Review by C.J. Bunce
This month, a new book examining what makes a great character also takes an in-depth look at Hollywood and film from the silent picture era to today. It’s Turner Classic Movies/TCM′s latest book on film, Dynamic Dames: 50 Leading Ladies Who Made History. I previously reviewed film historian Sloan De Forest′s Must-See Sci-Fi: 50 Movies That Are Out of This World here at borg, a fun read and a fun list that is more a celebration of pop culture than film school companion. De Forest seems to have far more passion for her next subject, selecting a masterful list of 50 women worth reading about–and worth seeing their films. She also connects the dots between actors, their characters, and their personal lives in a way you’ve probably not seen before. In one word, Dynamic Dames is brilliant.
Everyone reading anyone else’s list of 50 people of any pursuit will have quibbles along the way, but De Forest shows an impressive knowledge of film and delivers. Not only a selection of 50 worthy actors–she doesn’t select the roles most movie critics flock to and rave about–she also finds those finer, more nuanced performances where these Dynamic Dames probably should have scored their Oscars. She also divides the book into eight sections and finds perfect examples that exemplify each section, from Pre-Code Bad Girls, to Big Bad Mamas, Women of Mystery, and Strong Survivors. A category not possible until more recently, Superheroines, rounds out the list, and although the performances have not had much of a chance to steep from a historical standpoint, De Forest provides solid rationale for them all.
Authors of a book like this typically will reserve a small percentage of the list for modern readers to have something to be attracted to, but that’s not the case here. De Forest actually embraces recent films, pulling in more than 20 percent of her list from characters appearing in 21st century films. Most of her rationale for each of these more recent actors and corresponding characters justifies their inclusion, comparable in performance, significance, and influence, to the film greats any movie buff would expect to find on this list. She also ties in some of cinema’s–and literature’s–best women writers; it should be no surprise that many of these outstanding characters in film over the course of 92 years resulted from great women writers of the 19th and 20th century, including Charlotte Brontë, Agatha Christie, and J.K Rowling.
The book’s thesis–strong women characters and the great actors behind them are nothing new to Hollywood–is pressed even further. In an appendix the author provides a list of references to 56 additional also-ran selections, seven in each of her categories. Although the 50 she went with in the book were far better picks (the additional 56 don’t come close to the performances and roles of the 50 featured), all 106 movies make for good suggestions of women to watch, then and now, and movies to follow up on for any movie buff.
De Forest elaborated about her book in a TCM interview this month, “Most people I talk to seem to think today must be the best time for dynamic female characters. While it’s true we do have Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel and Katniss Everdeen, those are like one movie per year. In the 1930s and ’40s, about half of the major films starred women in the leading role–and they were often powerful women in control of their lives. Think of the characters typically played by Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford. Many of them could go toe to toe with Captain Marvel, for my money! …actresses who were big moneymaking stars had tremendous power. In the book, I point out that Mae West wrote her own scripts; Barbara Stanwyck collaborated on the story for Baby Face; Garbo hired her friend Salka Viertel to write Queen Christina and selected the cast and director herself; Kate Hepburn demanded Spencer Tracy as her costar; Myrna Loy went on strike at MGM for a year until they gave her equal pay with William Powell… So these women were shaping their own careers, not just being forced into roles by their bosses.”
We won’t list all the women featured in the book here–a great part of the fun is the surprise of turning the next page to find an actor matched up with that great role only a discerning eye might recognize as her exemplifying role. Even if you don’t agree with half of the selections, the commentary will provide good fodder for further discussions.
Dynamic Dames: 50 Leading Ladies Who Made History is available in hardcover with 192 pages and more than 100 photographs in black and white and color, from publisher Running Press. It includes a foreword by Julie Newmar. Get your copy now here at Amazon, or via TCM, or your local bookseller. Keep an eye out at the TCM website for future airings of films from the book. And don’t forget to check out De Forest’s Must-See Sci-Fi, plus Forbidden Hollywood, and the other TCM book we’ve reviewed here at borg, Christmas in the Movies.