Blondes at the movies: hats off to a look that will never fade

As a BFI season celebrates blondes on film and Legally Blonde thrives on the West End stage, Sheila Johnston gets to the roots of our durable fascination with a classic type

Bombshells, showgirls, gold-diggers, gangsters' molls, platinum ice queens, pouting, sun-kissed sex kittens: the full, gilded spectrum is on display throughout March in Blonde Crazy, a season celebrating the species at the BFI Southbank. Part of the Birds Eye View festival of women's cinema, it arrives hard on the high heels of Birds Eye View's 2009 retrospective devoted to the formidable femme fatale. But what is in this year's thematic role model for women? Should we be embracing these blonde moments; or are we to be embarrassed by them?

The blonde, dumb or not, was once considered a pernicious stereotype. By contrast today, on the London stage, Legally Blonde, the musical based on the 2001 Reese Witherspoon film about a dizzy Californian who outsmarts legal eagles at Harvard, has been attracting rave reviews and bonanza business in the West End (its run has just been extended to February 2011). Denise Van Outen presented a one-woman-show, Blondes, at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, and both productions have been a magnet for the self-indulgent girls' night out. The gang at Birds Eye View hopes to benefit from the same effect.

Blonde Crazy is wide-roving (though, despite the title, it doesn't include the 1931 gangster movie of that name). Most of the expected suspects are present, including the original bombshell Jean Harlow in Red Dust, the 1927 silent version of Chicago, starring Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart, and the season's centrepiece, Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Wild cards in the pack include Catherine Deneuve's pale masochist in Belle de Jour, and a brace of Nordic beauties in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries. Other films, such as Douglas Sirk's melodrama Imitation of Life, explore the racial and social connotations of society's obsession with fair hair and pale skin. "Blondeness is a powerful symbol of femininity but there are so many different modes of it," says Rachel Millward, the Festival Director. "These films all offer unorthodox representations."

Just as female theatre-goers today cheer for Sheridan Smith's brainy airhead in Legally Blonde, so women watching these classic Hollywood films find fresh cause for celebration – even, and often especially, in works that had always been thought blatantly misogynist. "Blondes make the best victims," Alfred Hitchcock once said, in one of his trademark provocations. "They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints." However, a dissenting view is held by Laura Mulvey, a professor at Birkbeck College, London, whose theories have become a cornerstone of feminist film studies and who will present the screening of Hitchcock's Marnie, starring Tippi Hedren, on 8 March.

"I'm interested in the artifice of the Hitchcock blonde, which is part of the artifice of the star persona and of the cinema itself," says Mulvey, whose recent research explores how Hitchcock's use of very obvious back projection (Marnie contains some prime examples) heightens his films' unreal, dreamlike state. "Hitchcock often creates an opposition between the enigmatic and attractive blonde, in whom there's a lot of erotic investment, and a much more ordinary girl." Examples: Suzanne Pleshette versus Hedren in The Birds, and Barbara Bel Geddes, perky architect of the cantilevered bra, versus the mysterious Kim Novak in Vertigo.

"He is fascinated by the way the very constructed, cosmetically produced woman has something about her that implies the concealment of secrets and even a malign seductiveness," Mulvey argues. "He is very consciously exposing and commenting on the way women's appearance plays on male anxiety." Vertigo is especially revealing. James Stewart's supremely anxious male imposes an elaborate make-over on the earthy brunette (Kim Novak), transforming her into the ethereal blonde (also Novak) who's the object of his obsession. We witness the illusion being created before our eyes.

While quite different in tone, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes contains a similar moment. In Howard Hawks's effervescent comedy, the women are most definitely in the driving seat: Monroe, the little girl from Little Rock in tireless search of big rocks to decorate her fingers, knowingly manipulates her image as a dumb blonde to attract and bedazzle suitors on a cruise to "Europe, France". And at the end of the film, her brunette co-star Jane Russell dons a platinum wig and offers her own raunchy spin on blondeness in the cause of another deception.

"Lorelei [Monroe's character] is much more in command of her own story," Mulvey says. "And there is an element in her appearance of mask and masquerade. It's interesting how Monroe, the most essential blonde movie star in the whole of Hollywood history, launched herself as the showgirl blonde. Later, after she was taking acting lessons, she tries to use her blondeness in terms of waif-like vulnerability. Towards the end of her career she played with a different kind of blonde image."

Perhaps the aura of artifice that hovers around Hollywood's Golden Era blondes is connected with the harsh and complicated procedures of lightening hair back then (Harlow reportedly ruined her hair through over-bleaching). The movie blonde will always be with us, but has she changed as the lacquered platinum helmets of yore gradually morphed into a more natural, easily achievable look? The most recent film in the current season, Basic Instinct, dates from 1992. "Blondes are less of a trope than they used to be," agrees Lucy Bolton, who teaches film at Queen Mary College, London, and will be blogging on blondes for the Birds Eye site. She notes a telling sign of the times: there has been no light-haired Bond girl since Maryam d'Abo in The Living Daylights (1987), though we have seen several recent blonde villainesses and Bond himself, played by Daniel Craig, is now blond for the first time.

There are still plenty of stars around, and still the stray stereotype: in An Education, Rosamund Pike's dim dollybird contrasts with Carey Mulligan's smart brunette; scatty Bridget Jones morphed from dark in the books (and in the newspaper columns) to fair on screen, as played by Renée Zellweger.

But the classic blonde look has, Bolton believes, migrated elsewhere, to cosmetics and fashion advertising, such as the campaign for Dior's J'Adore fragrance, which features a glistening Charlize Theron, her skin tone as tawny as her hair. Elsewhere, a golden-locked Nicole Kidman has been promoting Chanel (for whom Monroe famously boosted sales when she revealed that all she wore to bed at night was "Five drops of No 5"). Stars such as Kate Winslet, Kidman and Scarlett Johansson have embraced a flagrantly old-fashioned brand of glamour on the red carpet, even if they don't always, or often, work the bombshell look on screen.

"It's a subject that excites an enormous number of people," says Joanna Pitman, whose book On Blondes traces their history in Western culture (and who dyed her own hair blonde as part of her research). "Its power is still incredibly strong. We have always been interested in how and why we attract people, and blonde hair has been a perennial element of that throughout the ages. I had no idea before I first started writing On Blondes how much fizz it still has."

Blonde Crazy runs from today to 17 March at the BFI Southbank, London SE1 (020 7928 3232;

‘Blonde Crazy’ is part of the Birds Eye View Film Festival running 4 – 12 March. See for details.