Forget La La Land, the real goddesses of the silver screen had substance as well as style

The era was no feminist paradise for women, but stars such as Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck proved attractive women could also be demanding and intelligent

La La Land, a favourite to win at the Oscars, has been celebrated as not only a tribute to the great films of classic Hollywood, but as a movie that might inspire audiences to rediscover them. If it does so, great. But anyone who thinks La La Land embodies the spirit of old movies hasn’t seen very many of them. It has style, but little substance. Like Woody Allen’s Café Society, similarly hailed as a love letter to classic film, these movies may look like old Hollywood, but they lack a spine, a nerve centre. They have no backbone.

When I was growing up in the 1980s, American popular culture was pretty much a wasteland of positive female images. There was no one I aspired to resemble, until I discovered classic Hollywood movies, with women such as Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford. These women radiated authority, to which I instinctively responded without knowing why. I found myself embarking on a cinematic journey through an entire era when – temporarily – Hollywood stopped worrying and learned to love the bombshell.

This moment didn’t last forever, of course – halcyon fantasies never do. And it was a fantasy: these movies were no more realistic in their depictions of how most women lived in 1937 or 1947 than Fatal Attraction was in 1987. But for about 20 years between 1930 and 1950, Hollywood cinema had a brief love affair with beautiful, powerful, stylish women who were grownups. Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert – all were huge stars in their day. Colbert, for example, was for many years the highest paid star in Hollywood. But today they are remembered by an ever diminishing pool of diehard fans.

Sunset Boulevard
‘I am big … it’s the pictures that got small’ … Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Photograph: Moviestore Collection / Rex Feat

As Gloria Swanson famously said in Sunset Boulevard: they were big, it was the pictures that got small. One of the biggest stars of them all, and one of the first I discovered, was Katharine Hepburn. At the height of her fame, she specialised in regal women supposedly brought to earth by the men they loved. But this concession usually just amounted to Hepburn revealing a warmth and intelligence lurking behind her self-assured exterior. Like so many stars of the 30s and 40s, Hepburn embodied key American ideals: strength, self-reliance, a patrician style that upheld moral rigour. For about a decade, she made movies about unconventional, powerful women who submit unconvincingly to a man in the last five minutes, to appease 1940s audiences. And even then, the men are forced to admit they prefer her the way she is. At the end of Woman of the Year, her first pairing with Spencer Tracy, the happy ending sees Tracy telling Hepburn that he doesn’t want her to be a perfect wife, or a perfect journalist, he just wants her to be “Tess Harding Craig” – herself, but married to him. The Philadelphia Story ends on a similar note: Hepburn apologises to the ex-husband she is reuniting with, promising to be better in their second marriage. This seems at first like capitulation, but Cary Grant’s response makes clear that theirs will now be a marriage based on mutual respect: “Be whatever you like,” he declares. “You’re my redhead.” Not only could Hepburn be whatever she liked: the point is she liked what she was.

Even the darker films from the era were explorations of women’s self-respect, albeit ambivalent and anxious about female power. Take Baby Face, one of the most notorious pre-Hays Code Hollywood films, starring Stanwyck. Stanwyck’s Lily is pimped out by her bootlegger father from the age of 14 before getting some advice from an avuncular old German who reads Nietzsche and tells Lily to become, in effect, a “superwoman”. “What’s going to become of you?” he demands, before answering himself: “It’s up to you to decide ... Nietzsche says: all life, no matter how we idealise it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation … Exploit yourself! Use men! Be strong, defiant!” Baby Face is not feminist in a way that most women today would want to celebrate; Lily’s choices lead to compromised and problematic ideas of power. But the film is truthful about how that power, how those choices, worked for a great many women in 1933.

Katharine Hepburn
‘Not only could she be whatever she liked: she liked what she was’ … Katharine Hepburn in 1938. Photograph: Ernest Bachrach/Getty Images

The era was no feminist paradise for women, including these actors. They were fighters who battled their way to the top of the sexist Hollywood studio system. But these films imagined that attractive women could be demanding and intelligent, and they found intelligent and demanding women attractive. The screen goddesses showed us that style is more than gesture and fashion: it requires substance behind it.

In old Hollywood they had a word for what modern movies have lost, and it was a word usually applied to the women who starred in them: “moxie”. Moxie means spirit, chutzpah, personality, character; to put it in more vulgar (and sexist) terms, it means having balls. The classic screen goddesses embody power and glamour, intelligence and style, and – most of all – maturity, especially when compared with female movie stars today. La La Land hinges on the charm of its female lead, Emma Stone, but it isn’t a film that imagines her as especially powerful, even when she becomes successful. Her performance is winning, but it is hard to pretend that she and her peers are projecting an ideal of female power to the young women – and men – watching them.

La La Land has been called a modern fairytale, but fairytales are also about women’s power. If you want truly modern heroines, return to the formidable women of the silver screen. Eventually I saw that the real fairytale offered by these classic movies was in their celebrating female power at all. The happy ending, the fantasy, was in the very idea of a world that recognised female beauty, female power, female intelligence, all in the same package, and didn’t throw the package away. That’s my La La Land.

Sarah Churchwell’s Five Screen Goddesses can be heard in Radio 3’s The Essay from 6 to 10 March as part of International Women’s Day.


Sarah Churchwell

The GuardianTramp

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