Film: A short history of the cinema redhead

Witty, wilful, wild... Next to the screen's scarlet women, blondes are merely bland. By Nina Caplan

When Julianne Moore slides on to our screens next week as the designing Mrs Cheveley in Oliver Parker's adaptation of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, the English accent may jar but the strawberry tresses will not. Unusual, disturbing, dangerous: these are the signals that the redhead gives out and Laura Cheveley, who plans to divulge a secret that will destroy the marriage of Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) unless he helps her to make her fortune, is all three.

Wilde made his overdressed adventuress - a woman who says of her "detestable" schooldays that her prizes came a little later on in life and were none of them for good conduct - intelligent, witty, malicious, independent and red-headed.

Redheads have always been difficult to classify and, as with most facts, this one becomes bigger and more bumptious in the cinema: there is a gap where assumptions about redheads should be.

Gentlemen prefer blondes, but marry brunettes; that probably says more about gentlemen than it does about women of any hair colour, but it is still a burden of expectation that a redhead need not carry. Yet she isn't ignored: films with titles like The Redhead from Wyoming (with Maureen O'Hara) or The Strawberry Blonde (with Rita Hayworth) are proof that in monochrome Hollywood, her hair colour was considered sufficiently interesting to lure in an audience; and in the Technicolor film industry she still gets a special deal. If the devil has all the best tunes then the hair colour associated with him could justly claim to get many of the best roles.

Unsurprisingly: red is the colour of danger and rebellion. Redheads are often stubborn, fey Celts as the Irish Wilde well knew. And these characteristics tend to be reflected in the on-screen redhead persona, from Katharine Hepburn's uptight but independent-minded aristocrat in The Philadelphia Story to Nicole Kidman's homicidal bitch in To Die For. Hepburn's feisty Philadelphia character, Tracy Lord, gets to weigh up the attractions of goddess status - "Be whatever you want," ex-husband CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) tells her, "You're my redhead" - and eventually come down in favour of mortality.

Marilyn Monroe should have been so lucky. But blondes only get to party until they drop from exhaustion without ever being accorded the privilege of choosing their own dancing shoes. Moira Shearer, in The Red Shoes, has both feet and head liberated by their scarlet apparel. Her choices aren't the happiest and her dancing leads to disaster, but she is granted a rare degree of autonomy. Shearer's red shoes are the antithesis of Cinderella's glass slipper; they stand on the side of career as opposed to marriage. She is eventually punished for her presumption, of course, but that doesn't make her actions any less flagrantly radical.

It was rare for a female character to achieve such freedom without being marked out as hard, or cunning, or - the worst fate of all - unattractive. But red hair can provide a necessary extra dimension, warming cold arrogance or adding a much-needed dash of chilli to the overly sweet (redheads are allowed to be vulnerable without immediately being classified as needy and clingy). Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman is a hard-edged hooker in a blond wig; her humanity - mawkish or otherwise, depending on whether you like sugary comedies - blazes out along with her red hair when the wig comes off.

In keeping with the reputation for individuality, red hair is far harder to reproduce than blonde. Peroxide is devalued gold: Rita Hayworth's flame- coloured tresses were so popular that there was outrage when Orson Welles peroxided her for The Lady from Shanghai. Their real-life marriage was breaking up at the time, and his supposedly artistic justification was considered a cover for pure malice. There is a warped justice to the idea of a woman who allows her husband to dictate her appearance so completely, losing her status as a symbol of fiery independence. But what a punishment for a woman who had played the sexy, irresponsible Gilda (tagline: there NEVER was a woman like Gilda!) and had "Put the Blame on Mame" with such memorable abandon, to be degraded to mere blondeness!

In An Ideal Husband, Julianne Moore emanates control: Mrs Cheveley does her own preferring and makes a decided effort to do her own marrying, in sharp contrast to the woodenly perfect Lady Chiltern. Cate Blanchett, last seen as history's most wilful redhead, Elizabeth I, and earlier still charmingly, stubbornly eccentric as the carrot-topped eponymous heiress in Oscar and Lucinda, has reduced herself for this part to a sandy- haired straw in the London wind, dribbling Victorian values every time she opens her prim lips. Like a female Samson, Blanchett's change of hair colour has robbed her of power.

There's no doubting Julianne Moore's redhead credentials: her part in Robert Altman's Short Cuts, naked from the waist down, has ensured that. She was also the perfectly named Amber Waves in Boogie Nights, and the mistress of mayhem in The Big Lebowski: the only one to keep her head when all about her are losing theirs. Difficult to lose, a head that colour; and difficult to forget too. When the ephemeral charm of Wilde's play or Parker's film has faded, the vision of that banner of dark-red hair, and of the force of personality that generally accompanies it, will remain.

Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?