Retrospective Roundtable

Women’s History Month: Actresses of Cinema

This month we celebrate Women’s History Month by recognizing some of the great actresses who have graced the silver screen. Though often under acknowledged for their performances, these and countless other women in front of and behind the camera have contributed as much or more to cinema as their male counterparts.

City Lights

By Ben McDonald

Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedies are often well-known for bringing out excellent supporting performances, from Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921) to Paulette Goddard in Modern Times (1936). Yet perhaps no Chaplin supporting actress delivers as wonderful a performance as Virginia Cherrill in the widely-beloved City Lights. In her first real film role, Cherrill gives a delightfully poignant and magnificently understated portrayal of a blind flower girl whom Charlie’s Little Tramp falls in love with one day while passing by. Though City Lights’ production proved notoriously frustrating (Chaplin actually fired Cherrill because of a perceived lack of devotion to the film before rehiring her soon thereafter), she nonetheless represents one of the best blind performances in all of cinema, and an early one at that.

Because Virginia Cherrill had little to no acting experiencing going into City Lights, her performance feels remarkably naturalistic and wholesomely naive- not so different from the elusively relaxed quality Edna Purviance, one of Chaplin’s previous leading actresses, also exuded in her many roles for him. Often in silent cinema, one finds a degree of overacting going on- the facial expressions are more extreme, more histrionic than something one usually sees in a sound film. This is inevitable for any performer who doesn’t have such a useful crutch like sound, and not in any way a disparagement of their work. Yet a tremendous deal of what makes Virginia Cherrill in City Lights so fascinating to watch is that she inadvertently plays against such tropes of silent cinema with her inexperience. The ending of City Lights is one of the greatest and most tender scenes Chaplin ever shot, and a great deal of its heartfelt poignancy hinges on a handful of strikingly simple glances from Cherrill.

The Philadelphia Story

By Kevin Jones

The late-1930s were a rough time for Katharine Hepburn. After a string of financial flops, she found herself being labeled “box office poison”. In The Philadelphia Story, she had her chance to get back up. It was a role written for her by playwright Philip Barry, one she had starred in on Broadway. While the film version is littered with great performances from stars Cary Grant and James Stewart – who were cast to shore up the film as a box office success, fearful of how audiences would react to Hepburn – as well as the scene-stealing Ruth Hussey, Hepburn stands tall. The fact it was written for her comes as no surprise, representing the strength and independence that defined her best roles. Hepburn captures all of that power as well as the sharp tongue of socialite Tracy Lord.

The best bit of her performance – and the film as a whole – comes on the night before and day of her wedding. From the drunken, starry-eyed night she shares with the whiny writer played by James Stewart to her shielding her hungover eyes in the morning while nearly jumping out of her skin when Stewart walks behind her, her brilliance is captured to its fullest extent. Hepburn was an actress with immense elegance and a sharp delivery that made her right at home in screwballs or romantic comedies. The Philadelphia Story highlights this, but those scenes are the ones that define this performance for me. Not only are her wit and dramatic skills on display, but how well matched they are by small gestures and facial expressions to create a full-bodied performance.

Late Spring

By Matt Schlee

Setsuko Hara worked with virtually all of the giant directors of Japanese cinema. However, it is with Yasujiro Ozu that she made her most memorable works. The pair had an undeniable connection, and she spent a career perfectly emulating his ideal heroine: a marginalized young woman trapped between the expectations of traditional Japanese society and her true desires, but eternally content to suffer with a smile. No film is as thematically definitive for an actor/director pairing as Late Spring.

The story of a devoted daughter being pressured into marriage, Late Spring captures all of the quiet despair that Ozu and Hara would perfect over decades of filmmaking. Hara’s performance lacks the overt melodrama of much early cinema, and instead in her eyes we find the locked-away pain of a truly suffering captor of an intrinsically patriarchal system. Given, Hara had nearly a decade and a half to perfect her craft prior to what feels like an “early” masterpiece, but Late Spring is one of the towering giants of the family drama genre. Ozu and Hara collaborated six times and tragically, Hara retired from the screen after Ozu’s death in 1963.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

By Matt Schlee

The other great lady of Japanese cinema, Hideko Takamine, had her own ideal pairing in the director’s chair: Mikio Naruse. The two worked together twelve times: largely observing the systemic biases against women in Japanese society. Though Naruse’s themes were more societal while Ozu’s were largely familial, the parallel is clear. Naruse and Takamine’s collaborations are all worth exploration, but none are quite as perfect as When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Chronicling the life of a bar hostess, it explores the struggles that many Japanese women experienced with the commodification of sexuality and the challenges of being unmarried and aging. Takamine gives an incredible and devastating performance, underscoring thematic elements that had been explored in Japanese cinema for decades with unmatched power.

Charade

By Kevin Jones

While films such as Roman Holiday or Breakfast at Tiffany‘s may be the first to come to mind when thinking about Audrey Hepburn, Charade has another great performance from her. As Regina Lampert, the performance finds Hepburn with all of the charm she was known for with an infectious energy and a screen presence that few actors or actresses have come close to matching. From the very onset of the film as she trades shots with Cary Grant at a luxurious Swiss resort to her muted reactions at her husband’s funeral, Hepburn’s skillful comedic delivery and timing shines through. Charade has a great script from Peter Stone with Hepburn bringing those lines to life, giving them a sharp delivery and some zip that makes the deadpan humor come off tremendously. When it comes to the romantic or thrilling sides of Charade, her chemistry with Grant is terrific but what really sets this film apart is her physical performance. Using her wide, expressive eyes to say so much about the confusion and terror her character feels, Hepburn nails this side of the film. This is a performance that requires Hepburn to use every trick in her arsenal, flashing her entire range in a captivating lead turn that stands tall in a film filled with great actors.

Certified Copy

By Ben McDonald

There’s a reason Juliette Binoche won Best Actress at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival for her role in the late Abbas Kiarostami’s art romance Certified Copy. Very few actors or actresses today carry the same chameleonic emotivism as the 55-year-old French actress, and her award-winning work in Certified Copy represents only one of her countless masterful performances. In the film, Binoche plays an unnamed French antique dealer leaving in Tuscany, inexplicably drawn to English writer James Miller (William Shimell) on a promotional tour for his book about the intrinsic value of art copies.

The film follows the two across the duration of a single day, meeting them as apparent strangers. They walk around Tuscany and mostly discuss his book- which she vehemently disagrees with but nonetheless finds compelling- until everything changes at a enigmatic moment in a café. As James begins to tell Binoche’s character the anecdote which led him to write his book, soft tears gradually swim down her face. The entire atmosphere is suddenly different. Their relationship begins to resemble that of an estranged husband and wife, informed by a nebulous friction and undisclosed past that may or may not exist.

Certified Copy’s foundations are as fundamentally built upon its volatile emotional dynamics as they are its deliberately unsolvable narrative. It’s an eccentric structure, but one ostensibly tailor-made for Juliette Binoche, who somehow manages to aggressively follow the emotional opportunities contained within each delicate frame and still feel like a distinctive character with a real history. The single shot where the film pivots- that startlingly subtle close-up in which Binoche begins to silently weep- has not left my mind since I first watched the film. It’s also a fantastic excuse for her to showcase her impressive skills as a polyglot, seamlessly switching from English to Italian to her native French, sometimes within the span of a couple breaths. One could just as easily praise her mastery in any of her other performances (her Bressonian stoicism in Three Colours: Blue is about as strikingly opposite to this as anything), and that’s exactly why she’s such a treasure to global cinema and one of the finest performers working today.

Byzantium

By Ian Floodgate

Though Byzantium may not be the first film that comes to mind when people speak of Saoirse Ronan, it is certainly one for me that displayed her talents early on. Byzantium tells the story of Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor Webb (Ronan) who seek refuge in a British coastal town. The pair are vampires on the run from a group called the Brethren who are hunting them. Clara and Eleanor find shelter in a dilapidated hotel run by Noel (Daniel Mays). There is a scene where they first meet Noel where Ronan’s acting is impressive. Whilst they are being shown their rooms, Noel gently touches Eleanor on the shoulder as if to say ‘you’re safe with me’ but Ronan’s reaction is sublime. She subtly looks at his hand and with just one gaze shows discomfort in his presence whilst simultaneously showing concern because she is more of a threat to him than he is to her because she is a vampire. I admire actors and actresses that are able to convey a range of emotions without speaking and this is something that Ronan does very well. Though she may have had more standout performances since Byzantium, this film was the first time I saw her have such a memorable presence onscreen.

Short Term 12

By George Morris

Before her critically-acclaimed work in Room, Brie Larson was already a commanding presence in independent cinema thanks to Destin Daniel Cretton’s emotional drama Short Term 12. As a young supervisor of a home for troubled teenagers, Larson’s character Grace is given a truly unique script to work with. Larson cackles with intensity, a strong-willed yet emotionally-fragile creation on screen as Grace battles her own thoughts and desperately tries to save face for her job. In her first leading role, Larson carries the film with her vulnerable and physical transformation which signified her future stardom.

It’s no mean feat either. In a film that boasts performances from budding actors such as Rami Malek and Lakeith Stanfield too, Short Term 12 often feels like a rare small miracle captured on film. With any other actor at the center it would have been easy for the supporting cast to overshadow them, but Larson’s presence was more than enough to assure her a place among the Hollywood elite.

Stoker

By George Morris

Often overlooked as an actress, Nicole Kidman has performed a wide variety of roles in both content and quality. But it’s her more recent work in arthouse and independent cinema that seems to be the most captivating and offers excitement for her work in the future. Park Chan-Wook’s Stoker is a prime example of this, as Kidman plays the unstable mother to Mia Wasikowska’s sensitive and disturbed India. As the film’s intentions become clear, Kidman and Wasikowska enter a match of wits in order to achieve the heart of Matthew Goode’s Charlie.

Whilst previously hysterical and alienating, Kidman’s Evelyn comes to life in order to reveal her true dark nature. It’s a subtle and layered performance, one that she imbues with life past the words on the page. Kidman has a knack for crafting three-dimensional performances from small characters and Stoker showcases her talent beautifully.

Fargo

By Dalton Mullins

Fargo is often cited as one of the Coen Brothers‘ finest works, which it should considering its sharp, biting yet comedic dialogue, the authentic portrayal of life in the upper Midwest, and the deft hands of the Coens behind the camera. However, one element that elevates Fargo above many of its Coen counterparts is the presence of Frances McDormand. McDormand has appeared in a myriad of other Coen films in a diverse array of roles but none best her spectacular performance in this film. McDormand’s role is a simple one: she’s an ordinary small-town cop with a baby on the way trying to solve a poorly-executed crime.

Despite the wackiness of the crime and the behavior of the supporting characters, McDormand’s performance endows the film with a sense of authenticity and reality. In the moments of ordinary life, her performance shines. In one scene, she and her husband are eating breakfast and she ventures outside to start the car. A few moments later, she comes back inside and says, “Prowler needs a jump”. In that scene and others that appear sporadically throughout the film, you get a sense of the ordinary American life the Coens always seem to subvert in their films. Yet, McDormand’s character remains steadfast in her ways in attempting to achieve the ordinary American life and this is most apparent in the most powerful scene of the film. In the end after McDormand has solved the case and has captured a criminal, she lectures him about the error of his ways and what is important in life. It’s a poignant scene that really touches what is at the heart of this film. With the script and directing by the Coen Brothers, I believe anyone could have played McDormand’s role and the film would still be considered “good”, but McDormand is the one who makes the film special and grants it emotional weight.

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