Real women dominate in Paglia's pics

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THERE are vamps, bitches and dominatrixes. The cast list for a season of films chosen by Camille Paglia is exactly what one would expect of the controversial American academic.

Some might consider that giving a platform to the fiery and unpredictable Ms Paglia is asking for trouble. The broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby, for example, has probably scrapped his fan club membership since she walked out of an interview, accusing him of being an ill-prepared popinjay.

But the National Film Theatre in London is indulging the wilful scourge of British feminists and modern American actresses by screening 13 of her favourite films in a two-week series.

Ms Paglia is an acknowledged expert on film, but her choices are governed less by her expertise than her passions - or prejudices, as her critics might actually view them.

Ms Paglia, who gives a lecture to introduce her choices at the NFT this Tuesday, says her selection stems from the films that dominated her adolescence and "energised my rebellion against the suffocating conformism of the middle-class post-war US".

She does love vamps, bitches and dominatrixes. "Pathetic starlets" of modern cinema such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Cameron Diaz, whom she condemns as "lumpish and faceless", figure nowhere in her selection.

Her idols are the voluptuous Elizabeth Taylor, in Suddenly, Last Summer, Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis. Her leading men are Charlton Heston (in Cecil B de Mille's The Ten Commandments), Marcello Mastroianni (La Dolce Vita) and Cary Grant and James Stewart alongside Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story.

There is, in this selection, a comparative lack of violence from the cultural commentator who once lauded "sex and violence" as "great principles" in film and observed: "The female body ... has a softness and vulnerability. Therefore when we see it being torn to ribbons we have this sense of a barbaric kind of splendour."

The squeamish will be relieved at the absence of such "splendour" - but the sex is there in abundance. Coltish, free-spirited Julie Christie smoulders with Dirk Bogarde in Darling ... and Marilyn Monroe plays a vampy, trampy wife cheating on her husband in Niagara (1953). "Sex itself is torrential here, destroying all in its path," Ms Paglia says.

Ms Paglia credits the influence of her gay male friends in her adoration of the vamp. In Butterfield Eight, Elizabeth Taylor plays the vamp par excellence as a high-class call girl cutting a swathe through Manhattan in a clinging white dress.

"I was breathless with excitement for the entire school day after a luminous Taylor won the Oscar for that 1960 film," Ms Paglia reveals, in her NFT introduction. "Her call-girl character gave me my enduring reverence for the vamp and prostitute as defiant pagan images of sexually liberated womanhood."

The interweaving of sex and religion in La Dolce Vita, meanwhile, "helped confirm the master thesis of my life's work - the continuity of paganism from ancient to modern times."

Ms Paglia is used to making enemies. She has been attacked for her views on feminists (she loathes most as "whingers"), lesbians (other than herself), men (she adores the erect penis), and rape (women do not always mean "no", apparently).

"I always enjoy, myself, scenes where a woman is being pursued, she's being stalked, and there's a slight rape innuendo, and so on. For some reason I understand it," she said in a statement that prompted some apoplexy. One of her choices is the Hollywood masterpiece, All About Eve, based on a story about an actress who is stalked by a fan.

Films are "life experiences", she says. "They have formed the way I see the world, and they have populated my mind with mythic personae. As a scholar and critic, I can trace my guiding ideas, emotions, and tastes to the first films I saw in early childhood - such as Walt Disney's Snow White and Fantasia." Maybe Snow White should sue.