Silver Screen Stars We Should Still Look Up To
When we think about an archetypal, classic “bombshell”, there will be Marilyn Monroe posters and bedding strewn about in several dorm rooms. In regards to poise and movie-star elegance, no image is harder to escape than Audrey Hepburn in her iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s get-up.
These two women mattered a great deal to a new definition of woman: Marilyn was effervescent, bouncy, fun, with a final touch of childlike innocence so pervasive it seemed she saw things more purely than the rest of the world. Audrey, strong and serene, almost swan-like. A fragile ballerina dismissing her obvious beauty to avoid conflict, yet accentuating it with killer garments.
Both women couldn’t escape the truth of their beauty, but both worked with their films and with their personalities to create a true woman of all times. That’s how the public remembers them now.
But what about the women in between the spectrum of platinum blonde and chestnut brown? There are too many to count. But a lavish few carried lives of incredibly heavy mystique along the ways of their film careers, which only helped them light up on screen like a silvery disco ball.
Here we have some of the most inspirational performers from The Golden Age of cinema and beyond, whose stories and performances are still relevant.
The original hipster, Clara Bow represents the pinnacle of flapper culture in the 1920s. After committing all of her adolescence caring for her mentally ill mother, Bow sought to represent her true personality through film and not through the severe social constraints surrounding women at the time.
Most of her films are silent, but she conveys so much through her mannerisms and energy that it is impossible not to be transfixed.
Though her films are few and far between, Bow taught women that it’s all how you carry yourself. Women can be powerful, attractive, commanding, and vivacious...all they need to do is find what makes them tick and let it show throughout their whole being.
Film to watch: Black Oxen (1923). Bow gained notoriety playing a, shock, FLAPPER (the horror!) Back in the 20s, it was frowned upon to appear coquettish, but Bow uses it to her advantage, showing women they can be silly, funny, and stylish at the same time.
Though her film career barely lasted a decade, Harlow is still recognized as the original “platinum blonde.” Harlow caused a scene in the 1930s by playing characters that were loud, emotional, attitudinal, and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. In short, she played women that went after what they wanted and didn’t sit around waiting for a prince to take them away.
Harlow could be considered one of film’s first comediennes thanks to her bravado on screen. In the process, she created a “look”, thereby encouraging women to take charge of their own identity.
Film to watch: Red Dust (1932). Harlow really challenges stereotypes of women at the time, even appearing in a censored nude scene, all while laughing along the way.
Born Margarita Cansino, Hayworth was, rather unfortunately, subjected to extremely harsh studio protocol in order to appear more American (including skin whitening and hair electrolysis). Despite these awful procedures, Hayworth undeniably glows when she dances on screen. Trained in the Latin technique, she is able to shimmy theatrically and seductively at the same time. Plus, there was no such thing as cutting clips together back then...Hayworth had to dance perfectly in one take for several minutes at a time. There are no jump cuts, no panning. She should be credited with introducing American women to a whole new kind of dance, a kind that allows them to tap into their sexuality while having innocent fun at the same time.
Film to watch: Down to Earth (1947), in which Hayworth plays a dancing Greek goddess, moving impeccably while rocking beautiful hairstyles that always stay in place.
Bold, ballsy and brash, Bette Davis broke down many barriers for women in the 1930s and 1940s. She played a wide variety of characters, ranging from conniving and evil to straight up psychotic and extremely confused. She wasn’t afraid to play a women in the throes of her own battles. She did not hold back. She allowed her inner demons to come to play. She is Meryl Streep’s pre-cursor, and, according to Streep herself, one of the most inspirational actresses who ever lived.
Movie to watch: Nearly all of Davis’ films are gold, but to see a genius in the making, watch Of Human Bondage (1934).
Like Davis, Leigh’s goal in film was to play a wide variety of personalities. Unfortunately, critics and audiences refused to believe that anyone as pretty as her could accomplish such a feat. The theme of Leigh’s career was to prove them all wrong, and she did; her two crown jewels, Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, show her playing two very complex, very sensitive women who reject society’s expectations of them...much like Leigh herself. The lesson? Use naysayers’ criticisms as motivation to kick ass!
Film to watch: For a bewitchingly brave and bitchy performance, watch Caesar and Cleopatra (1945).
One of the first feminist icons, Hepburn was a true rebel. She played women that were athletic, snarky, sarcastic, and wholly self-confident. She was not going to let a man tell her the rules. In fact, Hepburn didn’t let anyone tell her the rules; she wore trousers and button-ups when women were expected to wear frilly dresses. She didn’t have children, a choice that was entirely hers. She spoke openly about atheism in a time when the very concept was unspeakable. She was, and still is, one unique individual.
Film to watch: Theatre majors will appreciate Stage Door (1937), in which Hepburn plays an aspiring actress who tries to be above all the surrounding drama (no pun intended).
Bergman’s versatility as an actress might be attributed to her European coolness. A native of Sweden, Bergman had to stand her ground when the studios wanted to Anglicize her. She refused to have her name changed. She would not allow anyone to fix her teeth or pluck her eyebrows, and usually wore very little makeup. By sticking to her guns, Bergman became a whole new movie star: a naturalist. She was someone who didn’t want to be like everyone else. Her audacity shows that it’s not all about pomp and circumstance. It’s about staying true to who you are and allowing your ability to shine through.
Movie to watch: Gaslight (1944). Bergman plays a woman going through psychosis in the middle of a murder mystery. Complex and engaging...just like her.
Lamarr is an interesting case, in that her life was more impressive than a lot of the movies she made. During the Austrian financial crisis of the 1930s, a parallel to America’s great depression, a rich munitions dealer convinced her to marry him. Alas, he was unbearably controlling and forced Lamarr to “shut up and sit up straight” at any of his parties; guests at his parties included Hitler and Mussolini. Once Lamarr figured out what was going on (the upcoming war and Holocaust), she bolted as soon as she could and hopped aboard a ship, where she caught the eye of a film executive...the rest is history.
Lamarr’s bravery is to be commended, but it was her mind that was truly unbelievable. During her abusive husbands dinners, though she wasn’t allowed to speak, she listened carefully to conversations about technology. She eventually worked together with a friend of hers, composer George Antheil, to devise a wireless coding system used to steer torpedoes in the right direction. This wireless coding system is now part of the patent for wireless Internet. That’s right, a movie star helped to invent WiFi.
Although she reportedly hated being prodded and picked at as an actress, though she always played a sensible woman, we can all appreciate the fact that a beautiful woman is entirely capable of building amazing things. Hats off to Hedy for showing that smart is truly sexy.
Film to watch: Ecstasy (1933). This was Lamarr’s film debut, and much like the rest of her life, demonstrates rather forward-thinking ideas for the time, including cinema’s first real sex scene.