BOOK REVIEW / Drudges in nice dresses: A woman's view: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 by Jeanine Basinger: Chatto, pounds 14.99

HOW Hollywood spoke to women in its heyday, according to American film historian Jeanine Basinger, is through a muddled discourse which covertly subverted conventional female roles while appearing to reinforce them. This is a beguiling but ultimately unprovable proposition, for virtually every Hollywood movie that Basinger discusses is open to several contradictory interpretations.

Her definition of a women's film is one which places at the centre of its universe 'a female who is trying to deal with the emotional, social, and psychological problems that are specifically connected to the fact that she is a woman'. This excludes most westerns, say, but is elastic enough to include thrillers like Double Indemnity. But the quintessential women's film for Basinger is Now, Voyager - so much so that a still of Bette Davis clutching a handkerchief as Charlotte Vale appears on both front and back covers of A Woman's View. The film makes a 'powerful, if subversive statement', Basinger argues, because it is the story of 'a strong woman who, having survived and defeated a destructive mother, successfully goes on to live her own life the way she herself chooses'.

There is an alternative and equally plausible way of looking at Now, Voyager. It can be seen as a hymn to the transformative power of a male authority figure - Bette Davis's transformation from downtrodden daughter to glamorous globetrotter is entirely the work of one of the world's 'foremost psychiatrists', played by Claude Rains. The film also - and very mawkishly - bestows iconic status on the notion of female altruism, for Davis ultimately gives up the married man she loves, settling instead for friendship and a role as surrogate mother to his daughter.

Davis winds up with a dead mother, no sex life, and one of the most ridiculous lines in film history: 'Don't let's ask for the moon,' she tells her lover Paul Henreid, 'when we have the stars.' It has never been obvious to me that either type of celestial object is more desirable than the other, and the 'overt repression' Basinger identifies as central to the women's film seems to me far more obviously present in Now, Voyager than the 'covert liberation' she would like to discern in this and many other women's movies.

What is most difficult for us to know, and therefore what Basinger scarcely addresses, is what contemporary female viewers made of these films. Did they stream out of the cinemas feeling empowered by Davis's refusal to marry a man she didn't love, and admiring of her decision to settle for celibacy rather than the drudgery of married life as they themselves knew it? Or did they take away the message that a woman's role must inevitably involve sacrifice of one sort or another, and that the only difference between themselves and Bette Davis was that the latter wore nicer dresses?

In the absence of such knowledge, Basinger's book argues its case through lengthy analyses of hundreds of old movies. She discusses what they appear to be saying about men, marriage, work and motherhood; she is funny and opinionated, writing less like an academic - she is Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University - than as ardent and knowledgeable fan. 'When one thinks of fashion and glamour,' she writes magisterially at one point, 'Kay Francis should be the standard by which eveything else is measured.'

Her most interesting insights frequently arise from discussions of remakes, in which the same story is retold in ways that are significantly altered to accommodate changing public attitudes. What Price Hollywood? (1932), a glittering fantasy starring Constance Bennett as a waitress who becomes a movie star, evolved into a tragic vehicle for Judy Garland in 1954, when it resurfaced as A Star is Born; Basinger suggests that the later film reflects growing cynicism about Hollywood and its capacity to deliver such rags-to-riches transformations.

Yet for all the jauntiness of Basinger's style, A Woman's View eventually sinks under the sheer weight of its plot summaries. Page after page is given over to mechanical descriptions of films along the lines of 'in Paris, Stanwyck works, doing a good job. When Brent arrives there some time later, he notices her and soon is romancing her'. There is so much of this stuff that all the films begin to blur into one long, preposterous sequence in which Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Fontaine and Bette Davis quarrel, become opera stars, murder their husbands, run away to join the circus and rescue infants from blazing houses. Some of Basinger's best points inevitably get lost along the way, turning what could have been an engaging short essay into a daunting cinematic marathon.

(Photograph omitted)

Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower