In 1979, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” introduced the world to Ellen Ripley, the bad ass, creative, practical, empathetic action hero that, according to The Dissolve, “changed the way people think about women in mainstream cinema.” Since Ripley, there have been numerous female roles that have expanded the traditional boundaries of women in cinema. Today, The Dissolve picks the 50 most daring film roles for women since Ripley in chronological order. Critics include editors Keith Phipps, Scott Tobias, Tasha Robinson, Genevieve Koski, Rachel Handler, and contributors Noel Murray, Mike D’Angelo, Kate Erbland, and Genevieve Valentine.
The list itself is quite diverse, ranging from mainstream films (Sarah Connor in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Erin Brockovich in “Erin Brockovich,” etc.) to arthouse fare (Bess McNeill in “Breaking the Waves,” Asami Yamazaki in “Audition,” the mother in “Mother,” etc.), and it captures the range of tastes that makes The Dissolve one of the most interesting publications out there right now. Nothing is out of bounds for consideration or analysis.
Mike D’Angelo writes about Audrey/Lulu in Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild,” one of my personal favorite films:
Manic? At times. Pixie? The haircut certainly qualifies. Dream girl, though? Audrey — who calls herself Lulu for more than half of Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild,” until she’s forced by circumstance to reveal her real name — ultimately does liberate uptight businessman Charlie (Jeff Daniels) from his drab, purely functional existence, but she does so in a way that’s frequently more terrifying than endearing. From the moment she poses as his waitress to bust him for running out on a check at a diner, Audrey is in complete control of the situation; it’s no coincidence that their first sex scene has her on top and him handcuffed to the bed, and only a mild surprise when she stops midway through to phone his office, forcing him to explain his absence to his boss. “Something Wild” is the rare film that has a male protagonist, yet is almost entirely driven by its female lead, with the ostensible hero just struggling valiantly to keep pace. Good luck to him.
Another great entry is Tasha Robinson’s take on Bridget Gregory in John Dahl’s neo-noir “The Last Seduction”:
The noir model of the hapless male patsy and the smart, manipulative femme fatale has been around for decades, but classic noirs were always about the patsy, not the paramour — in part to keep the plot secret from the schmoe who doesn’t see all the angles, and can’t anticipate which twists are coming. John Dahl’s brilliant, joyously trashy neo-noir “The Last Seduction” finds a way to make the femme fatale the point-of-view character without giving away the game: Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) is duplicitous enough even to hide her plan from the audience, when she isn’t making it up as she goes along. Bridget is the kind of uncompromising anti-hero men get to play more often than women: She’s utterly selfish and ruthless about getting what she wants, and that attitude extends to the sack. (Or the car, or the wall behind the local bar: She’s not shy about her needs.) But she’s also so creative, clever, and about exercising that selfishness that she’s more fun than spooky. Like Catherine in “Basic Instinct,” she’s a have-it-all fantasy for women, the darkest kind of aspirational model, but one written with admiration and respect rather than censure. The Sam Spades and Philip Marlowes of the world have to scramble to keep up with the women who pretend to love them, but they find ways to call the shots in the end. They wouldn’t stand a chance against Bridget.
The Dissolve also highlights films in which women act hilariously awful and off-putting, qualities that male characters have embodied for years while dodging “likability” claims. Alexander Payne’s early work feature prime examples of such characters. Genevieve Koski writes about Tracy Flick in Payne’s “Election”:
Over the course of her film career, Reese Witherspoon has come to specialize in characters whose polished, sweet surfaces — informed by her Southern upbringing — belie an inner grit. That specialty can be traced back to one Tracy Flick, the antagonist of Alexander Payne’s biting 1999 high-school comedy “Election,” who’s gone on to become a cult hero for so-called “difficult women” and those who love them. Tracy is inarguably “Election’s” “bad guy,” tormenting ineffectual Civics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) with her overzealous determination to become student-body president, no matter the cost. (And oh, are there costs.) Tracy is no angel, but she believes her actions serve a higher purpose, which is the sort of moral relativism that fuels dangerous acts of ambition, and makes for a compelling, multifaceted villain who’s as easy to love as she is to hate. It’s an ambiguity Witherspoon clearly relishes, imbuing Tracy’s resolute pluck with just the right hint of wild-eyed mania to suggest she’s not as in control — of herself, or of those around her — as she’d like to believe.
Since the list is in chronological order, it also features some more recent picks as well, such as Frances Halladay in Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha”. Noel Murray writes the entry:
Given that writer-director Noah Baumbach tends to make sour, cynical (albeit hilarious) comedies, odds are that the bulk of the credit for “Frances Ha’s” generous spirit belongs to its co-writer and star Greta Gerwig, who plays the heroine as scatterbrained but well-meaning. Baumbach and Gerwig don’t excuse their struggling young New York dancer Frances Halladay for being impulsive, sloppy, and presumptuous — not to mention certain that her inability to grow up and get her shit together is endearing to her eternally patient friends. But they also recognize that Frances has a good heart, and that her screw-ups don’t really hurt anyone but herself. Where a lot of modern popular culture either mocks urban hipsters or treats their quirks with annoying reverence, “Frances Ha” is more honest about this particular character’s strengths and weaknesses, and is more refreshingly optimistic about the future of Frances’ generation.
The list features some more obscure choices, such as the entire ensemble in Jafar Panahi’s “Offside.” Tasha Robinson explores how the film and its characters make it easy to see why “Iran’s government considers him a subversive and a threat”:
Iranian director Jafar Panahi has paid a high price for his political daring in making films that question the politics and social mores of his native Iran: Confined to his house and banned from making more movies (though he’s made three since his house arrest started), he’s become a low-key cause célèbre in international filmmaking. Looking at films like 2006’s transcendent, funny “Offside,” it’s easy to see why Iran’s government considers him a subversive and a threat. The film concerns a group of women individually caught trying to sneak into a major sporting event, Iran’s World Cup qualification match against Bahrain. (Panahi shot the film in the stadium during the actual game.) Women are banned from attending sporting events in Iran, but this group defies the law as well as cultural expectations and gender stereotypes: They’re all enthusiastic sports fans, and as they appeal to the young soldiers holding them for transport to prison, they mount a noisy, rebellious group argument for why petty statutes shouldn’t keep them from expressing their patriotism and cheering on the home team. Their tactics for getting into the game, and for manipulating the soldiers when they fail, are all funny. The punishment they face isn’t. The film is transgressive in all the right ways: It portrays the women as diverse and specific, but also united in a just cause, and collectively representing the diversity of an entire generation actively resisting being held back by narrow-minded sexism. As they stand up for themselves, they start to look like revolution in drag.
The Dissolve also shines a spotlight on characters that have garnered criticism and derision in most recent years, such as Juno in Jason Reitman’s film of the same name. Kate Erbland writes about how Ellen Page’s character stands out:
It’s Juno’s attitude that sets her apart, not her situation. Accidentally pregnant thanks to an ill-timed roll in the hay (read: playroom) with her immature best pal, 16-year-old Juno has to decide what’s best for her and the little nugget taking hold of her body. Uninterested in cliché and hellbent on doing what’s best, she considers her options, weighs the consequences, then makes her own decision. She’s got reasoning and logic down pat, but she also has a maturity that’s rarely reflected in the lives of teens on the big screen. Sure, Juno is quirky — hello, hamburger phone — and she doesn’t always make the most appropriate choices — hello, Mark Loring — but that’s not what makes her special. It’s that she can blend those quirks with an honesty and practicality that eludes most of her age range, if not people 10 or 20 years older than her.
Let’s close with a crowd-pleasing pick that also fits outside the mainstream. Rachel Handler on Betty/Diane in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.”:
Within a movie (and a career) full of audacious, risky creative choices, “Mulholland Dr.’s” morphing character Betty/Diane stands out as a particularly brave and unorthodox female role. She’s an emblem of something larger — David Lynch and Naomi Watts use her to build up and deconstruct the myth of Hollywood, both paying homage to it and criticizing it for its illusory nature, its inherent deceit, and its emptiness, especially as it pertains to women. Betty/Diane marks one of David Lynch’s richest and most complex creations; over the course of just a few hours, she drifts in and out of a velvet dream world, straddling fantasy and reality while trying to solve a murder case, falling in love with a woman she’s just met, descending deep into the darkest corners of her own mind, and eventually ending her own life. Betty/Diane would have been a meaty role for any actress, but Watts tears every last bit of flesh straight from the bone, transforming effortlessly from a near-stereotype of an Old-Hollywood actress — bubbly, naïve, starry-eyed — to a corrupted, jaded cynic who’s been broken by the industry and lost love. The part works within the film’s surface narrative — her story reads as real and heartbreaking — but it’s also a bottomless metaphorical well, one that fans will draw from and argue about for years to come.