Top 100 Blockbusters of the Multiplex Era: Heroines of the Second Wave

You can find the full list of the top 100 blockbusters since 1972 here, as well as an index for other posts in this series.

Like most other phrases you hate, “having it all” has its basis in marketing as opposed to someone’s actual thoughts. Helen Gurley Brown angled for that 1982 book which launched a million negative articles (“why women actually can’t have it all,” etc.) to have a very different title, and apparently the people in charge of publishing her book thought Gurley Brown’s term, “mouseburger,” wasn’t going to cut the mustard. Two years after Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money, Even if You’re Starting with Nothing was published, The Terminator was released. In 1991, with the idea of “having it all” firmly ensconced in the culture, The Terminator got a sequel. Sarah Connor does not strictly have it all in this movie, certainly not at the beginning. She’s lost custody of her son, John, a whiny little son of a gun who one sounds like the third chipmunk backing up Alvin. She’s landed in an insane asylum for telling the truth about the events of The Terminator, and in this asylum she’s frequently abused and generally belittled. It is only as the film progresses that we come to understand what T2 would consider “having it all” to mean. It means reuniting with her son—and despite his instinct to rescue her, she seems to have the whole escape thing well in hand by the time he shows—and doing her best to safeguard him from a Terminator out to destroy him. It means breaking into a computer programmer’s house to assassinate him, followed by breaking into a company’s private vaults when that attempt is foiled. In short, having it all for Sarah Connor is twofold. First, it’s an ambitious motherhood that rivals any mom trying to get her kid into Harvard or what have you; she understands that John Connor will be the leader of human resistance against the machines in the not-so-distant future, and she believes in his military and leadership education above all else. Second, it’s to be Rambo. T2 has that incredible needledrop of “Bad to the Bone,” another phrase from 1982 that’s made it to the common dictionary, and it’s describing Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator. But it is a song that might well be played after any number of moments when Linda Hamilton does things, whether it’s holding a poisonous syringe up to the neck of the chief doctor at the mental hospital or using an automatic weapon to wreak havoc on a modern-day mansion. Some mothers will doctor photos to make it seem like their kids are sailors so they’ll have an advantage on their college apps. Does that compare to Sarah, who is b-b-b-b-b-bad enough to plant artillery in key places so her escape route with John will be adequately armed?

Sarah Connor is Hollywood’s vision of having it all, an action heroine that looms over blockbuster cinema and who has been equaled only by Furiosa in such films. She’s a complicated figure, to say the least, one who asserts her worthiness by acting with the aggro ferocity which reads as masculine to a wider audience. There is nothing about her motherhood that could not equally be understood as a marker of “parenthood” generally, except for her fatherless child who works to make her a madonna. For her, the best use of knitting needles would be for their value as mechanism for impalement as opposed to the tools to make little Johnny a Christmas sweater. Her force of will is the moral center of T2, but as impressive as her physical strength and strategic mind are, she is perpetually at the mercy of masculine types anyway. There’s no particular reason that the Robert Patrick Terminator couldn’t have been a woman, except, I suppose, a fear that test audiences would reject Ahnold being held up by any female, even one made of shape-shifting metal. Even her son gets in a zinger where he gets to be in charge of what she does because he needs practice for when he’s in charge of lots of other people; there are movies set in in 19th Century farmhouses where you can’t find a patriarchy that strong. The most feminized thing about Sarah Connor, in the end, is that in terms of combat she is still inferior to masculinized figures, and in terms of command she must yield over and over again to boys. Sarah Connor has it all, more or less, just as long as “all” means something more like “as far as a woman could do it, too.”

As far as this type of heroine is concerned, Ripley from Alien stands out as less patronizing. On a ship where there are two women, one of them stays calm and manages to survive with the ship’s cat in tow. In Aliens, Ripley’s protective streak is significantly stronger, but there’s something maternal between her and Jones, who tells the Alien that he does not like him in no uncertain kitty terms, which will be tattooed on her with Newt later. It’s not such a bad reading of Alien to decide that the only person onboard to survive the experience is after someone else’s survival other than her own. While Dallas is certainly making decisions in order to keep others alive, down to the choice to go looking for the Alien himself, there’s something special in Ripley’s effort to look out for others first. The men most often go looking for the Alien; she does what she can to stay away from it and avoid contact where possible. And the fact that she jeopardizes her own safety at any point for the cat, let alone getting Jones into the same state of safety that she’s in at the end of the picture, is unheard of in any other crew member. Ripley survives because she keeps the coolest head and because she learns from the mistakes of others, but what’s especially interesting is the advantage that having to take care of someone else brings to one’s own survival. Ripley has to live for someone else. Lambert, who screams her way through the movie and actually pulls out a t-shirt that says “I WANT THE XENOMORPH TO EAT ME” at one point, cannot even live for herself.

In the horror setting, Alien manages to do something extraordinary for a blockbuster about a woman with responsibilities outside herself. (Terminator 2, as a sequel, manages to accomplish this as well.) Namely, Alien does not connect Ripley’s responsibilities to her people—in her specific circumstances, the crew of the Nostromo—to her sexual freedom. Among these movies that actively put responsibility to family relationships in conflict with a desire for sexual fulfillment, the one that is doing the most unusual work is Moonstruck. This is chiefly, I’d imagine, because Moonstruck does not have little kids running around creating those special guilt complexes which they have such a gift for making. Loretta is a widow nearing forty, and the series of romantically ludicrous things that happen to her and near her—her father’s womanizing, her mother’s almost-dalliance with a WASPier womanizer, etc.—are not mutually exclusive with her own strangely ignited romance with her fiance’s brother. In one fell swoop a series of little madnesses befall the Castorinis, and what makes this film far more compelling than just another marriage plot is the way that Loretta’s affair is inseparable from her father’s. Cosmo is not faithful to his wife, and his unfaithfulness is pretty standard for men that old; some dialogue suggests that this sharklike need to keep picking up women is a way to stagger a fear of dying. There’s more character in the way that Loretta messes around with Ronny, whether it’s being carried off to his bed or going to an opera with him, but all the same it requires her to face up to her own guilt in the way that her father is loath to do. Being a good daughter, one who can live up to the moral standard that her mother demands through her forbearance, is something that Loretta cannot actually accomplish without some help from her mostly absent fiance. Catholic guilt, rather than maternal guilt, is as much on display here as it would be two decades later for Doubt. In this case, our heroine sees a right way dictated by her mother as well as Mother Church, and she’s bailed out in the end when the Cammareri brothers make her an honest woman once more. Another film in which a woman trying to do the right thing by her family while simultaneously discovering herself via sex is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a film which amps up the whole “southern European family” thing at the expense of genuine romantic feeling. Toula, thirty years old and shockingly unmarried by the standards of her family, accidentally falls for a friendly guy named “Ian Miller,” which is, alas for her, not so Greek a name. My Big Fat Greek Wedding doesn’t trade on the same levels of drama that Moonstruck does, choosing to play the differences between Ian’s buttoned-down folks and Toula’s enormous and loud family for comedy rather than finding something a little finer and sadder in Toula. In focusing more on Toula’s Windex-loving father, though, My Big Fat Greek Wedding makes plain this idea that Toula can have her sexual freedom as an adult or she can continue being a daughter first. Everything resolves happily, maybe even a little too easily, but to the film’s credit it makes Toula’s decision to marry outside the Greek community into a genuinely risky one. The actions are jokey, but the premise is not.

Through animation, both Beauty and the Beast and Annie Hall take a poke at a woman trying to assert some command of her sexuality in worlds where men are attempting to claim it for their own. Annie Hall does not stick to that idea for so long, obviously, but for a few moments we hear Diane Keaton come through as the voice of the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the character who Alvy Singer fell for when he saw Snow White for the first time. In this imagined sequence, the Evil Queen is as combustible as any bombshell from superhero comics. The green interior of her cape sets off the red of her dress, which is slinky stuff indeed. The contour of her slim thigh are visible, as well as half her breasts sticking out through what we have to assume is a corseted torso. She towers over Alvy, who looks like he escaped from Schoolhouse Rock!, even while she sits and he stands. This is a male fantasy, an especially apt one for little Oedipal Alvy, and Annie Hall recognizes the fundamental unfairness of it. When the animated Alvy suggests that his Evil Queen is on her period, she responds with the kind of matter-of-fact exasperation that that question deserves: “I don’t get a period. I’m a cartoon character!” Annie Hall may bear her name, but the film is always about the ways in which Alvy understands her or, haha, fails to understand her. This is a throwaway gag, certainly, but it’s a better shorthand for understanding what this movie is about than anything having to do with Marshall McLuhan, lobsters, or gauzy shots of New York City. Annie is old enough to start being interested in what kind of goals or aspirations she might have; Alvy is still hoping for someone tall enough to be his mom but not too tall that her breasts might not be at eye level any longer. Beauty and the Beast, with the obviously unrealistic physical figure of Belle in mind, is still a picture much less rooted in the male gaze. The male gaze is what makes the plot go, but the film itself is not nearly as intent on such a scopophilic presentation as Annie Hall. Belle is under assault as a marriageable woman for something like 95% of this movie. If she is not being taken under consideration by the transformed servants of the castle as a bride for their transformed master (to say nothing of the way that the Beast views Belle as his last chance), then she is being viewed as a potential bride by the entire town she lives in and throws shade at. Gaston, of “don’t I deserve the best” fame, sees Belle as the right woman for him because she is the most comely. The three blondes who seem to have a vested interest in scoring Gaston for…one of them?…see Belle as a natural enemy. And even her father, who is a benign figure, casually has some thoughts of Belle moving out, getting hitched, and doing whatever it is women do once they’ve done that.

This sequence, one of the more romantic ones ever drawn, is lovely as much for the chastity of the dance as it is for the swooping cinematography or the irresistible interplay of blue and gold. While everyone in the room seems to understand that this dinner date is an essential step in breaking the spell and returning the inhabitants of the castle to their human forms, Belle’s physical beauty is overshadowed in such a way that it’s hard for me to view the sequence as especially exploitative. The room is too grand, the computer animation too new, the song too wise and melancholy, and the denouement too meaningful. After all, it is mere moments after this dance is through that Beast gives Belle her freedom again so she can rescue her father. Belle’s goodness has changed the Beast enough that he can do the right thing by her; in a very old-fashioned way, her virtue is the key to her sexuality.

There’s a thin slice, albeit a really meaty one, in films about women who are guarding their sexuality and who have to experience some serious panic before it’s understood that they’ve made the right choice having sex with the men they’re having sex with. The Greenways of Terms of Endearment and Sally Albright of When Harry Met Sally… are all presented with scenarios in which they are genuinely hesitant, for good reason, to get sexually involved with men who are interested in them. Emma, on the surface, has the most reason to be hesitant. It’s not every married mother of three who’s having an affair with a married man. Yet by the time you get to Emma and Sam’s trysts, it’s sort of hard for any of us to blame her; her useless husband with a stupid name has been not only been cheating on Emma with abandon for years, but he’s been moving his family around to do it. Aurora, who is being courted by the retired astronaut with the sultry name (“Garrett Breedlove”), is the more complicated case. She likes Garrett; she likes that he likes her so much. What bridles for Aurora is that Garrett insists on courting her in ways that offend her precise and proper demeanor, and that Beauty and the Beast story ends with Beauty offering Beast a second chance after seeing all too closely how a life’s opportunities can be closed off. As for Sally, she has a truly intractable situation to deal with: would you rather have a best friend or a boyfriend? The film is a little more concerned, on the whole, with Harry’s difficulty coping with that question. After all, he’s the one who makes the first pass at Sally, the one who changes the most over the course of the film, the one who starts from the position that men and women can’t be friends because of sex. Sally still has to work around this problem, though, most potently when she realizes that there’s something wanting in her best friend who she has also considered a possible boyfriend in the glowing minutes after their first night together. Harry reacts badly to that line between best friend and boyfriend getting crossed, and the emotional fallout is Sally’s to deal with primarily. She deals with it by realizing that his fear is a sign that her best friend is not as good as she’s led herself to believe for some years now, and that this potential boyfriend—potential husband!—is not equipped to carry those roles. The Greenways must face some crises, but for full-blown doubt that makes her question her own good judgment which she so prizes in herself, Sally is the one of the three who has the greatest personal difficulty in deciding should she stay or should she go.

For those of you with a tiny Karl Marx on your shoulders, the heroine of the second wave is also evident in films from the early 1990s which wonder about how women can thrive in traditionally male-dominated workplaces. The Silence of the Lambs, which puts the diminutive Jodie Foster in an elevator with a bunch of very butch tall dudes within five minutes, is every bit as essential to the canon of movies about female labor like 9 to 5, Working Girl, or, heck, Sadie Thompson. Silence is a little bit short of incisive about the advantages and disadvantages that Clarice Starling possesses, choosing to stick most of them in a Hannibal Lecter monologue about her “rube” origins. (That monologue, which ends with the whole fava beans/Chianti business, is interrupted with a pretty weak rejoinder on Clarice’s end about how Hannibal can’t turn that observational ability on himself or something. The power dynamics of the film are set up in that moment, and Silence never really does give Clarice much more to do besides figure out the crime that Hannibal has already riddled out at the same rate as we the audience.) Much more effective are the smaller moments which have less to do with Clarice being Hannibal’s type and more to do with how the normal men in the field gravitate to the first attractive young woman they’ve had in their offices in some time. Maybe Starling is Lecter’s type, but it’s absolutely true that she’s Jack Crawford’s type as well. At least he is a gentleman enough not to ask her out and punish her for saying no, as Dr. Chilton does. In A League of Their Own, though, the bigger moments are the ones which more successfully sell this idea that what the women of the AAGPBL are doing is revolutionary. (This is the only film of this set which was directed by a woman, Penny Marshall, and the film’s empathy for women in baseball in the 1940s surely must have something in common with Marshall’s similar isolation in the He-Man Woman-Haters Club of Hollywood directors.) There’s all the guff about making these women who have been chosen for the league for their skill at hitting and fielding into ladies, and there’s the clear effort to make Dottie into one of the league’s stars even more for her beauty than her prowess behind the plate. But if there’s one line in A League of Their Own that all of us know, it’s Jimmy Dugan’s incredulity at the womanly tears being shed by one of his players. “THERE’S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL!” he cries, and in that sentence there is a world of signification. The implication is that a man would not cry because his coach is riding him. There is weakness in what she is doing because she’s overwhelmed with feeling rather than being focused enough for Jimmy on her job. In a sentence, Jimmy makes it clear how disgusted he is at being unable to do anything besides coach a team of women, who are unfit to play on the diamond and thus defile it in his eyes. Ultimately, Jimmy is proved wrong—as every sardonic or cruel man in this film is proved wrong—and the women of this league turn out to be terrific players, full stop. In both Silence and League, there’s a cheerful premise underlying some nasty prejudice: just give women a chance to perform and they’ll come through. That both of them use the soft pedals on what comes once the women are less necessary to the goals of a patriarchal society is proof that it’s all still traditional Hollywood cinema as opposed to something trenchant or underground.

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