They fight for justice, and we cheer. They slash out in anger, and we cringe. From The Women to The Help, and from Carrie to Lady Vengeance, we honor a dozen movies that brandish female fury
The box office winner this past weekend was The Other Woman, a comic valentine of vindication for three women (Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann and Kate Upton) against the weaselly entrepreneur (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who cheated on all of them. Earning $24.8 million at North American theaters, it unseated three-time champ Captain America: The Winter Soldier and gave audiences a respite from Marvel superheroes until The Amazing Spider-Man 2 lands on Friday.
(READ: Corliss’s review of The Other Woman)
And though The Other Woman is no film for the ages, it does tap an age-old tradition of movies about women enraged by their sorry status, taking revenge on those who wronged them. It’s a story as old as the Greeks’ Medea and as modern as any YA novel-turned-film, whether The Twilight Saga, The Hunger Games or Divergent. We present a dozen movies, from Hollywood, France and South Korea, that treat the vengeful-woman theme with fondness or dread, as comedy, melodrama or stark tragedy. You’ll think of other films, too.
THE WOMEN, 1939. Directed by George Cukor, from the play by Clare Boothe.
Word spreads around a posh Manhattan beauty parlor that Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford), a perfume counter girl, is having affair with ritzy Stephen Haines; and his sweet wife Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) isn’t yet in on the secret. Whispered gossip being the prime social media of the ’30s, Mary soon learns the awful truth and, on a divorce trip to Reno, plans revenge — not on Stephen but on Crystal. Mary needs to humiliate the conniving, working-class Other Woman so she can win back the philandering husband of her own social station. In this divinely salacious comedy, the men are nearly irrelevant; anyway, we don;t see Stephen or any other dude. Everyone in the cast of 135 is female (including Terry, the Cairn Terrier who the same year played Toto in The Wizard of Oz).
A Broadway hit written by the woman who would become the second wife of Time Inc. co-founder Henry Luce, The Women was remade as a ’50s musical comedy (The Opposite Sex) and a 2008 misfire with Meg Ryan and Eva Mendes. But the 1939 version is the true, sparkling, dirty dish. It proves that, sometimes, the only weapon a woman needs is words.
THE BRIDE WORE BLACK, 1968. Directed by François Truffaut, from the novel by Cornell Woolrich.
Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau) tracks down five men, one by one, determined to kill them for the murder of her husband on the day she married him. This crepe-draped bride is an avenging angel as she locates her victims, plays the role of each man’s dream woman and employs brutal elegance in dispatching them — with a push, a poison, suffocation, an arrow and a knife. The movie gives pungent quirks to each of Julie’s victims: the wolf (Claude Rich) who has recorded the sound of his girlfriend crossing her silk-stockinged legs; the lonely loser (Michel Bouquet) who says he won’t touch Julie, but wants to be asked; the pompous politician (Michel Lonsdale) who suggests they have sex so that “You can say, ‘For one hour he forgot about France and gave himself to me’”; and the skirt-chasing artist (Charles Denner) who is almost too charming to kill. But not quite.
As the U.S. trailer notes: “The five men who killed the groom made one mistake. They should have killed the bride.” (Keep on reading for the vengeful bride in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.) One or two implausible plot twists are detonated in this melodrama from the world-class filmmaker warmly remembered for the lighter, more romantic Jules and Jim and Day for Night. Moreau’s Julie is freon-cool, a sang-froid killer, and the love that spurs this sexy widow on is not so much post-coital as post-mortem. “I’m already dead,” she says. “I died the day he did. When I’m done I’ll join him.”
CARRIE, 1976. Directed by Brian De Palma, from the novel by Stephen King.
Poor Carrie White, “the girl who lives in that creepy house with her crazy mother.” She’s cursed with outsider loneliness in high school, and blessed, if that’s the word. with telekinetic powers that are triggered like a mega-explosion of puberty in the gym shower. When Carrie (Sissy Spacek) gets invited to the prom by a senior dreamboat (William Katt), her deranged Christian-fundamentalist mom (Piper Laurie) tells her it’s all the devil’s work, and she’s not far off: the girl is the victim of a vicious prank from two classmates (Nancy Allen and the young John Travolta). If you don’t know what happens next, you can guess: blood, death and overturned cars. One of many horror movies than transforms a teen’s body changes into seismic eruptions, Carrie remains a template of the worm turning into a wild force of nature — estrogen unleashed.
9 TO 5, 1980. Directed by Colin Higgins. Written by Patricia Resnick and Colin Higgins.
Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda), who needs a job after her husband left her for his secretary, joins the huge firm Consolidated Companies and learns the ropes from Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin), a widow who is a whiz at work but has been denied promotions in favor of the man she trained, dastardly Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman). When Franklin spreads rumors that he is sleeping with buxom Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton), the three women harbor fantasies of revenge involving guns and bondage, which — this being Hollywood — they are able to wreak upon the heartless Hart. A handbook of feminist grievances dressed up as a perky comedy, 9 to 5 spawned Parton’s hit song, a TV series and, with a score by Parton and a book by Resnick, a Broadway musical that closed within a week. The property lives on in the many plot contrivances that The Other Woman borrowed from it.
FATAL ATTRACTION, 1987. Directed by Adrian Lyne. Written by James Dearden and based on his short film.
The more-or-less happily married Dan (Michael Douglas) falls into a quickie affair with single gal Alex (Glenn Close). When he wants to end it, she tells him she’s pregnant. And she makes phone calls to Dan’s unknowing wife Beth (Anne Archer). And she sneaks into their home and broils their six-year-old daughter’s pet rabbit. A 9 to 5 from a male victim’s point of view, plus sex and stabbing, Fatal Attraction upped the ante on guiltless adultery, from “Thanks, hon, I gotta run” to “This fling could kill you” — a particular anxiety in the first decade of the AIDS epidemic. It also had a retrograde view of career women. Alex stokes some early sympathy when Dan threatens her and she slits her wrists, but she festers into a mad monster around the time she cooks the bunny. By the movie’s midpoint, audiences were rooting against her and for the unfaithful husband who misused her.
Hardly a sure thing during production (Lyne and Dearden changed the ending after previews), the movie became a giant hit, made the cover of TIME and spawned other crazy-babe slasher films like Basic Instinct. Women saw it as a cautionary tale, men as the scariest horror movie. Shortly after its release, Close was introduced to a mid-40s woman with her husband in tow. “She had enjoyed Fatal Attraction,” the star recalled, “and was taking him to see it ‘so he’ll never cheat on me.’ And he goes, ‘Huh-huh’ — this nervous little laugh.”
THELMA & LOUISE, 1991. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Callie Khouri.
Two women on the run from the law in the rural South: kind of an updated Bonnie and Clytemnestra, except that neither the unhappily married Thelma (Geena Davis) nor the free-spirited waitress Louise (Susan Sarandon) has anything more criminal in mind than a fun weekend together. The saloon Lothario who attempts to rape Thelma changes that; Louise shoots him dead, and the two go joyriding onto the police blotter. They blow up an automobile — sexual revenge as car-nage — and Thelma points her husband’s gun at a cop, giggling, “I swear, three days ago, neither one of us woulda ever pulled a stunt like this, but if you’d to meet my husband you’d understand why.”
Playing with firearms and bedding a cool stud (Brad Pitt in one of his first major roles) has its price, in an outlaw fantasy that has the big steel balls to show the wages of fun. Does a 23-year-old movie need a SPOILER ALERT? Finally trapped by the law, the women drive off a cliff — suicide seen as a magnificent screw-you gesture. But if the male hero of a Hollywood film were in a similarly tight spot, wouldn’t killing himself be taken as an act of cowardice or psychosis? In that sense, Thelma and Louise are not liberated women but avatars of opera’s tragic ladies for whom death is both escape and salvation.
THE FIRST WIVES CLUB, 1996. Directed by Hugh Wilson. Screenplay by Robert Harling, from the novel by Olivia Goldsmith.
When they were young and perky, they married ambitious men and helped them to the top. Then they got dumped for newer models. What are three fortyish women — collagen-preserved Elise (Goldie Hawn), frumpy Brenda (Bette Midler) and no-nonsense Annie (Diane Keaton) — to do? Hit a man where it hurts: in his bank account. “Are we talking about revenge?” Midler wonders, and Keaton replies, “No, I’m talking about justice.” Be afraid, be very afraid, all cheating men, of a scorned woman’s calculation. And three’s not a crowd but a merry coven.
The revenge impulse that was Psycho stuff in Fatal Attraction becomes triumphant group therapy in this hit comedy that gently mocks woman’s vanity — the plastic surgeon played by Rob Reiner tells Hawn, “If I give you one more face lift you’re going to be able to blink your lips” — while serving as an aging divorcee’s Declaration of Independence, to the tune of Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” Serving as the clearest blueprint for The Other Woman, the movie takes its inspiration from Ivana Trump, the recently sundered wife of The Donald, who tells the trio of First Wives, “Don’t get mad. Get everything.”
KILL BILL, 2003-04. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
The Bride (Uma Thurman), a hit woman who had been “jetting around the world killing human beings and being paid vast sums of money,” quits her job as a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad — DIVAS for short — and gets left for dead in the slaughter of her wedding party. Except they didn’t quite kill her, and she spends two feature-length movies exacting revenge on the rest of the DIVAS and their charismatic boss, Bill (David Carradine). “That woman desires her revenge,” notes one former teammate (Michael Madsen), “and we deserve to die” — adding, “Then again, so does she.” Kill Bill, issued as Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, took its gory inspiration from the Hong Kong martial-arts movies, Japanese Yakuza pictures and Italian Westerns of the ’70s, which the director parodied and purified into a 3½-hour epic of cold-blood lust.
LADY VENGEANCE, 2005. Directed and cowritten by Chan Park-wook.
Korean melodramas are like classic Hollywood fare gone totally nuts. The crimes are more vividly displayed, the retribution way more lurid. In this capper to his bloodily operatic Vengeance trilogy, following Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003, remade by Spike Lee last year), Chan hands the reins of revenge to a woman. Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae), convicted of murdering a schoolboy, becomes a model prisoner and on her release is welcomed as a sinner reformed to sainthood. It’s all a ruse in her long-gestating plan to get even, and then some, with an English teacher named Mr. Baek (Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik), who has tortured and killed many children, including the boy whose death Geum-ja did time for. In the spirit of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Geum-ja convenes the parents of the murdered kids to kill Baek slowly by knife, scissors and axe.
THE HOUSEMAID, 2010. Written and directed by Im Sang-woo.
Another wronged woman metes out vengeance in this remake of a 1960 Korean film. Lovely, innocent, working-class Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) is hired by a wealthy family that festers with corruption and malice. The husband, a prosecutor, is a narcissistic philanderer who quickly seduces and impregnates the girl. On learning of the adultery, his wife, also pregnant (with twins), nearly smashes Eun-yi’s head in with a golf club. As Eun-yi stands on a high ladder cleaning a chandelier, the wife’s mother, a glamorous Dragon Lady, kicks the ladder over, hoping to kill the girl. Each family member bears animosities toward the others; but when the unity of this sick brood is threatened, they stand together. We get it: Rich people are awful, and the poor their pawns. Beyond its reductive social view, the grim, gleaming Housemaid has a silky thread of tension tightening around the viewer’s rooting interest, right up to the cutting revenge Eun-yi takes on her torturers.
THE HELP, 2011. Written and directed by Tate Taylor, from the novel by Kathryn Stockett.
In 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, a full century after Scarlett gave orders to and took strength from Mammy, white women still use women darker than themselves to cook the food, mind the babies and be treated (generally) like slaves. Itemizing the small-mindedness of the ruling class, this surprise hit raised admiration for the maids and outrage at the contempt with which their employers treat them. For a black to talk back is to talk herself out of one of the few jobs available in the post-bellum South; so when stoic, warm Minny (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer) is fired and defamed by the hateful harridan Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Minny confects revenge as a dish best served in the form of a chocolate pie. It’s a small, pungent payback for the ages of indentured abuse that one race of women took from another. Metaphorically speaking, poop never smelled so sweet.
FROZEN, 2013. Directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck. Written by Jennifer Lee.
Princess Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) is the Carrie White of mythical Arendelle: a prisoner of her formidable power to turn air into ice and snow. As a child, that gift nearly killed her sweet sister Anna (Kristen Bell), so Elsa stayed secluded from Anna and the rest of the kingdom. On her 18th birthday, she tries to protect Anna from falling in love with the first man she meets, and in adolescent fury unleashes a nuclear winter on the kingdom.
From the vengeful stepmother in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the youth-obsessed witch of Tangled, Disney animated features have depicted imperious females nursing desperate grudges. But Elsa, for all her chilling faculties, is no villainess — just a girl like Carrie, both frightened and tantalized by her capacity for meteorological mischief. In Frozen, the “other woman” is Elsa’s friend and savior; and revenge will blossom, like late spring, into sisterhood.
(SEE AND HEAR: The Oscar-winning song “Let It Go” in 25 languages)