If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
The Alliance of Women Film Journalists (AWFJ) is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year by honoring the Wonder Women who have graced the silver screen over the last century. Their listing of cinema's top 55 female fictional characters launched a few weeks ago, and we are reprinting the most recently published excerpt, revealing the picks numbering from 33 to 23. Also, check out numbers 55 through 44 and 43 through 34 on the list. Please check the AWFJ site regularly for the rest of the list as they whittle down to the Top Ten Wonder Women Characters. And congratulations to Jennifer Merin, founder of AWFJ. —Chaz Ebert
TO CELEBRATE AWFJ'S TENTH ANNIVERSARY and mark the movie industry’s feminist developments since our inception, we present our Wonder Women Project, a list of cinema’s top 55 female fiction characters, each one a reminder to industry insiders and movie lovers that iconic females in film have had entertainment impact and social influence since the earliest days of cinema.
This week, our Wonder Women include a pair of princesses who find adventure outside of their courtly isolation, ordinary women who face some difficult times with bravery and persistence, women who are dedicated to their various missions in life while finding—and sometimes losing—love, and girls who nurture their inborn talents to secure their place in the world. Please meet our next group of Wonder Women, numbers 33 through 23:
33. PRINCESS ANN from Roman Holiday (1953)
Ann is the princess of a small, highly civilized country traveling on a diplomatic tour. She is to be unfailingly polite and gracious, promoting trade relations with her always-uncontroversial elegance. Her activities are limited to receptions, photo ops, various ceremonies and speeches extolling “youth and progress.” “Everything we do is so wholesome,” she sighs. She is a Cinderella in reverse, losing her shoe at the beginning of the story. She has been standing so long in a receiving line greeting an endless line of dignitaries that she discreetly takes her sore foot out of her high heel to stretch it, and accidentally knocks it over so she cannot find it again without revealing her indiscretion. That night, she rebels. She is given medicine to help her sleep and advised to do “exactly what you wish for a while.” While under the power of the drug, she runs away and ends up falling asleep in the apartment of an American journalist. Ann seems to have everything and so she is an unlikely heroine. But she earns our sympathy because of her wish for the simplest of pleasures—to sleep in pajamas, to get her hair bobbed, to buy an ice cream, to walk around without handlers or photographers, to talk to someone who does not know she is a princess. Audrey Hepburn, who would win an Oscar for her first lead role, is enchanting as the princess who longs for the joys of a commoner. Seeing her discover them for the first time makes us rediscover them for ourselves. —Nell Minow
32. PRINCESS LEIA ORGANA from the Star Wars films (1977-2015)
Princess Leia Organa is a warrior, a rebel and a straight talker who earned the respect of her peers in a male-dominated world. Leia, played by Carrie Fisher, was introduced in the 1977 Star Wars movie and immediately became a role model for females of all ages. Tough but tender, smart yet not above tossing out wisecracks in the middle of a battle, Princess Leia is worthy of the distinction of being one of the most recognizable characters in film history. —Rebecca Murray
31. REBECCA MORGAN from Sounder (1972)
Set in the South during the Great Depression, Sounder focuses on a poor black family of sharecroppers, struggling under conditions little better than slavery, whose situation is made worse when the father is sent to prison for stealing food. As the loving wife and mother at the center of this family, Rebecca is a woman of warmth, dignity, strength and determination. No matter what setbacks the family faces, she keeps trying, and her love as a mother and wife is boundless. At the time Sounder was made, black exploitation crime films were popular, and the film was praised for its appealing and positive depiction of a close-knit black family in a historically valid story. Actress Cicely Tyson reportedly fought for the role, possibly seeing its potential for changing how black women were portrayed. Regardless of race, Rebecca is an inspirational figure. She keeps striving and has a kind of grace under pressure in hard circumstances, a model of the quiet kind of heroism of someone in it for the long run. Rebecca’s unfailing love and determined efforts make this “every woman” Wonder Woman a memorable and admirable character. —Cate Marquis
30. NINA IVANOVNA YAKUSHOVA from Ninotchka (1939)
Greta Garbo’s Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, a.k.a. Ninotchka, is a Soviet Wonder Woman in Ernst Lubitsch’s sparkling political comedy of 1939. Ninotchka is a whip-smart, selfless and by-the-book Russian apparatchik whose transformation to rebel while on an official visit to Paris is played for laughs—including her own. (“Garbo Laughs” was the ad line, and laugh she does, for the first time in a film and in her first comedy.) Sent on a government mission to raise money for cattle, Ninotchka defines efficient bureaucracy, as she tolerates her colleagues who’ve already been seduced by capitalism and the charms of Paris. An American (Melvyn Douglas) she meets on the street is amused by her political and social extremism and drawn to her spirit. She’s all business, but then she sees a hat a la mode, the pleasures of freedom and her colleagues’ newfound joy and starts thinking there’s something to capitalism. Ninotchka’s awakening strikes a major chord of courage, but what makes her a Wonder Woman is that her curiosity and bravery allow her to experience foreign sensations, and through them, discover what she’s been missing. She allows herself to laugh and ultimately, to live. —Anne Brodie
29. NORMA DESMOND from Sunset Blvd. (1950)
A star who almost single-handedly built a major studio, Norma expresses her bigness in the eleventh hour of her fame through her richly flamboyant palace on Sunset Blvd. and the imperious demands she makes on everyone in her orbit—her servant, the tradespeople who come and go, and especially the young screenwriter she maneuvers into becoming her kept man. Egomaniac? Perhaps, but she’s got the goods to back it up. She has never given up on herself or the public she loved and who loved her in return. She deserves to be adored! Norma is a walking drama, all pantomime and camera-ready emotion, but her fragile veneer hides a sad, lonely woman whose considerable gifts have been cast aside by changing tastes. Today’s pictures are small, and Norma knows why. The arrival of sound movies pulled the Hollywood gods out of the clouds to mingle with the riffraff. When we started talking with our gods, we lost Norma and all the magic and mystery we didn’t know we needed until it was gone. —Marilyn Ferdinand
28. LORETTA CASTORINI from Moonstruck (1987)
Loretta Castorini, a middle-aged Brooklyn bookkeeper, prepares to settle. A widow with few prospects, either personally or professionally, she accepts a marriage proposal from a neighborhood mamma’s boy, even though there’s no spark of true love between them. Then the moon hits her eye like a big pizza pie, and she finds amore, the kind of full-blooded passion known only to romance-novel heroines, in grand opera or in unabashedly love-besotted movies like Moonstruck. Loretta’s a Wonder Woman because she finally musters the courage to give herself over to true romance. Instead of just wishing on the moon, she learns to bask in its incandescent power and shape her own destiny. But first, she must negotiate the twists and turns on the bumpy road to love. Her initial reluctance inspires the film’s best-known line: “Snap out it!” Then, after her heart is softened by a night at the opera and a stroll under the stars, she returns to the hearth, where it’s time for true confessions: “Aw, Ma, I love him awful.” —Laura Emerick
27. ROSE SAYER from The African Queen (1951)
A new type of sophisticated movie heroine, Rose underscored that a romance is both adventure and comedy and helped create the sort of cinematic love story—one we still don’t see very often—in which romance is not a woman’s goal, not the end of a journey, but the journey itself. Claiming space for women as equal partners to men, Rose set the stage for other comic-adventure romances (from clear follow-ons such as Romancing the Stone to that of less obvious couples such as Princess Leia and Han Solo) in which opposites most definitely attract, and in which women who at first appear prim and fussy hold their own in a rough-and-tumble man’s world. Rose taught us never to underestimate a demure woman: she had hidden confidence and strength that will astonish you. —MaryAnn Johanson
26. HERMIONE GRANGER from the Harry Potter series (2001-2011)
Ah, a really smart girl! No mere sidekick, Hermione Granger is co-leader of Dumbledore’s Army at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft. Hermione blazed trails in all eight films of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potterbook series. The author created a witty, eloquent, passionate and brilliant young girl as uncommon as her name who was fully realized in screen adaptations by actress Emma Watson. Firmly in charge of her own destiny, she makes things happen and remains fearless. She is not defined as a love interest or girlfriend, but is an equal as part of the “trinity” with Harry and Ron Weasley. She is needed by the guys. Hermione is always mindful of her own values and has her own interests and point of view. Logical and loyal, she can come across as a know-it-all because of her fierce intellect. She is afraid to fail, however, making her more genuine. With Muggles as parents, she does feel like an outsider. But that fuels her commitment to equal rights. Elves Lives Matter! She does what she needs to do, no matter how challenging it is, as when she moderated her parents’ memories. Ever engaging, Hermione has grown into a Wonder Woman of substance. —Lynn Venhaus
25. YU SHU LIEN from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Yu Shu Lien wasn’t the first female martial-arts master in Chinese wuxiacinema, but she certainly made one of the strongest impressions. A businesswoman trained as a warrior, she is the living embodiment of self-discipline, personally and professionally. She takes care of other people’s treasures while denying herself her own. In this magical tale about a unique 400-year-old sword and the people trying to claim it, Shu Lien is a special friend of the rightful owner, fellow warrior Master Li Mu Bai. Fate has kept them apart, but their strong feelings for each other are apparent to everyone. Shu Lien proves her prowess at fighting in the story’s first big action set-piece, when a stranger breaks in and steals the sword. Her fists and fingers, feet and toes are as dangerous as any manufactured weapon, and she is also skilled in the gravity-defying leaps the best fighters in this genre display. Beautiful, brave, graceful and determined, Shu Lien becomes the emotional anchor of the film. Her maturity and perception are refreshing counterpoints to the impetuousness of the other main female character, and they bring a needed realism to the epic fantasy. —Betsy Pickle
24. JO MARCH from Little Women (1933, 1949, 1994)
“Christopher Columbus!” Not exactly the sort of thing a proper young lady in Civil War-era Concord, Mass., would say. But precisely the sort of thing Josephine March would say. Or, as generations of girls (and their grown-up selves) know and love her, Jo. The heroine and authorial alter ego of Louisa May Alcott’s timeless 1868-69 novel, Jo March embodies everything girls aren’t supposed to be. Most of the prim, proper girls of the era, including Jo’s sister Meg, spent much of their time at home in the kitchen and in the parlor, dreaming of having their own kitchens and parlors someday. Jo dreams of being a writer, traveling the world, forging her own destiny—and, just as importantly, forging her own identity. That identity includes such decidedly unladylike attributes as impatience, stubbornness and a hair-trigger temper. In an emergency, however, it’s always Jo to the rescue, which just makes everyone—even the handsome heir next door—love her all the more. Yet, thanks to all her hard-won, beating-her-head-against-the-wall wisdom, Jo knows better than to dream that anyone—especially any female—can ever have it all. Not that it ever stops her, or the legions of little women she’s inspired, from trying. —Carol Cling
23. JACKIE BROWN from Jackie Brown (1997)
Jackie Brown is a street-smart, capable, appealing, soulful and gutsy woman of color—a flight attendant who’s been brought down by association with exploitative men. First, her drug-smuggling pilot husband implicated her in his crimes. Now, a gunrunner is using her to run his gun money in and out of Mexico, and federal agents are determined to hammer her into nailing him. Caught red-handed by FBI and ATF agents at LAX with a small stash of drugs and a bundle of undeclared cash, Jackie devises a scheme to avoid going to jail by cooperating with the feds while convincing the gunrunner she’s still loyal and an essential part of his operation, and enlisting her sympathetic bail bondsman to help her hijack enough of the gunrunner’s loot to start a new life for herself elsewhere. If her plan fails, she’s jailed or dead, yet she carries on with a cool confidence, always one step ahead of the game, always respectful and generous toward other women players. Portrayed by Pam Grier, Jackie is magnetically attractive, even when she’s fresh out of jail. If you were in trouble, you’d want Sister Jackie to have your back. And she probably would. —Jennifer MerinCheck out numbers 55 through 44 and 43 through 34 on the list.
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