Strong, Smart & Capable

August 22, 2018
3 mins read

Scanning news on my iPhone recently, I read about two actresses and their unfortunate denouements. One story was of Veronica Lake, a striking blonde goddess (her trademark was her cascading hair, partially hiding her face) whose many hits in the ’40s included Sullivan’s Travels and This Gun for Hire. Lake died of alcohol-induced hepatitis at age 50; she’d been working as a New York City hotel maid.
Margot Kidder’s career lasted longer; her roles were more varied. Her apex was as Lois Lane in the three Christopher Reeve Superman films. She also struggled with mental illness, alcoholism and disastrous relationships, committing suicide at age 69.
Time has rarely been kind to filmdom’s leading ladies, but there are some women whose strong celluloid presence mirrored their real personas. Their beauty and talent were early mutual mainstays, but their stability was the sustaining quality that defined (or continues to define) them, like Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) pal Sam (Dooley Wilson) sang in Casablanca … as time goes by.
Which reminds me—Ingrid Bergman is an obvious example of a beautiful strong woman on screen and off, but two other pre-’70s actresses illustrate my point better: Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. Neither aged as gracefully as Bergman (but who did? Only her lovely daughter, Isabella Rossellini), yet each was a real life powerhouse, like many of their film characters. Davis scored eight Oscar nods and two wins; Hepburn racked up eight noms and four wins.
Consider a few of Davis’ characters—Mildred Rogers (Of Human Bondage, with the oddly unlikable Leslie Howard), Julie Marsden (Jezebel), Judith Traherne (Dark Victory), Regina Giddens (The Little Foxes), Charlotte Vale (Now, Voyager), Margo Channing (All About Eve), Queen Elizabeth I (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex with the quite likable Errol Flynn), as the monarch again in The Virgin Queen, and Baby Jane Hudson in FW senior editor’s top pick, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Or was that Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, where things roll down staircases …
Bette Davis excelled at drama, not melodrama, and droll humor. In the mid-’30s, she sued Warner Bros. to get out of her contract; she felt Jack Warner wasn’t using her considerable talents to her satisfaction. She lost that suit, but upon her return to film, she was able to steer her ship her way.
Davis was neither a good mother nor a good wife; her career always came first. She was strident and confrontational, with both film celebs and everyday folks.
Kate Hepburn, capable of sultry gazes and sarcastic quips in the same scene, won her first Oscar for Morning Glory (’33), her third film. She was feeling her juice, and irked studio brass and annoyed the publicity mill; her career suffered a few bombs (like Bringing Up Baby, now considered a classic). She was labeled box-office poison.
In 1940, however, she was cast with lovable, stammering Jimmy Stewart and adorable but flawed Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story, first on Broadway and then on film. Hilarity and self-discovery ensue, and Hepburn was back in the hearts of movie-going Americans. The Great Kate crafted her finest work in middle age and beyond: The African Queen, as Rosie to Bogart’s Charlie; The Lion in Winter and Suddenly, Last Summer—to name a few.
Any parallels drawn between these doyennes of Old Hollywood and the formidable femmes of today must start with Meryl Streep. In her first screen role at age 20 in 1977, she made a name for herself as Anne Marie in Julia. Streep has since amassed an incredible 21 Oscar nods and three wins. And she’s nowhere near finished. Whether it’s comedy (Death Becomes Her), heartbreaking drama (Sophie’s Choice) or romantic angst (Falling in Love, The Deer Hunter), Streep is undisputed acting royalty; clearly, in a class by herself.
Two actresses who began as ingénues and grew quickly to command the screen are Jessica Lange and Robin Wright. Lange was a bubble-headed blonde, the kind males go ape for, in 1976’s King Kong. Wright was delicate yet steadfast in her beliefs as Buttercup in the charming and clever fantasy The Princess Bride. Both are now deemed stalwart actors, deserving of the many accolades bestowed.
Earning six Oscar nods and two wins for Best Actress (so far), Lange followed up King Kong playing seductive Lady Death in Bob Fosse’s remarkable All That Jazz. You can’t get tougher than that.
As for Robin Wright … she has yet to vie for an Oscar, but scoring 13 awards and 60 nominations around the globe is proof positive she’s a contender indeed. Who else could be as kind as Jenny when Forrest confessed his love for her? Or as fierce as Buttercup when she rails against the unsavory Prince Humperdinck?
Tough women on screen and off, each of these professionals is—or was—a force to be reckoned with.

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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