How Screenwriters Described Iconic Female Characters

Posted on April 10, 2018 at 3:22 pm

We’ve seen so many awful stories about the way that female characters are described in movie scripts that it was a real relief and pleasure to read Vulture’s list of the way that fifty great characters were first imagined and described by their screenwriters.  There’s a whole extra level of delight in getting to see writing by some of the best writers in Hollywood that we would normally not get to see.  We think of them as only being responsible for the witty dialogue, but they are also every bit as good at defining a character in a few short sentences of description as they are with what we will actually hear her say on screen.  (Note: The odd capitalization of character names and other words is standard for movie scripts.)

Kyle Buchanan and Jordan Crucchiola lead off with one of the most vivid characters in the history of movies, aging theatrical star Margo Channing, as played by Bette Davis in “All About Eve :”

How do you create a memorable female character? It helps if you get it right from the very beginning, as Joseph L. Mankiewicz did in his screenplay for All About Eve when he introduced the woman who would be played by Bette Davis. “The CAMERA follows the bottle to MARGO CHANNING,” wrote Mankiewicz in his stage directions. “An attractive, strong face. She is childish, adult, reasonable, unreasonable — usually one when she should be the other, but always positive.”  


One of the best ones is this wonderfully evocative introduction of the faded movie star played by Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard:”


Norma Desmond stands down the corridor next to a doorway from which emerges a flickering light. She is a little woman. There is a curious style, a great sense of high voltage about her. She is dressed in black house pajamas and black high-heeled pumps. Around her throat there is a leopard-patterned scarf, and wound around her head a turban of the same material. Her skin is very pale, and she is wearing dark glasses.

Few women but Audrey Hepburn could truly live up to this description in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s:”

The girl walks briskly up the block in her low cut evening dress. We get a look at her now for the first time. For all her chic thinness she has an almost breakfast-cereal air of health. Her mouth is large, her nose upturned. Her sunglasses blot out her eyes. She could be anywhere from sixteen to thirty. As it happens she is two months short of nineteen. Her name (as we will soon discover) is HOLLY GOLIGHTLY.


One of the best screen couples has got to be Nick and Nora Charles from “The Thin Man.” If you haven’t had the pleasure of falling in love with them onscreen, rest assured that this description of Nora will do it for you:

NORA CHARLES, Nick’s wife, is coming through. She is a woman of about twenty-six… a tremendously vital person, interested in everybody and everything, in contrast to Nick’s apparent indifference to anything except when he is going to get his next drink. There is a warm understanding relationship between them. They are really crazy about each other, but undemonstrative and humorous in their companionship. They are tolerant, easy-going, taking drink for drink, and battling their way together with a dry humor.


I especially enjoyed the contrast between the descriptions of Sarah Connor in the first and second “Terminator” movies. And the quiz to try to guess the character from the description.

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The Real Story: “The Feud” Between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford

Posted on February 19, 2017 at 3:24 pm

“The Feud” is the new series from Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “Nip/Tuck,” “American Crime Story”), with three Oscar-winning actresses in the real-life story of three Oscar-winning actresses. Susan Sarandon played Bette Davis, Jessica Lange plays Joan Crawford, and Catherine Zeta Jones plays Olivia de Havilland in a story that takes place at in the 1960’s, when their stardom was waning. Davis and Crawford, both known to be temperamental divas who were intensely competitive and loathed each other so much it was almost a hobby, were cast in the grotesque horror film “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” They played sisters, both performers (yes, that means actresses are playing actresses playing actresses). Davis was Jane, a former child star and Crawford was Blanche, a one-time movie star, now paralyzed following an accident, and thus dependant on Jane, who delights in torturing her.

“The Feud” is the behind-the-scenes story of Davis and Crawford as they made the film. The cast includes Alfred Molina as director Robert Aldrich, Judy Davis as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Oscar winner Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell, and Murphy favorite Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Page.

Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud has more details about the decades-long animosity between the two stars, including Davis ordering a Coke machine for the “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” crew — because Crawford was married to the CEO of Pepsi.

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Trailer: The Pretty One with Zoe Kazan as Twins

Posted on January 19, 2014 at 3:56 pm

The trailer for Zoe Kazan’s new film “The Pretty One” has her playing a pair of identical twins.

The storyline reminds me of the classic Bette Davis film, “A Stolen Life.”

(Davis also played identical twins in another film, “Dead Ringer.”)

One of my all-time favorite Carol Burnett movie parodies was her version of “A Stolen Life,” called “A Swiped Life.”
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Great Movie Duos: Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins

Posted on July 14, 2013 at 8:00 am


I’m delighted to be participating in the classic movie blogathon about great film duos.  My choice is Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis, who co-starred in two classics, “The Old Maid” and “Old Acquaintance.”  They were natural opposites, and their battles onscreen reflected their off-screen rivalry, personal and professional.

They first appeared together in a play directed by George Cukor when they were in their early 20’s before they went to Hollywood.  Later, Hopkins starred in the stage version of “Jezebel” and was furious when Davis got the lead in the movie.  And then there was Hopkins’ husband, director Anatole Litvak, who directed “The Old Maid.”  She believed he had an affair with Davis while they were married, though reportedly their brief entanglement did not occur after he and Hopkins were divorced.  It would not surprise anyone who knows anything about Davis if she had the affair with Litvak solely to spite Hopkins.

Davis is much better known now, but Southern belle Hopkins was a movie star first, appearing in the sexy “The Smiling Lieutenant,” “Trouble in Paradise” and “Design for Living.” Who can forget her “gentleman’s agreement” with Gary Cooper and Frederic March that there would be no sex to interfere with their work, followed later in the film by her languid murmur, “Fortunately, I am no gentleman.”

She also had the title role in the first three-strip Technicolor feature film, “Becky Sharp.”

It took a while for Hollywood to figure out how to make the best use of flinty New Englander Davis. Her relish in taking on the roles of unappealing characters other actresses avoided led to her breakthrough role in “Of Human Bondage” as Mildred, the slatternly and vulgar waitress. She did not care about being romantic or glamorous.  She wanted to act.

She was tough off-screen as well, demanding more control over her career than the studio system had ever permitted.

Hopkins and Davis were both big stars when they appeared together in “The Old Maid” (1939), adapted from a Civil War era story by Edith Wharton.  This was the first time since becoming a star that Davis shared the screen with another woman — reportedly she asked the studio if she could play both parts via split-screen (as she did in “A Stolen Life” and “Dead Ringer.”  Davis plays the virtuous Charlotte and Hopkins is her cousin Delia.  Frequent Davis co-star George Brent is Delia’s former fiance who gets Charlotte pregnant and is then killed in the war.  Charlotte leaves town, returning to found an orphanage as a way of raising her daughter without anyone — including the girl herself — knowing that Charlotte is really her mother.  Delia and her husband adopt the girl, leaving Davis, as the title character, to agonize over losing her child.

Hopkins gave Davis a very tough time on the set. “Miriam is a perfectly charming woman socially,” Davis remembered. “Working with her is another story . . . Miriam used and, I must give her credit, knew every trick in the book. I became fascinated watching them appear one by one . . . Keeping my temper took its toll. I went home every night and screamed at everybody,” she remembered in her book, The Lonely Life.

Turner Classic Movies has more:

Davis later recalled that while she was uttering her lines, Hopkins would go into a daze: “Her restless little spirit was impatiently awaiting her next line, her golden curls quivering with expectancy.” Rather than fighting back, Davis cleverly sweet-talked director Goulding into trimming Hopkins’ best scenes. She also indulged in the occasional “fainting spell,” holding up the expensive production. But both actresses were, above all, professionals–and they made their mutual antipathy work onscreen.

When interviewed on the set, Hopkins batted her eyes sweetly and told reporters, “It makes a good story when women have feuds on their pictures . . . Somebody thought it would be good publicity for Bette and me to have a feud.” Davis, in turn, said in icy tones “Hoppy and I are going to get a couple of pairs of boxing gloves and pose for a picture glowering at each other.” She knew full well that being referred to as “Hoppy” alone was enough to send Hopkins into a tantrum.

Still, they re-teamed for the 1943 film “Old Acquaintance,” directed by Vincent Sherman (and remade as “Rich and Famous,” with Jacqueline Bisset and Candace Bergen).  Davis and Hopkins played what today we would call frenemies, old friends who are very different.  Davis plays Kit Marlowe, a thoughtful, principled, novelist whose small output is highly regarded.  Hopkins is Millie Drake, a careless, selfish, superficial woman who impulsively writes a book that becomes a best-seller.

And Millie’s husband (John Loder) falls in love with Kit.

There was no love lost on or off the screen.  One of the movie’s most memorable moments has Kit grabbing Millie, shaking her thoroughly, and throwing her on the sofa.  Even one of the greatest actresses in the history of the cinema cannot hide her satisfaction in throttling her rival.

Check out more great movie pairings from the classic movie duo blogathon.

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Smoking in Movies

Posted on October 14, 2008 at 11:13 pm

davis stamp.jpg
Roger Ebert hates smoking — except in movies. And he really objects to the kind of revisionism that has produced one of Bette Davis’ iconic images from “All About Eve” for a new postage stamp but left out her ever-present cigarette.
Ebert’s parents died from smoking-related diseases. He does not permit smoking in his home. But he cannot resist the romanticism of cigarette smoking in movies, especially classic movies.
Two of the most wonderful props in film noir were cigarettes and hats. They added interest to a close up or a two-shot. “Casablanca” without cigarettes would seem to be standing around looking for something to do. These days men don’t smoke and don’t wear hats. When they lower their heads, their eyes aren’t shaded. Cinematographers have lost invaluable compositional tools. The coil of smoke rising around the face of a beautiful women added allure and mystery. Remember Marlene Dietrich. She was smoking when she said, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”eve460.jpg
Everybody smoked cigarettes in the movies. Even Katharine Hepburn. Even Loretta Young. Ronald Reagan posed for Chesterfield ads. On the radio, it wasn’t “The Jack Benny Program,” it was “The Lucky Strike Program with Jack Benny,” although in that PBS documentary you only see him smoking cigars. Robert Mitchum smoked so much, he told me, that when the camera was rolling on “Out of the Past,” Kirk Douglas offered him a pack and asked, “Cigarette?” And Mitchum, realizing he’d carried a cigarette into the scene, held up his fingers and replied, “Smoking.” His improvisation saved the take. They kept it in the movie.
My favorite smoking scene is Lauren Bacall’s first on-screen moment in “To Have and Have Not” — she was an instant star with her first line: “Anybody got a match?”
Ebert acknowledges that in today’s world it almost seems absurd to have a character smoking anywhere but standing outside a building on a brief break. Even James Bond no longer smokes. And we no longer need the lighting of a cigarette and the softly rising smoke to demonstrate gallantry and symbolize romance and seduction. in this era of overshares and TMI, perhaps it isn’t the cigarettes we miss so much as the metaphors.

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