Oscar: Female Stereotypes–Tyical Actress Roles

Compared with the Oscar-winning males, gainfully employed screen women are confined to stereotypical professions considered to be proper and appropriate for women. Two lines of work have rewarded women with Oscars: service (teachers, nurses) and entertainment (actresses, singers, dancers). Indeed, the two most prominent professions among the female roles are actresses and prostitutes. One out of three gainfully employed women in the Oscar films is an actress or a prostitute, and at times both an actress and a prostitute.

In both professions, a woman is paid, as critic Molly Haskell has observed, for doing what already she did: “prostitution, in which she is remunerated for giving sexual pleasure, and acting, a variant on natural roleplaying.” What’s common to both lines is “playing roles and adapting to others, aiming to please.” Neither acting nor prostitution enjoys high prestige in the occupational hierarchy, probably because it’s possible to practice and excel in both without formal education or training.

Women playing actresses stand the best chance to win nominations and Oscars. The Acting Branch, which contains the largest number of members, is favorably biased toward portraits of showbiz personalities. Besides, playing a performer provides a meaty and juicy part that lends itself to the display of histrionics and wide gamut of intense emotions.

Two images of acting, both stereotypical, have informed Hollywood pictures. The first type is that of the fading star, an actress slipping from the top to skid row as a result of aging and declining looks, drinking problem, frustrated love, or unhappy marriage. The other image is the reverse, the young and ambitious inge who gets her big break at the very last moment, usually on opening night when the veteran actress is unable to perform.

Some movies, such as the 1950 Oscar-winning All About Eve, juxtapose the two stereotypes. Bette Davis, in the greatest performance of her career, plays Margo Chinning, the aging star who cannot come to terms with her progressing age (forty), which by today’s standards is young but in the 1950s was considered old. Anne Baxter plays the young, driven Eve Harrington, scheming to take over everything that Margo has–her roles, her friends, and even her lover.

Bette Davis specialized in portraying suffering actresses: Four out of her ten nominations were for such roles. In her first Oscar role, Dangerous, Davis plays Joyce Heath, a booze’swilling oncefamous stage actress bent on her own destruction until she meets an admiring young architect (Franc hot Tone) who sponsors her comeback. When her husband (John Aldridge) refuses Joyce a divorce so that she can marry the architect, she attempts to kill both of them by driving her car into a tree. The couple survives, but Joyce’s husband is crippled for life. Returning triumphantly to the stage, Joyce has learned the value of sacrifice.

In The Star, for which Davis received her ninth nomination, Davis’s Margaret Elliot is a hasbeen, a former Oscarwinner who is now a pathetic, bitter and violent woman. As in Dangerous, an admirer (Sterling Hayden) saves Margaret by convincing her, as in All About Eve, to give up her career and live a more normal, that is, domestic, life.

Davis’s last nomination was for Robert Aldridge’s cult horror flick, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane She is cast as Jane Hudson, the genius child’star whose talent faded when she grew up, turning her into a demented alcoholic, and sadistic toward her crippled sister (Joan Crawford). Davis gave a flashy, grotesque performance, which opened a new phase in her career as a horror queen.

Gloria Swanson created indelible shading in Sunset Boulevard as Norma Desmond, the aging silent movie queen terrified of the camera but still dreaming of a big comeback. Geraldine Page did her best work, on stage and on screen, as Alexandra De Lago in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, as another aging, drugaddicted star, entertained by an opportunistic stud (Paul Newman), who finds out that her last film was not as disastrous as she had thought.

Screen actresses are often tragic, though the stereotype has been exploited in comedies, too. Maggie Smith won her second, Supporting Oscar for Neil Simon’s California Suite, playing a British actress named Diana Barrie, a harddrinking, hard’talking woman who arrives in Hollywood for the Oscar ceremonies. Disenchanted after losing the Oscar, Diana charges at her bisexual companion (Michael Caine): “Acting doesn’t win Oscars–what I need is a dying father.” Italian actress Valentina Cortese was nominated for Truffaut’s behind’the’scenes comedy Day for Night, in which she plays a fading movie star who hides a bottle on the set and cannot remember her lines.

The reverse stereotype of the young, stage’struck, wide-eyed inge was embodied by Katharine Hepburn in her first Oscarwinning role in Morning Glory. She plays Eve Lovelace (note the name Eve), a naive Vermont girl who creates a sensation when she steps in for the recalcitrant lady on opening night. Some lines from this picture have entered into movie lore. “How many keep their heads You’ve come to the fore. Now you have the chance to be a morning glory, a flower that fades before the sun is very high.” Or Hepburn’s vow, “I’m not afraid of being like a morning glory. I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid.” The best line is uttered pretentiously by Adolphe Menjou, as a tough producer, who tells Eve: “You don’t belong to any man now, you belong to Broadway!”

If you want to know more about this issue, please consult my book, All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards (Continuum International, 2004 paperback).