Do I need to explain? I’ve decided to write this text to pay tribute to them, the women, without whom neither movies nor life would be interesting. When I first had the idea for this, I was in doubt as to whether I should have a list of ten or twenty names. Upon preparing the list, I had 40 pre-selected characters, so I set on twenty for the final cut. I’ll leave the traditional honorable mentions for the end, so as not to spoil the surprise, hehehe. Not all the chosen ones come from movies acclaimed by audience and critics. Some of them had their bad times, but they are all representative enough to be here. Shall we see who they are, then?
20. Jessica Rabbit
Let’s start with the representative of animated characters. Jessica Rabbit attracted the attention of all the men in the cast of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), but she kept loyal to her husband – who was, in fact, the framed animal from the title. It took three real women to create the fantasy one: Kathleen Tuner provided the character’s voice for conversations; Amy Irving gave her words while singing; and Betsy Brantley was the model for Jessica’s figure. The female character who got the most attention in animated movies couldn’t be left out of the list. Mermaids, princesses and ogres pardon me, but Jessica Rabbit is the chosen one.
19. Princess Leia Organa
It’s hard to create sex symbols that go beyond their own generation, but Princess Leia – from Star Wars (1977); Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980); and Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) – with her bun hairstyles and anthological metal bikini remains a fetish to many – there’s an excellent episode of Friends that approaches that, for example. Not to mention that she’s Darth Vader’s daughter, but is still a good girl. She was played by Carrie Fisher in all three movies.
It’s not only the title that is dedicated to the character. The whole movie Gilda (1946) belongs to Rita Hayworth, who overflows attitude, owns the screen and enchants everyone. The dance scene is cinema heritage. “Put the blame on Mame, boys”. By the way, she’s one of only three characters on the list who name their movies. Can you guess the other two?
The world of superheroes is not made exclusively of well intentioned ladies, and among all the morally ambiguous women from this group, there’s no one more interesting than Catwoman. It is true that the character saw its name dragged through the mud by the awful movie starred by Halle Berry in 2004. But that doesn’t make her less worthy of making the list, because before that she had been played by the wonderful Michelle Pfiffer in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992).
16. Lola Lola
The woman who made a respected and stern teacher lose everything he had, Lola Lola, from the classic The Blue Angel (1930), was played by Marlene Dietrich, in a performance that would be bold and seductive even by today’s standards. Dangerous and unforgettable.
15. Grace Margaret Mulligan
Played in Dogville (2003) by Nicole Kidman – in one of the best performances I’ve ever seen – and in Manderlay (2005) by Bryce Dallas Howard, Grace is the synthesis of good intentions that pave the road to hell. While trying to find the practical balance between her beliefs and attitudes (and, by extension figure out who she is), she inadvertently exposes the worst in people and destroys everything around her.
14. Padmé Amidala
Here’s a woman who has an important job (senator of the Galactic Republic) and also needs to deal with her pregnancy and problems in her marriage – to a Jedi. Obviously, there’s no lack of people who want to betray her, bring her down or plain kill her. Why is it necessary that this story happens in a galaxy far, far away for us to see such a character in a big Hollywood production? The fact that she was brought to the screen by Natalie Portman, one of the best actresses in her generation, undoubtedly helps. She appears in the movies Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999); Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002); and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).
13. Vesper Lynd
Bond girls are practically entities of cinema. And the best of them all could not be absent. Vesper – seen in Casino Royale – is beautiful, charming, inteligente, seductive, but above all, she has personality. She’s not just one more woman for James Bond’s list of conquests; she’s a woman to match him. She is, in fact, the woman who defines his relationships to women. Eva Green gave life to the character, in a ravishing performance.
The uppermost expression of wife, Maria makes everyone’s lives easier – adults, teenagers and children. She supports all on their times of need and inspires them to develop by themselves, free to find out who they are. When the situation gets really dangerous, she doesn’t run from the fight. Besides, The Sound of Music (1965) is my mother’s favorite movie, and that would be enough. Maria was played by Julie Andrews.
11. Lois Lane
Think of the greatest superhero of all times. Who could match him? The answer is Lois Lane, an intelligent, ambitious, daring and brave reporter who, even without x-ray vision or super-hearing is always able to figure out where the grand events are about to happen. Played by Margot Kidder in Superman (1978), Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983) e Superman IV – The Quest for Peace (1987) and by Kate Bosworth in Superman Returns (2006) (in a very criticized performance), Lois Lane is a symbol of women’s insertion – and success – in the “masculine world” of extreme competitiveness and efficiency.
Wow, ten down, ten to go. Disagreed a lot so far? Think you know who gets the first places? Let’s find out.
From dreamy girl to a woman saddened by years of real life, Celine, a character from the movies Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), is one of the most real, and most beautiful, women ever portrayed in the movies. It’s interesting to point out that the same nine years that went by between the release of the two movies have also gone by inside the story, thus allowing us to compare the same woman in two different ages, each with its beauty and suffering, insecurities and certainties. Julie Delpy is the actress responsible for this task, which she fulfills deftly. Not only that, but she also stars one of the best movie endings of all times – that of Before Sunset. If you haven’t seen these movies, watch them both soon.
09. Hermione Granger
While the Celine from the tenth position represented two stages of an adult woman, Harry Potter’s best friend grew up in the movie theater screens, from the child who joins Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to the teenager carrying adult responsibilities. Hermione is the brightest student of her class, she has the loyalty that one can only find in the best of friends, she is pretty. All that doesn’t prevent her from nurturing that level of insecurity that all interesting people have. In short, she is a person rich in nuance and detail, to an extent that is not easy to find in movies. When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released, in 2001, Emma Watson – the actress who plays Hermione – was 11 years old. By the time the eighth and final movie of the series – Harry Potter and the Deatlhy Hallows part 2 – comes to the theaters, in July, she’ll have turned 21. No other actress that I can recall has devoted such an extensive part of her life to one character. All of this could only be better if it were possible to meet this girl simply by saying “Accio Hermione”.
Someone who crosses a country to help an orphan boy, whom she just met, find his father: this is Dora, Fernanda Montenegro’s character in Central do Brasil (Central Station, 1998). Dora represents the Brazil which, even facing all the discouragement from an unjust and cruel system, doesn’t give up hope, if not for itself, for others. She is the mother created not by labor, but by circumstance. A character so strong in the hands of Brazil’s best actress could only amount to this, one of the best performances, if not the best of our cinema.
07. Mrs. Robinson
The top icon of older woman, Mrs. Robinson had a song named after her, theater plays in the USA, England and even Brazil, and showed up in a truly awful recent romantic comedy, in which she was played by Shirley McClane. But it was Anne Bancroft, in the movie The Graduate (1967), who immortalized the married woman who seduces recently graduated Ben Braddock. He eventually falls in love with her daughter, but probably never forgot his brief affair, which generated one of cinemas most famous lines: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me”.
06. Eliza Doolitle
Two words: Audrey Hepburn. One of the greatest actresses in History, she steals the show each second she’s on the screen in this movie about an aristocrat who makes a bet with his friend about being able to turn a simple and rude woman into a lady. While he saves her from poverty, she teaches him the joy of life. Sounds like Pretty Woman? Well, My Fair Lady (1964) is the Holy Grail of romantic comedy, and inspired loads of movies since its release. Without ever being matched.
05. Ann Darrow
The beauty who takes down the beast, that is Anne Darrow, the aspiring actress who becomes the object of King Kong’s desire. For her, the gigantic gorilla fights dinosaurs, faces armed men, destroys half of New York , and eventually sacrifices his own life. She was played by Fay Wray in 1933, Jessica Lange in 1976 (in this version of King Kong, the character was named Dwan) and Naomi Watts in 2005. Gorillas prefer blondes.
More than a character, Lolita is a symbol, an idiomatic expression. One the planet’s most dangerous creatures, the girl-woman, who knows she appeals to men, but doesn’t fully control her sensuality has a devastating effect from which nothing around her escapes. Death, madness and destruction are her trail, but she barely understands them, she glances at them and moves on with her subtle seduction. Life is a game for her. That everyone else loses. Lolita was played by Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1962 movie and by Dominique Swain in the 1997 remake.
03. Norma Desmond
Gloria Swanson, in one of the best female performances in History, embodies the former star who can’t deal with the loss of her past fame. Consumed by disappointment and walking on the edge between sanity and madness, she bets all her chips on an unsuccessful screenwriter. The Brazilian title of Sunset Blvd. (1950) does a very good job of summing up Gloria’s character: Crepúsculo dos Deuses (Twilight of the Gods). Norma represents the end of an era, the defeat of the old by the new and the suffering of those who find themselves left behind in the process. Many are the good dialogues, but my favorite line from this character is the one with which she replies the screenwriter when he remarks that she used to be big: “I AM big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
02. Blanche Dubois
The list already has many strong women who, with their beauty and attitude, leave trails of broken hearts and shattered illusions. But one of movies biggest icons represents the opposite of that: a woman pushed so hard by changes in the order of things that she is driven into depression and madness. Coming from a rich family in old southern USA, Blanche finds herself out of money and starts living with her sister Stella and her brother-in-law Stanley, whom she hates deeply. Alternating between painful contacts with reality and fantasies of a perfect life, what’s left of Blanche in the end is a woman broken, destroyed by a world to which she couldn’t adapt. Blanche Dubois was taken to the screen many times, but none as remarkable as the performance by Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan in 1951, in which she starred opposite Marlon Brando.
Ah, and so we come to the first place. Who do you think it is? A feminine woman, a tough one, a housewife, a major executive? Two clues: spaceships and resurrection.
Yes, the winner is no other than Ellen Ripley, main character of the movie series Alien, played in all four movies to date by Sigourney Weaver – Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien3 (1992) and Alien: Resurrection (1997) (there’s a project for a new movie, possibly a prequel). She protects helpless little girls, helps teammates and even dangerous criminals, stands up to the greed of mega-corporations… And all that while going up against the most frightening extraterrestrials in the movies! She even sacrifices her own life to prevent these terrible creatures from continuing to spread through the galaxy. But not even death can stop her, she comes back to life! There’s no possible competition for her!
In Sigourney Weaver’s career it’s possible to find characters to represent almost all the qualities named in this list, and the combination of a talented, versatile actress with a character rarely given to women until that point brings as result a landmark in cinema. Ellen Ripley is the ultimate bitch, the best female character in the History of movies, it’s that simple.
As promised, some honorable mentions. For starters, any character played by Meryl Streep is remarkable. The same goes for the women of Almodóvar. However, it would be unfair to pick one of these to stand above the others. I leave here, then, the recognition of their importance. Other women considered for the list were: Beatrix Kiddo (Kill Bill), Sarah Connor (Terminator), Trinity (The Matrix), Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) – all of these well represented by Ripley; Clarice Starling (Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal), who almost made it to list; Amélie Poulain; and Alice, Natalie Portman’s character from Closer.