Cate Blanchett’s recent Best Actress Oscar win for her role in Blue Jasmine wasn’t much of a surprise but that doesn’t mean her category wasn’t competitive. This year, the male race was loaded with gripping performances that overshadowed the others but what the females did in their respective roles is worth noting.
Blanchett beat out Amy Adams, Dame Judi Dench, Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep for the coveted gold statuette.
The women above are powerful actresses in their own right and represent an exciting dynamic. You have contemporary favorites (Adams, Bullock and Blanchett) up against legends (Streep and Dench).
In her acceptance speech, Blanchett made note of her good company saying, “as random and subjective this award is, it means a great deal in a year of, yet again extraordinary performances by woman.” She went on to comment on the state of women in film, which hasn’t changed much since the beginning of film with “there are still some people in the film business who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and in fact, they earn money.”
This got me thinking about the history of the “leading lady” in film. One of the main reasons I decided to create a blog was to share my love of classic film. Since I’m relatively new at this, I will start this blog by focusing on different topics each month. For March (which is coincidentally Women’s History Month), I will devote my entries to women in film.
One of my favorite female-centered films is from 1944, Laura. When I fall in love with a film, I really fall in love with it. It’s like a mate, I can’t stop thinking about it, I overanalyze and read as much literature as I can get my hands on to learn more. Laura is one of the first films I can vividly remember immersing myself in. It aired on AMC during a film noir festival which not only exposed me to the film but the genre it anchors.
The film was a huge hit in the fall of 1944 grossing more than two million at the box office. It has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1999 and has also made appearances in three different American Film Institute lists.
**IF YOU WANT TO KEEP READING, PLEASE MAKE SURE YOU’VE SEEN THE FILM. IT’S TOO DIFFICULT FOR ME TO DESCRIBE THE POINT OF THIS POST WITHOUT SPOILING IT.**
Laura is a murder mystery, crime drama that features one of the most bizarre love stories in all of cinema: a detective (Dana Andrews) falling in love with the victim of a murder he is investigating. While the title character, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), doesn’t appear in the film until about halfway through, her presence is always there. A portrait of her hangs in the middle of her apartment, where a good amount of the film’s action takes place. The film features three male leads who all have an obsession with her and through the stories told by “suspects” in her murder, we find out her appeal. Laura is an aspiring, ambitious young woman trying to make her way in the world of advertising. With the help of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), we see her transform into a powerful career woman through a series of flashbacks. That, the portrait and a haunting theme song (scored by David Raskin) create Laura leading the audience to develop its own obsession with her.
We do end up meeting Laura because as it turns out, she was never murdered! A model from her office was. Like most “dames” of the film noir genre, Laura is a very strong woman able to hold her own amongst the three male leads. We see exactly why these men fell in love with her as the film concludes: she’s charming and is determined to live her life on her own terms. That’s what I love about her character. While she was originally presented as a victim, she emerges as a heroine.
In 1944, the cinema provided wartime audiences with musicals and other escapist films. Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth reined the marquees with their flashy musicals and gorgeous gams; reminding audiences of warm apple pie. During the 1940’s,we have many films in which women aren’t portrayed as damsel in distresses (Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette, Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver, Claudette Colbert in Since You Went Away, any Bette Davis film etc.) and many of those protagonists could be found in films noir. One could make the argument throughout the picture that Laura relies on men but I beg to differ.
Gene Tierney, the actress who portrayed Laura, was just 24-years-old at the time the film was produced. She was a contract player when she took on the role but this film turned her into a star. Tierney is famously quoted as saying “Who wants to play a painting,” after she read the script but we are all very lucky she changed her mind. Tierney, a striking beauty, was called “the most beautiful woman in cinema” but 20th Century Fox studio head, Daryl F. Zanuck. While her looks are an important aspect of her character in the film, she delivers a standout performance by bringing an anticipated character to life.
The lyrics in the film’s title theme call Laura “the face in the misty light,” but Tierney in the role of Laura is much more than a pretty face and her performance is one of the reasons this film has stood the test of time.
*Update* Please go see Laura, I can’t recommend this film enough. You can find it on Amazon and it’s also streaming on Netflix.