A&M’s resident film critic, Peter Wix, abandons his usual review selection to ruminate on the most potent of female screen icons.
She may be a friendship driven over a cliff , or Anita Ekberg parting the waters of the Fontana di Trevi, a wiggle, a smile, or a vengeful bandit queen. Just where is that greatest cinema moment bespeaking the female condition; the one that makes the universe feel like la ragazza, la mamma and Jeanne d’Arc condensed into one transcendent frame or image sequence?
For some, as for Vadim, she was what God created. If that sets the range, she could have had four legs and specialised in mountain rescue. Bardot is not quite what I have in mind. And Lassie certainly isn’t. Nor any of the bitches in lm noir. You can call me barking mad for thinking that the It or Oomph girls or bombshells with their diving cleavages and deep throats are no more than deluxe screen Viagra. Lust has brought us increasingly gaping opportunities on lm to please the sexual imagination, but Clara Bow didn’t transcend, nor did Chesty Morgan, nor any gangbang queen of modern porn. And the subtler manifestations of female seductiveness, the glamour-pusses, the gamines, Grace Kelly, Monroe, even a cocksure teenage Bacall asking Bogart impertinently if he knows how to whistle, arguably do not raise femaleness to a more prodigious height than that screen sildena l citrate can arouse. If there’s one image that sums up the category, have Volpina while she flickers her lascivious tongue in a remote corner of Amarcord. She wants you to.
Or maybe an old girl, like Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude? Or what about Madame Mandilip in The Devil-Doll, killing bankers and nanciers? An apt heroine for our times but, of course, it’s a bloke (Lionel Barrymore) in drag. And there have been plenty of those, macabre and sublime. But nobody’s perfect, right?
So, if we can’t find our moment among the lovers or eccentric old dears, search among the fighters. One called Erin who takes on corporations? Or one called Ellen who tangles with Aliens? A housewife with a stiff upper lip called Mrs Miniver who takes on Jerry paratroopers; or Luise Rainer as O-Lan, in The Good Earth, who endures a disgustingly hard life and then dies?
We’re getting nearer (but running out of column). Consider independent and sexually free Vienna (Joan Crawford) in Johnny Guitar. Or Vera Drake, the abortionist punished for her homespun support of women’s power over their own bodies. Or Fatoumata Coulibaly as Collé, saving girls from genital mutilation in the 2004 Senegalese film Moolaadé.
Let’s make it tragic, and real but succinct: those shocking seconds in Roma, Open City when pregnant Anna Magnani is shot by Nazi soldiers as she runs after the lover they are taking from her, and lies broken on the stony floor in her defiantly erotic death tableau, a symbol of the force of life, of human and sexual rights against fascism.
No, even that cannot surpass the ending of The Jungle Book when Mowgli first spies the little girl from the main village. I hated that at first, because it took Mowgli away from his friends Baloo and Bagheera, and I wanted more adventure. But I could never argue with it. She does what the bombshells do, and she is the start of something new. She could turn into Bonnie, and Mowgli into Clyde. She could turn into Maggie, and Mowgli into Dennis. It doesn’t matter. It’s the moment. It asks you right there and then, when you are young and tender for it, if you’re staying in the jungle or coming to civilisation. It has to be a woman.