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January 23, 2018

Female Stars of British Cinema


Female Stars of British Cinema - The Woman in Question
Melanie Williams - 2017
Edinburgh University Press

Melanie Williams' book in question is partially about a select group of actresses, designated as being emblematic of decades in British film history. Simultaneously, Williams looks at the state of the British film industry during those decades as well as an overview of the zeitgeist of the time. The chronology goes from the Forties through 2015. The opening anecdote - about the perceived limited prospects for the still unknown Audrey Hepburn, through the closing chapter on persistent industry myopia, suggests that while Hollywood may look at British actresses as bringing a certain sense of class or style, for the actresses the bright lights of Hollywood often means career survival.

For American readers, a certain amount of Anglophilia in addition to Cinephlia may be required. Although her declared parameters are loose, Williams has chosen actresses primarily known for there work in British films. Jean Kent, representing the austere Forties, may be the least known here. The book's subtitle is taken from one of the handful of films that Kent headlined. Diana Dors has a certain iconic status. Touted as the British Marilyn Monroe, Dors face has outlived her 1950s hits as can be seen on the cover of this book, as well as her portrait on The Smiths' Singles compilation. Rita Tushingham's stardom emerged just as the Sixties began and ended at the close of that decade, with recent blu-ray releases of A Taste of Honey and The Knack providing introductions to a younger audience. Glenda Jackson takes over the 1970s. The 1980s and 90s see a return to more traditional concepts of youth and beauty with Emily Lloyd and Helena Bonham Carter. Making her first significant steps as a star in the mid-90s through the present is an actress neither young, nor conventionally attractive, Judi Dench.

One might quibble with the choice of actresses, all of whom were chosen because they were born in England, rather than, for example, Scotland, as in the case of Deborah Kerr. The chapter on Judi Dench may prove uncomfortable for some readers as there are several paragraphs regarding Dench's relationship with the recently disgraced Harvey Weinstein, who essentially shepherded Dench's career towards big screen stardom. The final chapter, partially about racism in the British film industry reviews some of the changes that have taken place, yet also feels slightly dated having been written prior to the release of Lady Macbeth with its conflicts of class, race and gender.

The bigger picture here is on stardom, whether pursued or imposed, how it is maintained or lost, public and private personas, and being part of a film industry that is subject to a variety of ebbs and flows. At the time of this writing, it appears that some things don't change. Williams writes about how after her debut in Wish You were Here, Emily Lloyd made a point of turning down sexually charged roles such as the film, Scandal, about the Profumo affair in part to avoid being typecast. A more recent news item is about Keira Knightley rejecting contemporary roles in favor of period pieces due to the treatment of the female characters in the scripts. Sometimes it's not just the films that are remade, but the experiences of the film talent.

good time girl.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 23, 2018 10:16 AM