocky (1976). Her presence was a reminder that the film is not only Rocky’s underdog tale, but Adrian’s as well. The happy ending is not Rocky’s result in the fight, but the mutual journey of love and growth he and Adrian experience together. Adrian doesn’t change herself so much as learn to flourish in her own skin when she is embraced for who she is. Shire told audiences, “I was Adrian, a shy girl afraid to look you in the eye.” Reflecting fondly on the character and her experiences on the film, Shire spoke to how Adrian’s journey of self-discovery mirrored her own on the film. With a low budget, Shire costumed herself, going to GoodWill and hand-picking Adrian’s clothes—she still owns them to this day. She stayed on to watch the film with the festival audience, noting that it would be “another Rocky memory I can put in my heart.”
The final day of the festival commenced with Douglas Sirk’s lush melodrama All that Heaven Allows (1955), introduced by writer and director Allison Anders. Anders is noted for her work in independent cinema and was one of the featured directors in TCM’s Trailblazing Women programming last fall. She spoke to Sirk’s influence on her and many other female artists and directors, noting “Welcome to Sunday morning worship in the church of Douglas Sirk.” Anders reflected upon how unique Sirk was for his time in his female subjectivity and critique of middle-class American society. She says, “Sirk puts you inside the emotions and complexity of desire of the female character.”
In his films, Sirk portrays women who love and desire outside the norm—in this case, Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) falls for her much younger gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) much to the dismay of her neighbors and children. Sirk dares to put her desire and internal emotional struggle on display in everything from her actions to the scarlet dress she wears in an early scene. For Sirk, it was a means of commenting on any of those who thought or loved outside circumscribed norms (a fact emphasized by his routine casting of Rock Hudson). The film was lush and swoon-worthy, and even today, it’s a rare treat to see a woman wrestling with desire in a way that honestly acknowledges the female experience. Bonus points for the hindsight-induced laughter when Cary asks Hudson’s character if he would prefer if she was a man. This was my third year in a row seeing a Sirk film at the Turner Classic Movies film festival, and they have all been astonishing glimpses of the 1950s female psyche packaged in Technicolor feasts for the eyes.
The festival concluded with a screening of black comedy Network (1976) preceded by a conversation with screen icon Faye Dunaway. Dunaway made a career of playing difficult, complex, enigmatic women from Bonnie in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to Evelyn Mulray in Chinatown (1974) to this film’s Diana Christensen.
TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz noted that to his mind 1967-76 was the most seminal period in the development of American cinema and that the era had no greater star than Dunaway. Dunaway reflected on the prescience of Network and declared Diana Christensen “one of the most important roles [she’s] ever played.” Christensen, a network television programming executive, carries her quest for ratings to the extreme, recruiting charlatans and terrorists to boost viewership. In today’s twenty-four-hour news cycle, the film seems more prophetic than satirical, and it’s this commentary on the corrupting nature of television that pushed Dunaway to make the film. She inhabits the role of a woman who sacrifices her soul for her job to perfection and brought a narrative of an anti-hero executive (still primarily reserved for men) to the screen.
From the brashness of Faye Dunaway to the quiet strength of Talia Shire, this year’s Turner Classic Movies Film Festival brought a bevy of dynamic women to the screen and in person. The festival celebrates the best of cinema—what moves, thrills, and excites us – but it also is a rare space to honor and engage with the legacy of women in classic Hollywood.