I often post here, there and everywhere about the veritable lack of decent female characters in movies and specs generally. So when my delightful stalker Jazz Juice emailed me this week and demanded to know who gets my vote as the “near perfect” movie heroine, I had no hesitation … And you’ll be surprised.
NO, it’s not Ripley or any of her many imitators. It’s not anyone played by Judy Dench, Maggie Smith or Meryl Streep, either. In fact, she’s an oft-overlooked genre movie heroine…
… It’s Julianne Moore as Sarah in Jurassic Park: The Lost World.
Yup, you read that right. Look, whilst far from a perfect film (how the hell DID that T-Rex kill everyone onboard the boat FFS??), I do actually think she’s as close to a “real woman” we’re gonna get out of Hollywood, especially in a genre film.
*I know, I know* — WTF??? So let’s consider the evidence:
1) She doesn’t need a man … yet is all woman
Sarah goes to the island alone ahead of the rest of the party, so she clearly has balls of steel: there are BIG MONSTERS there, but she doesn’t let that put her off. Refreshingly then, she doesn’t act like a man as well. Despite putting up with no crap from the men, she has a maternal side, noted most when interacting with Kelly (Ian Malcolm’s stowaway daughter). Sarah is also a good girlfriend … Whilst she chastises Malcolm for his belief she can’t look after herself, she is also understanding based on his previous experience. Amusingly, she’s also “female enough” to turn it ALL back on him: “If you wanted to rescue me, why didn’t you rescue me from that charity dinner three weeks ago when you said you would? Or that dinner with your parents you didn’t show up for?”
2) She draws on her predecessor, but doesn’t mirror her
Ellie in Jurassic Park was not a bad heroine, but for me, she wasn’t really involved enough in the main body of the action. IMHO, Laura Dern did what she could in a limited role, having only one real set piece to herself – the velociraptor in the electricity station – which was over very quickly and rather conveniently.
In comparison then, whilst Sarah shares some of Ellie’s characteristics (her independence the most obvious), all manner of HELL is thrown at her! This enables us to look deeper INTO her character than Ellie’s, since what Sarah DOES about it reveals what she is *really like*, a classic example of the screenwriting adage “characters are not what they say, but what they do”.
3) She doesn’t go to the island because she’s stupid
Sarah takes a calculated risk, not a stupid one. She’s experienced in her field and knows full well the island is dangerous, which is why she is so careful not to disturb anything. It’s worth remembering that UNTIL the men get there, she gets by completely undetected by the dinosaurs! In fact, had the mercenaries not landed there at all, she may well have made her target of “five or six days” to document the animals.
In fact, the only stupid risk she takes is photographing the baby dinosaur up close — which only goes wrong because she borrowed a camera from one of the men who didn’t tell her it was almost out of film (if we want to get TECHNICAL). As she says to Ian, “I’ve been working around predators since I was twenty years old: lions, hyenas… You.”
4) She doesn’t lose her head, even in mortal danger
There are a number of occasions in which Sarah’s life is threatened throughout the movie – quite possibly more than anyone else, in fact. Yet despite this continual run of extreme bad luck, she never bewails her misfortune or does something *plain dumb* that marks her out as deserving to die like so many movie heroines (falling over and/or screaming a classic example).
So whether she’s being sniffed by a tyrannosaur (and having to protect a child at the same time); being chased by said T Rex; or landing on a sheet of glass above a terrifying drop; or a velociraptor jumping on her back, she never once freaks out.
Remember, this is in comparison to many of the men: Ian Malcolm stands by and watches, horrified, as the T-Rex goes in the tent and AGAIN when said velociraptor jumps on Sarah. Another man FALLS OVER and is squished by the giant foot and of course most of the male hunting party run into the long grass and get picked off too.
5) She doesn’t scream
I am so bored of movie heroines screaming in genre movies: there’s a big monster, would you really waste time and breath screaming about it? Or would you simply leg it? Gotta be the latter. The only time Sarah even utters anything vaguely *like* a scream is when the velociraptor JUMPS on her back and I would categorise it more as a “yell of surprise”, which is often involuntary. Again, much of the hunting party scream (even before they’re eaten), despite being big butch men.
6) She uses her wits to get herself out of trouble
Sarah only faces danger down WHEN SHE ABSOLUTELY HAS TO, as anyone sensible (not just women!) WOULD do. So rather than take on a T-Rex with the equivalent of Ripley’s robot body armour in Aliens, Sarah mostly runs for her life and let’s not forget Kelly’s too, often hand in hand.
I can get behind that; it’s exactly what I would do, especially with a child in tow. She also relies on her own animal instincts, so it’s a nice contrast in the barn when she and Kelly start digging for safety, as the velociraptors attempt to dig their way IN.
And perhaps most importantly:
7) She rescues herself, but accepts help when it is offered
I get really annoyed when I hear men say to women: “You’re so independent, which is why I didn’t help” and also when women say they DON’T want help EVER because they think to accept help from a man shows weakness.
Look guys, just because a woman is independent does not mean she will not appreciate your help; she will always flock to your side when you need her (or should do!). Similarly, girls: accepting help girls DOES NOT make you weak. This is shown up under the microscope here, because if Sarah can rescue herself – like in the barn – she will; if she can’t (like in the truck over the edge of the cliff), she will accept a man’s help gladly. Similarly, she will gladly take a distraction, like when Ian lures the velociraptors to the car, when she and Kelly escape into the barn. Why? Because she WOULD do the same for him.
Karen Sisco (J-Lo) in 'Out of Sight'.
It almost pains me to put Jennifer Lopez in for my choice but this is one of my favourite films – and one of the few films I prefer to the source book.
Karen is the first to spring to mind as, despite being a hard-ass US Marshall, she's also definitely a strong woman rather than the 'man with boobs' you usually (quite rightly) refer to.
Possibly you might disqualify her as this is more crime caper/romcom than action heroine. To that extent, she does want her man but I wouldn't say she needed him. It's the fun of the chase that she's actually missing as most criminals piss her off for being rubbish.
She is kidnapped by Clooney and Ving Rhames at one point but gets herself out of it by being crafty. She later proves herself more than physically capable of rescuing herself – not superhuman. Just trained (well) as a US Marshall.
She doesn't scream. When in trouble, she instantly starts plotting.
Rather than making her 'feminine' her dalliance with Clooney/Foley is an impulsive madness. I don't think this makes her weak in anyway as Foley suffers the exact same madness in return.
The fact that she actually does her job at the end (I'm trying to be spoiler-freeish just in case) and yet still manages to get both what she wants AND needs shows she's smart enough to let herself be weak.
That this is the only appearance I can really stand J-Lo in at all is probably tantamount to the direction and Scott Frank's brilliant script (he's one of my top Hollywood heroes). But I have to admit, J-Lo is pretty damn good as Karen Sisco too.
Totally agree. Also liked her tough, resilient characters in ANGEL EYES and ENOUGH.
Movie heroines don't *have* to be in action films John – and I'll certainly give you Karen Cisco. While not as cool as Sarah here, she's certainly ballsy and refreshingly non-male, yet still capable. In fact, J-Lo portrayed two decent heroines in my book: her character in THE CELL was an interesting one too I thought. What a pity she decided to sell out and shake her booty, 'cos I actually didn't think she was too bad an actress – I've seen far worse.
Y-You…you mean we agree?? ;-P
Gotcha. I wasn't sure if you were asking about action heroines or heroines in general.
Haven't seen The Cell either, so will check it out.
It's quite a flawed film, but has a stand-out performance from D'Nofrio (natch) and funnily enough, Vince Vaughn in another straight role (not too shabby either). There are bits that are *pure mental* and make very little sense, but there are some good moments and I like the fact J-Lo's character is not a traditional psychotherapist-style character. What's more, the victim they're looking for of the serial killer (just a small part) doesn't accept her fate willingly – a really good example of a peripheral character that is written well, which other lesser screenwriters might have just "thrown away".
Am I completely the worst female ever if I say Grace Kelly in Rear Window? … All women cringe! Grace Kelly is a woman who is submissive to the Male Gaze in this film.
Saying that, Grace Kelly takes risk in style. Wonderful wardrobe. Great taste in food and wine.
She gives up on nagging her man to settle down. Instead she shows him that she can put herself out there. She demonstrates intelligence w/ subtelty and she takes risks whilst him in the wheelchair is wriggling around in fear.
The woman's got style.
Ah well, if she has a fantastic wardrobe….!
No. Can't do it.
FOR SHAME MINA!!!!
Ha ha! I know. It's WRONG! ;p
Not as bad as Holly Golightly.
The 50s/60s were all wrong for heroines.
Still, wonderful dresses … No, I'm not really that fickle. :s
That was a great blog post Lucy!
I tend to bang on about this film all the time but I would argue for all three of the characters played by Deborah Kerr in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. They're all heroic in their own way for the times they live in – Suffragette, nurse and the Army. They represent the catalyst for social change and that's surely more heroic than any amount of ass kicking
An easy choice but also – I hope you'll agree – a good choice is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in Fargo.
One of the few warm characters in the Coenverse.
Sarah in The Lost World is an idiot. Knowing that the T-Rex has a highly developed sense of smell, she spends the whole film covered in the wet blood of the baby T-Rex. She even comments how it won't dry in the humidity.
Get rid of the jacket! Burn the jacket!
She deserved to get eaten instead of Peter Stormare.
John H – *hate* Coen bros movies
Dave – You're right, that's the only dumb thing about Sarah though – and a clear cheat plot-wise by Koepp to keep the T-Rex after them. But given most people don't even notice this aspect, it's also a clear case of screenwriters being picky… ; )
Possibly very true!
Interestingly (or not), I looked at the script online for that exposition scene and it's not in the original script (though the idea that the T Rex is following the scent is in it) so it's something they added in later on to flag it up and make it more obvious to the viewer.
Yes, Sarah, good choice!
Elinor – thought you'd approve!
Dave – yes, it's SO worth remembering the notion "Can you give me a line for that?" for movies (something TV writers have told me they're asked) to signify certain elements to the audience – writers forget I think that audiences CAN'T see scene description!
Tea Leoni's character in Jurassic Park 3 was okay, but didn't measure up to Sarah IMHO. Though there was that impressive moment she freaks seeing her dead boyfriend and all the men think she's grossed out, when really she's shrieking with horror at the thought her boy is out in the wilderness alone — like a REAL mother would.
Laurie Zimmer's character Leigh in the original Assault on Precinct 13 always impressed me as a strong female character. She even takes a bullet at one point without too much fuss.
Thought of another one – Glenda Farrell in the 1933 version of Mystery of the Wax Museum. Definitely a contender for best female character in a horror film.
Also, my personal favourite would be Peggy Cummins as Annie Laurie Starr in Gun Crazy, although she is kind of mean.
That's fair enough on the Coens, Lucy. I think Marge fits your criteria but if you don't like the film then kinda moot 🙂
One I think we both like though, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) in 'Candyman'. Inquisitive, determined, afraid but not a scream queen. (Nor a 'man with boobs')
Candyman is also one of my fave horrors in general which probably has a lot to do with Helen anyway.
Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, Silence of the Lambs). Smart, brave, determined, everything a heroine should be. I refused to see the sequel Hannibal, having read the book which was like emptying sewage into my brain. Interestingly Jodie Foster refused to play the role again as she also thought her character had been betrayed.