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Hawksian woman  

Definition:  A heroine independent, assertive and sexually bold relative to the time of a film's release. The character became a signature element in films directed by Howard Hawks from the 1940s to 1960s.

Hawksian womanHistory: The term was coined in 1971 by film critic Naomi Wise to describe feminist traits of Hawks’ female leads. It is associated with Hawks’ adventure-dramas and Westerns but evolved from his screwball comedies.

A sub-genre of the romantic comedy, the screwball comedy was an answer to the Motion Picture Production Code’s prohibition against “overt portrayals and references to sexual behavior.” One plot device common to the sub-genre is gender-role reversal. e.g., Katharine Hepburn dominates a submissive Cary Grant in Hawks' “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) and Rosalind Russell dominates a submissive Ralph Bellamy in “His Girl Friday” (1940). However, Russell’s character Hildy is feisty like Hepburn’s Susan but without Susan’s goofiness. Hildy also introduces another Hawksian trait: comradery with a group of guys, in this case police beat reporters. When first reading the script, Hawks had the epiphany that a part written for a man would be better received if played by a woman.

In “To Have and Have Not” (1944), the female lead played by Lauren Becall is the first Hawksian woman to appear in a dramatic role. Also significant is the sexually suggestive dialogue in a hotel room between Becall’s Slim and Humphrey Bogart’s Steve: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” This scene would have been censored a few years earlier, but a world war had begun to undermine the sanctity of the Code.

In later Hawks films women would make the most masculine of men blush, not vice versa, e.g., Angie Dickinson teasing John Wayne about a negligée in “Rio Bravo” (1959) or Michele Carey embarrassing a bathing Robert Mitchum in "El Dorado" (1966). Such gumption enables the Hawksian woman to be accepted as one of the guys—good guys, that is, not bad à la the boys chummy with evil femme fatales such as Jane Greer in “Out of the Past” (1947) or Maxine Cooper in “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955). Although Hawksian woman Vivien (Lauren Becall) associates with the Eddie Mars gang in “The Big Sleep” (1944), she is a good femme fatale whose association is compelled by extortion.

Underscoring her comradery with the guys, the Hawksian woman merits a nickname, e.g., Rosalind Russell is “Hildy” in “His Girl Friday” (1940), Lauren Bacall is “Slim” in “To Have or Have Not” (1944), Margaret Sheridan is “Nikki” in “The Thing from Another World” (1951)*, Angie Dickinson is “Feathers” in “Rio Bravo” (1959), Elsa Martinelli is “Dallas” in “Hatari!” (1962) and Michele Carey is “Joey” in "El Dorado"(1967).

Hawks was one of the few independent producer-directors in Classic Hollywood and made films for eight studios during his career. His Hawksian woman was among other distinctive elements in his films that led critics in the 1960s to declare him one of a handful of American auteur directors.

* Although it bears his directorial style, "The Thing from Another World" was produced but not directed by Hawks.

Related Terms::    screwball comedy    against type    meet cute   auteur    star system

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