Strong real females in movies
January 14, 2008 7:20 AM   Subscribe

Pamela Landy, in the 2nd and 3rd Bourne movies, is an uncomplicatedly powerful female character and I'm looking for other fiction movies with similar characters. (Inside I explain a little more what I'm looking for.) I don't have any spoilers inside for the Bourne movies, and please avoid spoilers for any movies you recommend, thanks!

I know there are MANY different kinds of strong female characters, but just for this question here's some of what makes Landy such a straightforward character to me:

- She's not a fantasy or bioengineered character (like Trinity or River Tam);
- The central focus of the movie isn't her unusualness as a female (as in GI Jane, etc.);
- We see no indication that she gets her power because of backstabbing or evilness.

Landy happens to be high-ranking on paper but I'm definitely also interested in everyday people who have similar qualities (like Mace in Strange Days).

Please, no spoilers for any movies in this thread!
I know it could be hard to discuss a character without mentioning, for example, whether or not she survives the movie, but that's what I'm asking. Thanks!
posted by sparrows to Media & Arts (51 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
M, from Pierce Brosnan era Bond films.

I was also going to suggest Buffy, but that's supernatural.
posted by utsutsu at 7:26 AM on January 14, 2008

The Descent features a cast of only a single male character, all the other characters are female. It's creature horror movie, but the characters themselves are just regular people.

Obvious, but The Bride in Kill Bill also fits the *ahem* bill.
posted by Nelsormensch at 7:28 AM on January 14, 2008

Angelina Jolie's character in Mr. and Mrs. Smith probably fits. Kicks ass, takes names, etc.

Actually, half of Jolie's characters probably qualify, except inasmuch as they violate point 1. Lara Croft might (I haven't seen the Tomb Raider movie in ages), Frankie in Sky Captain... I'm not sure, though, whether your first rule is about the entire movie being 'fantasy' or just the character (since Trinity is a perfectly human character in a fantastic world, while River has Kewl Powerz nobody else does).
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:28 AM on January 14, 2008

Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs

Dana Scully in The X Files (though the subject matter is fantasy and the tv show's better than the movie, so I'm not sure if that counts)
posted by occhiblu at 7:32 AM on January 14, 2008

Response by poster: Great idea to mention actors whose whole career is notable for this.

Jodie Foster is another example; she definitely plays a real-world strong character more often than not.

By fantasy I mean I'm looking for a whole movie that's real-world rather than fantasy/sci-fi.
posted by sparrows at 7:32 AM on January 14, 2008

Vasquez from the movie Aliens is a good one, unless you count the futuristic setting as breaking the "fantasy" rule.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:33 AM on January 14, 2008

Well focusing on Joan Allen is pretty smart, sparrows, since as far as I know she hasn't played any weak characters. I particularly recommend The Ice Storm, Pleasantville, and Manhunter. For other roles, try Jodie Foster's Dr. Ellie Arroway in Contact and Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in the Alien movies, and again, realize they're actors who choose parts at least partly out of concern for the intelligence and power of the characters they play. So Weaver, for example, has a fantastic role in Death and the Maiden, opposite a chilling Ben Kingsley, and another in A Map of the World, as a schoolteacher accused of molesting a student. And Jodie Foster, my goodness; it'd be easier to point out performances or roles where Foster plays weak women, if there are any. None come to mind offhand, though.
posted by cgc373 at 7:36 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Should have previewed.
posted by cgc373 at 7:36 AM on January 14, 2008

Is Clarice Starling powerful? One might argue she is strong but in the films she is (1) a junior agent (2) an agent up shit creek careerwise followed by an ex-agent.
posted by biffa at 7:37 AM on January 14, 2008

biffa, sparrows has said she's not necessarily looking for high-ranking career women, just women who exemplify strength. I think Clarice Starling would fit that.
posted by occhiblu at 7:43 AM on January 14, 2008

Do historical figures count? If so, then I would include depictions of Queen Elizabeth I in movies where she was not the focus, such as Shakespeare in Love<>.
posted by grouse at 7:43 AM on January 14, 2008

Madeleine Stowe also chooses tough, dark, difficult roles, as does Jennifer Jason Leigh. Think of Stowe's psychologists in The General's Daughter and 12 Monkeys, and of Leigh in almost anything, all the way back to 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High. For other vintage Leigh, try Single White Female and Dolores Claiborne, as well as the strange retelling of King Lear managed in the adaptation of Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, not to mention the tense, almost unbearable Last Exit to Brooklyn.

There's a pretty fun ensemble drama called Playing By Heart with performances by Stowe, Jolie, Anderson, and Gena frickin' Rowlands, opposite a bunch of boys played by Sean Connery, Ryan Philippe, Jon Stewart, and Dennis Quaid, that might appeal, if you're into that kind of thing. (I am.)
posted by cgc373 at 7:44 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

You mention River Tam, how could you forgive Zoë Washburne, played by Gina Torres? Sure, it's a fantasy setting, but the character itself wasn't fantasy tinged.

Julia Ormond's title character in Smilla's Sense of Snow

Meryl Streep's character from the Manchurian Candidate

Franka Potente in Run Lola Run

Natascha McElhone as Deirdre in 1998's Ronin.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:49 AM on January 14, 2008

Glenn Close as the Vice President in Air Force One? Glenn Close in The Shield, season 5? Actually if you go through Glenn Close's IMDB profile and just take out the ones that don't fit your conditions (backstabbing especially) that would be the start of a decent list.

May be cheating a bit but any one playing a queen/princess, e.g. The Queen in "the Queen", Queen Elizabeth in lots of things, including both Blanchett efforts, Flora Robson, Shakespeare in Love, Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown.
posted by biffa at 7:50 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Can we get some clarification, my understanding was you want female chacters who are politically/socially/economically powerful, just being 'strong' isn't enough?
posted by biffa at 7:51 AM on January 14, 2008

Anotonia of Antonia's Line
posted by Neiltupper at 7:54 AM on January 14, 2008

Lilian Gish's character in "The Night of the Hunter" (1955)

Paulette Goddard in "Modern Times" (1936) and The Great Dictator.

Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) "The African Queen" (1951) and many other movies.

Ginger Rogers in "Top Hat" (1935) and many other movies.

Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday" (1940)

Gunn Wållgren (the grandmother) (1982) in "Fanny and Alexander"
posted by grumblebee at 7:54 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

A number of characters in Charlie Wilson's War (which is as perfect in its way as Casablanca and the best film I've seen in ages).
posted by languagehat at 8:01 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Laura Linney in Breach.
posted by cog_nate at 8:03 AM on January 14, 2008

Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton seems very similar, though not as positive a character
posted by subtle_squid at 8:08 AM on January 14, 2008

Dodo Macneil in Breaking Waves
posted by Neiltupper at 8:13 AM on January 14, 2008

Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.
posted by hought20 at 8:14 AM on January 14, 2008

Oh, wait, sorry, not a real world movie. She's still awesome, though.
posted by hought20 at 8:16 AM on January 14, 2008

There is little debate that most women in Fellini films (from La Dolce Vita on) are actually an example of women who wage amazing power on pathetically weak men -- Ekberg's character a clear example. Many Bermang movies (Cries and Whispers, Persona) and many Woody Allen Bergman clones (Another Woman) are also what I suppose you might be looking for.

Film noir has a shitload of examples: from Ida Lupino and Gloria Grahame to, say, La Sirène du Mississippi. Jeanne Moureau in Jules Et Jim, Lea Massari in Le Souffle Au Coeur. Magnani in Mamma Roma. Seberg in Breathless. So many, really.

I very strongly disagree re: Clarice Starling, she's always wrapped around Lecter's finger, as the Hannibal book (not the film) clearly demonstrates -- in the author's mind, she's the mouse to Lecter's cat.
posted by matteo at 8:17 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Julian from Children of Men
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:18 AM on January 14, 2008

A bunch of the chicks in Death Proof.
posted by uandt at 8:24 AM on January 14, 2008

Response by poster: NO SPOILERS PLEASE!

Some people don't care about spoilers, some people do, I do :)

(Example: I haven't seen the second Silence of the Lambs movie -- now I probably know something I didn't want to know about the second one's plot.)
posted by sparrows at 8:27 AM on January 14, 2008

June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) in Walk the Line
Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) in Erin Brockovich
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 8:45 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Landy's character in those movies is very similar to the excellent character played by Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect and all of the sequels. That is truly an excellent show.
posted by OmieWise at 8:49 AM on January 14, 2008

Lady Eboshi from Princess Mononoke is a non-fantasy character in a fantasy movie. She took society's outcasts, and with them, she built a city in the middle of the wilderness.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 8:52 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Holly Hunter in "Broadcast News," one of the best movies ever.

See also Holly Hunter in cable TV's "Saving Grace." Her boss on that show is also a woman.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 9:07 AM on January 14, 2008

If we're allowed to add in TV, I recommend Rose, Sarah, Lady Marjorie and Mrs. Bridges from "Upstairs Downstairs." "I, Claudius" has strong women -- some evil, some not. There are strong women on "Deadwood" and "Big Love."
posted by grumblebee at 9:32 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding the film noir idea. Barbara Stanwyck? (I like Night Nurse, which never gets any mention that I've noticed.) Ida Lupino?

I was going to say Helen Mirrin's character in Prime Suspect, but OmieWise beat me to it.

How about Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada?
posted by small_ruminant at 9:39 AM on January 14, 2008

Frances McDormand's character in Fargo. Maybe not so conspicuously strong as some mentioned, but, still, a chief of police doing her job well. That she was a woman, and that she was a pregnant woman, were no big deal.

Auntie Mame is unphased by losing all her money in the depression, and continues to thrive while working for a living.

Sara in A Little Princess shows a lot of strength of character.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:47 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not a movie, and set in a sci-fi world, but Kara Thrace (Starbuck) and Laura Roslin in the new Battlestar Galactica series are pretty strong women. In my opinion, BSG is one of the better shows in terms of gender equality (the objectionable gender roles are always occupied by the bad guys [gals], who aren't actually human).
posted by designmartini at 9:57 AM on January 14, 2008

Almodovar's films are rife with strong women.

Jackie Brown.

Grace Of My Heart.

Some may disagree with me, but Waitress.

Dittoing Night Of The Hunter. (Unrelatedly, it's also a movie which depicts faith and children seriously. In general, it's a masterpiece; go see it.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:25 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, here's a funny one: Hostel: Part II. Scoff all you like, but if you really pay attention, the entire movie is one big sarcastic laugh in the face of those whey-faced torture hounds who might like to see women get tortured to death.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:31 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Agree with T2-Sarah Connor. Always felt that was the real strength of that movie.
posted by idb at 11:00 AM on January 14, 2008

Demi Moore in A Few Good Men maybe Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain by the end of the movie Kelly McGillis in Top Gun.
posted by brent at 11:34 AM on January 14, 2008

(Seriously) Maggie Gyllenhaal's character in Secretary?
posted by Phred182 at 12:14 PM on January 14, 2008

Atia and Servilia in Rome.

Joan Allen in the Bourne movies.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:24 PM on January 14, 2008

Outing myself as a Paul W. S. Anderson skiffy-flick dorkette, but Sanaa Lathan's character in *cough*cough*cough*Alien vs. Predator is one of my favourite female characters ever, because she's smart, strong, sensible, resourceful, knowledgeable, the lead character, blah blah blah AND her being beautiful, black and a woman is completely incidental. The movie is horror/sci-fi schlock (and damn good at what it aspires to be, which is horror/scifi schlock, and it's the epitome of good crap), but the character is a regular old human being.

I agree with Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary, for sure.

Believe it or not, Vesper Lynde in Casino Royale.
posted by biscotti at 12:29 PM on January 14, 2008

Joan Allen in the Bourne movies.
Uh, just like it says in the question. I don't read so good.

posted by kirkaracha at 1:24 PM on January 14, 2008

Dittoing Night Of The Hunter. (Unrelatedly, it's also a movie which depicts faith and children seriously. In general, it's a masterpiece; go see it.)

Oh god, yes. Previously on MeFi.
posted by OmieWise at 1:29 PM on January 14, 2008

Jenny Fields (Glenn Close) from The World According to Garp
posted by Arch_Stanton at 4:54 PM on January 14, 2008

Oh seconding Jackie Brown.

Jackie is a normal lady who finds herself trapped in a bad spot, but if she's gonna get out on top she has to muster up everything she's got.
posted by amethysts at 8:38 PM on January 14, 2008

Judy Davis needs to be on this list somewhere. Maybe for playing George Sand (not just a realistic character, but an actual person) in Impromptu, or maybe for Husbands And Wives. But somewhere.
posted by cali at 10:54 PM on January 14, 2008

Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.

Depends on your definition of 'strong'. Do you mean specifically 'not in need of saving by a man'? Can a female character show weakness or vulnerability (i.e. cry, etc) and still be an answer to your question?
posted by softlord at 5:06 AM on January 15, 2008

Mae West in I'm No Angel
posted by terrortubby at 2:15 PM on January 15, 2008

Seconding Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale.
posted by fantine at 1:33 AM on December 25, 2008

Reese Witherspoon in Freeway.
posted by Restless Day at 7:58 AM on December 26, 2008

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