By Lucy Bolton
The blondes who feature in the Birds Eye View Sound & Silents series and the Blonde Crazy Retrospective demonstrate the complexity of the images and personality traits that have been attributed to blondes from the earliest days of cinema. Like her fellow feminine filmic staples –the showgirl and the femme fatale – the blonde can be unfairly dismissed as a predictable set of conventions and relegated to the role of one-dimensional spectacle.
Since Laura Mulvey’s work in the 1970s, film theory has been exploring the plight of the objectified woman, and it was interrogated on-screen by Sally Potter in The Gold Diggers (1983). Since then, critics, theorists and filmmakers – including Mulvey and Potter themselves – have moved beyond this analysis and demonstrated the multiple meanings that some of these women in cinema contain. Catherine Constable’s work on Marlene Dietrich, for example, and Richard Dyer’s on Rita Hayworth, has emphasised the control and skill in the performances of these stars – and their characters – thus enabling them to be seen in a new light with fresh, increased status and meaning.
The films in this year’s Birds Eye View festival feature performances and characters which invite this type of approach. Through the characters themselves, and their resonances with cinematic forerunners and successors, these blondes defy dismissal as superficial or simple display objects. The murderous Roxie Hart, thieving Marnie and calculating Catherine Trammell, are complex characters, whose criminality is set alongside examinations of sexuality and social domination. In Imitation of Life, Lana Turner’s gleaming white movie star Lora Meredith raises issues of class and race, and Deneuve’s image of vanilla perfection explores her masochistic desires through the sullying of that apparent wholesomeness in Belle de Jour.
Gena Rowlands’ Gloria seems to speak out for all the downtrodden Gloria Grahams
(The Big Heat) and Claire Trevors (Key Largo) as she demonstrates what the moll can do when she puts her mind to it. And Jean Harlow’s brassy showgirl Vantine in Red Dust, contrasted with classy brunette Mary Astor, resonates with the film’s 1953 remake, Mogambo, where cool blonde Grace Kelly is set against sassy feline showgirl Ava Gardner. This comparison demonstrates the significance of the Blonde Crazy Retrospective and the Sound & Silents films: cinematic blondes do not signify one thing. The vehicle of the golden-girl conveys many complex and contradictory meanings, from fire to ice, victim to perpetrator, convention to transgression. It is only fitting then that the season also demonstrates a range of contributions made by women to filmmaking, perhaps most notably in the Sound & Silents films, where the work of women screenwriters and performers from the late 1920s is accompanied live by the renowned women musicians commissioned by Birds Eye View.
The ultimate blonde icon, Marilyn Monroe, is partnered with Jane Russell in the peerless Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. As well as a consummate performance of the most stereotypical associations of blondeness, the film presents a demonstration of the effects of blonde glamour on the men around Lorelei and Dorothy, from ten-year olds to elderly judges. Likewise Mae West in I’m No Angel, who reacts somewhat more disparagingly towards the men who fall at her feet, strutting her way down the boardwalk and branding them ‘suckers’! The season suggests that cinema, audiences, men and society are all ‘blonde crazy’ and these films unquestionably stake the cinematic blonde’s claim for the need to be understood for more than her hair colour.
Lucy Bolton is a lecturer and academic whose areas of specialisation and interest include Film and Philosophy; Film Theory; Costume and Star Studies and Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s. We are pleased that she will be introducing Red Dust on Thursday 4th March in NFT1 at the BFI Southbank,