Iron ladies: When powerful actresses play powerful female leaders

Garbo, Colbert, Streep, Jackson, Davis. ()
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In Act i, Scene 5 of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, bloodthirsty for her more weak-willed husband to kill Duncan and take the crown, calls out in a private moment: 

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. 

She goes on to exhort the spirits to "stop" any "access and passage to remorse," and concludes with

Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief.

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Her very womanhood must be abolished in order to have the strength to do what is necessary. Macbeth would never go through with the plan on his own and needs her virility in order to "screw his courage to the sticking place." 

Lady Macbeth's transformation into murderous juggernaut is deeply destabilizing, not only to Scotland, but to her marriage, and ultimately to her own sanity. She, herself, cannot live with what she has done. She has paid a great price for this "unsexing."

Women in the political realm are still rare enough that they continue to be seen as something of a novelty act when they reach for the brass ring. Questions are asked with feverish seriousness in the public realm about a woman's ability to manage being both a woman and a politician, as though the future of the country depends on the answer. It is a given that men will be able to manage both being a leader and being a man, there is no destabilization of his socially acceptable identity in such a situation. When a woman wields power, it is perceived differently than when a man does. Women are still expected to play nice, smooth over altercations, placate, and assuage.  

We don't have royalty in America, and we haven't had a female leader of our country yet, but Hollywood has given us screen goddesses to make up for that. The movies are often a projection of the collective hopes, dreams, and fears of any given populace, and Hollywood's icons have often been on the front lines of the battle of the sexes, and the ongoing conversation about a woman's proper place.  

Often our movie actresses have been alarmingly "masculine," wearing trousers before that was really done, and playing around with traditional notions of gender. The wise-cracking dame of the 1930s screwballs who could give as good as she got, while still remaining "womanly" and soft and appealing is still radical. I miss the wise-cracking good-time gal; she is still missed in today's cinema. Screen goddesses have power. They enter the screen and all eyes land upon them, placing the audience in a submissive position. She is like a queen in that regard.

World leaders make their own myths. They operate as projector screens for a population, and the best ones merge themselves so completely with the idea of Nation that they become inextricable. When it is a woman in that role, interesting questions inevitably come up.  Must women in power thwart their stereotypically "female" side?  Must a woman somehow "unsex" herself in order to be an effective leader?  The answers may be obvious to some of us, but the anxiety nevertheless remains.

With the opening this week of Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep as former English prime minister Margaret Thatcher, here's a look back at a few other portrayals of controversial, famous and infamous female leaders, seen through the eyes of Hollywood's greatest talents and myth-makers.  

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (1939), directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I

Bette Davis' twitchingly intense portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I shows the queen both as effective and fearsome monarch and lovelorn, thwarted woman. At one point she says, "To be a queen is to be less than human."  

The queen's friendly love affair with the Earl of Essex (played charmingly by Errol Flynn) allows her to flirt, kiss, and fall on the stairs laughing hysterically. With him, she can be "soft," a quality that would be truly dangerous if she allowed it any play in the Ruling Realm.  

Women are already seen as softer than men, and so a woman in a leadership position cannot afford any softness. Bette Davis plays the queen as a Master Compartmentalizer, adept at keeping her different worlds separate and protected. Her pulsing humanity is the very thing she must ignore when she quashes the Earl of Essex's bid for her throne. Queen Elizabeth I does not exactly "unsex" herself in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, but it is definitely the story of a woman who chooses her Job over her Man.

The sacrifice shows in every twitch in Bette Davis' small frame. Even in the queen's dynamic with the Earl of Essex, the balance is askew. The two may be "equal in love," but since she is the one who grants power and favor, the earl would always be in a submissive position, something he could never bear.

Throughout the film, we have seen the queen's misery in the company of her ladies-in-waiting, who all seem prettier, younger, and happier and remind her of all that she has missed in life. When you are a woman, what traditionally gives you power? Marriage, children, and property (especially in that day and age). Over the course of the film, we see that power resides elsewhere for the queen; power resides in actual power, the way it does for men. Her position is not limited by her sex. When she says, "England is my greatest and dearest love," she means it.  

CLEOPATRA (1934), directed by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra

A sweeping epic with a cast of a thousand extras, Cleopatra is a ridiculously entertaining film, with a great performance from Claudette Colbert as the wily and ambitious Egyptian queen. Colbert shows the queen's fearlessness and unconventionality as a leader when she rolls herself up in a rug which is then presented at the feet of her enemy, Julius Caesar (Warren Williams). When Colbert emerges from the rug, she is wearing a daring dress showing the swells of her breasts and the naked curves of her waist and hips, and she immediately sets out to beguile and disarm Caesar through the power of her womanhood. It works.

Men, if they make the mistake of condescending to such a creature, could find themselves hoodwinked. Cleopatra seduces and charms like a woman, but her spirit is Machiavellian. This is a woman in a man's world, using all of the artillery she has at hand in order to win. Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon), in this context, is seen as an idiot, duped by his lust for the hottie Egyptian who pimps out the beautiful women of her homeland for his pleasure, softening him up for the kill. He doesn't realize that the glamorous, smooth woman before him is playing the game just as men play it, ruthlessly and effectively, and soon he finds himself sexually enslaved by her.

The fact of Cleopatra's womanhood makes certain that she will be consistently underestimated by her male peers. Claudette Colbert's Cleopatra does not find this "unfair." She finds it to be her Ace in the hole.  

A WOMAN CALLED GOLDA (1982), TV movie, directed by Alan Gibson, starring Ingrid Bergman as Golda Meir

Golda Meir was the fourth Prime Minister of Israel (1969 to 1974) and before that she had served as foreign minister (the only female foreign minister in the world at that time). Her comfortable grey bun and plain face made her seem like a cuddly grandmother, which often worked in her favor when she came to various negotiating tables. Being underestimated may be annoying, but it certainly can be used to political advantage.

In the 1982 television biopic A Woman Called Golda, which was a huge event at the time of its first airing, Golda Meir is first played by Judy Davis as the young Wisconsin woman passionate for Zionism and for the possibilities of Palestine and later by the great Ingrid Bergman as the Israeli stateswoman she would become.  

One of the most unforgettable qualities of Bergman's performance is that it shows the deep personalization that goes on between any leader (male or female) with his or her respective nation. Golda Meir identified herself so closely with Israel that she actually became Israel, in a sense.

In a tense meeting with the king of Jordan, one can feel the deeply destabilizing effect that a female had on the power dynamic in the region. The Jordanian king treats her with a guarded respect, yet hostility seethes just beneath the surface.

A Woman Called Golda could be called openly feminist, in that it grapples honestly with the issues any working woman faces: the toll her role places on her home life and her marriage, leaving the raising of her chlldren to nannies and baby sitters. Golda Meir is not cavalier about these sacrifices. They tear at her heart. She hopes her children will eventually understand why their mother was so often not there.

Golda Meir's openness about that struggle was a powerful message to women everywhere: You are not alone. And yet Bergman has a steely glint in her eye at all times, showing her to be an undaunted warrior. Equal parts warm and cold, Bergman's Golda Meir is seen as a full and complex woman, and ultimately ordinary despite having chosen an extraordinary path.

MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS (1971), directed by Charles Jarrott, starring Glenda Jackson as Queen Elizabeth I and Vanessa Redgrave as Mary, Queen of Scots

The Clash of the Titans, as represented by dueling first cousins once removed Queen Elizabeth I and Mary I of Scotland, has been brought to the stage and screen multiple times, and doubtless will be again. The 1971 film starring Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave, in their absolute primes as women and actresses, is wonderful in its portrayal of their struggle for power.

Glenda Jackson (who retired from acting to go into politics) plays Queen Elizabeth as a woman who is capable and yet emotional, proud of not being a tyrant, and proud of her effectiveness as a ruler. She does not second-guess herself. Protecting her zone of power is her ultimate concern. Her Achilles' heel appears to be the fact that she has never had a child.

By contrast, Vanessa Redgrave's Mary is first seen as a carefree loving wife, bound not by the affairs of the state, but by her heart. Once her husband dies, however, the young Mary is thrust into a world of danger. Her open-faced  enthusiasm when meeting the hostile Scottish Lords shows her naivete. Mary wields power recklessly: she comes off as willful, emotional (not in a good way) and stupid. Her rulings seem more like tantrums thrown by a spoiled child.

Ironically, motherhood changes Mary's personality. Suddenly she has a weapon, a trump card: an heir to the English throne. Her gaze hardens, her backbone stiffens. Queen Elizabeth and Mary meet face-to-face only twice in the entire film and yet the film is a study in contrasts. Both could be capable rulers, but there was only room for one. We all know who won that battle, although Mary ultimately won the war over the childless Elizabeth, when her son became the King of England.

QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933), directed by Rouben Mamoulian, starring Greta Garbo as Queen Christina

A highly fictionalized account of the 17th century Swedish queen, Queen Christina is reminiscent of Twelfth Night or As You Like It, in which Shakespeare's court-bound heroines are set free when they dress up as boys and go cavorting among the common folk.

Garbo's Queen Christina swaggers about in velvet trousers, a fitted velvet jacket and high, manly boots. Her hair is short and unfussy. She steps outside onto her balcony every morning and rubs snow in her face, an indelible image when done by the glamorous Garbo. Christina is hearty, free, and intelligent. She has a freedom with herself other women do not.

Raised as a boy in the court of her famous dead father, she was crowned as a child. She has known no other life. She has no insecurity about her position and refuses to compromise on her ideals for a peaceful Sweden. She laughs in the faces of her advisers who pressure her to get married.

 And yet there are times when the world of the court stifles. Garbo, one of the most mysterious of movie stars, here is accessible and funny, powerful and heartbreaking. She has fun with the gender confusion her Queen Christina generates, most of all in the banter with a visiting Spanish ambassador, played by John Gilbert, who mistakes her for a boy in a chance meeting at a snowy roadside inn. Shades of homoerotic and Shakespearean urges erupt in their first conversation, when the Spanish ambassador is drawn to this young boy, not knowing that it is actually a woman (let alone a queen).  

Garbo's persona has great authenticity.  The final shot of Queen Christina has taken its place, rightfully, in the pantheon of famous moments in cinema, and its slow zoom-in on Christina's stalwart yet grief-struck face at the head of the departing ship is an eloquent portrayal of a woman who fully recognizes the loss she has just suffered, and the world of power and privilege she must leave behind. 

THE QUEEN (2006), directed by Stephen Frears, starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II

Helen Mirren's Oscar-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen is a detailed examination of the political clash that followed the untimely death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Queen Elizabeth, who experienced the horrors of World War II and represented the stiff-upper-lip survival instinct of the British people, was baffled and enraged by the outpouring of grief shown to the ungrateful Little Miss So-and-So with the famous hairdo who not only brought a tabloid sensationalism to the royal family but also had shamed them by the failure of her marriage to Prince Charles.  

Helen Mirren's Queen Elizabeth is shown as a hearty and practical woman, doing a job she had never particularly wanted but nevertheless carried out uncomplainingly for fifty-plus years.

 She is used to being queen. She wears her power easily. She grumbles to Prince Philip about her personal feelings at night, but to everyone else she is impassive and firm. She is a monarch, not some lowly politician; she shouldn't have to "campaign" for her subjects' affection and love.

The journey of the film, then, is how the intelligent Queen Elizabeth finally realized that the world had changed around her. She did not approve of the changes, but her disapproval was irrelevant in terms of the crisis at hand. Her populace needed a gesture from her, a gesture toward the late, beloved People's Princess. The Queen's decision finally to address the nation is given great and eloquent context by Mirren's compassionate and mesmerizing performance.  Compromising her ideals, not to mention her idea of who the British people actually were, is seen here as a necessary and correct. Female leaders must be strong, but they perish if they do not evolve.

THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934), directed by Josef von Sternberg, starring Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great

The Scarlet Empress is a fever-dream from the imagination of Josef von Sternberg, with his muse Marlene Dietrich playing the young Catherine the Great. Imperial Russia is seen as a crowded and barbaric place, with contorted grimacing statues filling the backdrop of almost every scene.

Marlene Dietrich, already fascinating, rife with delicious gender confusion, plays almost a dual role here: She is the innocent child Sophie married to the leering, moronic Tsar Peter III in a time of great war and strife, and the ruthless and revolutionary Catherine the Great.

In the first role, she is so young that her mother accompanies her to Russia for the marriage, and the entire thing has the feel of a lamb being brought to the slaughter. There is something entirely grotesque about the clergy praying around the marriage bed for a boy to be born from the disgusting union.  

Dietrich, with blonde curls, is so guileless and easily shocked in the first half of the film that it is difficult to comprehend that she will eventually become Catherine the Great, the longest-reigning female leader in Russia's history.  

The Scarlet Empress becomes a devastating story of lost innocence: a child-bride thrown to the wolves of the decadent Russian court, who eventually abandons her girlish ideals in order to survive. She takes a lover. She takes many. She stalks up and down the arrays of army troops, wearing a giant fur hat, staring at each one with a cold assessing eye. It is Marlene Dietrich. She is already an intimidating and bizarre presence. She's a man-eater, but you get the sense that it all occurs on her terms, and her terms only.  

So seen in another light, her femme fatale behavior once she succumbs to the court's rules is what helped her eventually to take power, in a breathtakingly filmed coup d'etat involving a herd of soldiers bearing flags galloping up the many staircases inside the palace to the very heart of power. She is at the head of that army. And yes, when Dietrich decides to take power from her idiot husband, whom she has had assassinated, suddenly, for the first time in the film, she is wearing trousers. In every other scene in the film, she is decked out in hoop skirts and feathers. When she takes power, on come the pants. She has "unsexed" herself, but only through "sexing" herself, by dominating sexually in the way that men more often dominate. The film is still deeply unusual in its vision of corruption and accession to leadership.

THE LION IN WINTER (1968), directed by Anthony Harvey, starring Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine

The Lion in Winter was an important film for Katharine Hepburn. Perhaps the most important, when seen in the proper context.  

When Spencer Tracy became ill, Hepburn backed out of many of her projects, not wanting work to take her away from her love. Hepburn, always seen as so self-sufficient and tomboyish, stomping around in trousers, made great sacrifices in her career in order to nurture her personal life. When Tracy died in 1967, she didn't feel like working. She was too old to do the parts she had once done. She wasn't sure what course her career would take (and her career had always been one with many dips and valleys and detours).  

Then The Lion in Winter came to her. With a brilliant, biting script by James Goldman, it tells the story of the 12th century king of England, Henry II (played by Peter O'Toole), who has imprisoned his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, for supporting one of their son's revolts against him. Their three sons are now all hungry for the throne, and both Henry and Eleanor have strong opinions about which one should rule.

Hepburn's Eleanor of Aquitaine is an unforgettable creation, smoothly smiling at all times, her words dripping with venom and wit. The dynamic with her husband is vicious, and yet both actors manage to show the echo of the love that may have once been there, before Power got in the way. But make no mistake; Eleanor of Aquitaine is not to be pitied. Yes, her personal life has been a disaster. You can see it in the brief, anguished flashes that appear in Hepburn's eyes, a sudden freezing of that constant smile. But power is Eleanor's biggest turn-on.  The image of Katharine Hepburn being borne down the river in a giant barge, wrapped in robes, is one of the most unforgettable of 20th century cinema.

The Lion in Winter put Hepburn back on top and won her her third Oscar (and her second as Best Actress). Eleanor of Aquitaine's indomitable spirit infused adrenaline and competition back into Hepburn's veins for what would be the final act of her astonishing career.