Classic Film Stars and the Art of Femininity

I am currently reading the biography of Dietrich von Hildebrand, a brilliant German philosopher and theologian who escaped a Nazi death sentence, eventually living the rest of his days as a professor in New York.

In 1909, still a young man, Dietrich moved to a town in Germany called Göttingen to continue his studies. Having grown up in an old monastery in Florence, Dietrich found the new town extremely dull and wanting in beauty. The women he met there seemed to embody this lack of loveliness:

"What a contrast between the beauty and grace of his mother and his five sisters, who for many years had long, flowing hair, while the various professors' daughters all had the unfortunate habit of tying their hair in a knot on top of the head -- a fashion that struck [Dietrich] as unpoetic and pedestrian. There was no Rosalind, no Portia, no Viola among them!" (Alice von Hildebrand, The Soul of a Lion, 82)

This observation struck me. Are there any Dietrichs today, in 2015 Atlanta? Do men waiting for their double shot lattes look around the Starbucks, wistfully longing to find more "classically beautiful" women? I myself am guilty of the "unfortunate habit" of putting my hair in a bun on top of my head. Have I lost my inner Rosalind? 

Of course, this may not be a simple matter of physical appearance. 

Here is the question I wish to explore: If the more feminine a woman is, the more beautiful (an argument which deserves its own blog post), then what makes for a classically feminine woman? And, to serve as a measuring stick for what it means to be a woman of Hildebrand's tastes, I've come up with an analogy.

Shakespearean heroines are to the early 1900's as old Hollywood actresses are to the early 2000's. 

It may not be a perfect comparison, but I think we connect with images of Rosalind Russell more so than we do with Rosalind from As You Like It. Plus I know classic film actresses like the back of my hand, so ...

Question: Which actresses from our past epitomize classic femininity?

1. Priscilla Lane


One of my very favorites, and often overlooked. You may know Priscilla Lane from movies such as Arsenic and Old Lace opposite Cary Grant, or from Saboteur opposite Robert Cummings. Lane's vivacious, bubbly, adorably honest personality is infectious. I think she deserves to be a study in femininity, because she embodies at least two key traits of the classically feminine:

  • A love of life seems to sparkle through Lane's every move. There is a light in her eye and a spring in her step which says, "What a beautiful world we live in!" Which brings me to the second tenant of femininity.
  • A sense of beauty. To have an eye for true beauty, but also to find beauty in all things is a wonderfully feminine ability. Not to say, of course, that this kind of sensibility is exclusive to women, but one gets the sense that a classically feminine woman should not leave her poetic tastes at home. Lane could have been in a pant suit or a chiffon dress, but whatever it was, she wore it so tastefully. Plus, she always gave the impression that she loved to just look around at the world and be amazed. She recognized her own beauty as well as the beauty of creation. I just love her, ok?

2. Myrna Loy

If you don't like Mryna, you are a doofus. She is just the utmost and I challenge anyone who says otherwise to a duel. 

Myrna Loy is a very different kind of woman than Priscilla Lane. There is nothing bubbly or effervescent about her. She is calm, cool, and collected. But she is a WOMAN in every sense of the word. Here is what Myrna brings to the discussion of the classically feminine:

  • Quiet confidence. Anytime Loy is on screen, she immediately takes command. But it is so subtle, and so willingly assented to by her cast mates that we hardly notice it. There is a fantastic scene in one of The Thin Man movies when Loy's on-screen husband, William Powell (shown above), is slobbering drunk in a night club. When Loy's character finally finds him, she has every reason to tear into him, interrogate him about where he's been, etc. Instead, she calmly sits at the table with him, asks the waiter how many drinks her husband has had, and then asks for the exact same number of shots to be lined up in front of her on the table. She downs every one of them. The classically feminine woman knows how to take charge without bulldozing. She doesn't scream for attention, she snaps her fingers and the room is immediately captivated. That's Myrna.
  • Grace. Myrna Loy is so graceful. No movement is sudden, gawky, or undisciplined. The way her characters handle the most uncomfortable of situations is so elegant, so sophisticated. I once heard it said that a lady is never surprised. To me, that is an expression of grace (not necessarily in the theological sense). Every move, every reaction is deliberate. Moreover, those deliberations consistently maintain the dignity worthy of a woman.

3. Audrey Hepburn 

There are so many reasons why Audrey is such a beauty icon, and much of it has little to do with her photogenic face. 

  • Vulnerability. Audrey Hepburn was not afraid to crack. Her portrayals of characters like Sabrina and Eliza Doolittle were full of doubt, fear, and risks. But dignity always reigned supreme, and her beauty of spirit was never marred by her openness. She was, undoubtedly a strong woman, but at the same time, she could be as soft as her pet fawn, Pippin.
  • Adaptable/Flexible. In my experience, it is not becoming of a woman to be inflexible. There is something about a stonewall woman that evokes all the uncouth ruthlessness of the barge-woman of The Wind in the Willows, who traps Toad in his lie. Audrey was never that way. She could be comfortable in any setting. I especially admire how elegantly Audrey aged. She did not insist on having the same haircuts she had when she was young and outrageously famous. She had no cosmetic surgery, practiced no gimmicks to remain in the spotlight. Even her suffering through cancer was admirable. There is no sense that Audrey wanted to force her life to be something it wasn't, or to take a do-or-die stance on issues that were unimportant. Naturally, I do not mean that it is classically feminine to constantly change one's mind (which is at best a common failing of women, at worst a common stigma promulgated by men). Nor am I suggesting that a loose moral standard is preferable to one that is steadfast. To be adaptable, however, is a wonderful gift. To accept the inconveniences of life with joyful patience is a beautifully feminine trait. 

Of course, I have only shaved the tip of the iceberg. This discussion begs a much deeper exploration. But blogs are not for deeper exploration, are they? That's what future books are for!

Next week, I'd like to take a look at three more actresses, and why I think they are not ideal examples of classical femininity. I'll give you a hint ...

one of them is Katharine Hepburn! 

As always, I invite comments below. And if you haven't already, be sure to click the Twitter icon to check out what I'm posting on the daily.