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.

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