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Dynamic Dames - 7/10


Interview with Sloan De Forest, author of Dynamic Dames: 50 Leading Ladies Who Made History

Sloan De Forest is a film historian, writer and actress. She is the author of Must-See Sci-Fi: 50 Movies That Are Out of This World and has contributed to Natalie Wood: Reflections of a Legendary Life, Grace Kelly; Hollywood Dream Girl and Fellini: The Sixties. She's also written for the Mary Pickford Foundation, Bright Lights Film Journal and many other outlets. Her newest book Dynamic Dames: 50 Leading Ladies Who Made History is now available from TCM and Running Press.

On July 10, she co-hosts a night of programming with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz centered around some of the Dynamic Dames featured in her book. The strong women and their film in our lineup include: Norma Shearer in The Divorcee (1930); Bette Davis in Ex-Lady (1933); Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933); Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story (1959); Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944); and Bonita Granville in Nancy Drew: Detective (1938).

Raquel Stecher: What is the origin of the phrase "Dynamic Dames" and how did you come to write your book?

Sloan De Forest: The origin of "Dynamic Dames" can be traced back to October 2017, when a series of scandals broke in Hollywood, including the news about Harvey Weinstein. I met with Camilla Jackson, a film producer and programmer at the Arena Cinelounge, an independent movie theater in Hollywood. As an antidote to the victimization we were seeing in the news, we wanted to celebrate powerful women in the movies. So we collaborated on a series of screenings we called "Dynamic Dames," which focused on leading ladies in film noir like Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven [1945] and Lucille Ball in Lured [1947]. Soon after, a fellow writer and my editor at Running Press, Cindy De La Hoz, suggested I write a book about strong women in the movies. So Dynamic Dames the book was born. It was not only timely and relevant because of the power shift that was occurring in the industry, but it's a topic I had been thinking about for years anyway. It all just clicked into place nicely--thanks to the support of other women.

RS: In the book you highlight 50 different stand-out female roles and the actresses who played them. Some of the roles were iconic and others were more obscure. What was the process in deciding what fictional character you would write about, and how did you make that correlation to the real woman who played her?

SDF: Well, there was no academic rubric to determine who would make the cut, no Dynamic Dames Bechdel test, so to speak. I have been paying close attention to female movie characters my whole life, so I just compiled a list of the ones that had made big impressions on me. Those who stood out as being particularly inspiring in their independence, their ability to think for themselves, to fight against opposition, to break boundaries for women. Characters who are not "holding out for a hero," but who are their own heroes. I also watched some movies I hadn't seen before, like Frida [2002] with Salma Hayek, which I somehow missed all these years. I wanted the list to be diverse, and I wanted the characters to have strong women behind them. Whether it was the real person who inspired the character, a female writer who created her or the actress who played her, the ladies behind the scenes absolutely counted. And some of them are more fascinating than the characters!

RS: The characters are presented by theme, including Pre-Code Bad Girls, Fatal Femmes, Ladies Who Laugh, Women of Mystery, etc. What was your inspiration behind the themes and why did you decide to present them this way?

SDF: It's just more interesting to break the book up by character types than organizing it as a consecutive list of 50. The themes sprang organically from the subject matter, really. When I think of empowered women on the screen, all those pre-Code ladies immediately come to mind, as do the witty 1940s women like Rosalind Russell, the superheroes and of course the femme fatales. The reason I called it "Fatal Femmes" instead was because these are deadly women, but not the archetypal noir femme fatales like Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past [1947], for example. I love those bad-to-the-bone characters, but I wanted Dynamic Dames to be inspiring women, not psychopaths. They may not be perfect role models, but even the flawed Dames like Carmen Jones and Mrs. Robinson are not evil. They are strong, heroic and moral in their own unconventional way.

RS: Your book covers Dynamic Dames from the 1920s to present day. Was there a particular decade that stood out to you for the number of compelling roles played by women?

SDF: 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! To do a rough estimate, if Hollywood released 365 films in 1939, half of that would be 180 movies with female-driven stories. Also in the 1930s and '40s, over a third of the scripts were written or co-written by women. Women made up the majority of movie audiences. Women dominated print media such as movie magazine covers. Today the number of complex female characters in film and TV seems to be increasing, and that's great. But we still have a long way to go before we reach the standard of the 1930s, what I refer to as the Golden Age for Women.

RS: If you could add more Dynamic Dames from early Hollywood history who didn't make the cut, who would they be?

SDF: I do mention a lot more than 50 in the book, but there are still so many others. We could start with Mary Pickford as a roughneck firebrand in a 1918 movie called M'Liss, which she produced. Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse [1931]. Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey [1936], who may seem like a scatterbrain, but she knows what she wants and is determined to get it. Jean Arthur is feisty in just about every movie, as is Ginger Rogers. Veronica Lake in So Proudly We Hail! [1943]. I love Ann Sheridan in Nora Prentiss [1947], I Was a Male War Bride [1949] and Woman on the Run [1950]. Doris Day in Teacher's Pet [1958] is another good one from the 50s, as is Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [1953]. Her character Dorothy is such a powerhouse, and I love her friendship with Marilyn Monroe's Lorelei, who is also quite a dame in her own way. This is why I love classic movies. Dynamic Dames are everywhere.

RS: Who are some of your favorite Dynamic Dames and why?

SDF: It's hard to play favorites because I think they're all amazing. I always admired Greta Garbo, but I didn't fully appreciate Queen Christina [1933] until I watched for the third or fourth time recently. For any time period, it's incredibly rare to see such a beautifully crafted portrait of a woman in power. This young girl is crowned ruler of an entire country and grows into a smart, self-assured leader who has qualms and problems, but is never robbed of her dignity or authority. That is awe-inspiring. Garbo, too, was a woman with great power at that time. She was the driving force behind Queen Christina. It would not exist without her. Another of my personal favorites is Tess McGill in Working Girl [1988] because I always identified with her struggle to be taken seriously and given equal opportunities. I was not from a privileged background, so Tess appealed to me as a working-class hero with brains and ambition. I doubt I would tell the big lie she tells, but I understood why she did it, because the system was stacked against her. I was also motivated by Pam Grier in Coffy [1973], Sigourney Weaver in Aliens [1986], Uma Thurman in Kill Bill [2003] and Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise [1991]. Though some may argue against glorifying violent characters, to me there is something galvanizing about watching fictional women stand up for themselves with guns and knives. It's not about advocating violence as a solution, but presenting women who are not passive victims.

RS: Actress Julie Newmar wrote a wonderful foreword for your book. How did she become involved in the project and what makes her a Dynamic Dame herself?

SDF: Yes, Julie is indeed a Dynamic Dame. I was fortunate to have been introduced to her by a mutual friend, and I wanted her to write my foreword because I knew she was an intelligent woman with a unique viewpoint. She was there working in the trenches of 1950s and '60s Hollywood. Plus, she influenced me personally with her diabolically funny Catwoman in the classic Batman series. She was my favorite villain when I used to watch the reruns on Nick at Nite as a teenager. There was something liberating about seeing an unapologetic woman on TV. She had no conscience to get in the way, just pure confidence. She still inspires me.

RS: What are some of the enduring misconceptions about actresses and the roles that they played throughout film history?

SDF: I think the biggest overriding misconception is that actresses in the studio era were products of the studios. We often assume they were handed assignments by the moguls like a child is given homework. But in fact, 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 [1933]; 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. Ida Lupino, Rosalind Russell and Hedy Lamarr formed their own production companies. Even actresses we think of as beauties more than powerful businesswomen, like Natalie Wood, were in fact negotiating contracts that gave them the power to pick their projects. So these women were shaping their own careers, not just being forced into roles by their bosses.

RS: Last year you released Must See Sci-Fi: 50 Movies That are Out of This World with Running Press and TCM. Who are some notable Dynamic Dames in the Sci-Fi genre?

SDF: There is some overlap between the books. I had already written about Princess Leia, Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor in Must-See Sci-Fi. Leia really started it all by being tougher than the typical damsel in distress, so kudos to George Lucas for writing her that way and casting Carrie Fisher. I also applaud Ridley Scott for casting Sigourney Weaver as the heroic Ripley, James Cameron for creating Sarah Connor and Denis Villeneuve for giving us Amy Adams in Arrival [2016]. These male directors are not threatened by strong women, and that is so refreshing.

RS: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

SDF: I want readers to be as impressed with these women as I am. It was so fun to immerse myself in these great movies driven by courageous female characters, and it was fascinating to research the women behind the scenes. Hopefully my enthusiasm for the subject is contagious. If a reader thinks, "Wow, I had no idea Josephine Baker did intelligence work for France during World War II. I need to watch her movies," that will make me happy. I also want to remind the world that Hollywood's target demographic has not always been young men. If we can see all these Dynamic Dames collected into one book, maybe we can envision a Hollywood with a stronger female presence.

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