One of the film books I’ve been looking forward to the most this year is TCM’s Dynamic Dames, their latest book in collaboration with Running Press. Author and film historian Sloan Deforest, who previously wrote Must-See Sci Fi: 50 Films that are Out of this World, is back and delivers a loving tribute to the unforgettable actresses and female characters that have inspired countless generations of women and men. In Dynamic Dames, Deforest shows 50 heroic females spanning film history. We see precode bad girls, mothers, women of mystery, survivors and superheroines. I recently spoke to Deforest about the book and her process putting it together. Thank you to Running Press for giving me this opportunity. For the readers, I hope you find the dynamic dame within.
1. This is a book I feel like I’ve personally been waiting for especially now when we continue to hear the phrase “strong female lead” even though strong females have been around since films have existed. What inspired you to delve into this topic?
Yes, the term “strong female lead” is bandied about a lot in Hollywood. As an actress, I would see the casting notices frequently use this description. But the actual number of films headed by heroic women is still pretty skimpy compared to the early days of film. From roughly 1910 to 1950, at least half of the top stars were female, and women were the target audience demographic. Those were such glorious days. I wanted to celebrate some of the most inspiring leading ladies of that bygone era, and also gather some more contemporary “strong female leads” for the book. I personally like all kinds of movies—including Sergio Leone westerns and action movies with nary a female to be found—but the ones with powerful women calling the shots are especially fulfilling to me. Maybe that’s why I was driven to write Dynamic Dames.
2. I really enjoyed how you broke it down into different eras and genres, is there a particular one that you yourself enjoy most?
I love comedy, so “Ladies Who Laugh” may be the most fun section for me. I think Roger Rabbit put it best: “A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Sometimes in life it’s the only weapon we have.” Audiences seem more willing to side with empowered women when they are funny, like one of my all-time favorites, the smart and sassy Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. I also grew up watching Melanie Griffith in Working Girl and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Adam’s Rib. I’ve probably taken a few pages from these ladies’ books in the way I deal with people.
3. In your research, what was one thing you discovered that you think will surprise viewers?
I think some readers will be surprised to learn how many behind-the-scenes women were responsible for these Dynamic Dames. The majority of characters in the book were either inspired by real women, written or produced by women, or the roles were largely shaped by the actresses who played them. Even when the screen credits don’t reflect it, the actresses had more of a creative hand than is apparent at first glance. Today Greta Garbo would be called a producer on Queen Christina. She had so much power she was basically a silent producer. Then there are the actresses who lobbied to be cast in roles that they weren’t initially wanted in, and triumphed: Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. The list goes on. Making these discoveries in the research process was one of the most thrilling aspects of writing the book.
I feel a little like a mother with fifty daughters! It’s difficult to play favorites. I genuinely enjoy and respect all of these women, plus the long list of others who didn’t make the cut. That being said, the comedy ladies I mentioned previously are among my favorites. There’s also Clarice Starling, Ida Lupino as Lily Stevens in Road House, Mary Poppins, Hermione Granger, Ellen Ripley, and Thelma and Louise too. As for my favorite classic-era actress, I would place Greta Garbo and Barbara Stanwyck in a tie for first place. Their artistry, emotion, outer beauty and inner fire leap right off the screen. They never fail to inspire me.
5. What do you hope readers will walk away with after they read the book?
I hope readers are reminded of some great movies they forgot about, and are inspired to seek out those they never saw. It would be great if readers develop a new appreciation for movies about women who are the hero of their journey. These stories used to be commonplace in Hollywood, but since the 1960s, they have been fewer. Yet they are still here. Dynamic Dames have never gone away because they are fascinating, and because women keep going to the movies. We always will, and we want to see ourselves reflected on the screen . . . or the selves we wish we could be.
Dynamic Dames is out now. It is available at your local bookstore or on TCM’s official website here.