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sorry about my APA. by Khristina D. Smith on Tuesday, 29 March 2011 at 20:17 Preface
The main subject of this research paper is the various ideals of the “femme fatale” that prevail in society from the beginning of film up to the seventies. I began my research with some really great documentaries that reminded me of how many stron g women there were at the turn of the century that assisted in molding popular culture o f today. The flow of the research and the paper ebbed from the femme fatales of Film Noir and its darkness on to the light of the blonde bombshells of the fifties. I decided to end the p aper with a taste of of the more intense film movements that redefined again the essence of the femme fatale in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I decided to end it there, because most of us have lived from th e eighties up until now and have an image already in our minds what “femme fatale” means to us. I just chose to expose the primer for the painting that we have already pictured in our minds . Enjoy!
The first question that needs to be answered is, “What is a femme fatale?” According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are two definitions. One definition states th at a femme fatale is a woman who lures men into dangerous or compromising situations. The second definition states that she attracts men by an aura of charm and mystery. It is derived fro m the French language and quite literally means “disastrous woman”. Well, the French are famous for post modern ideals of deconstruction. The femme fatale is a disaster and danger ous in that she
bucks convention many times and stands on a platform of thin air that shifts to suit her needs and to leave other protagonists falling and flailing to the wayside. Other characte rs fool themselves into thinking that they may be able to stand tall next to the femme fatale on he r pedestal, but they quickly find themselves lacking in the complexities and layers needed to come ou t as these enigmatic characters that wind up supporting the film in many cases. They have the wit, the allure, the mystery, the intelligence, and the beauty to draw in the audience. It is easy to write a femme fatale, but it takes a special artist to achieve the “femme fatale”. In this paper, I plan to touch on some of the femme fatales in film and the people behind the persona. The list is long. There are so many strong women along the way th at stomped cracks in the sidewalk and broke ground for predecessors to follow suit. It is almost impossible to list and to touch on so many women who have influenced pop culture through th eir work in a ten page research paper. The imprints left on each one of us are endless, so I apologize for anyone not mentioned here. It’ll be in the next chapter. One of the first women I am going to touch on is Greta Garbo. In a ti me when the studios owned the players, Garbo left the limelight at the age of thirty-six at the height of her career to live a life of seclusion in New York City. In the documentary simply entitled Garbo, Barry Paris is a Garbo biographer who points out that she was the first to break tremendous ground for women in cinema because she was the first female to be able to be ass ertive and feminine at the same time on film. Before that, it was not seen. She was able t o convey emotion via her facial expressions and to fill in the blanks in the stories for audience s that had to be conveyed without stating the actual scenario due to strict censorship at the tim
e. Many of her films were also silent films. She had to act anatomically. One of the most prevalent images in mainstream today is one perfecte d by Maila Nurmi. Maila Nurmi’s “Vampira” character was introduced in 1953 at a masquerade ball and insp ired by a character in the New Yorker cartoons of Charles Adams. She started out as a m odel for Alberto Vargas and was later married to child actor, Dean Riesner, who wrote Dir ty Harry. While her only film credit is working with Ed Wood, the character she developed is consistently emulated and always recognized. : In Vampira: The Movie, she states
“Vampira is timeless. She has lived in many times. She was born long ago. She h as been animated many times before in other carcasses. She’s that powerful and evil force…. the lady with the black hair. We see her in all art forms. We see her everywhere. Vamp ira was my version of her, of that anima.” David J. Skal, film historian for The Monster Sho w, summarizes perfectly, “Vampira’s persona was this strange combination of sex and death. She is eros and thanatos at the same time and in the fifties. At the premium of the auto indust ry, Vampira was a hearse with headlights.” Before her, Theda Bara was “The Vamp”. She is often credited as the fir st sex symbol in film. With the birth of film at the beginning of the twentieth century, Bara ma de her name in silent movies. Diane Lane narrates the documentary, Why be Good ?, and states, “T he Vamp is the first dangerous woman of the movies.” Bara’s films and “The Vamp” are so controvers ial for that time that many of her films were banned, and the ones that still played had an age restriction of twenty-one and above. At the demise of the Victorian era, Cecille B. Demille employed Glor
ia Swanson to become an icon who embodied subtle gestures of empowerment and stark beauty dra ped in high fashion of a new time. Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, John Gilbert’s daughter, e xplains in Why Be Good?, and our “People were under the impression that all the moral codes were broken
world changed in the 1960’s, but it actually happened in the 1920’s. Immediately af ter World War I, the whole structure of society shattered. Women cut their hair. Women cut off their skirts. They started smoking. Everybody was drinking. Drugs were all over the place.” Bob Mitchell, a silent film accompanist, told the story of how the girls would go in to the ladies room and remove their corsets and dance close to the men. He joked about how scandal ous they thought it was. When the flapper was born, so was the idea that nudity in photo s and on stage was fine. However, it would still be another forty years before a mainstream ac tress would appear nude with a starring role in a film. After the Great Depression and World War II, America had lost its in nocence and Film Noir films encompassed a style that was much darker and intense and tickled at t he seedy underbelly of society. James Ellroy, novelist of the Black Dahlia, defines Film Noir in the documentary Film Noir: From Darkness into Light as: “Here’s what Film Noir is to me. It’s a righteously generically American film movement that went from 1945 to 1958 and exposited one great theme. That theme is that you have just met a woman. You are inches away from the greatest sex of your life, but within six weeks of meeting the woman: you will be framed for a crime you did not commit, and you will end up in the gas chamber. As they strap you in and just about to breathe the cyanide fumes, you will be grateful f or the few weeks you had with her and grateful for your own death.”
Many of the femme fatale roles in film noir was born as a result of women taking over the roles of men during World War II. Then, the men came back and here was this whole new world where women were working, and filmmakers casting the women in these dubious role s was a sort of revenge, according to Film Noir historian, Eddie Muller. According to him, there were these conflicts that now existed within the various roles of men, and the femme fatale was now a gorgeous criminal. With film noir, the opportunities for actresses to play role s that were much more layered and more complex arose. Muller also pointed out that it is importa nt to realize that it was not a misogynist view of women at all with the depiction of these ch aracters; he went on to explain that these were strong females in a lead that were attempting to save and to bring these “poor chums up from the ashes of despair.” Muller states, “The femme f atale is the one opportunity where the woman gets to be completely the equal of the man. They are equally tempted, equally compromised, equally evil, and equally guilty. This wa s a new thing for Hollywood at this point.” By the late 1950’s, the vamp as a cruel and heartless man-eater was be ing replaced by the femme fatale who lived next door. Jayne Mansfield was that star who first appea red nude for the first time in the film, Promises! Promises! in 1963. Known for an ample bosom, she also had an IQ of 163. Extremely driven, she was in direct competition with another blonde bombshell, Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn had an overt sexuality and intense eroticism but projec ted a naïveté about her sexual persona (Keesey 94). While Jayne Mansfield also often played t he stereotypical dumb blonde, her movies and characters were nowhere near the quality or depth of parts that were given to Monroe. Jayne Mansfield relied heavily on publicity stunts to gai
n attention, whereas Marilyn Monroe had the occasional publicity stunt, but it was far and fe w between in comparison. If anything, she shied away from the press and public. Both women were golden goddesses with intelligence and depth who made a living out of putting forth a v oluptuous image that lacked the Mae West wit and intelligence but still dropped men to their kne es. They had very juxtaposed lives where Jayne Mansfield had the fullness of a family life an d Mickey Hargitay but wanted the level of fame that Marilyn Monroe had, and Marilyn Monro e really yearned for the security and joy of a family life and was tortured by the level of fame she had obtained. o blonde Unfortunately, most already know how both stories ended for these tw
bombshells still in their prime; Marilyn died from a mysterious overdose and Jay ne in a horrific car accident (Saxton 13). The 1960’s and 1970’s in filmmaking brought with it new genres that woul d bust the gates wide open on the various incantations of the femme fatale. Independen t filmmakers had the freedom to convey whatever message they wanted to convey without the app roval or funding of a major motion picture studio. Three genres that started as independ ent and would take filmmaking and audiences to places they had never before seen were Horror, Pornography, and Blacksploitation. Midnight movies were arthouse movies that would never be seen by mains tream audiences at any other time but that theater owners found there was still a mark et to make money from. In the documentary entitled “Midnight Movies”, John Waters spoke about his introduction of a different kind of femme fatale in 1972. Divine’s character, Babs Johnson, was in full on drag and completely over the top in her competition to be named “Th
e Filfieth Person Alive”. With the most perverse and taboo acts on film at the time, Divine made GG Allin look like a hazmat worker. Another unlikely femme fatale talked about in “Midnigh t Movies” at the time was Dr. Frank-n-Furter played by Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The New York Dolls and Tim Curry made garters for guys fashionable in the seventies. The main antagonist was an androgynous alien that took gender bending to new heights and introduced audiences to a completely new take on the femme fatale. Pornography and horror had been introduced to audiences. With this introduction, a door was opened for filmmakers to include more extreme and graphic scenes to whet the appetites and to shock audience members. Russ Meyer introduced a new harder kind of sex kitte n that would scratch your eyes out and then kick your teeth in. In 1965’s Faster, Pussycat! Ki ll! Kill!, Meyer introduced Tura Satana to the world. His films and femme fatales were buxom bea uties who were brazenly witty and hardened by life with an extreme hatred for men and weak females. Extremely violent, they developed a cult following quickly due to the explicit v iolence and overt sexuality (Frazier 103). Dyanne Thorne was another femme fatale in the Grindhou se style films that cashed in on the combination of extreme violence and sex in films. Her cha racter, Ilsa, was part of an entire series of soft core porn films that were so gore filled that i t rivaled a Lucio Fulci horror film. These are the same 1970’s women in prison films that were spoofed as a short film advertisement within a film by Rob Zombie during Quentin Tarentino/Robert Rodrig uez’s 2007 film, Grindhouse (Sarracino 78). Lastly, Blacksploitation films introduced Pam Grier who is another femme fatale and was the equivalent of a Blacksploitation Wonder Woman. In Baad
Asssss Cinema, Pam Grier talked about where blacks came from in the civil rights movement, and these films gave her the opportunity to be the first African-American woman to be a kick butt protagonist and femme fatale at the same time, taking down “The Man”. There is nothing wallpaper about her character. Before that, blacks had been in servant or suppo rt roles where the characters, especially the women, had few lines and were in the background. Tha t is, unless they sang. The femme fatale today is a culmination of all of the eras gone by. There is no typecast. Filmmakers have the opportunity to make and market a film for as cheap as $35,00 0 and have the possibility of getting a return in the millions. While it is a fluke, miracles happen. The femme fatale is multi layered and mysterious. Sometimes, she is innocent; somet imes, she is guilty. Sometimes, she’s a “he”; sometimes, she’s a “she”. The femme fatale is meant to inspire and to caution at times. Whatever the angle the filmmaker decides to ta ke, it leaves today’s audience with an open ended opportunity to take home that archetype and ut ilize it in their psyches wherever he/she sees fit.
Baad Asssss Cinema (2002) Isaac Julien. Documentary. Frasier, David K. (1998). Russ Meyer : The Life and Films : A Biography and A Co mprehensive, Illustrated, and Annotated Filmography and Bibliography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co. Garbo (2005). Christopher Bird, Kevin Brownlow. Documentary. Midnight Movies: From Margin to Mainstream (2007). Stuart Samuels. Documentary .
Sarracino, Carmine; Scott, Kevin M. (2008). The Porning Of America: The Rise Of Porn Culture, What It Means, And Where We Go From Here. Boston: Beacon Press. Saxton, Martha (1975). Jayne Mansfield and the American Fifties , Boston: Houghto n Mifflin. www.mirriam-webster.com. An Encyclopedia Britannica Company. 12-8-10. Vampira: The Movie (2006). Kevin Sean Michaels. Documentary. Why Be Good? Sexuality & Censorship in Early Cinema (2007). Elaina Archer. Docu mentary.
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