Oscar: Southern Belles–Prevalent Women Roles

The Southern belle is a uniquely American literary and cinematic type. Though over the past two decades, it has declined as a type, in the first decades of the Oscars, several women won awards or were nominated for playing southern belles.

Mary Pickford won her first and only Best Actress for Coquette, a film version of the Helen Hayes Broadway vehicle, as a southern belle whose affair with a man beneath her class enrages her father, leading to a disaster.

Bette Davis won a second Oscar for Jezebel, as the rich, spoiled, and willful Julie Marsden, whose entire behavior is motivated by her failure to win the love of Pres Dillard (Henry Fonda). Pres breaks their engagement when Julie disregards the norms and wears a red gown to New Orleans’s Olympus Ball; all the other girls wear a traditional white dress. Punished, Julie secludes herself, waiting for Pres to return, only to find out that he has married another girl. However, when Pres falls victim to a yellowfever epidemic, Julie convinces his wife that she should accompany him to a quarantined island, promising to send him back if he survives.

Vivien Leigh gave a memorable performance as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, a tempestuous, selfcentered belle. Leigh’s second Oscar was for playing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, the sordid tale of the mental deterioration of a repressed Southern belle. Blanche DuBois, a challenge for every actress, is a perfect example of the kinds of screen roles that win Oscars, because it includes all the “necessary” ingredients of a substantial role, allowing for the display of wide range of emotions and technical skills.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” may be Tennessee Williams’s best-known play, but most of his works contain memorable female roles for the stage and screen. The eccentricity of his characters, their richly nuanced inner selves, often dominated by repressed sexuality, has called for distinguished acting. Good or bad, films based on Williams’s plays have earned nominations and awards, mostly for their women. In Baby Doll, Carroll Baker was Oscar-nominated for playing a “white trash,” a retarded, thumb’sucking childwife, seduced by her husband’s revenge’seeking rival. In the same film, Mildred Dunnock was nominated for playing her pathetically demented aunt.

Though it lost in each of its six nominations, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was one of 1958’s most honored films, in which Elizabeth Taylor excelled as Maggie, the sexy wife punished by her alcoholic husband (Paul Newman, also nominated) who won’t sleep with her.

The scandalous Suddenly Last Summer, a chronicle of incest, cannibalism, and insanity, contrasts Katharine Hepburn, as a demented aristocratic mother in love with her homosexual poet’son, with Elizabeth Taylor, as her niece, who almost goes mad after witnessing her cousin’s rape and murder. Both Hepburn and Taylor received Best Actress nominations, though neither won; the winner was Simon Signoret for Room At the Top.

Vivien Leigh was not nominated for playing the widowed American actress who drifts into lassitude and decline in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, but Lotte Lenya, as a vicious female pimp, was.

In “Summer and Smoke,” Williams’s drama about earthly and spiritual love, Geraldine Page was nominated as Alma, a sexually repressed spinster and the minister’s daughter. Along with Page, Sweet Bird of Youth provided a nomination for Shirley Knight, who played the victimized daughtergirlfriend who had contracted syphilis from an irresponsible stud (Paul Newman).

In “Night of the Iguana,” Grayson Hall received a supporting nomination as the leader of vacationing schoolteachers whose animosity toward the defrocked priest (Richard Burton) stemmed from repressed lesbianism and interest in the nymphomaniac teenager (Sue Lyon).