One of the greatest things about Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Zero Dark Thirty, is the fact that its protagonist Maya, is a woman. And refreshingly, there’s no mention of a tragic backstory or a love interest in the wings – she’s a dedicated professional, here to do a job, and she does it.
Not to say that she’s one-dimensional, far from it – she’s brought to life through an absolutely stunning performance by Jessica Chastain, who absolutely deserves the Oscar for Best Actress next month. And to celebrate this great character, I wanted to explore some of my favourite female characters in cinema:
Ellen Ripley (The Alien Series)
Part mother, part warrior, Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley is brilliantly played by Sigourney Weaver. All too often in horror films the women are the first to die, but Ripley is the only survivor of the attack on the USCSS Nostromo. And good thing, too; she went on to become one of the most enduring action characters of all time, kicking xenomorph ass in three terrific movies (and Alien: Resurrection). She’s a strong, smart character with a caring side, coming to see the young girl Newt – who she saves in Aliens – as her own daughter.
Clarice Starling (Silence of the Lambs)
Jodie Foster was already a phenomenally famous actress by the time Silence of the Lambs was released in 1991, but her role as FBI Agent Clarice Starling is undoubtedly her best – with the possible exception of Tallulah in Bugsy Malone. The late 80s and early 90s had a glut of cold, detached-seeming female characters, but Foster gave hers an added level of depth; she starts as a rookie, desperately trying to be respected by her peers, but as she gets tangled in the world of Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill her character begins to come out of her proverbial shell and we see the multi-faceted person underneath.
Annie Wilkes (Misery)
No list of truly great characters can be complete without a villain or two, and there’s no female villain in cinema that comes better than Annie “Cockadoodie” Wilkes. Kathy Bates is on top form as Paul Sheldon’s “number-one fan”; when we first meet her she’s almost comically star-struck and eager to help her idol, but as she realises what he’s done to her favourite character she quickly becomes terrifying. It’s an iconic performance, and one which deservedly won her a Golden Globe AND a Best Actress Oscar.
Amélie Poulain (Amélie)
If the 80s and 90s were the era of the cold, detached female character, than the noughties were the era of the female character who was just too quirky for their own damn good. You know the ones; they’re usually played by Zooey Deschanel. And if ever a character epitomised this description, it was Audrey Tautou’s mischevious sprite from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 masterpiece. Few leading ladies have been odder than Amélie Poulain, nor have they ever been quite as nuanced – beneath her cheeky smile is a woman yearning for a relationship she’s never had, and some of the pranks she plays are just downright evil.
Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Some Like It Hot)
Billy Wilder’s immortal Some Like It Hot is one of the greatest comedies of all time, and a lot of that is down to Marilyn Monroe’s performance as ukulele player Sugar. Over the years, Monroe’s image has been diluted to that of a troubled starlet who was difficult on set (the most infamous story being that the line “Where’s the bourbon?” took her over 50 takes to get right), but we tend to forget just how right she actually gets it in this movie.