5 Unbelievably Badass Chicks of Old Hollywood
by Mandi Harrison
I have always loved old Hollywood. My grandma used to have several biographies of the Golden Era's leading ladies and every time I'd visit, I'd grab one and soak up all details of the glory days. Grace Kelly, Lana Turner, Katharine Hepburn- I loved them all. To this day, there's nothing I love more on a hot day than reading about that period of filmmaking. I like to imagine myself poolside, with a magazine and an ice cold Coca-Cola. The glamour, the glitz, the romance and all the gossip- those were some scandalous times. Watching the movies and learning about what was happening behind the scenes really shows how badass women are. Here are a few of my favorites!
Like most people, I knew Hedy Lamarr mostly for her her beauty. That changed when I read Alicia Malone's book Backwards & In Heels. In it, Alicia writes about how Hedy was more than just a beautiful actress- she helped design a system that could help the military communicate without interference. Parts of that system were used to help design Bluetooth, WiFi and GPS. Just think- you might not be reading this without Hedy!
Last year, a documentary called Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story was released. It's on Netflix; I highly recommend it. She was such a fascinating person, with her experiences with WW2 and Hollywood and her inventions.
Olivia de Havilland
Oliva de Havilland is one feisty broad. In the early days of Hollywood, actors were under contract with studios, and only able to appear in that studio's movies. Olivia was under contract at Warner Brothers. and if you have heard anything about old Hollywood, you know that Jack Warner was not an easy man to work for. (Think precursor to Harvey Weinstein). Famed producer David O. Selznick wanted Olivia to appear in his upcoming movie, Gone With The Wind, and Olivia wanted to play Melanie in the famous novel, but Jack Warner would not lend her to the competing studio. Olivia teamed up with Jack's wife, who convinced Jack to let Olivia be in the epic tale. Olivia went on to receive her first Academy Award nomination. When she came back to Warner Brothers, she thought that she would have more clout, but she was still receiving third billing.
Adding to her frustration, actors under contract had to appear in whatever film the studio wanted them to. If the actor refused the role, they were suspended, adding more time to their contracts. Olivia had refused several projects after Gone With The Wind, wanting to be seen as more an ingenue, and when her seven year contract was supposed to end, she discovered that more time was added due to her refusal of parts. Other actors, including Bette Davis, had tried to challenge this law with no success, but Olivia de Havilland filed suit against Warner Brothers with the California Superior Court, siting a labor code that forbade employers from enforcing a contract that is longer than seven years from the date of the first performance. Olivia won the suit and was released from her contract. A new labor code was added, also called the 7 year rule or The de Havilland Law, limiting the studio's power and giving more freedom to performers.
Olivia is now 102, and still fighting. She had filed and lost a lawsuit against Ryan Murphy and FX Networks for portraying her without consent and in a negative light in the limited series Feud: Bette and Joan. She attends to appeal to the Supreme Court. ( On a personal level, I thought she was portrayed FABULOUSLY.)
There is MUCH to be said about Joan Crawford. I mean, even as a child, I knew of Mommy Dearest and "NO WIRE HANGERS!" and then a magical thing came into my life: Ryan Murphy's limited series, Feud: Bette & Joan. (If you haven't watched it- it's INCREDIBLE. Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange are perfection) I soon became enamored with Joan Crawford. She is the definition of a piece of work.
There are many things that I enjoyed learning about her, including how What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? was made and her lifestyle book (!) and subsequent audio tapes (!!) of said book, but my favorite story is how she won her Oscar. After years of disappointment, she was so sure that she was not going to win the Oscar for Mildred Pierce, so she refused to attend the ceremony. In those days, the ceremony wasn't broadcast, so she discovered she won after the fact. Joan did her hair and makeup, called the press, and did a press conference from her bedroom with her award, saying that she was ill, and hated to miss the ceremony. Again- piece of work.
The thing I admire about her most is her tenacity. Hollywood was telling her that her career was over because she had reached a certain age and she refused to bow out. She found material, a director, funding and even realized that it would take working with her nemesis to get the project done. She didn't necessarily handle everything the mature way, but she made things happen for herself.
I knew Rose Marie from old reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show and Hollywood Squares, but other than that, not much else. I recently watched Wait For Your Laugh, a documentary about her life philosophy that was filmed before she passed away last year (currently available on VOD). She was a child star of radio and vaudeville, continuing to sing and eventually becoming one of the first female comics. Her father was in the mafia, and she performed for Al Capone and was selected by Bugsy Malone to be one of the first performers in Las Vegas. She was a trailblazer in television, being seen as an equal, not a sex symbol in her work environment. Rose Marie helped Dick Van Dyke with his comic timing. She was a born entertainer and never let anyone, including the mob, tell her what she could or couldn't do.
Marilyn Monroe is a legend. Every detail of her life has been put through a microscope, and at this point the rumors have been mixed in with the truth. On the surface, she was sexy and glamorous, always camera ready. There are tons of glamorous pictures of her, but my favorite picture is one where she is reading. She looks truly peaceful and happy. Like Elton John, I knew there was more to her than looks alone. There was a period where I read anything I could find about her- it was after watching Some Like It Hot and My Week With Marilyn.
My favorite story is how she helped Ella Fitzgerald find work. There are many versions and people trying to discredit this story, but I choose to believe that the truth is Ella needed to find work and Marilyn helped her friend out. The story goes: Marilyn called a popular nightclub that wouldn't hire Ella and told them that if they hired Ella to perform, Marilyn would be there every night, at a table in the front, and the press would be there as well. The club hired Ella and Marilyn kept her word. Being kind can be incredibly badass.
There are many, many stories of incredibly badass women in Hollywood and the more I learn about them, the more they inspire me. They were trailblazers and it's up to this generation to keep their legacy alive and continue their fight for equality.