Throughout the month of October, Turner Classic Movies will return to their programming feature “Trailblazing Women,” that honors the accomplishments and achievements of women in the film industry. While last year’s programming focused on women behind the camera, showcasing the talents of female directors, this year will focus on actresses and their contributions to film history both on and offscreen.
As “Dame in the Game” has aimed to demonstrate with many of our profiled women, actresses in classic Hollywood were often so much more than the beauty, glamour, and acting talent. Throughout the month, TCM will showcase women who made a mark beyond the enduring legacy of their onscreen roles.
The feature will air on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout October with a different set of thematic parameters unifying the selected actresses featured each night. This marks the second year in a three-year initiative TCM has partnered on with Women in Film and is titled Trailblazing Women–Actresses Who Made a Difference. Host Illeana Douglas returns to champion these women’s stories, and she’s joined by a crop of new co-hosts, including film scholar Cari Beauchamp and many of the actresses who are being honored this month, including Rita Moreno, Jane Fonda, Lee Grant, and Bette Midler.
The series kicked off on Tuesday, October 4th and will continue throughout the month. The first night of programming focused on actresses who also had successful careers behind the camera as writers, directors, producers, and more with “The Business of Film & TV.” Featured women included Dorothy Davenport Reid, who had a successful career as a director in the 1930s; Lucille Ball, who parlayed her B-movie career into becoming the most iconic woman to ever grace the small screen and headed her own studio, Desilu, which produced “I Love Lucy,” in addition to other classic television shows; Mary Tyler Moore, who also made a major impact as a television producer, as well as making a splash as the first single woman leading a sitcom in her self-titled show; and finally, Mary Pickford, who as Hollywood’s first movie star used her influence to become a producer and movie mogul. The evening also included the TCM premiere of the 2008 documentary, Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies.
October 6th will feature women who fought to have control over their lives as artists and performers in “Controlling Their Own Destiny.” Of particular interest is a screening of the lesser-known Devotion (1946), a biopic of the Bronte sisters, featuring Olivia de Havilland as Jane Eyre scribe Charlotte Bronte. Like her character in the film, de Havilland sought agency and creative control in her career, successfully suing Warner Bros. over the terms of her contract and permanently altering contract law and the studio system. The evening will also feature films from Mae West and Katharine Hepburn, who made their mark as dynamic women completely true to themselves onscreen and off. Marilyn Monroe will feature, with The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), one of the first films Monroe took on after retreating to New York to studio at the Actor’s Studio and become a serious actress. In the late 1950s, Monroe fought valiantly to take control of her career and combat the ditzy blonde image that had launched her to stardom, even creating Marilyn Monroe productions as a producing entity. The evening will include with a Grace Kelly film, showcasing her unprecedented decision to drop out of Hollywood to join the ranks of European royalty after only five years in the business.
On October 11th, TCM will shine a light on women who made a significant impact on the war effort in World War II with “Wartime Contributions.” Already a massive star, Bette Davis founded the Hollywood Canteen as a place for serviceman to interact with Hollywood stars and find rest, relaxation, and a good meal. TCM will feature the film Hollywood Canteen, which showcased a bevy of cameos from real Warner Bros. stars working in the canteen. The evening will also highlight the careers of Marlene Dietrich, who worked tirelessly against her native Germany selling U.S. war bonds and performing overseas with the USO; Josephine Baker, who bravely worked as a courier and ambulance driver for the French Resistance; Martha Raye, who travelled extensively with the USO over the course of three wars; and Hedy Lamarr, who co-invented a frequency hopping technique for use in the war effort that has formed the basis for many wireless devices today.
October 13th turns to the 1950s and actresses who saw their careers impacted by the Blacklist and their efforts in fighting it and the unconstitutional policies of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The evening is co-hosted by Lee Grant, who saw her film career stalled for over a decade after refusing to testify before HUAC. Another treat is the broadcasting of Marsha Hunt’s memorable turn in film noir Raw Deal, as good girl opposite Claire Trevor’s gun moll girlfriend. Hunt sat down for an extensive interview with Ms. in the Biz last year and is one of the few surviving actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age. TCM will also showcase the work of Rosaura Revueltas with Salt of the Earth (1954), a film that was notable for being produced and written by two prominent blacklistees, as well as starring many blacklisted actors. The night will also showcase the work of Dorothy Comingore and Gale Sondergaard.
On October 18th, TCM will shine a light on minority actresses in Hollywood who broke barriers throughout their careers. Anna May Wong gets a spotlight as the first Chinese-American movie star, while Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge are showcased for their roles in expanding representations of African-American women onscreen. With her complicated legacy playing maids, slaves, and servants onscreen, Hattie McDaniel will be honored for her place in history as the first African-American to win an Oscar for Gone with the Wind (1939). Finally, the evening will showcase the talents of Rita Moreno, who shattered the status quo as a Hispanic actress taking on meaty roles, including being one of the only authentic Puerto Ricans to appear in the screen adaptation of West Side Story (1961), for which she won an Oscar. This marked Moreno’s first major award and today she holds a rarefied place in Hollywood history as one of the only EGOT winners. Moreno will be on-hand as a co-host for the evening to talk about her career and these other remarkable women.
The night also takes time to showcase actresses who have made their mark on fields outside of Hollywood. October 20th will feature actresses who made second careers in public service and government with “Politics and Government Service.” Child star Shirley Temple withdrew from public life to start a family, but in her later years, she doubled down on her legacy with a career as a U.S. Ambassador. British actress Glenda Jackson won two Oscars and was notable for her range in her chillingly realistic performances, but in 1992 she retired from acting to work in British Parliament for the Labour Party. Other featured actresses include Jane Alexander, former head of the National Endowment for the Arts; Gina Lollobrigida, who unsuccessfully campaigned for Italian Parliament; and First Lady Nancy Reagan. Jane Alexander will join to serve as a co-host for the evening.
Philanthropy is a long-time tradition of the Hollywood elite, with actors and actresses supporting a bevy of charitable and political causes, using their visibility as a platform. TCM will highlight four actresses who became as renowned for their charity work as they were for their iconic beauty and talent. Audrey Hepburn, the reigning symbol of chic elegance, dedicated her later years to work as an ambassador for UNICEF, advocating for disadvantaged children all over the world, having been a starving child during World War II herself. Elizabeth Taylor seems almost larger-than-life with her immortal beauty and string of husbands, but her greatest legacy is the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS foundation and her decades of activism working to raise money to combat the disease and its stigma. The evening also features the effervescent, All-American presence of Debbie Reynolds, who has spent countless hours championing Hollywood and film history, as well as providing a space and funds to train the next generation of dancers with her own dance studio, and Doris Day, who after retreating from the public eye in the 1970s has dedicated her life to animal welfare with the Doris Day Pet Foundation and the Doris Day Animal League.
TCM’s tribute to trailblazing actresses will conclude with a look at activist actresses, women who used their careers to advocate for (or against) a wide variety of causes. Perhaps Hollywood’s most notorious activist for her anti-Vietnam war protests, Jane Fonda will step into co-hosting duties for the evening, which will include a screening of her film The China Syndrome (1979). The film involves a team of reporters exposing a cover-up at a nuclear power plant and was co-produced by Fonda’s own production company IPC Films, which she founded with the intention of making more socially conscious films. Other featured actresses include Myrna Loy, a long-time liberal activist and first movie star to work for the UN; Susan Sarandon, an outspoken and fervent support of numerous causes from progressive politics to feminism throughout her career; Cicely Tyson, a crusader for Civil Rights and the expansion of African-American women on screen; and Barbra Streisand, a dedicated philanthropist with a career spanning commitment to making her art political.
In an industry where women, especially actresses, are frequently objectified and reduced to the value of their beauty, these women amply demonstrate the contributions, intelligence, generosity, and fierce dedication of actresses throughout the decades. “Coming off the last year’s successful Trailblazing Women programming event highlighting the work of female directors, we are excited to continue to showcase the incredible influence of women in our industry,” said Jennifer Dorian, general manager of TCM in a press release. “We’re thrilled to offer fans this comprehensive programming event featuring some of the great icons of our time as they explore the formidable effect actresses have had in movie history.”
Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Women In Film, notes that in 2015 only 32 percent of leads in the 100 top films were women. She hopes that a showcase like this will demonstrate the need for increased gender parity onscreen.
While last year’s ”Trailblazing Women” focused on female directors, shining a light on numerous careers that had been obscured by time, this year’s series allows audiences to dig deeper. You may know an actress for her onscreen persona, but with “Trailblazing Women” TCM enables us to look beyond the veneer of the movie screen and see what really makes these women tick. And that, in essence is the entire purpose of “Dame in the Game” as well…
Trailblazing Women will air on TCM on Tuesdays and Thursdays during primetime throughout October.