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The Femme Fatale
The Femme Fatale
📖 eBook - ePub

The Femme Fatale

Julie Grossman

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📖 eBook - ePub

The Femme Fatale

Julie Grossman

About This Book

Ostensibly the villain, but also a model of female power, poise, and intelligence, the femme fatale embodies Hollywood's contradictory attitudes toward ambitious women. But how has the figure of the femme fatale evolved over time, and to what extent have these changes reflected shifting cultural attitudes toward female independence and sexuality?This book offers readers a concise look at over a century of femmes fatales on both the silver screen and the TV screen. Starting with ethnically exoticized silent film vamps like Theda Bara and Pola Negri, it examines classic film noir femmes fatales like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, as well as postmodern revisions of the archetype in films like Basic Instinct and Memento. Finally, it explores how contemporary film and television creators like Fleabag and Killing Eve 's Phoebe Waller-Bridge have appropriated the femme fatale in sympathetic and surprising ways.Analyzing not only the films themselves, but also studio press kits and reviews, The Femme Fatale considers how discourses about the pleasures and dangers of female performance are projected onto the figure of the femme fatale. Ultimately, it is a celebration of how "bad girl" roles have provided some of Hollywood's most talented actresses opportunities to fully express their on-screen charisma.

Philippa Gates, author of Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective Film

A fascinating exploration of Hollywood’s most notorious female that goes beyond film noir. With a focus on the performance of gender as subversive and empowered, Grossman illuminates over a century of femme fatales from silent cinema’s 'Vamp' Theda Bara to television’s Killing Eve.

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A FOOL THERE WAS: “NOTORIOUS WOMAN OF THE VAMPIRE SPECIES”
In 1897, the same year Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called “A Fool There Was” about a vampire woman who sucks the life blood from her male victims. The poem was inspired by a painting by Philip Burne-Jones (son of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones), and it became one source for the development of the fatal woman motif in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Kipling’s poem was adapted for the stage by Porter Emerson Browne, following which Fox Studios produced a film adaptation of the play in 1915. The film was a hit, featuring Theda Bara as the vampire and spawning the popular figure of “The Vamp” in popular culture.
When Theda Bara first appears in A Fool There Was, she is dressed in a long skirt with dramatic vertical lines, a long black coat, and hat with a black feather at its top. Wearing dark lipstick and heavy goth eye makeup, she is closely followed by a man she has tamed into submission; however, Bara’s character is more interested in the mother and daughter who play beside her at a wealthy club in Larchmont, New York. The Vamp is snubbed by the maternal Kate (Mabel Frenyear), whose clothes and that of her young daughter (Runa Hodges) are markedly light-colored in contrast with The Vamp’s visage and general appearance. As The Vamp greets the child, the mother intervenes, throws away the tainted rose her daughter has picked up beside The Vamp, and literally turns her back on the woman whose reputation obviously precedes her. The Vamp’s response? “Someday you will regret that.” That our first scenes of The Vamp depict her taking umbrage at the condemnation of a mother, whose child The Vamp had shown kindness to, reveals an important element of the fatal woman: her actions are, at least in part, a rebuff to normative society, her “badness” an answer to moral denunciation. The smugness of conventional morality is most apparent in A Fool There Was late in the film when Kate, whose husband (predictably enough) has been seduced by The Vamp, asks a male family friend what she should do (i.e., should she divorce her husband?). The answer, because of her marriage vows (he says), is “Stick, Kate, stick.” This, indeed, is the stuck and sticky Victorian ideology that Virginia Woolf wrote about in “Professions for Women”: the bodiless self-sacrificing domestic goddess, or “angel in the house,” who privileges suffering over justice or pursuit of happiness. In Victorian literature and culture, “the angel in the house,” a phrase coined by the poet Coventry Patmore, had its opposing female stereotype in “the fallen woman” or, to quote John Keats’s 1819 poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” the beautiful woman without mercy, both nineteenth-century conventions in representations of women where given contexts can shift the meaning of this female figure. Grant F. Scott traces the visual representation of adaptations of Keats’s poem, observing that paintings and sketches preoccupied with “la belle dame sans merci” throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries toggled between emphasis on the “deceptive femme fatale” and the “trapped and apprehensive victim” (505). The rise of the “New Woman” in the 1880s and the feminist suffragette movement that followed produced representations of “la belle dame” emphasizing her power. Frank Cadogan Cowper’s 1926 painting La Belle Dame sans Merci signaled “a new order”; “there is no denying the figure’s authority” (Scott 530). Cowper’s painting features “la belle dame” with her arms raised above her head with the prostrate armored knight below her, rehearsing an image that viewers would have seen in Theda Bara’s posture as The Vamp in 1915. Indeed, Hollywood adapted these roles—The Vamp on the one side and Mary Pickford’s confectionary Hollywood persona as “America’s Sweetheart” on the other—to make use of these deeply ingrained character patterns. In so doing, Hollywood reflected the culture’s equivocal obsession with binary views of female power.
In A Fool There Was, the suffering wife, Kate, listens to her sister say that she has “sorrowed in silence,” but it is worth noting that conceived as fantasy, her role as angel in the house is as much a phantom as the fatal woman, the femme fatale. Both haunt the men and women who are prone to adopt entrenched gender roles rather than live freely or subject these categories to critique. In one iconic scene, The Vamp lies on a settee, with Kate’s husband, “The Honorable John Schuyler” (Edward José) below her, leaning on the couch. Visually reminiscent of the painting that inspired Kipling’s poem, the scene depicts a compliant man in thrall to The Vamp, both of them sipping liqueurs, luxuriating among palm trees on the Italian Riviera. Theda Bara’s arms rise up in a melodramatic yawn, predicting the Cowper painting and making Bara look like she is conjuring up powers to continue her hold on the passive man. Indeed, he has joined the realm of the lotus-eaters, yielding to unleashed sensual pleasures fully governed by the siren-woman.
An article in the newspaper alerts Kate and her friends to her husband’s submission to a “notorious woman of the vampire species.” Meanwhile, John and The Vamp become pariahs within society, and notably, Bara’s character reacts to being further ostracized by lifting her head high, while John seems to react with a self-concerned “You? What about me?” and slumps over. Society’s judgment depresses him but enrages her and makes her double down.
B. Ruby Rich has observed that neo-noir (film noir movies from the 1970s and later) relies more on the “dumb-lug” type of male protagonist, who is no intellectual match for the fatal woman. This quality is most recognizable in Ned Racine (William Hurt) in Body Heat and Mike Swale (Peter Berg) in The Last Seduction (1994) (to Ned Racine, Turner’s Maddy says, “You’re not very smart. I like that in a man”). However, Theda Bara’s lovers predict this dumb-lug role. As Kipling’s poem describes, “The Fool was stripped to his foolish hide” (line 23). These men have none of the savvy that 1940s and 1950s noir detectives had, in part because the sources for classic film noir male protagonists were hardboiled fiction written by Hemingway, Cain, Hammett, and Chandler, who were geared toward idealizing forms of conventional masculine power. The male leads in film noir are generally discerning and cool. They may die alongside the femmes fatales, as Jeff Markham does beside Kathie Moffatt in Out of the Past, or be left bereft alongside their lovers à la Dix Steele in In a Lonely Place (1950), but they don’t merely submit to the power of The Vamp (Bara), as in A Fool There Was, or find themselves out of their league, as is the case for men in many neo-noir films and contemporary thrillers, such as Body Heat, The Last Seduction, and Fatal Attraction (1987). Before the classic period of film noir, in The Blue Angel (released in Germany and the United States in 1930), Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) abandons his professorial credentials and authority, rendered a “dumb lug” under the influence of Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) and her performance of “Falling in Love” in a German cabaret, lines from the song telegraphing the gender politics of the femme fatale: “Men clutter around me like moths around a flame. If they get their wings burned, I am not to blame” (qtd. in Kael 85).
My interest in Theda Bara’s earlier instantiation of The Vamp in A Fool There Was lies not only in its historical significance as a source for the femme fatale in popular culture and the arts but also in the extent to which it models gender expectations that are powerful and deeply embedded within society. Rudyard Kipling’s chorus in the source poem—“So some of him lived but the most of him died—/ (Even as you and I)” (lines 27–28)—underscores the universal victimhood surrounding the femme fatale and the gothic reach of gender phantoms from literature, painting, and film. Stories of mythic women luring naïve men into corruption often exhort audiences alongside the characters not to be duped or to follow in the footsteps of hapless men. A Fool There Was punctuates its scenes with intertitles that quote Kipling: “Even as you and I.” Such reinforcement of the moral of the story registers the didactic aim of these works to “save” men from venomous women, since contact with powerful women may begin a naturalistic slide toward alcoholism and death. This gender messaging has helped to canonize the character type of the femme fatale, since in the case of Kipling’s poem and A Fool There Was, a direct appeal is made to readers and viewers, “Even as you and I.” In this case of seriality and adaptation—painting, poem, film, cultural icon—we see The Vamp’s relevance in understanding the power of media representation in cultivating and reinforcing gender stereotypes.
In a New Yorker article written in 1952, the humorist and screenwriter S. J. Perelman muses about the “wickedest woman in Larchmont,” Theda Bara’s role in A Fool There Was, which Perelman had been obsessed with during the winter months of 1915 after seeing the film. Perelmen may have had James Thurber’s most famous 1939 story on his mind when he wrote his essay because he describes himself as a kind of Walter Mitty: “I gave myself up to fantasies in which I lay with my head pillowed in the seductress’s lap, intoxicated by coal-black eyes smouldering with belladonna. At her bidding, I eschewed family, social position, my brilliant career—a rather hazy combination of African explorer and private sleuth—to follow her to the ends of the earth” (34). Perelman continues his masochistic idyll before turning to the film itself and Bara’s legacy. At the end of his essay, Perelman reflects on the lessons of Theda Bara for unassuming male spectators, occasioned by his being approached by a woman in a bar looking at him “with a wanton gaze” (36). I quote Perelman’s comments because, written in 1952, smack in the middle of the period of classic film noir (1941–58), they exemplify the effect of certain gender roles on how real individuals perceive others. Perelman notices a woman he thinks is “after him”:
“Mademoiselle,” I said, “the flirtation you propose, while ostensibly harmless, could develop unless checked into a dangerous liaison. I am a full-blooded man, and one who does not do things by halves. . . . No, my dear young lady,” I said, draining my glass and rising, “succulent morsel though you are, I have no desire to end my days like John Schuyler [from A Fool There Was], crawling through balustrades and being sprinkled with blooms.” As luck would have it, her escort, whose existence I had somehow neglected to allow for, materialized behind me at this juncture and, pinioning me, questioned my motives. I gave him a brief resume of “A Fool There Was” to amplify my position, but acted as though I had invented the whole thing. Maybe I have. Still, who could have made up Theda Bara? (36)
While Perelman is of course making fun of his own misperception, the anecdote is telling in its reinscription of the notion of male submission to female power, even as it adumbrates the picture of an untrustworthy and “wonton” adversary.
Bara herself well understood the popular force of The Vamp. She wrote of the public’s reaction to her, “I was fully expected to appear in a modish little creation composed principally of a leopard skin, a dagger, and two or three blood-red roses. The public was actually annoyed that I hadn’t lived up to the legends they had woven about me.” In a piece she wrote in 1919 for Vanity Fair, Bara said, “I was classified as a vampire and doomed forevermore to play vampire roles. . . . The vampire’s curse lay heavy upon me. . . . No matter what heroine I played on the screen, it was taken for granted that, just because I played her, she was one of those women. . . . Even [Shakespeare’s] Juliet wasn’t safe from the tongue of gossip when I played the role.”
The phenomenon of Theda Bara from 1915 to 1919 includes multiple examples of how audiences were captivated by an exoticized version of celebrity, enhanced by the gender stereotype of the fatal woman. Bara observed the silliness of her publicity. In 1918, one reporter quoted her, “‘People write me letters,’ she said smilingly; ‘and they ask me if I am as wicked as I seem on the screen. I look at my little canary, and I say, ‘Dicky, am I so wicked?’ And Dicky says, ‘Tweet, tweet.’ That may mean ‘yes, yes,’ or ‘no, no,’ may it not?’” (D. Evans). The mythology of the wicked temptress is as nonsensical as “tweet, tweet,” onto which friends of the canary can project whatever they like.
Sensationalist tales in the media surrounded Bara’s Vamp. One reported in Photoplay involved a woman confined in an elevator alongside Bara: “She ordered the elevator to stop at the next floor, seized her husband and gave him a terrified shove, out of the elevator and harm’s way” (A. Smith 110). Asked about vamping a man in an elevator, Bara responded, “I would have had to work fast” (A. Smith 110). Another anecdote recounted by Charles Lockwood has Bara talking to a child on the Upper West Side in New York City. The child’s mother calls the police, screaming, “Save him! Save him! The vampire has my child!” (69). Other stories include Bara being chased out of a department store by women who simultaneously wanted her ejected and wanted to steal articles of her clothing, such as her hat, the wearing of which they thought might give them equal power over men. The conflicted affect of such women nicely exemplifies not only the contradictory forces of identification and judgment that characterize the dissemination of the femme fatale but also the “mechanisms of commodification” that Adrienne McClean observes in Being Rita Hayworth is central to Hollywood media—how “promotion, publicity, and performance also produced conflicted and variable models of subjectivity” (6).
Theda Bara burst onto the scene in 1915 after the premiere of A Fool There Was. She was discovered the year before onstage as Theodosia de Coppet (taking her mother’s name before marrying Bara’s father, a Jewish tailor). The film was released to fanfare, the New York Dramatic Mirror writing that it was “bold and relentless; it is filled with passion and tragedy; it is right in harmony with the poem. . . . The Vampire is a neurotic woman gone mad” (Macdonald). Two studio publicists named Johnny Goldfrap and Al Selig, discovered by Fox, went to work on developing an outrageous persona for Theodora, who was now Theda Bara. Press reports seized on associations between Theda Bara and anagrams for her first and last names: “Death” and “Arab.” Bara’s mother was said to be a French performer, her father an Italian sculptor-painter, and Bara herself, it was told, was born “on an oasis in the Sahara where her father was engaged in painting desert pictures” (Macdonald). In April 1917, Goldfrap and Selig published a story in Motion Picture Magazine brandishing the discovery of an ancient Egyptian tomb on which hieroglyphics were inscribed: “I, Thames, priest of Set, tell you this: She shall seem a snake to most men; she shall lead them to sin, and to their destruction. Yet she shall not be so. She shall be good and virtuous and kind of heart; but she shall not seem so to most men. For she shall not be that which she appears! She shall be called Theta” (Lockwood 67). Months later, in the summer of 1917, Bara was interviewed in a hotel in Chicago during a heat wave. Bara’s press agent called out to reporters, “Miss Bara will be a moment longer. She is not yet acclimated to this northern weather” (Lockwood 68). A dramatic scene unfolded with double doors opened and Bara appearing on a settee covered in furs. The press agent continued that Bara “was born in the shadow of the pyramids, you know. It is very, very hot there, and she is cold!” (Lockwood 69). The smell of roses and incense added a complementary setting to the performance, whose culmination was Bara “[jumping] up from her throne, [throwing] off the furs, and [running] to open one of the windows, gasping, ‘Give me air!’” (Lockwood 69).
As Diane Negra argues, the 1920s reinvented this hyperbolically exoticized figure of The Vamp in the roles and persona of another silent-film fatal woman, the Polish immigrant Pola Negri. Negri’s Hollywood roles were accompanied by publicity focused on languorous excess, as in one magazine portrait quoted by Negra: “La Negri—A tiger woman with a strange slow smile and a world-old lure in her heavy-lidded eyes. Mysterious, fascinating, an enigma” (384). Emphasizing Negri’s ethnicity, press reports complicated the typology of the femme fatale in silent film by grounding cultural anxieties about “the exotic other” in domestic concerns about immigration, stoking popular imagination about “the threat of female immigrant sexuality” (Negra 379).
Regarding Bara, whose earlier incarnation of the femme fatale lacked the authenticity of Negri’s actual eastern European roots, it is unclear the extent to which audiences believed the outrageous stories energetically promoted by Hollywood; Bara said in 1955, “To understand those days, you must consider that people believed what they saw on the screen. Nobody had destroyed the grand illusion” (qtd. in Lockwood 69). At the same time, certainly the studios, performers, and audiences participated in a mutually rewarding process of suspending disbelief and engaging in what Neil Gabler has since called “Life the Movie,” the blurred line in Hollywoodized American culture between entertainment and real life. Furthermore, as a writer for Photoplay Magazine said in September 1915, Bara’s “exotic personality was such that if she wasn’t born in the shadow of the pyramids, she ought to have been” (qtd. in Macdonald). To be sure, there is a skepticism about media now that was not in force in the nineteen-teens. Less concerned about authenticity today, students in 2020 wonder why critics object to the staged happenings on reality TV, since everyone knows that it’s all performance anyway. But early on in Hollywood’s drea...

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APA 6 Citation
Grossman, J. (2020). The Femme Fatale ([edition unavailable]). Rutgers University Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1692485/the-femme-fatale-pdf (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Grossman, Julie. (2020) 2020. The Femme Fatale. [Edition unavailable]. Rutgers University Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/1692485/the-femme-fatale-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Grossman, J. (2020) The Femme Fatale. [edition unavailable]. Rutgers University Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1692485/the-femme-fatale-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Grossman, Julie. The Femme Fatale. [edition unavailable]. Rutgers University Press, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.

Philippa Gates, author of Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective Film

A fascinating exploration of Hollywood’s most notorious female that goes beyond film noir. With a focus on the performance of gender as subversive and empowered, Grossman illuminates over a century of femme fatales from silent cinema’s 'Vamp' Theda Bara to television’s Killing Eve.

Helen Hanson, author of Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film

In this lively and engaging book, Julie Grossman elegantly traces the long tradition of the femme fatale figure in film, television and popular culture. She deftly analyses a diverse range of characters, from Theda Bara’s vamp in early Hollywood, the hard-boiled dames of classic Film Noir, to the complex and vibrant Villanelle in contemporary television’s Killing Eve. Grossman persuasively illustrates the centrality of role performance to these femme fatale figures, and establishes performance as a key mode by which they resist inequalities in social structures. This book provides both a history of how women have been represented, and a compelling case for the relevance of the femme fatale to contemporary debates on gender politics.