Five Film Favorites: Female Action Leads (Heroes and Villains)

Much of the press and publicity surrounding the release of the now box office sensation The Hunger Games (2012) focused on the fact that the film (and the franchise that is sure to follow) has, as its lead, a young female protagonist (the terrific Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen). Melissa Silverstein celebrates this occasion by asking if The Hunger Games will be the “the first real female franchise?” Silverstein is correct to note that men and boys disproportionately populate action and superhero films. Despite the gross gender inequity within the film industry, some excellent women actors have performed wonderful turns as leads in action films, so I thought I would use this installment of “Five Film Favorites” to chronicle my favorite female action leads.  I have included heroes and villains.  Please feel free to add to my list in the comments.  Without further ado . . .


Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in all of the Alien films

Upon reading the title of Silverstein’s article, I wondered how Weaver might react.  By any measure, the four Alien films were the first action film franchise to have a female lead.  (If I have forgotten any such films that predate Alien, please correct me.) And these four films truly belong to Weaver and her magnificent Ripley.  Beginning in 1979 with Alien and ending in 1997 with Alien: Resurrection, each film had a different director, but Weaver was the constant.  She was neither sexualized nor romanticized.  She was smart, resourceful, brave, and empathetic: a hero.  To put Ripley’s magnificence into perspective, keep in mind that she defeated those indestructible creatures four times.  Four times!  If producers of the reality death show in The Hunger Games had dropped the aliens into the battle arena, the teens would all be dead within 15 seconds.  The aliens would then escape from the arena and lay waste to the rest of humanity until Ripley arrived and showed everyone how to properly get things done.  (By the way, that is how I would write any sequel to The Hunger Games.)

Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

It would have been wonderful if Foster had continued in her role as Agent Starling in the sequel.  I do not dislike Julianne Moore’s portrayal, but it is not the same.  Despite Anthony Hopkins’s brilliant portrayal of the sinister Hannibal Lecter, Foster ably matches him and prevents The Silence of the Lambs from solely becoming the villain’s tale.  Similar to Ripley, Starling is granted the space grow and overcome challenges, internal and external. Also similar to Ripley, Starling is not a sexpot or hamstrung by romance.  She simply use her wits, skill, and courage to defeat the bad guy.

Pam Grier as Jackie Brown in Jackie Brown (1997)

Out of the five in my list, Grier’s Brown is the only one who has any sort romance.  She captures the heart of Robert Forster’s middle aged bail bondsman.  However, the romantic subplot does not sideline her to “woman who needs to be rescued” status.  Like Ripley and Starling, Brown proves more than capable of defeating her various adversaries with smarts and skill.  Grier’s character seems to be an unlikely hero given that as an aging African-American woman clinging to the bottom rung of the lower middle class, she is immensely vulnerable.  She is a target for both the criminals who can implicate her and the prison industrial complex that can lock her up without a second thought.  Grier has always possessed terrific strong eyes, and in Jackie Brown those eyes simultaneously convey the precariousness of her circumstances and her inner strength.


Cate Blanchett as Marissa in Hanna (2011)

While the Saoirse Ronan does a fine job in the lead role as a 16 year-old would be assassin, Blanchett’s role as a devious and unethical intelligence agent drives the film forward and provides the necessary tension.  Readers of this blog know that I really like Cate Blanchett, but Blanchett’s pitch perfect portrayal of a dastardly villain should be quite apparent to more objective eyes. Marissa remains deadly and threatening not through kickboxing or the mastery of weapons, but through the tone of her voice (a wonderfully sinister Texas accent) and her ability to control and inspire fear in others.  Marissa is the only character I have seen whose own personal dental hygiene is as ominous as her soul. If Ronan’s character ever comes back for a sequel, she will be disappointed in the caliber of villain that must replace the deceased Marissa.

Mercedes McCambridge as Emma Small in Johnny Guitar (1954)

Weaver’s Ripley is my favorite character in this list, but Johnny Guitar is my favorite film.  Made during the height of Nicholas Ray‘s visual and narrative powers as an auteur, Johnny Guitar remains more subversive and visually stunning than most films made today.  I will not recap Johnny Guitar’s cult status or why one should see it (but you should see it if you have not).  Instead, I want to highlight McCambridge’s role as Small, who is anything but. Well, she is physically small compared to the rough and tumble cowboys, but the last third of the film is really driven by her relentless desire to destroy and defeat Joan Crawford‘s Vienna.  I have always found something admirable in Small’s ascent up the steep, rocky slope up to the hideaway in which Vienna and her men are stashed.  Yes, Small is evil, but she alone seems capable of bringing her villainy to fruition.  The film’s final scenes between her and Vienna are some of the best moments of cinema that I have ever seen.


About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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One Response to Five Film Favorites: Female Action Leads (Heroes and Villains)

  1. Szechter says:

    if you look beyond Hollywood and english speaking movies here is the franchise (or frenchise) with woman in lead: Angelica (the first installment: Cheers!

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