AWFJ Wonder Women Countdown – Characters 22 through 12

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To celebrate AWFJ’s tenth anniversary and mark the movie industry’s feminist developments since our inception, we present our Wonder Women Project, a list of cinema’s top 55 female fiction characters, each one a reminder to industry insiders and movie lovers that iconic females in film have had entertainment impact and social influence since the earliest days of cinema.
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This week, our Wonder Women include some high-powered career women who have trouble with their work-life balance, a couple of New Yorkers with unique personal styles and some young women who find themselves facing dangerous enemies with determination in the face of their fears. Please meet our next group of Wonder Women, numbers 22 through 12:

22. MIRANDA PRIESTLY from The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

MirandaFashion queen Miranda Priestly is said to be loosely based on Vogue Magazine uberboss Anna Wintour—a woman whose detractors nicknamed her Nuclear Wintour. Priestley is a magazine diva of towering ego, dubious loyalties, dictatorial behaviour and tactlessness, and yet … she knows everything about the products, the players and the politics of her world, and it’s tough not to admire her. There’s something about the way Miranda throws her coat down and starts bitching at the help—in that beautifully modulated voice—that makes you laugh, even as you’re shaking in your boots. Such a clever comedy, this, and you’ll never look at cerulean blue in quite the same way again. —Liz Braun

21. ANNIE HALL from Annie Hall (1978)

annie“Well, la-di-dah,” the catchphrase of blithe spirit and aspiring singer Annie Hall, captures her sunny personality and genuine positivity. She’s the complete opposite of her beau, the neurotic and profoundly negative Alvy, who believes that “life is divided up into the horrible and the miserable.” Her eccentric behavior, eclectic wardrobe and effervescent nature throw Alvy for a loop. “Grow up in a Norman Rockwell painting?” he taunts her early in their relationship. Meanwhile, Annie fears that Alvy doesn’t “think I’m smart enough to be serious about.” But she’s smart enough to resist Alvy’s attempts to turn her into a death-obsessed clone of himself. And Annie achieves Wonder Woman status as she gains self-confidence and grows more independent in her life and career. She’s the one who ends their relationship, moves to California and rebuffs his efforts to win her back. As the story ends, and as “Seems Like Old Times” swells on the soundtrack, they’re both older and wiser and the better for their experience together. To his amazement, Alvy finally realizes that Annie was the catalyst in their mutual growth. Well, la-di-dah. —Laura Emerick

20. MAUDE CHARDIN from Harold and Maude (1971)

Maude CWhat grabs you, first and last, about Maude is her joie de vivre. A flop when first released, “Harold and Maude” became a cult classic, and Maude had a lot to do with that. Harold and Maude are perfect opposites: 20-year-old Harold is all about darkness and death while 79-year-old Maude is all about lightness and life. Maude is a bundle of energy who will try anything, a seeming irrepressible flower child at 79—a twist on movies’ conventional young pixie love interest. But while Maude is fun-loving, she is not actually childlike, and reveals a wisdom born of a lifetime of experience. As a widow and a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, she could have become a world-weary, jaded soul. Instead, she lives joyously, seeking out new experiences and living as she pleases, regardless of what others think. While she takes risks, she is always in charge of her life – and her death – by her choices, mistress of her own destiny. Maude’s joyfulness and thirst to live life to the fullest change how Harold sees life, and make him, and the audience, fall in love with her. —Cate Marquis

19. JEAN BRODIE from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Jean BrodieThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a character study set in an Edinburgh girls’ private school the 1930s, where the headstrong Miss Brodie teachers her adolescent charges about love, politics and many other subjects not found in the curriculum. She is an extraordinary woman; she is a preposterous woman. Brodie’s ideas influence the girls of her “set” but eventually lead to tragedy—hers as well as theirs. It’s easy to admire Jean Brodie initially, but her praise for Mussolini, overwrought romanticism and ego make her someone whose ideas are to be grown out of. A bittersweet story about coming of age, perhaps, but it’s impossible not to love the woman’s spirit. —Liz Braun

18. REE DOLLY from Winter’s Bone (2010)

ReeShe should by all rights be attending high school, pursuing her dream of joining the military and hanging out with friends. But, instead, 17-year-old Ree spends her time chopping wood, doing laundry, hunting squirrels for food and cooking meals, a responsibility she bears without complaint since her mentally ill mother and two younger siblings rely on her as they barely scrape by. The teen tries to keep some distance from her rather scary extended clan who live off the grid in the Ozarks, the better to make a living from illegally producing meth. But when a bondsman threatens to take away her family’s house and land to pay off her missing father’s bail, Ree needs to face down these reprobates and convince them to help her find out what has happened to her dad. As portrayed with realistic grit and maturity beyond her years by Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence, Ree is a whip-smart force of nature, a source of implacable righteousness taking on a close-knit society that breeds violence, cruelty and ignorance. If the film were a Western, she would be the sheriff and the fastest draw in town, unafraid to face down any threat to her loved ones. —Susan Wloszczyna

17. MARGO CHANNING from All About Eve (1950)

MargoChanning is an extraordinary and honest dichotomy. On one hand, she is a strong-willed feminist, demanding respect and keeping up with every male counterpart in brass and brains. She smashes the post-WWI societal norms in taking a back seat to a man in the family and pushes for stardom and control of her own destiny. On the other hand, she expresses deep love and loud acquiescence to having a man by her side in order to feel like a real woman. This is the daily struggle of many powerful women and is a brave depiction of how the female brain can work. Also, incredibly prevalent is the concept that older actresses are being replaced with younger stars, as if they are no longer appealing in star power or ability. Channing is a complex study at every turn and responsible for some of the most quotable dialogue of all time. “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” —Liz Whittemore

16. HILDEGARD JOHNSON from His Girl Friday (1940)

HildyBig-shouldered, fast-talking, whip-smart crime reporter Hildegard Johnson can’t resist her editor ex-husband or a great story. She’s a woman on top of Manhattan, on top of her career and on top of the screwball comedy, a Hollywood form that favored strong, women characters with a sense of humor. Hildy is a woman in full: empowered and demanding equality while wearing ridiculous hats and high heels. She commands her own destiny. —Thelma Adams

15. MA from Room (2015)

room2Ma is a kidnap victim who has to temper a harrowing situation through maternal love. Ma has a five year old son, Jack, who was fathered by her abductor; the two share a tiny room that’s their whole world. Despite these huge limitations, Ma has educated her son and kept him healthy in body and mind. Watching her make up games and stories to build his imagination and open her child to the world is a remarkably moving experience. Room is an intense distillation of motherhood, and any parent is awed by Ma’s herculean efforts on behalf of her child. —Liz Braun

14. FURIOSA from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

FuriosaFor years, Hollywood has disregarded performances in genre film as “merely entertaining,” vehicles through which the apparently more impressive special effects can shine. In other words, these films were really expensive, fantastical toys. But with Charlize Theron’s performance of Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, she delivered something so arresting that no one could ignore or deny it. In the midst of the film’s gargantuan presentation of dystopia and mayhem, there’s a moment when it’s reduced to silence, compelled by the agony Theron’s Furiosa feels upon learning that all that she had been fighting for had perished. She falls down to her knees in the hot red desert sand and sobs. And to think, just minutes before she had been kicking ass and taking names in her tricked-out truck. That’s called a three-dimensional, complex female character, Hollywood. Learn about it. —Candice Frederick

13. MARTHA from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Martha LizMore antihero than hero, Martha is the ringmaster of a macabre circus with emotional games in the centre ring. Hard-drinking and tart-tongued, she’s aware of her sexual power and clever about maneuvering people into the ideal position for attack. Brave enough to admit she even disgusts herself, Martha steps up to fill the void in their marriage that husband George can’t address. “I’m loud, and I’m vulgar, and I wear the pants in the house because somebody’s got to but I am not a monster! I’m NOT!” She’s the only one strong and reckless enough to change the rules of a game she and George have been playing for years. You can’t take your eyes off vain and self-assured Martha, an onscreen power broker and a towering character, even when wounded. —Linda Barnard

12. DOROTHY GALE from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

DorothyDorothy Gale is tossed, literally, out of her safe world and into a fantastical land where she’s sent on a variety of quests in order to make her way home in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. The iconic movie musical based on L. Frank Baum’s novel finds Dorothy lost and initially easily pushed into situations in which she has no control. Over the course of the film Dorothy evolves into a young woman who’s self-sufficient, fiercely loyal, and open to new experiences. Although she remains steadfast in her desire to return to her family, she puts herself in danger to help her friends. Courageous and determined, Dorothy is an inspirational character who overcomes hardships to discover her own inner strength. —Rebecca Murray

MORE AWFJ WONDER WOMEN POSTS:

AWFJ Wonder Women Countdown — Characters 33 through 23

AWFJ Wonder Women Countdown — Characters 43 through 34

AWFJ Wonder Women Countdown — Characters 55 through 44

About AWFJ’s Wonder Women Project — Marilyn Ferdinand comments

AWFJ Wonder Women Are Coming — Marilyn Ferdinand reports

AWFJ’s Top 100 Film List (published in 2007)

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  • Terpsichore Barnett

    I held my breath as I opened and read each section of the list because it was so deeply important to me that Maude Chardin of Harold and Maude be included in the list. I started at 55, so I was beginning to be a little concerned when I hadn’t seen her by 21. And then my breath caught, I smiled, cheered, and kissed her photo when I saw Ruth Gordon (Maude) at 20. Thank you so much for recognizing a character whom I believe to have impacted an entire counter culture generation, as well as generations to come, with her fully alive, fully sexual, fully aged, fully free self. Kudos to the late Colin Higgins (who invented her), to the late Hal Ashby (who directed her), to the precious Bud Cort (who worshipped her and worshipped Ruth equally) and finally to the late, sorely missed Ruth Gordon, who brought her alive on the screen as no other woman could have.