Women’s History Month Watch List: REAL REEL WOMEN

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Throughout cinema history, films by and about women have enthralled audiences, accrued awards and honors worldwide and scored at the box office while influencing out social social mores and enriching our cultural conversation. Although some Hollywood honchos and haters assert that female-centric movies are less likely to be commercial successes, our list proves them wrong. Movies that tell women’s stories have legs.

Released to celebrate Women’s History Month, AWFJ’s REAL REEL WOMEN List is an annotated roster of 50 fascinating real women whose remarkable true stories have been told in narrative features since the earliest days of moviemaking.

AWFJ members selected our 50 iconic REAL REEL WOMEN from more than 150 nominees, all of whom have had their stories told in watch-worthy films. Short essays about our REAL REEL WOMEN’s lives, accomplishments and the films made about them have been written by AWFJ members Betsy Bozdech, Liz Braun, Sandie Angulo Chen, Carol Cling, Leslie Combemale, Linda Cook, Laura Emerick, Marilyn Ferdinand, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Kimberley Jones, Loren King, Sarah Knight Adamson, Cate Marquis, Brandy McDonnell, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Lynn Venhaus, and Susan Wloszczyna.

We hope that reading about these REAL REEL princesses and pilots, artists and actors, poets, political activists and other women from all walks of life will prompt you to add all the films about them to your watch list, and that you’ll then be motivated to seek out and enjoy additional current and classic movies about other real women whose stories are memorialized in cinema.

Here are AWFJ’s REAL REEL WOMEN, listed A to Z:

MARIA ALTMANN  (1916-2011)
Austrian-American recoverer of stolen art

Woman In Gold (2015) – Helen Mirren

Real Maria
Reel Maria

Maria Altmann wanted to live a peaceful and quiet life, residing in her bungalow in Los Angeles’ Cheviot Hills district and working in her elegant fashion boutique. She wanted to transcend the turmoil and trauma she’d suffered during her youth. Born in 1916 to a wealthy, highly cultured, socially prominent family of Viennese Jews, she’d escaped the Nazi annexation of Austria by fleeing the country with her husband in 1938, leaving her parents under house arrest in the home she loved. The Nazis confiscated her family’s treasures, including the magnificent gilded portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted by Gustav Klimt, and the priceless diamond necklace worn by Adele in the painting. After the war, Austrian authorities claimed ownership of the Klimt masterpiece, renaming it “Woman in Gold” and putting it on display in Vienna’s Galerie Belvedere, where it became an icon of Austrian culture. In 1998, Maria, now a U.S. citizen, discovered family documents that spurred her quest for the return of her Aunt Adele’s portrait. Represented by lawyer Randol Schoenberg, a family friend with shared Austrian ancestry, she fought an arduous legal battle to reclaim the stolen art, valued at more than $100 million. What is most inspiring about Maria’s story as told in Woman in Gold, the stirring 2015 drama starring Helen Mirren, is that her motivation was not monetary, but rather a matter of justice. Jennifer Merin

HANNAH ARENDT (1906-1975)
German philosopher and writer

Hannah Arendt (2012) – Barbara Sukowa

Real Hannah
Reel Hannah

One of the most influential political intellectuals and philosophers of the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Nazis who claimed their atrocities were the result of their ‘just following orders.’ The German-Jewish Arendt studied with and became romantically involved with German philosopher Martin Heidegger. She fled Germany in 1933, lived in Paris for the next eight years, and immigrated to the United States in 1941, where she soon became part of the New York intelligentsia. Her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, established her reputation as an writer and thinker; the book has resurged in popularity in the last few years. Arendt covered the notorious 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann for the The New Yorker, and she expanded her essay into the controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. German director Margarethe von Trotta worked for years to bring Hannah Arendt (2012) to the screen. When I interviewed von Trotta, she said even her own longtime producer didn’t know who Arendt was. “My agent didn’t know her. Even well-educated people in Germany don’t know [who Arendt is]. So I found another producer, a woman who was very energetic from the beginning, and she fought for years for the film,” she said. Von Trotta’s powerful film stars her frequent collaborator, Barbara Sukowa, who delivers a fierce portrait of Arendt. Loren King

GERTRUDE BELL (1868-1926)
English writer, archaeologist, and Middle Eastern policy expert

Queen of the Desert (2015) – Nicole Kidman

Real Gertrude
Reel Gertrude

Thanks to David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, everyone knows of the exploits of T. E. Lawrence, but few realize that a woman traveled a similar path and achieved a similarly outsized impact. Born into a wealthy British family, Gertrude Bell received a degree from Oxford when few women were allowed to attend university. Fluent in six languages, including Arabic and Persian, Bell became fascinated with the cultures of Mesopotamia and established herself as an expert on the region and as an important political advisor. She was the only woman invited to the 1921 Council of Cairo, where Lawrence, Winston Churchill, and others established the boundaries of the modern Middle East. After her death in 1926, Bell’s legacy faded into near obscurity, but two recent films have brought her accomplishments back into prominence: Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert (2015), which stars Nicole Kidman as the woman who went into the wild to find herself, and the documentary Letters From Baghdad (2017), with Tilda Swinton giving excellent voice to Bell as an intelligent, restless adventurer. The Herzog biopic, despite Kidman’s stand-out performance, is a bit of a misfire that focuses disproportionately on Bell’s love life. Nonetheless, Queen of the Desert ends with a fitting epitaph: “The Bedouin tribes still remember her fondly as the single foreigner who understood them best.” Laura Emerick

FANNY BRICE (1891-1951)
American stage, radio, and film star

Funny Girl (1968) – Barbra Streisand
Funny Lady (1975) – Barbra Streisand

Real Fanny
Reel Fanny

Fanny Brice, born Fania Borach, was the daughter of Jewish immigrants who dropped out of school as a teenager to work in burlesque and began her association with vaudeville impresario Flo Ziegfeld two years later. She headlined the Ziegfeld Follies from 1910 through part of the 1930s. Best known in sketch comedy as bratty little girl “Baby Snooks” and performing songs like the comically self-deprecatory “Second Hand Rose,” her signature was the heartbreaking torch song, “My Man,” which inspired her first film, My Man (1928). She played herself in the Oscar-winning The Great Ziegfeld (1936), acted in several other films, and had a hit on radio with the “The Baby Snooks Show,” but there is no question that her own fame has been eclipsed by the performer who starred as Brice on Broadway and in her first film—Oscar-winner Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968). It was a perfect match—one brash, prodigiously talented, unconventionally pretty, New York Jewish singer equally adept at comedy and drama portraying another. Streisand sings “Second Hand Rose,” “My Man,” and original songs created for the Broadway show, including the now-standard “People.” The story of Brice’s determination and resilience despite the heartbreak of her marriage to a handsome scoundrel is now a classic and prompted a sequel, also starring Streisand, that told more of Brice’s story, 1975’s Funny Lady. Brice helped pave the way for unconventional-looking lead performers, and her few films are well worth watching. Nell Minow

COCO CHANEL (1883-1971)
French fashion designer

Coco Before Chanel (2009) – Audrey Tautou

Real Coco
Reel Coco

France’s most famous fashion designer learned to sew in a Catholic orphanage after the death of her mother. Her working life was initially divided between sewing and singing; at 23, she became the mistress of a textile heir and her future began to change. A romance with British aristocrat Boy Capel a few years later saw her first shops set up and financed, and her design career established. Chanel became known for freeing women from the constraints of corsets and fussy fashion. Her designs involved unstructured garments created from soft fabric, such as jersey. Chanel had affairs with several influential men, all of whom advanced her success—although she was always mistress of her own fate. Overall, the French would probably prefer her role as a Nazi sympathizer during WWII to have remained a secret. C’est dommage! There are several films about her life, one standout being director Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel (2009), which stars Audrey Tautou as the designer and Alessandro Nivola as Boy Capel. The film deals only with the early part of Chanel’s life, neatly avoiding the pesky WWII collaboration/antisemitic portion of her career. Not surprisingly, the film’s Oscar nomination was for Catherine Leterrier’s costume design. Liz Braun

JULIA CHILD (1912-2004)
American chef, author, and TV personality

Julie and Julia (2009) – Meryl Streep

Real Julia
Reel Julia

In Julie and Julia, Meryl Streep was a bit of a stretch as Child—literally, since the queen of cuisine was a 6-foot-2 monument to feminine fortitude. But Streep beautifully portrayed this larger-than-life legend who made it safe for American cooks to tackle such classic French fare as beef bourguignon, cassoulet and bouillabaisse by showing them how and why. She also was the rare woman in the ’60s who hosted her own PBS series, The French Chef. Alas, Streep had to share this 2009 biopic with Amy Adam’s often churlish food blogger, Julie Powell, who chronicles her attempts in 2002 to make every dish in Child’s 1961 best-selling cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But Child’s side of the story is the emotionally compelling one, and Streep steadfastly avoids cheap imitation (shades of SNL’s Dan Aykroyd) while still nailing that throaty trill of a speaking voice and projecting the chef’s considerable authoritative presence and humor. What is most lovely is how her marriage to her adoring husband, Paul Child (a delicious Stanley Tucci), is shown to be not just a perfect match, but also a passionate one. Or course, Streep earned an Oscar nomination, No. 16. But also give credit to director Nora Ephron’s know-how in both the kitchen and behind the camera, in what would be her final film, for an assured look at a woman who chased her butter-soaked dreams and exceeded them. Susan Wloszczyna

Polish-French scientist

Madame Curie (1943) – Greer Garson

Real Marie
Reel Marie

Maria Sklodowska-Curie, sometimes called Marie, was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and the first person to win it twice and in two fields. Albert Einstein said she was one of the scientists whom he most admired. She shared the 1903 Nobel in Physics with her French husband, Pierre Curie, and French physicist Henri Becquerel for the discovery of radioactivity—a term she coined—in uranium, thus creating the field of atomic physics. After her husband’s death, she received the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of polonium and radium. She was the first woman professor at the University of Paris. She founded the Curie Institutes, which endure as centers of medical research, and developed mobile X-ray units for use at field hospitals during World War I. And she did all this at a time when the world was hostile to women scientists. This brilliant, ground-breaking woman deserves to have a great movie made about her. So far that has not happened, but the best to date is the 1943 American Oscar-nominated Madame Curie, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. The film focuses a great deal on romance, but there are scenes in the lab, and Greer Garson manages to depict Curie as a hard-working scientist as well as a wife and mother. Other biopics have focused more on Curie’s personal life than her research. A 2013 British documentary, The Genius of Marie Curie: The Woman Who Lit Up the World, offers a bit more, including archival footage of the scientist herself. Cate Marquis

American actress

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) – Halle Berry

Real Dorothy
Reel Dorothy

Dorothy Dandridge, a talented singer, dancer, and actress, made history in 1955 by becoming the first African-American to be nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for her work in the 1954 musical Carmen Jones. The Cleveland, Ohio, native got her start in show business performing with her sister, Vivian, as the song-and-dance team The Dandridge Sisters. Dandridge appeared with and without her sister, usually uncredited, in several films throughout the 1930s, including as a singer in the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races (1937). Her career picked up in the 1950s, with credited roles in several films, including a starring role in Bright Road (1953) and as Bess in the 1959 Academy-Award-winning Porgy and Bess. After her career faded, Dandridge met a tragic end at age 42. Halle Berry persisted for six years to see the HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) to fruition. The movie uses a flashback structure to tell Dandridge’s story from her early days to her Oscar nomination, omitting nothing of the racism the star faced throughout her life. Honored with several awards, including a Golden Globe, for her performance as Dandridge, Berry fittingly became the first African-American to win the Best Actress Academy Award for her work in Monster’s Ball (2001). Linda Cook

Australian writer and explorer

Tracks (2014) – Mia Wasikowska

Real Robyn
Reel Robyn

Did you know that Robyn Davidson never had any intention of writing the 1980 international bestseller Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback? The book is required reading in most Australian high schools today. Viewing the excellent film Tracks (2014), based on her book, clearly establishes that her journey was both private and personal. The versatile Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, known for her dramatic and whimsical roles in such films as Jane Eyre (2011), The Kids Are Alright (2010), and Alice in Wonderland (2010), fittingly stars as the determined, independent Robyn Davidson. Her original idea to travel across the deserts of Australia in 1977 included only her camels and her dog. Financially strapped, she wrote to National Geographic magazine with the proposal that they commission her to write about her journey. Upon accepting her proposal, they sent photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) to rendezvous with her on five different occasions. Wasikowska’s portrayal as the fierce, brave and solitary explorer is fascinating. She carries the physically demanding role with ease, yet we cringe at her circumstances. Dust storms, charging wild camels, snakes, scorching sun, and fatigue are all part of her inspiring nine-month journey. Similar in tone to the film Wild (2014), based on American writer Cheryl Strayed’s 1,100-mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail, Tracks shows Davidson as a role model who continues to inspire people to trek outside of their comfort zone. Sarah Knight Adamson

AMELIA EARHART (1897-1937?)
American aviator

Amelia (2009) – Hilary Swank
Flight for Freedom (1943) – Rosalind Russell
Amelia Earhart (1976) – Susan Clark
Amelia Earhart: The Final Flight (1994) – Diane Keaton
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) – Amy Adams

Real Amelia
Reel Amelia

More than 80 years after her disappearance somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, record-setting aviator Amelia Earhart continues to loom large in the public consciousness. In 1932, she was the first woman and second person, after Charles Lindbergh, to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She was also the first person ever to fly solo from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. The Kansas native was devoted to promoting opportunities for women in aviation, and she helped to form the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for female pilots. On June 1, 1937, Earhart took off from Oakland, California, on her second attempt to become the first pilot to circumnavigate the globe. On July 2, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, lost radio contact and vanished. After a massive two-week search, they were officially declared lost at sea. Earhart’s disappearance is still considered one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the 20th century and one that has spawned numerous documentaries, books, and musical projects. Most recently, a study published in Forensic Anthropology in 2018 claimed that bones discovered on a Pacific island in 1940 are likely to be those of the legendary pilot. Earhart has been depicted frequently on film, starting just six years after her disappearance, in 1943’s Flight for Freedom starring Rosalind Russell. Oscar winner Hilary Swank soared in Mira Nair’s unfortunately earthbound 2009 biopic Amelia, while Academy Award nominee Amy Adams portrayed her that same year in the daffy adventure film Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Susan Clark and Diane Keaton each earned Golden Globe nominations playing the pilot in the TV movies Amelia Earhart (1976) and Amelia Earhart: The Final Flight (1994), respectively. Brandy McDonnell

GEORGE ELIOT (1819–1880)
English author

George Eliot: A Scandalous Life (2002) – Harriet Walter

Real George
Reel George

Mary Anne Evans (sometimes called “Marian”) is known by her pen name George Eliot, which she apparently adopted to be taken seriously as a writer. An English novelist, poet, journalist, and translator, Eliot was one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. She was also famous for her unconventional life; in 1854 she and philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes decided to live together even though he was married. The scandal didn’t affect Eliot’s popularity as an author. Her books, including Middlemarch, considered by most critics to be a literary masterpiece, were highly regarded for their depictions of life in rural England and for their insightful portraits of social outsiders and small-town persecution. Many of Eliot’s books were made into films dating back to the silent era, including The Mill on the Floss in 1915 as well as a 1997 remake starring Emily Watson as heroine Maggie Tulliver. Eliot herself was the subject of a BBC film, George Eliot: A Scandalous Life (2002). Directed by Mary Downes, who has directed many television documentaries, it starred British actress Harriet Walter as Evans/Eliot. Walter’s many credits include Clementine Churchill in The Crown and Sister Ursula in Call the Midwife. Loren King

English monarch

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) – Cate Blanchett
Mary of Scotland (1936) – Florence Eldridge
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) – Bette Davis
The Virgin Queen (1955) – Bette Davis
Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) – Glenda Jackson
Elizabeth (1998) – Cate Blanchett
Shakespeare in Love (1998) – Judi Dench
Mary Queen of Scots (2018) – Margot Robbie

Real Elizabeth
Reel Elizabeth

We shall bow before the dynamo from Down Under, Cate Blanchett, who was twice Oscar-nominated for her performances as this royal, the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who held onto her seat of power for 44 years. In 1998’s Elizabeth, Blanchett ruled the screen in a rich and vibrant breakout role that eschewed the formalities of most costume dramas. The queen was a hot film subject as the 21st century approached (Shakespeare in Love came out the same year), and the regally luminous actress earned her first of seven nominations as the self-declared “Virgin Queen” who rejects several suitors before secretly getting hot and heavy with an unsuitable lover (Joseph Fiennes). Entangled in various plots against her, including a poisoned dress, as well as the threat of war, the once-naïve girl learns to dispatch her foes ruthlessly while eschewing marriage, declaring, “I am married to England.” As for the 2007 sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, it brought Blanchett her fourth Oscar nod while she became the sixth actor to be nominated twice for the same role. Here she is more of a warrior ruler, under attack by Spain and threatened by her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), who incites Jesuits to attempt an assassination on Elizabeth. Meanwhile, the queen considers marrying the English explorer Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, who fails to raise much heat with Blanchett), but he ends up betraying her. Once more, the Virgin Queen puts her country first and any male last. Susan Wloszczyna

DIAN FOSSEY (1932-1985)
American scientist, primatologist, and conservation activist

Gorillas in the Mist (1988) – Sigourney Weaver

Real Dian
Reel Dian

Naturalist and gorilla researcher Dian Fossey was one of three women selected by primatologist and anthropologist Louis Leakey to study great apes up close at a time when little was known about them. Jane Goodall was chosen to study chimpanzees in 1958, Fossey began studying gorillas in 1967, and Birutė Galdikasto began observing orangutans in 1971. Despite little training and in the middle of political upheaval and war in the region, Fossey made remarkable discoveries about the endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda. Her growing conservation activism on the gorillas’ behalf brought her into conflict with local poachers and finally led to her brutal murder in 1985. Sigourney Weaver delivers an excellent performance as Fossey in 1988’s Gorillas in the Mist. The Oscar-nominated film is based on Fossey’s best-selling memoir of the same name. Weaver powerfully depicts Fossey in all her complexity, her passion for her work, her protective affection for her gorillas, her prickly dealings with local authorities, and her boldness and bravery in defending gorillas against ruthless poachers. Cate Marquis

American Supreme Court justice

On The Basis of Sex (2018) – Felicity Jones

Real Ruth
Reel Ruth

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has gone from respected to revered. She may not have been the first woman to sit on the highest court, but she has definitely had the most impact on public consciousness. In Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary RBG (2018), Justice Ginsburg is presented as something of a superhero, a living feminist legend complete with her own action figure. One of only nine women to enter her Harvard Law School class, the studious and determined Mrs. Ginsburg not only juggled her home life and course load, complete with sexist professors, but she also took care of her devoted husband, Marty, as he endured a bout with testicular cancer, and nurtured their baby. Before her career as a judge, she was a law professor and a pioneering gender-equity attorney responsible for arguing some of the most seminal gender-related cases in modern legal history. In Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex (2018), British actress Felicity Jones plays Ginsburg from her first day at Harvard, through her inability to find work in a law firm despite her a stellar academic record, through her first years as a law professor at Rutgers. The film climaxes when she argues Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, movingly and successfully showing that discrimination on the basis of sex hurts both men and women. Armie Hammer is divine as Marty, and Justin Theroux as her friend and colleague at the ACLU and Sam Waterston and Stephen Root as her sexist professors at Harvard are impressive as well. Sandie Angulo Chen

American newspaper publisher and Pulitzer Prize winner

The Post (2017) – Meryl Streep

Real Katherine
Reel Katherine

One hundred years from now, when the highly evolved army of cockroaches that will rule the Earth gets around to studying film history, they might wonder what all the fuss was about with The Post, a professionally assembled bit of Fourth Estate rah-rah-ism from Steven Spielberg. But if these cockroaches did a little more digging, they would discover that in 2017, a film that dramatized the daring work by journalists to uncover White House corruption would feel both familiar—a free press under siege, a media-hating president convinced he’s above the law—and terribly urgent. Is there some revisionist history in how The Post hogs all the glory for the Washington Post, diminishing the New York Times’ role in the Pentagon Papers saga? Sure, but there’s a kind of karmic retribution there, too: Casting WashPo publisher Kay Graham as the hero of The Post takes the sting off her absurd deletion from Watergate tick-tock All the President’s Men (1976). In her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Personal History, Graham admitted that “my feelings were hurt by being omitted altogether, except for the one famous allusion to my anatomy”: future felon John Mitchell’s infamous threat: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published!” Graham’s essential role running her family’s media empire is greatly fleshed out in The Post, and better yet, she’s portrayed by the marvelous Meryl Streep, who earned her 21st Oscar nomination for the performance. And that just feels like kismet: one titan in her field portraying another one, for the surprise feel-good movie of the year. Kimberley Jones

Irish journalist

Veronica Guerin (2003) – Cate Blanchett

Real Veronica
Reel Veronica

Reporters are supposed to cover the story, not become the story. But sometimes one invariably leads to the other—especially when they put their lives on the line. Hundreds of journalists die every year in the line of duty, but few of their stories make it to the big screen. Irish journalist Veronica Guerin’s life story has inspired not one but two big-screen accounts. In the 1990s, Guerin challenged Dublin drug lords on their own turf, launching a series of articles that ended with her murder two days before she was due at a London conference devoted to “Dying to Tell a Story: Journalists at Risk.” Her death sparked public outrage—and new laws that enabled Irish officials to freeze criminals’ ill-gotten assets. Guerin’s story first reached the screen in the fictionalized When the Sky Falls (2000), featuring Joan Allen as gritty reporter Sinead Hamilton. In 2003, Veronica Guerin presented the title character as a diehard crusader. But Cate Blanchett’s blazing title-role performance reveals what the script doesn’t: Guerin’s exuberant pursuit of a great story, her delight in her growing fame, and the foolhardy bravado that transformed the story of a lifetime into the story of her death. Carol Cling

LE LY HAYSLIP (1949- )
American writer and humanitarian

Heaven & Earth (1993) – Hiep Thi Le

Real Le Ly
Reel Le Ly

An important humanitarian, Le Ly Hayslip helped restore peaceful cultural exchange and reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam after the war between the two countries ended in 1975. She survived torture in a South Vietnamese government prison, but upon her release, Viet Cong soldiers who suspected her of being a spy captured and condemned her to death, but finally released her—but not before two soldiers raped her. She was forced to make ends meet through black market dealing, the drug trade, and, once, prostitution. Her marriage to American soldier Dennis Hayslip got her into the United States, but his abusive behavior led to their divorce. Her memoirs, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace, were lauded for providing the rare perspective of the peasants whose lives were savaged by the two warring sides. Her writing gave Hayslip a chance to become a voice of strength, peace, and optimism to help heal the deep wounds caused by the war. She founded two charitable organizations, the East Meets West Foundation and the Global Village Foundation. Her memoirs became the basis for Oliver Stone’s 1993 film Heaven & Earth in which she was portrayed by Hiep Thi Le, who, as a Vietnamese refugee who suffered separation from most of her family before reuniting with them in California, understood implicitly the hardships Hayslip suffered. Viewing the war through her eyes, the film raises questions about the fundamental soundness of American involvement in Vietnam and the strategy of forcing our way of life on another nation as a bulwark against the spread of communism. Hayslip, who had a cameo in the film, is the flesh-and-blood witness to this tragedy. Leslie Combemale

BILLIE HOLIDAY (1915–1959)
American singer

The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021) – Andra Day
Lady Sings The Blues (1972) – Diana Ross

Real Billie
Reel Billie

Billie Holiday is one of the greatest jazz singers ever. She was born over 100 years ago but continues to be a profound influence on contemporary jazz, swing, R&B, and rock artists. Her voice is unmistakable—no one else sounds like Billie Holiday. Her famed 1939 version of “Strange Fruit” is an electrifying protest song originally blacklisted as being too controversial. Lady Day, as she was known, had a short, intense, and ultimately tragic life, recognized for her unique sound even as she was brought low by addiction to drugs and alcohol. She overcame the poverty of her childhood but could never conquer the racism that kept her career from fully developing. Holiday’s turbulent life was captured in the movie Lady Sings The Blues (1972), which starred Diana Ross at the absolute height of her career. The biopic is a rags-to-riches drama with plenty of histrionics and great clothes, and a superb cast that includes Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor. It was a big box office success and was nominated for five Oscars. It’s not exactly the definitive Billie Holiday story, but Ross is over-the-top terrific and her singing introduced a whole new generation to Holiday’s music. And that’s an important achievement. Liz Braun

American writer

Farewell to Manzanar (1973) – Nobu McCarthy

Real Jeanne
Reel Jeanne

As a chronicle of a time in U.S. history that should never be forgotten, it’s impossible to overestimate the significance of Japanese-American writer Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s memoir Farewell to Manzanar (1973). The story of her family’s challenging time in the Manzanar internment camp during World War II and its profound impact on their lives remain essential reminders of the dangerous, dark power of fear and prejudice—a reminder that remains all too relevant today. Featuring a primarily Japanese cast then and still a rarity for a U.S. production, director John Korty’s film adaptation of Wakatsuki Houston’s book is a powerful drama that brings her story to life. While it can’t capture every detail of camp existence described on the page, thanks to Wakatsuki Houston’s involvement in writing the screenplay, along with her husband, James D. Houston, who also co-wrote the book, its authenticity is assured. Its impact is such that in 2002, copies of both the movie and the memoir were distributed to more than 8,000 elementary schools in California, as well as 1,500 public libraries, ensuring that Wakatsuki Houston’s legacy lives on. Betsy Bozdech

MARY JACKSON (1921-2005)
American aerospace engineer

Hidden Figures (2016) – Janelle Monae

Real Mary
Reel Mary

Female aeronautical engineers of any background were rare when Mary Jackson began her engineering career in the 1950s. Starting in 1951, she worked at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s segregated West Area Computing section, reporting to the group’s supervisor, Dorothy Vaughan, who recognized her gifts and helped her get promoted. But in order to advance, trainees had to take graduate-level math and physics in after-work courses managed by the University of Virginia. Since the classes were held at then-segregated Hampton High School, Jackson needed special permission from the City of Hampton to join her white peers in the classroom. She completed the courses, earned the promotion, and in 1958, became NASA’s first black female engineer. Jackson’s efforts to secure advancement are featured prominently in Hidden Figures (2016), the excellent film that tells the little-known story of the African-American female NASA engineers who made significant contributions to the space race. Janelle Monae portrayed Jackson; Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer played NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, respectively. Loren King

JOAN OF ARC (1412-1431)
French visionary, military leader, martyr and saint

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – Maria Falconetti
Jeanne d’Arc (1902) – Jehanne d’Alcy
Joan The Woman (1916) – Geraldine Farrar
Joan of Arc (1948) – Ingrid Bergman
Saint Joan (1957) – Jean Seberg
Jeanne la Pucelle (1994) – Sandrine Bonnaire
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999) – Milla Jovovich
Jeannette: the Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017) – Lise Leplat Prudhomme
Joan of Arc (2019) – Lise Leplat Prudhomme

Real Joan
Reel Joan

She was dead before she turned 20, but the French teenager who saw visions of saints, waged war against England, and was captured by the English and burned at the stake six centuries ago is a national heroine in France, immortalized in countless works of art, from painting to poetry to some of the very first moving images. Two years before he made his A Trip to the Moon in 1902, Georges Méliès lionized Joan in Jeanne d’Arc. Cecil B. DeMille repurposed her story for World War I resonance in 1916’s Joan the Woman. A host of international actresses have put their own spin on the legend: Ingrid Bergman in Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc (1948), Jean Seberg barely surviving Otto Preminger’s direction in Saint Joan (1957), Sandrine Bonnaire in Jacques Rivette’s two-part Jeanne la Pucelle (1994), Milla Jovovich drawing a Razzie nomination for Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999). None have touched the summit of Maria Falconetti’s performance in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), a silent film based on the historical records of Joan’s trial for heresy. Told in close-ups, we are so near to her anguish and her ardor, we don’t just watch her, we feel her. It is, quite simply, a transcendent experience. Kimberley Jones

American mathematician

Hidden Figures (2016) – Taraji P. Henson

Real Katherine
Reel Katherine

Katherine Gobles Johnson was a gifted mathematician who graduated with honors in 1937 from West Virginia State College, and then began to teach at a public school. She became part of an early NASA team in 1953. In 1962, when the United States decided to send a man to the moon, Johnson became part of a team that worked to solve problems inherent in space travel. She used geometry to determine the paths for a spacecraft to orbit the Earth and land on the moon. The 2016 movie Hidden Figures, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book of the same name, provided an entertaining account of Johnson and other African-American women who made valuable contributions to the U.S. space program and, in the process, returned a piece of history to our national story. The film centers on Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, who was brought out of the racial- and gender-segregated NASA unit in which she worked to calculate trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths for Project Mercury space flights, including those with astronauts Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American in orbit. Her success led to a long career at NASA, where she helped calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 moon flight and helped start of the Space Shuttle program. Johnson, who retired in 1986 from NASA, celebrated her 100th birthday in 2018. Linda Cook

American transgender entertainer

The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970) – John Hansen

Real Christine
Reel Christine

On Sept. 24, 1951, George Jorgensen Jr. died. On that date, he had the first of several operations that would transform him into what he believed he was from as early as he could remember—a female. The Bronx native, renamed Christine, captured headlines in 1953 when she returned from Denmark, where gender reassignment surgery was legal, and said at her first press conference, “I thank you all for coming, but I think it’s too much.” Becoming the first widely known transgender individual may have been a whole lot of nothing to her, but it touched off a cultural awakening that continues today. The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970), based on her autobiography, shows the real footage of her New York landing, and then tells her story via flashback. Young George is taunted by the boys in his neighborhood. Lonely, he finds comfort in taking pictures and grows up to become a photographer. John Hansen plays George/Christine with sympathy and grace, and handles the difficult scene where George is almost raped by a gay man and faces his confused identity with complete vulnerability. Director Irving Rapper, whose stellar credits include The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Corn Is Green (1945), and The Brave One (1956), took on Jorgensen’s story in what would be his second-to-last film. The film is nowhere near a classic, but it is surprisingly sympathetic for 1970. Jorgensen’s questions are treated seriously by an endocrinologist he consults, and Danish surgeons explain in graphic detail what they will do to give George a female body, while taking a swipe at Americans’ sexual hang-ups. Jorgensen’s Danish aunt is completely accepting of his quest, even playing matchmaker for Christine. Christine Jorgensen became a successful cabaret singer and lecturer who radiated self-confidence and helped others find theirs. Marilyn Ferdinand

FRIDA KAHLO (1907-1954)
Mexican artist and proponent of Mexican folk culture

Frida (2002) – Salma Hayek

Real Frida
Reel Frida

The life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was lovingly, lushly portrayed in director Julie Taymor’s vibrant biopic Frida, featuring fellow Mexican Salma Hayek as the artist. Kahlo’s paintings were noted for their use of brilliant color, mix of folk art and surrealist style, and striking self-portraits that symbolically portrayed her lifelong battles with pain and poor health caused by a childhood bout of polio and a traffic accident. Her works also had specifically woman-centric, Mexican themes and often contained a mix of beautiful and disturbing imagery. Kahlo was an ardent supporter of Mexican culture. Kahlo’s interest in art and politics led her to fellow Mexican artist and future husband Diego Rivera, with whom she had a tempestuous relationship. Kahlo’s art plays an integral part in Taymor’s visually stunning, affectionate portrait of the artist. Taymor depicts Kahlo’s paintings through vivid animation/live action combinations that put the actors into the paintings. As a teenager, Hayek became fascinated with Kahlo and does a wonderful job portraying the personal and professional life of the brilliant, determined artist. She received an Academy Award nomination for her efforts. Cate Marquis

Hawaiian royal and ambassador

Princess Kaiulani (2010) – Q’orianka Kilcher

Real Kaiulani
Reel Kaiulani

Beautifully filmed and set in the late 19th century, Princess Kaiulani (2010) tells the story of Hawaiian Princess Victoria Kaiulani (Q’orianka Kilcher), niece of King David Kalakaua (Ocean Kaowili). Upon King Kalakaua’s death in 1891, Queen Liliuokalani became his successor to the throne. While Kaiulani lived and studied in England, American corporations backed by U.S. Marines overthrew the monarchy of Hawaii. Princess Kaiulani’s legacy is her decision to return to her beloved Hawaii to try to prevent Hawaii’s annexation to the United States. She became an ambassador of Hawaii’s interests on the mainland and impressed President Grover Cleveland with her persuasive reasoning and her likable, refined personality. Nonetheless, annexation took place in 1898, and Kaiulani and the rest of the royal family wore funeral attire to protest what they termed an illegal takeover. Actress Q’orianka Kilcher is of Peruvian and Swiss descent, but was raised in Hawaii. As a child, she was an accomplished hula dancer and classically trained in voice at the University of Hawaii. It’s no wonder that her performance comes from the heart, forming the bright light in a somewhat flat film. If you have an interest in Hawaii’s history, the film is well worth viewing. Sarah Knight Adamson


HELEN KELLER (1880-1968)
American author, political activist, and lecturer

The Miracle Worker (1962) – Patty Duke

Real Helen
Reel Helen

Helen Keller was less than two years old when she lost her sight and hearing in 1882 due to illness. She became the first deaf-blind person to be awarded a bachelor of arts degree, and she went on to become an author and activist who advocated for persons with disabilities, women’s suffrage, labor rights, and other progressive causes. She met with every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson and was befriended by Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain. She wrote a book, The World I Live In, and many magazine articles, including “The World through Three Senses,” that described her ability to communicate and learn via touch, taste, and smell, but it was the ferocity of her intellect, her unquenchable curiosity, and her indomitable spirit that no illness could diminish. The turning point, unforgettably portrayed in the film The Miracle Worker (1962), was when her nearly blind teacher, Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), found a way to convey to Helen (Patty Duke) that she could learn words via finger-spelling to understand and convey every possible fact, thought, and emotion. Duke’s face lights up as she realizes Bancroft’s fingers spelling out “water” are naming the cool liquid spilling over her hand. The actresses had originated their roles on Broadway in 1960 in the Tony-Award-winning play “The Miracle Worker,” by William Gibson, based on Keller’s book The Story of My Life, written with the help of Sullivan in 1903. Bancroft had won a Tony for Best Leading Actress, and the magic she and Patty Duke recreated in the film earned them each Academy Awards. Their partnership, like that between Sullivan and Keller, was the key to their accomplishments. Nell Minow

Australian icon and activist

Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) – Everlyn Sampi

Real Molly
Reel Molly

Molly Craig Kelly was an Indigenous Australian Martu woman from the Western Desert, famous for her 1931 escape with her cousin Gracie and half-sister Daisy from the notorious Moore River Native Settlement internment camp in Western Australia. Made famous in the 1996 book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence written by Molly’s daughter, Doris Pilkington, Molly was played on screen by actor Everlyn Sampi in Phillip Noyce’s 2002 award-winning film Rabbit-Proof Fence. Revealing the human impact of shocking government policy that saw the forced removal of children of mixed race from their families from 1905 to 1971 (now known as the Stolen Generations), the three girls escaped and walked almost 1,000 miles along the titular fence, built in an attempt to contain the threat rabbits posed for local farmers. The film brought Molly’s story to a white Australian audience, sparking criticism from conservatives, but ultimately playing a part in changing popular attitudes that led to a formal government apology to the Stolen Generations by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008. While this was an important moment in the long history of oppression of Australia’s Indigenous people, without any sign of a treaty on the horizon, there is still much distance to go. Molly’s story is an important one in this ongoing struggle. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

American tennis player and activist

The Battle of the Sexes (2017) – Emma Stone

Real Billie Jean
Reel Billie Jean

In 1973, the burgeoning women’s liberation movement and the male chauvinist sports establishment clashed in an epic event depicted in the 2017 film The Battle of the Sexes. In a much-hyped exhibition tennis match, fierce competitor Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) played against hustler-showman and former professional tennis champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Enduring a media circus and intense pressure, King, 29, beat Riggs, 55, in straight sets before a television audience of 50 million—the largest audience ever to watch a televised tennis match. The film is a timely reminder of the long fight for gender equality, with insight into King’s personal and professional struggles. Her inspiring victory was quite a headline, but she did something else that year that changed female athlete’s earnings forever; as reigning U.S. Open champ, she demanded equal prize money after making $15,000 less than the male singles winner the year before. In that defining era, King, the first woman to sign a professional contract in 1968, crusaded for equal pay and respect. This passionate trailblazer not only won 39 Grand Slam titles, but also made it acceptable to be a female athlete. When she launched the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, commercial sponsor Virginia Slims’ ad slogan was “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” We have because of her pioneering impact. Lynn Venhaus

American civil rights activist

Selma (2014) – Carmen Ejogo
Boycott (2001) – Carmen Ejogo

Real Coretta
Reel Coretta

Although most civil rights films tend to focus on the men in the movement, Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014) also explores the considerable contributions of Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) during the 1950s and ’60s. Yes, the movie’s main focus is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (the brilliant David Oyelowo), but Coretta is much more than a patient and occasionally long-suffering, wife and mother. She is an influential leader in her own right, and no one can play her better than Ejogo. Literally. The English actress has played the legendary civil rights figure twice: first in the award-winning HBO film Boycott (2001) opposite her then-husband Jeffrey Wright’s MLK and again 13 years later opposite Oyelowo in Selma. The decade that passed between the making of the two films is well-timed for Ejogo’s performance, because Boycott takes place in 1955 and Selma in 1965. Like Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria or Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair, no one can quite inhabit the legendary activist, author, mother, and wife as touchingly as Ejogo, who earned an Image Award from the NAACP for her performance. More important, Coretta Scott King gave her blessing for Ejogo to play her, and the two even met leading up to the making of Boycott. Sandie Angulo Chen

MAUD LEWIS (1903-1970)
Canadian folk artist

Maudie (2016) – Sally Hawkins

Real Maud
Reel Maud

No one would ever mistake 2016’s Maudie, about self-taught Canandian artist Maud Lewis, for a Hollywood fairy tale—not with Lewis’ lifetime struggles against crippling arthritis, extreme poverty, and lack of emotional support. Yet Lewis, radiantly embodied by the irrepressible Sally Hawkins, displays a creative drive that enables her to exert control over a life that seemingly marks her as a victim of circumstance, finding not only artistic fulfillment, but also wider fame. Initially, her artistic spark manifests itself on the walls of the tumbledown Nova Scotia shack where she keeps house for the taciturn loner (Ethan Hawke) who becomes her husband. Maudie explores the grudging, growing bond between these two outcasts with undeniable poignancy, so it’s a shock when, at movie’s end, documentary footage reveals their real-life inspirations. The contrast between these frail, faded people and their movie counterparts suggests the many ways Maudie softens the often awful truth (at least according to Lance Woolaver’s biography Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door). Yet, in so doing, Maudie reminds us of the transformative power of art—something the artist herself discovered, concentrating on the sunbeams she saw despite, and amid, the darkness of life. Carol Cling

MILDRED LOVING (1939-2008)
American civil rights activist

Loving (2016) – Ruth Negga
Mr. and Mrs. Loving (1996) – Lela Rochon

Real Mildred
Reel Mildred

What more fundamental right could there be than to love the person of your own choosing? Yet, until the landmark 1967 case Loving v. Virginia, in which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned miscegenation laws in 15 states, that wasn’t always possible. Richard Loving, a white man, fell in love with Mildred Jeter, black and Native American; after their 1958 marriage in Washington, D.C., they returned home to Virginia, where their union was illegal, and underwent years of harassment, including arrest, by authorities. Finally, Mildred wrote to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who referred the Lovings to the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Lovings’ victory became the basis of same-sex marriage rulings decades later. A year before her death, Mildred gave a rare interview in which she said she was proud of the “court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.” The Lovings’ saga inspired the Showtime film Mr. and Mrs. Loving (1996) and Jeff Nichols’ excellent Loving (2016), but Nancy Buirski’s documentary The Loving Story (2011), with archival footage of the actual couple, is a must-see. Laura Emerick

LORETTA LYNN (1932-2022 )
American country music singer

Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) – Sissy Spacek

Real Loretta
Reel Loretta

Country queen Loretta Lynn was an octogenarian when her latest album, “Wouldn’t It Be Great,” was released. It’s the 41st studio album of her 60-year career. Any female country artist you can think of from the last 50 years was influenced by Lynn. She was herself inspired by Kitty Wells and mentored by Patsy Cline, and everyone else who came after is, musically speaking, in Lynn’s debt. When the CMT Award show honored Loretta Lynn as their Artist of a Lifetime, she wasn’t well enough to attend, so her award was picked up by Sissy Spacek, the actress who portrayed Lynn in the 1980 movie Coal Miner’s Daughter. Spacek won an Oscar for her portrayal of Lynn, a Kentucky native who was married at age 13, had four kids by age 18, and whose road from poverty to musical superstardom began with singing at country fairs. Michael Apted directed Coal Miner’s Daughter, which was based on Lynn’s autobiography of the same name, with a cast that includes Tommy Lee Jones, Levon Helm and, as Patsy Cline, Beverly D’Angelo. Nearly 40 years on, the movie still holds up. Liz Braun

MARY MAPES (1956- )
American journalist and news producer

Truth (2015) – Cate Blanchett

Real Mary
Reel Mary

Mary Mapes is an inspiration to all truth tellers, and with the current attacks on news media, her story is particularly relevant and compelling. Mapes was a principal producer for CBS’s news magazine 60 Minutes Wednesday. Famously dedicated and valiant in her determination to uncover political and societal wrongdoings, she was best known for breaking the story about torture by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004. Mapes never expected to become the subject of an intense and very public investigation—some would call it a witch hunt—regarding her coverage of then presidential candidate George W. Bush’s questionable military service in the Air National Guard. Mapes prepared and CBS aired a report on September 8, 2005, showing that Bush had eluded active combat duty through privilege and the influence of family friends in high places, and that he was actually absent for much of his National Guard duty. The report was based on a paper trail, and when some of the documentation was called into question, Mapes’ methodology, intentions, and credibility were impugned. After she was fired, CBS received a coveted Peabody Award for her work on Abu Ghraib. The final chapter in Mapes’ employment at CBS is told in the truth-based narrative Truth (2015), with Cate Blanchett brilliantly portraying this courageous, committed, and complex crusader. Jennifer Merin

GOLDA MEIR (1898-1978)
Israeli Prime Minister

A Woman Called Golda (1982) – Ingrid Bergman

Real Golda
Reel Golda

There’s no arguing with the fact that Golda Meir led a movieworthy life. Born in Russia and raised in Wisconsin before immigrating to Palestine in the early 1920s, the strong-willed, hardworking Meir went on to be elected Israel’s first and, to date, only female prime minister, in 1969. An activist from an early age, she was a proud advocate of the Jewish people and one of the signers of Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948. The best-known cinematic take on this legend’s life is A Woman Called Golda (1982), a made-for-TV film that earned seven Emmy nominations and three wins, including one for its star, legend-in-her-own-right Ingrid Bergman, who also won a posthumous Golden Globe for the role. Structured as a flashback looking over Meir’s life and offering memorable turns by Ned Beatty, Robert Loggia, Leonard Nimoy, and a young Judy Davis, director Alan Gibson’s ambitious biopic offers an honest, comprehensive look at one of the modern world’s most memorable women. Betsy Bozdech

English nurse and healthcare reformer

Florence Nightingale (1985) – Jaclyn Smith
Florence Nightingale (1915) – Elisabeth Risdon
The White Angel (1935) – Kay Francis
The Lady with the Lamp (1951) – Anna Neagle
Florence Nightingale (2008) – Laura Fraser

Real Florence
Reel Florence

When she was just a teenager, Florence Nightingale became convinced that nursing was her divine calling, despite her parents’ demands that she do the proper thing for a woman of her social status during the Victorian Era—marry a man of means. After receiving her nursing training in Germany, she became superintendent of a hospital for ill governesses in London in 1853, improving the institute’s hygiene practices, quality of care, and efficiency. In October 1853, the Crimean War broke out, and the English people soon became outraged over reports of the abhorrent quality of care their wounded troops were receiving at Scutari, the British base hospital in Constantinople. In late 1854, Nightingale was asked her to organize a group of nurses to tend the ill and injured British soldiers in Crimea. She worked tirelessly to improve sanitation conditions and personally tend to soldiers, earning the nicknames “the lady with the lamp” and “the angel of the Crimea,” with good reason: her work reduced the hospital’s death rate by two-thirds, and her subsequent proposals for military hospital reform led to the establishment of a Royal Commission for the Health of the Army in 1857. She was first memorialized on celuloid just five years after her death in the British silent film Florence Nightingale (1915), with Elisabeth Risdon in the title role. Other versions include the 1936 biopic The White Angel, starring glamorous Kay Francis, who acknowledged she was miscast, and The Lady with the Lamp (1951) with Anna Neagle portraying Nightingale in a film based on a stage play. The 1985 TV movie Florence Nightingale starring Jaclyn Smith appears to be the best-regarded of all the versions, including the religiously focused 2008 BBC telefilm Florence Nightingale starring Laura Fraser. Brandy McDonnell

BETTIE PAGE (1923-2008)
American pin-up model

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005) – Gretchen Mol

Real Bettie
Reel Bettie

Although working predominantly during the 1950s, Tennessee-born pin-up model Bettie Page’s cult fame and notoriety have shown no sign of losing strength in the present day. With her striking black bangs and open, smiling face, Page was made famous by photographers Irving Klaw and Bunny Yeager, and was the Playboy centerfold in January 1955. While Page’s sexually potent image has been largely defanged as a cute commercial motif to be found on lunchboxes and t-shirts in any number of suburban shopping malls, as Mary Harron’s 2005 biopic so memorably depicted, Page’s life was far more complex. Written by Harron and Guinevere Turner, and starring Gretchen Mol in the lead role, The Notorious Bettie Page follows the title character from her experiences as a religious young woman and sexual assault survivor, through her modeling career and her shift back to religion. Retiring in the late 1950s, Page all but vanished, and struggled for decades with mental health issues. She returned to the public eye in her final years somewhat hesitantly after discovering a resurgence of interest in her work that had snowballed from the 1980s. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

ROSA PARKS (1913-2005)
American civil rights activist

The Rosa Parks Story (2002) – Angela Bassett
Behind the Movement (2018) – Meta Golding

Real Rosa
Reel Rosa

When a bus driver had a 42-year-old, African-American seamstress named Rosa Parks arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a crowded, segregated city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, he messed with the wrong woman. Parks, a member of the NAACP, called her chapter president to bail her out, and the first mass strategy to end segregationist Jim Crow laws kicked off with the Montgomery Bus Boycott by the African-American community. Parks said, “It was not prearranged. It just happened that the driver made a demand, and I just didn’t feel like obeying his demand. I was quite tired after spending a full day working.” She was also, in fact, tired of being treated as lesser and unequal in her own country, and she worked to the end of her life to make the United States live up to its credo of liberty and justice for all. With The Rosa Parks Story, renowned African-American director Julie Dash created an accurate, emotionally satisfying film that aired on the CBS network in 2002. Her film takes Rosa from her childhood in Montgomery, to her marriage to barber Raymond Parks, and her climactic act on the Cleveland Avenue bus line and its repercussions—threats of physical violence and loss of employment—for her and her family. Angela Bassett is superb as the intelligent, conscientious woman who believed she was as good as anyone else and who moved courageously into the fight for civil rights after suffering indignity after indignity. Cicely Tyson and Peter Francis James ably support Tyson as Rosa’s mother and husband, respectively. Parks was also depicted in the 2018 cable TV movie Behind the Movement. Marilyn Ferdinand

SYLVIA PLATH (1932-1963)
American poet and novelist

Sylvia (2003) – Gwyneth Paltrow

Real Sylvia
Reel Sylvia

Sylvia Plath is most known for being a pioneer of confessionalist poetry and for her semiautographical novel The Bell Jar, which was published shortly before her death by suicide. She lived with depression throughout her adulthood, and the emotional toll of her struggles are laid bare in her poetry in blunt, bleak style. Her final book of poems, Ariel, was published in 1965, though her husband, English poet Ted Hughes, published additional works in The Collected Poems in 1982. The latter won her the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the first posthumous Pulitzer to be awarded. In director Christine Jeffs’ 2003 film Sylvia, Sylvia and Ted are played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig. The couple’s passionate, instantaneous connection lead to marriage, children, infidelity, and a sad madness. Sylvia honors its subject with generous helpings of the poetry through which Sylvia revealed her life, and places the importance of the writing, particularly during the time in which they lived, at the forefront. Leslie Combemale

ALMA REVILLE (1899-1982)
English screenwriter and film editor

Hitchcock (2012) – Helen Mirren
The Girl (2012) – Imelda Staunton

Real Alma
Reel Alma

The future Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock got into pictures first. Starting at age 16, she was working her way through the ranks of the nascent British film industry before the baby-faced Hitch had his foot in the door. Even as his star rose, she was banking screenwriting credits independent of him, including a pair of Ivor Novello silents. But they were better together as a team, and in the early years she was listed as a co-writer for such thrillers as Suspicion (1941) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Her last screen credit was 1950’s Stage Fright, yet she remained, as Hitchcock himself put it, his “constant collaborator.” In 2012, Reville was portrayed twice on screen, neither in especially good movies, which nonetheless tried to reckon with Hitchcock’s complicated dual legacy as a master of suspense and a brutal manipulator of actresses. The 2012 HBO film The Girl is an uneasy watch, especially when Alma (played shrinking-violet-like by Imelda Staunton) apologizes to actress Tippi Hedren for her husband’s creepy behavior but refuses to put a stop to it. Sacha Gervasi’s feature, Hitchcock (2012), may be more fanciful with the facts, but it’s also the more palatable film for feminist viewers, as it takes pains to emphasize Alma’s creative contributions and casts the likably spiky Helen Mirren as Alma. Is it pure fantasy? Maybe. But Reville herself was in the business of weaving fantasy, whether or not she received proper credit for it. Kimberley Jones

American diplomat and activist

Sunrise at Campobello (1960) – Greer Garson
Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (1977) – Jane Alexander
Hyde Park On Hudson (2012) – Olivia Williams

Real Eleanor
Reel Eleanor

A shy, neglected young girl who never got over the absence of her adored father, Eleanor Roosevelt became not just the longest-serving First Lady during her husband’s four terms as President of the United States, but a major world figure on her own. She was the first U.S. representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and later its chair, and was a tireless activist on behalf of justice and equality. Famously, when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Marian Anderson to sing in its performance hall, the very patrician Roosevelt resigned her membership and helped arrange for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, calling her “a credit to her race–the human race.” Roosevelt was the niece of one President and the wife of another, her fifth cousin Franklin Roosevelt. Because he was paralyzed by polio, she traveled widely in his place, and wrote a newspaper column called “My Day.” Her extraordinary life has been portrayed on screen many times, most memorably by Greer Garson in Sunrise at Campobello (1960) and Jane Alexander in two television miniseries. Nell Minow

Australian singing group

The Sapphires (2012) – Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbens, Jessica Mauboy

Real Sapphires
Reel Sapphires

It was as late as 1967 that the Australian government held a referendum to amend the Australian constitution to formally recognize Aboriginal people in the implementation of policy and questions of cultural heritage. A year later, a singing group of four Yorta women from Australia’s southeast toured Vietnam to perform for soldiers. Their story was brought to the stage in a play written by Tony Briggs, whose mother and aunt, Lauren Robinson and Lois Robinson Peeler, along with Beverly Briggs and Naomi Mayers, were part of the group. Adapted to the screen in Wayne Blair’s 2012 The Sapphires, the film unites domestic questions about changes in the way that indigenous people were viewed in Australia at the time with broader and more subtle questions about the role of Australia in the Vietnam War and, most importantly, invites us to think about the widespread erasure of Aboriginal stories from modern Australian history. Although a loose retelling of the real-life story, The Sapphires stars some of Australia’s most talented and successful indigenous actors, including Deborah Mailman (who appeared in the original stage play), Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbens, and pop star Jessica Mauboy. The film was hugely successful in Australia and received broad critical acclaim. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

SOPHIE SCHOLL (1921-1943)
German university student of philosophy and anti-Nazi activist

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) – Julia Jentsch
Five Last Days (1982) – Lena Stolze
The White Rose (1982) – Lena Stolze

Real Sophie
Reel Sophie

“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?” Those were Sophie Scholl’s final words before Nazi executioners beheaded her on the guillotine on Feb. 22, 1943. She was 21 years old. Sophie, her brother, Hans, and their colleague, Christof Probst, were condemned to death for distributing antiwar pamphlets at the University of Munich. Sophie, the fourth of six Scholl children, was raised in a conventional home. Her father, a successful businessman and once the politically progressive mayor of their town, was a devout Lutheran dedicated to moral, socially conscious behavior. Sophie was, by all accounts, happy, well-adjusted, and good at her schoolwork. Like many of her classmates, she joined the League of German Girls when she was 12, but quickly withdrew from that propaganda-driven, pro-Nazi organization because she found its ideology unacceptable. From then on, Sophie dedicated herself to protesting Nazi domination, both by finding ways to circumvent required service to the regime and by actively participating in the perilous underground resistance. Sophie is an inspiring icon of righteousness and service to humanity. Her story and strength of character, as revealed by Julia Jentsch’s compelling performance in Marc Rothemund’s 2005 film, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, will affect all but the hardest of human hearts. Jennifer Merin

German Jewish member of the anti-Nazi underground

Aimée & Jaguar (1999) – Maria Schrader

Real Felice
Reel Felice

Felice Schragenheim was a German Jew trapped in Berlin who hid her identity and, through her work on a Nazi newspaper and the access to high-ranking Nazis that association afforded her, was able to provide valuable intelligence to the anti-Nazi underground. She was eventually found out and died at the hands of the Nazis some time in 1944. To be sure, hers is a compelling story, but there were countless anti-Nazis and antifascists who displayed similar courage during the war. What sets Schragenheim apart is her two-year love affair with Lilly Wust (1913-2006), a bored German housefrau and mother of four married to a Nazi soldier. The memories and correspondence Lilly shared with Austrian journalist Erica Fischer 50 years after she and Felice parted resulted in the 1994 best-selling book Aimée & Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin 1943, which formed the basis for the 1999 German film Aimée & Jaguar. Maria Schrader as Felice and Juliane Köhler as Lilly are compelling as a couple overwhelmed by an unexpected love, and they shared the Silver Bear Award at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival; indeed, it is unthinkable that one could be as good in this intensely romantic film without the other. Lilly Wust herself was forever changed by her love affair and took her own risks: In 1995, Lilly was declared one of the Righteous Among the Nations of Yad Vashem for sheltering Jewish women from Nazi persecution. Marilyn Ferdinand

SELENA (1971-1995)
American tejano singer

Selena (1997) – Jennifer Lopez

Real Selena
Reel Selena

Although murdered at the height of her fame, Latin music sensation Selena managed to accomplish a lifetime of achievements in her brief 23 years of existence. Regarded as one of the first Latina singers to appeal to non-Latin audiences, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was born to Mexican-American parents in Corpus Christi, Texas. Talented from a young age, she started performing as a child, singing in English, her native language. As her career progressed, she recorded her first albums in Spanish, which she learned phonetically, and later became fluent en español. As a woman in the overwhelmingly macho Latin music scene, Selena overcame many obstacles in her career path, including the industry bias against non-native Spanish speakers and her own embrace of the tejano style, then and still regarded as a genre in decline. Along with her best-selling albums, she became known as a spokesperson, model, style icon, entrepreneur, and community activist. At her death, Selena was on the verge of breaking into the pop mainstream. “Dreaming of You,” her first mainly English-language release, went to No. 1, and her life was quickly memorialized in the moving film Selena (1997), starring Jennifer Lopez in what would turn into her own breakthrough role. Laura Emerick

MARY SHELLEY (1797-1851)
English writer

Mary Shelley (2017) – Elle Fanning
Gothic (1986) – Natasha Richardson
Haunted Summer (1988) – Alice Krige
Rowing in the Wind (1988) – Lizzy McInnerny

Real Mary
Reel Mary

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley—daughter of two literary eminences and wife of another—wrote novels, stories, dramas, essays, biographies and more. Yet the world remembers her for one work, written when she was a teenager. In the two centuries since Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published anonymously, there have been dozens of movies about the man and monster she created. Shelley herself has been a less familiar cinematic presence. Elsa Lanchester played her and the title character in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein. Shelley finally stepped into the cinematic spotlight in the 1980s, albeit as one of the legendary literary gang gathering at Lord Byron’s Swiss villa in 1816, where a fateful parlor game ultimately inspired both Frankenstein and John Polidori’s Vampyr. Natasha Richardson played Shelley in director Ken Russell’s fever-dream Gothic (1986), followed in 1988 by both Alice Krige in Haunted Summer and Lizzy McInnerny in Rowing with the Wind. But it wasn’t until 2017’s Mary Shelley that she got a movie all her own, with Elle Fanning as the yearning young writer haunted by her mother’s death and driven by her determination to forge her own life and find her own voice. Carol Cling

KAREN SILKWOOD (1946-1974)
American lab technician, whistleblower, and union activist

Silkwood (1983) – Meryl Streep

Real Karen
Reel Karen

Corporate whistleblower Karen Silkwood’s death remains a mystery more than 40 years after her car crashed outside of Crescent, Oklahoma. That’s where Silkwood worked as a technician at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron River nuclear facility making plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. A member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, she became concerned about health and safety violations at the plant, especially after she was found to have plutonium contamination on her person and in her home. On the Nov. 13, 1974, she was driving to Oklahoma City to meet a journalist with evidence of her claims about violations at the plant when her car swerved off the road and crashed, killing her. Although police concluded she fell asleep at the wheel and ruled her death an accident, the suspicious circumstances surrounding the wreck, including the disappearance of her manila folder of documents and dents on the back of her car, made national news. Her story inspired Mike Nichols’ 1983 biopic Silkwood, which received five Academy Awards nominations, including nods for Meryl Streep’s lead turn as Silkwood, Cher’s supporting performance as her roommate, Dolly Pelliker, and Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen’s screenplay. Nichols also was nominated for best director and Sam O’Steen for best film editing. Streep’s empathy-inducing portrayal of Silkwood enduring a brutal scrub-down after setting off contamination alarms introduced the term “Silkwood shower” to the cultural lexicon. Brandy McDonnell

ANNIE SULLIVAN (1866-1936)
American educator

The Miracle Worker (1962) – Anne Bancroft

Real Annie
Reel Annie

Without the creative communication skills of Annie Sullivan, neither she nor her star pupil, blind and deaf Helen Keller, would be remembered today. But their painful and uplifting struggles, as shown in The Miracle Worker, helped advance the understanding and education of the deaf and blind. William Gibson wrote the play for TV’s Playhouse 90 in 1957, adapted it for the stage in 1959, where it won a Tony Award for Best Play, and Anne Bancroft won a Best Actress Tony for her portrayal of Sullivan. When the 1962 film adaptation was first conceived, the studio wanting a bigger name than Bancroft and someone younger than 15-year-old Patty Duke to play Keller at age 7. Director Arthur Penn was adamant that the Broadway duo would recreate their physically demanding roles. The pairing was just as dynamic on screen, and both actors won Oscars for their honest, heart-wrenching performances. Born Johanna Mansfield Sullivan, the poorly sighted Annie overcame many obstacles and graduated valedictorian from the life-changing Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. Hired by Helen’s parents to avoid having their daughter institutionalized, Sullivan’s ultimately successful teaching efforts opened doors for both women, who became lifelong friends. They improved the quality of life for so many, and it’s fitting they are together in eternity, interred at the Washington National Cathedral. Sullivan was the first woman so honored, in 1936. Lynn Venhaus

American mathematician and computer programmer

Hidden Figures (2017) – Octavia Spencer

Real Dorothy
Reel Dorothy

Before Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 best-selling nonfiction book Hidden Figures and its 2017 film adaptation of the same name, most Americans probably hadn’t heard of a human computer, much less the story of the pioneering black women who worked in this capacity at NASA. Octavia Spencer gives one of the defining performances of her career as Dorothy Vaughan, a former math teacher who was recruited by the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943 and eventually rose to head up the segregated West Area Computing Unit. When electronic computers came on the scene, Vaughan transitioned herself and many of her staff to the artificial computer age in the newly formed Analysis and Computation Division. Although parts of the plot are only loosely fact-based, the movie shines a light on this unsung hero of the Space Race. In a country that still struggles with racism and prejudice, the film, directed by Theodore Melfi, is a powerful reminder of how all people of color—even exceptional ones—had to deal with degrading discrimination. Sandie Angulo Chen

QUEEN VICTORIA (1819-1901)
English monarch

Mrs. Brown (1997) – Judi Dench
Victoria & Abdul (2017) – Judi Dench
The Young Victoria (2017) – Emily Blunt
The Greatest Showman (2017) – Gayle Rankin
The Little Princess (1939) – Beryl Mercer

Real Victoria
Reel Victoria

Judi Dench was primarily a stage and TV actress, which is how she came to have her first lead film role in 1997’s Mrs. Brown at age 63. Her bereaved Queen Victoria finds comfort and stirs up controversy by befriending John Brown (a robustly cheeky Billy Connolly), Scottish servant to her late husband, Albert. Their intimacy and the sway that Brown has over the ruler upsets others in her court. When Brown encourages her to return to public life along with a daily horse ride for exercise that allows her a chance to enjoy the outdoors, they have a falling out, but eventually reunite when he becomes ill. Of course, Dame Judi, both steely and sentimental, would achieve her first of seven Oscar nominations for a role that she would repeat in 2017’s similar Victoria & Abdul, but with an even more unusual, late-in-life, platonic soulmate in the form of an Indian Muslim clerk. The tall, youthful and quite attractive man (Ali Fazal, who isn’t quite up to matching Dench’s delightfully deft performance) fearlessly connects with the lonely old woman whose advisors treat her as an ancient obstacle. But there is something about the fanciful way he looks at the world and doesn’t treat Her Majesty like a musty institution that lifts her spirits. Director Stephen Frears, who did right by Dench before with another odd-couple tale, Philomena (2013), knows how to bring out the best in his leading lady. The film is worth seeing just to hear her Victoria entertain the great Puccini by singing Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I’m Called Little Buttercup.” Like the film, it is a bit off-key, but still a joy to experience. Susan Wloszczyna

VIRGINIA WOOLF (1882-1941)
English author

The Hours (2002) – Nicole Kidman

Real Virginia
Reel Virginia

Nicole Kidman has become such a staple on the awards show circuit that it’s easy to forget how transformative her Oscar-winning central role in The Hours (2002) was, both physically and from a career perspective. She truly disappeared inside the part of brilliant, troubled British author Virginia Woolf in director Stephen Daldry’s triptych drama, memorably portraying Woolf’s struggles with mental illness, specifically, depression and bipolar disorder. The ground-breaking author was a pioneer of stream-of-consciousness writing in such celebrated novels as To the Lighthouse (1927) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925), the latter of which is the focus of The Hours, itself based on the same-named book by Michael Cunningham. Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep co-star as 1950s and early 2000s women, respectively, who are profoundly influenced by Woolf’s classic tale of what-ifs, regrets, suicide, and the nature of happiness. All of these themes echo through The Hours, as its characters grapple with friendship, motherhood, desire, marriage—in other words, the very nature of womanhood itself. Betsy Bozdech

AWFJ’s REAL REEL WOMEN List was co-edited and co-produced by Jennifer Merin and Marilyn Ferdinand

Also of interest:

AWFJ REAL REEL WOMEN List – Film Titles by Decade

AWFJ REAL REEL WOMEN – Listed by Profession

AWFJ WONDER WOMEN – Iconic Fictional Females

AWFJ’s Top 100 Films List

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).