Cover of Erin Brockovich
Always open for debate, of course, here’s my vote for the 20 coolest female characters in film; here’s the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ list of the top 100.
1. Alien, and its later versions, with Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, who got to say some of the best lines ever in her calm, patrician way, even as a clone. “I thought you were dead!”, says one. “I get that a lot,” she coolly replies. Whether wielding a big-ass flamethrower or her compassion, Ripley remains one of my favorites: the definition of sangfroid amid unimaginable terror, droll in the face of acid-spewing monsters.
2. Doctor Zhivago, 1965, Julie Christie as Lara, a complicated, tough woman who starts out selling her body as a desperate teenager to the creepy Komarovsky and ends up living with her doctor and lover Yuri in the wilds of Varykyno. She’s forever the adaptable survivor, cool enough at 17 to stash a pistol in her fur muff and shoot the man who controls her. Heady stuff for the times.
3. Queen Christina, 1933, with Greta Garbo in the lead role. It’s not easy being Queen.
4. Terminator, 1984 Linda Hamilton, big guns, serious biceps.
5. An Education, 2009, Carey Mulligan. This fantastic new film about a young British girl — based on a true story — who falls for a handsome older con man is as much about her education as that of her parents, eager to marry her off, out and up.
6. Brick Lane, 2007, Tannishta Chatterjee, from the terrific book by Monica Ali. The choices made by the protagonist defy conventional wisdom about docile, male-ruled South Asian lower-class immigrant women.
7. Water, 2005, Lisa Ray. A film so controversial that filming in India was shut down by protestors and moved to Sri Lanka. Directed by Canadian woman director Deepa Mehta, it’s a powerful look at the lives of widowed Indian women. An exquisitely beautiful film with a haunting soundtrack, it’s both joyful and despairing about women’s lives within the most restrictive constraints.
8. Whale Rider, 2002, Keisha Castle-Hughes. I love this New Zealand film about a feisty 11-year-old Maori girl, Pai, who desperately wants to be accepted into the male-only rituals of her people. She is so touchingly, stubbornly insistent and persuasive. Haunting visuals and a great performance.
9. Erin Brockovich, 2000, Julia Roberts. One of the few films in which she doesn’t play a ditz but a tough, funny, compassionate woman, a real-life heroine.
10. Norma Rae, 1979, Sally Field. Who can ever forget her standing on a table in that deafening textile mill, holding up a sign saying “Union”? Based on the real life of union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton.
11. Silkwood, 1983, Meryl Streep. Another profile of a real-life fighter, killed while trying to reveal information about an unsafe nuclear power plant; one of Nora Ephron’s earliest screenplays.
12. Notorious, 1946, Ingmar Bergman. Alicia Huberman moves into a mansion and marries a Nazi in Rio while secretly spying on him. The scene where she is rescued does me in.
13. Million Dollar Baby, 2005, Hilary Swank. Not an easy film to watch, and the ending was deeply controversial. I love how this film shows the incredible power a coach can have on a female athlete, for better or worse.
14. Silence of The Lambs, 1990, Jody Foster. Another difficult film to watch. OK, terrifying! Clarice Starling is a compelling character, a young woman in a man’s world as a novice FBI agent chasing a serial killer. Her relationship with her boss is as powerfully revealing of her own vulnerabilities.
15. The Piano, 1993, Holly Hunter. A woman married to a brute breaks free in colonial-era New Zealand.
16. Out Of Africa, 1985, Meryl Streep. Writer Isak Dinesen had it all, on paper — a coffee plantation, a farm in the Ngong Hills of Kenya, an aristocratic Danish husband and a dashing British lover. A powerful portrait of love, independence and compromise.
17. Juno, 2007, Ellen Page. Many people found this film nauseatingly anti-abortion. I loved the character of Juno, joking her way through the physical and emotional madness of bearing a baby while still in high school.
18. Rachel Getting Married, 2008, Anne Hathaway. She totally should have won the Oscar for this searing role of Kym, the narcisisstic, needy little sister. It takes guts to play a character so annoying and memorable.
19. Cabaret, 1972, Liza Minelli. “Divinely decadent,” darling!” As a lonely American cabaret singer, Sally flashes her dark green fingernails and blusters her way through life and love in pre-war Germany.
20. Charlotte Gray, 2001, Cate Blanchett. No one seems to recall this film, about a British woman who goes behind enemy lines in France to work with the French Resistance and falls in love there. I loved it.
20a. The Reader, 2008, Kate Winslet. Based on a best-selling German novel, she plays a female you can’t ever forget, tough and vulnerable and terrifying.
Do strong female characters really scare away movie-goers?
Who are some of your favorite women characters of the cinema?