Throughout the history of cinema, the female actor has functioned as a screen goddess, an image of perfection, and a powerful affective force. Whether it is a specific vocal intonation, a certain physical, psychological or political disposition, or a combination of these, the female actor has the power to give expression to our dreams, desires, and fears.
As part of its continuing focus on women and cinema, Senses of Cinema recently extended an invitation to its contributors to reflect on, and pay tribute to, a specific female actor. The result is an eclectic and unconventional range of entries that testifies to the power and force of the female actor.
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Kate Hudson by Peter Tonguette
Anna Karina by Christa Fuller
Ling, Po by Feng-ying Ming
Melina Mercouri by Charlie Kanganis
Samantha Morton by Maximilian Le Cain
Cathy O’Donnell by Brian Frye
Bulle Ogier by Jit Phokaew
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Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous had special meaning for me when it was released in 2000. Chronicling as it did the life and times of a young teenage journalist, it couldn’t help but have a degree of personal resonance for this young teenage journalist. (I was 17 when the picture was released.) But I’ve come to realize that that wasn’t the extent of the unique magic the film worked on me: Kate Hudson as Penny Lane, the forlorn but winning groupie who has too much faith in people’s decency and motivations, is one of the most magnetic screen characters in recent memory and Hudson is one of the most magnetic screen presences to emerge in American film in a long time. A graceful comedienne and fine dramatic actress, I was instantly in love. A scene early in the film between Penny and William (the teenage journalist in question and Crowe’s autobiographical stand-in) standing outside after a rock concert has just ended is so well achieved in so many ways—from William’s nervousness to Penny’s alluring hints about a world that he can barely fathom—that I’m tempted to call Almost Famous one of the best depictions of what it’s like to be a teenager in film history. Maybe Gregory’s Girl (Bill Forsythe, 1982) has something like this film’s charm.
But the film rests on Hudson—her quietness in scenes of deep emotion, her unpretentious and approachable beauty, and her talent for comedy. She has the rare ability to suggest the potential of humour—just waiting to bubble up at a moment’s notice—beneath even the most serious (or melodramatic) of scenes. In other words, Kate Hudson may be quite far from a Hitchcock blonde, but what unknowable wonders Preston Sturges could have done with her.
by Peter Tonguette back to list of names
Peter Tonguette is an Ohio-based film critic and essayist.
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Anna Karina – sous le soleil exactement (1)
I was just about to pick up the phone to ask one of my all-time favorite actors Gena Rowlands for an interview when flashes of Anna Karina, whose short appearance in Jonathan Demme’s delightful latest film The Truth About Charlie (2002), kept haunting me.
Like in a Proustian novel, images from 35 years ago came back to me. The sexiest image ever to be put on celluloid is of course that of Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice (Riso amaro, Giuseppe De Santis, 1949). For personal reasons though, I will dwell here on Anna; for me, one of the most inspiring actresses to appear on the silver screen.
The ex Mrs. Godard, icon of the ’60s par excellence, and I even appeared in the same movie, Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965); and my late husband, Samuel Fuller, did his memorable appearance in Pierrot le fou (Godard, 1965), in which Anna also starred.
The alienated, bored Marianne which Karina embodies in Pierrot le fou who repeats “je ne sai quoi faire, il n’y a rien a faire” (2); the Natacha von Braun in Alphaville, Odile in Bande à part (1964), Angela in Une femme est une femme (1961), or her touching performance as Suzanne in Rivette’s La Religieuse (1966) – all are unforgettable. Karina’s slow, reflective movements betray her eagerness to give herself, to please and move the viewer. A blink of her eyes makes pain spots open and close. She conveys a certain pathos, a deep-seated sadness of someone totally out of balance looking for balance she will probably never find.
Her face reflects a sensuality that has been lost somewhere, some lost cosmic harmony that cannot be restored. Her eyes dart like they don’t want to lose the slightest detail. She is a captivating actor, a strange patchwork in search for lost absolute values, yet happy to be rid of them. She constantly re-invents herself, tries to transcend her anguish and alienation, contains her hysteria with a nostalgic smile. Helplessly, she watches Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) lose his last thread of sanity and sink deeper and deeper into Pierrot, le fou.
She is scared of bourgeois excess; her ambivalence is obscure, yet luminous. She wants to rise to total clarity, denounce hypocrisy and greed, this screen Venus of the French New Wave who talks with a Danish accent, thus inviting you to some universal language. She is the Mrs. SCHINDLER, missing from Schindler’s List. Hidden behind a philosophical book, she hides some strange tautology that she cannot escape. “A Rose is a rose is a rose,” – UNE FEMME EST UNE FEMME EST UNE FEMME.
by Christa Fuller back to list of names
Christa Fuller is a writer and actress. She recently worked on the completion of Sam Fuller’s memoirs, A Third Face (Knopf, 2002), which is available for purchase via Amazon.
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Ling Po starred in many Hong Kong musicals (those using the “Huangmei melody”) of the 1960s. She mesmerized her audience with her unique style in playing the opposite sex, mainly young male scholars pursuing their love lives. She is also famous for her mastery of the Huangmei melody that she sang in all her musicals. She has appeared in more than 100 movies, along with dozens of soap opera series and records.
Born in Fujian province in 1939, Ling Po was trained from infancy to be a traditional opera performer. She commenced her film career at the age of 14, playing various kinds of minor and supporting roles in more than 50 low budget films in the Southern Fujian dialect, which were mainly featured in Taiwan and in the Chinese expatriate communities in Southeast Asia. Her talents in singing and playing the opposite sex were discovered and used successfully by Hong Kong filmmaker, Li Hanxiang, when he revived the Huangmei melody and adapted it to film. (The Huangmei melody is based on a popular folk melody of Hubei province and was revived in the 1960s.) Between 1963 and 1969, Ling Po starred in more than 20 Huangmei musicals, her representative role being Liang Shanbo, the romantic yet ill-fated tragic male hero in the extremely popular musical, The Love Story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (1963). When the movie was first released, it ran continuously for three months, a box office record at the time. Ling’s unique performing skills have made her a legend ever since. She is emblematic of the transitional stage in Chinese performing arts from traditional theatre to the cinematic realm. In 1960, the Taiwanese Golden Horse Award Committee presented her with a special award for “Best Performing Skills,” something intended to distinguish her from the regular “Best Actor” or “Best Actress” categories.
Ling’s other representative Huangmei musicals include The Seven Fairies (Qixiannu, 1963), Hua Mulan (1964), The Secret History of the Song Imperial Palace (Songgong mishi, 1965), The Western Chamber (Xixiangji, 1965), The Mermaid (Yumeiren, 1965), The Romance of the Three Smiles (Sanxiao, 1969). Her other, non-Huangmei movies include The Legendary Martyr (Wan’gu liufang, 1965), Love in War (Fenghuo wanli qing, 1967), Songs of Tomorrow (Mingri zhi ge, 1967), The Mute and His Bride (Yaba yu xin’niang, 1971).
by Feng-ying Ming back to list of names
Feng-ying Ming teaches at California State University, Long Beach.
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Before Cher and Madonna there was Melina. The voice. Oh, that voice. Just hearing it exhale would arouse any man or woman. Her wavy rich blonde hair; her long arms that flew about as quick as her speech. A stare that could make you feel naked or make you want to be naked. Her passion! Her strength! But oh that voice!! As a 12-year old, I had the pleasure of being mesmerized by this Woman. Melina Mercouri walked into the Paradise Restaurant in midtown Manhattan. Her ever-present cigarette swirl following her as if she were a Genie appearing from a magic Metaxa bottle. All heads turned, men, women, and this 12-year-old writer; following every click of her heels. It was her Academy Award nomination for her signature role of Ilya in the classic Never On Sunday (Pote tin Kyriaki, Jules Dassin, 1960) that film buffs may recall. Her voice not only made men weak, it also commanded a country, as Melina was the first woman elected to the Greek Parliament. It was that voice that was later heard from the position of a senior cabinet post, the “Minister of Culture”. Whether singing or speaking, it was that voice that was better than Garbo’s or Bacall’s. Her throaty sexy tones, a product of years of smoking that ultimately took her life as she succumbed to lung cancer in 1994. Oddly enough, when in her presence and on screen, Melina Mercouri was just as powerful as in silence. She remains a cherished Greek treasure.
by Charlie Kanganis back to list of names
Charlie Kanganis is a LA-based film director and writer. His films include Race the Sun (1996), No Escape, No Return (1993), Sinners (1990) among others.
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In Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar (2002), the finest British film since Jarman’s death, Samantha Morton has been given a film that fully explores, understands and lives up to her riveting and highly unusual screen image. Most of the movie goddesses have a way of dominating an image; iconic and magisterial, their presence automatically becomes the visual focus of a scene, relegating all else to the background. Samantha Morton is not like this. Rather than dominating an image, she becomes a part of it, her face and body integrating with the light and shadow of the image, with its colour and its grain which results in the image itself becoming an extension of her. She becomes a scene, penetrating and influencing every frame from its (al) chemical depths outward, with the result that any other actor, whatever he or she might do, remains nothing more than a guest in her world. Look at the opening shots of Ramsay’s film; Morton lies curled up next to the body of her suicided lover in a room lit by flashing Christmas lights. The camera is close to her, intimate, almost tactile, revealing her face and body in stunned, mesmerised, de-centred fragments of light and flesh. She is emerging from the light, taking form. The image is giving birth to her. But it seems as if she never emerges fully, remaining organically connected to the light around her. We don’t know what she is thinking; we never know what she is really thinking in this film. But the luminous, pulsating mise en scène provides us with a heightened impression of the world she is experiencing, a proximity to her emotions that is physical rather than sentimental or intellectual, so close and so distant.
Morvern/Morton remains a mystery; her character is often a mystery in films, able to communicate only indirectly – the mute in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (2000), the almost autistic, clairvoyant detector of future crimes in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002). But in both of these cases it is up to a male star to understand her and learn from the higher wisdom (loving selflessness in Allen, knowledge of the future in Spielberg) that exists behind her communication handicap and thus indirectly act as an interpreter for the audience. In Morvern Callar, Ramsay (significantly, a woman director) dispenses with a Sean Penn or Tom Cruise, putting the audience in direct contact with the Morton enigma.
What is the root of this mystery? It is perhaps the discrepancy between the dreamy, introverted appearance her face and body (with Morton it is always face and body; she is a very physical actress, whose expressive body and body language, even when at rest, is often highlighted in Carine Adler’s Under the Skin ) assume while at rest and the unassumingly frank, almost self deprecating manner she often displays in communicating with people, particularly her perky, candid smile. When communicating, Morton appears to be spontaneously and not calculatingly covering up, rather than hinting at, her inner thoughts, which make them seem unusually inaccessible for a film actress. This superficial openness and its relationship to concealed depths of feeling made her ideal for the lead role in Under the Skin as a bereaved young woman hiding her grief in increasingly reckless (and often graphically depicted) sexual promiscuity. It also makes her ideal for the ‘holy fool’ parts in Sweet and Lowdown and Minority Report. But it is in Morvern Callar that this ‘Morton Mystery’ is celebrated for its own sake and shown to be one of the most enthralling miracles in modern cinema.
by Maximilian Le Cain back to list of names
Maximilian Le Cain is a filmmaker and cinephile living in Cork City, Ireland.
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It was always something about her eyes. Or rather, something about what they betray. First, awfully large and wide, but then somehow a little tired. And if you keep looking, and know what to look for, it’s there, that well of melancholy that made her the perfect fulcrum for a peculiarly American version of modern tragedy.
I first saw Cathy O’Donnell when Ernie Gehr showed Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1949) in his film history class. In his singularly elliptical way, Gehr praised the film, and he was right, but I was watching Cathy O’Donnell as much as Nicholas Ray. She played Keechie Mobley, who should have been the moll to Farley Granger’s thug. But Ray leached out all the bravado, all the anger, all the visceral physicality of the gangster opera, and left the sheerest, fragile husk of tragedy. If Godard was breathless after a hearty, cynical laugh, Ray was holding his breath, not pious, but not ready for humour, either.
And then there was Cathy O’Donnell, the quiet, lonely centre of that tragedy. The one who knew that not stepping into a hail of bullets meant facing another day, and another after it. And accepting that, not fatalistically, but as something expected; the necessary consequence of a choice truly made, and right in itself, regardless of its consequences. She is the perfect image of a kind of American existentialist, choosing still when she has no choice, but without making any special fuss about it.
And so as well in The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946), where she helps Harold Russell realize what is perhaps the truest performance ever presented by Hollywood. That a maimed soldier might play himself, not as an object of pity but as a man, is, to put it bluntly, something of which today’s movies are incapable of conceiving. But more, his loss and struggle is reflected in O’Donnell, not through platitudes and convenient lies, but the truth. The truth that she has chosen, and is contented with her own choice. And she does all this, not in long declamations of high-minded purpose, but with her eyes, as she says nothing, or only what must be said.
To do all this in silence, imagine. But the cinema is a visual medium only when provided with a subject suffused in what it captures most truly. And no actress expressed an adolescent America of painfully young veterans and great expectations, a nation suddenly become the first among nations, whether it liked it or not, like O’Donnell could. Those men, they were troubled and tortured, but they knew why. She abides. Which is the truest expression of how America responds to that which strikes at its soul.
by Brian Frye back to list of names
Brian Frye is a filmmaker, curator and writer living in New York City.
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A memorable scene in Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974), itself a very memorable movie, is when Camille (Bulle Ogier) descends the staircase. Enigmatic, elegant, and indescribable. Though the scene is repeated many times, it hardly becomes boring or tiresome but instead generates rapture. One wishes one could go back to the haunted house everyday just to watch Ogier descend the stairway. Ogier’s unique talent makes her indescribable. Her choice of roles are varied. While she might be the most elegant in Celine and Julie Go Boating, she is the least elegant in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972) compared to Delphine Seyrig and Stéphane Audran. But one thing remains the same for Ogier. Whenever she appears in a movie starring many other talented actresses, she is never overpowered by them nor does she overpower them alone. Just watch her with Nathalie Baye, Audrey Tautou, and Mathilde Seigner in Venus Beauty (Vénus beauté, Tonie Marshall, 1998), or with Hanna Schygulla and Margit Carstensen in The Third Generation (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979), and you will understand. Ogier excels in playing characters who are different from the main group of characters; that’s not to say that they’re outsiders or alienated, however, just different. Sometimes her characters are superior to the other characters; sometimes hers is the one who holds the main secret of the story, as in Au coeur du mensonge (Claude Chabrol, 1999) or Gang of Four (Jacques Rivette, 1988).
There’s something ambiguous and mysterious about Ogier that makes her an essential part in films dealing with ‘secrets’, and that might explain why her best performances are the ones directed by Rivette. Maybe it is her ambiguity that made Fassbinder cast her as a high-school teacher/terrorist in The Third Generation. And it certainly is her ambiguity, or the indefinite expression on her face, that left me scratching my head after seeing Agatha et les lectures illimitées (Marguerite Duras, 1981), searching in the dictionary, and still being unable to find the exact word, exact adjective to best describe her expressions. One can’t help wonder what were the words Duras used when she told Ogier how to act in that film. Bulle Ogier is a real testament to the fact that words are too limited, or even meaningless, especially when they deal with emotional nuance.
by Jit Phokaew back to list of names
Jit Phokaew is a 28-year-old cinephile living in Bangkok.