Course A. Female Performance in Modern Hollywood
Tuesdays, 9:30-11:00 a.m.
Instructor: Nick Davis, Associate Professor, English and Gender &
This course meets on Tuesday mornings beginning on January 4.
NOTE: Pre-screening the suggested films is optional, but doing so will greatly enhance the lecture experience. The list of clips shown during class will include and often exceed the films listed below, evoking each actress’s body of work. As of this printing, these films are available to stream through various services, but please bear in mind that titles constantly cycle in and out of every streaming service’s library. Should any movie become inaccessible between now and the lecture in question, Prof. Davis will offer a new suggestion at least one week in advance. All films should also be available on DVD for purchase or at local libraries for checkout.
Particularly in the U.S., films became a subject for “serious” criticism by enshrining directors as their principal artists. This shift in movie culture unfolded at a midcentury moment when, even more than now, men held a near-exclusive dominion on filmmaking as a career. Women achieved their greatest cinematic renown as performers, but even the most powerful were often viewed as “muses” for directors or as glamorous icons who helped sell tabloids and tickets. Times, studio structures, and gender politics changed markedly, yet these stereotypes persist. Even film scholars pay little attention to actresses’ creative labors, formative contributions to their projects, and pivotal influences on the past and present of U.S. cinema—and, by extension, of U.S. life. This course resists those legacies by analyzing the work of over a dozen female stars of post-1950 Hollywood film, many of them equally prominent on TV or in the theater. Lectures will illuminate key dimensions of each woman’s signature artistry and frame in historical terms her unique contributions to how screen narratives evolved over time, in dialogue with changes in the moviemaking industry.
Jan. 4 Kim Stanley and Faye Dunaway: “Modern Acting and the Method”
Acting on U.S. stages and screens changed forever with the sudden, midcentury popularity of the Method, a self-consciously “modern” approach tied inextricably to new forms of realism and naturalism in American drama. Roll calls of its famous U.S. practitioners often favor male stars, directors, and teachers (Brando, Clift, Dean, Kazan, Strasberg), but this sea change in performance also gave rise to a new cohort of consummate actresses, invested in the truth of their work and charting new levels of psychological intricacy. The Method, however, elicited critiques and suspicions as well as praise, and it is perhaps no coincidence that some of its most electrifying adherents also suffered such blunted careers.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964, dir. Bryan Forbes, 112 min.); Chinatown (1974, dir. Roman Polanski, 130 min.)
Jan. 11 Gena Rowlands: “The Actress as Co-Author”
Often named as a hero and inspiration to today’s leading actresses, Gena Rowlands departed from her Method-trained peers by devoting her career much more forwardly to the screen than the stage. Her most famous performances, achieved in tandem with her director/husband John Cassavetes, combined scripted and improvised elements and encompassed singular experiments in movement and mannerism. The reciprocal creativity of Rowlands and Cassavetes and their joint success in testing the potentials of cinema had more parallels in European than in U.S. cinema. Scholars have expended more words on his genius than hers, but she is a pivotal figure in the histories of American independent film and of screen performance, her range all the more visible in work with other directors.
A Woman under the Influence (1974, dir. John Cassavetes, 155 min.); Another Woman (1988, dir. Woody Allen, 84 min.)
Jan. 18 Cicely Tyson: “The Black Actress as Public Pedagogue”
Unstoppable in her pursuit of theatrical training, peerless in her talent, disposed toward realist and avant-garde projects, Cicely Tyson nonetheless faced a chronic paucity of film roles for black women. Her audiences split between those hungry for richer, deeper representation and those who, sometimes by their open admission, doubted the very humanity of African Americans. Pledging her considerable gifts to roles and projects that could “alter the narrative about Black people” and “change the way Black women in particular were perceived,” Tyson found her greatest opportunities on television. In so doing, she made herself crucial to that medium’s legacy of overt and implicit public pedagogy.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974, dir. John Korty, 112min.); Sounder (1972, dir. Martin Ritt, 105 min.)
Jan. 25 Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Vanessa Redgrave: “The Actress as Activist”
These actresses began their film careers in the 1960s, each emerging as an icon of generational tastes, fashions, and beliefs. By the 1970s and 1980s, they were as famous (if not more so) for controversial activism as for their work on screen. The nuanced psychology and expressive force of Fonda’s character portraits, often achieved with American directors in the realist tradition, made an openly feminist point of defying simplistic, sexist caricatures. She also helped to launch a new age of the actress as producer of her own projects. Christie and Redgrave, more inclined toward elliptical stories and inscrutable auteurs, challenged the relations of depth and surface in the ways we perceive women, retaining levels of mystery on film even as they stated political positions offscreen in the plainest of terms.
Suggested screenings: Klute (1971, dir. Alan J. Pakula, 114 min.); McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971, dir. Robert Altman, 120 min.)
(Note: I am keeping suggested films to two per week, but the 1977 Fonda/Redgrave vehicle Julia, currently streaming nowhere on the web, will certainly figure in the lecture.)
Feb. 1 Meryl Streep: “Postcards from Olympus”
Nothing about Streep’s career is programmatic or precedented. She’s somehow become more of a box-office draw and a recognizable citizen-activist as she ages. This lecture will pay due tribute to her almost mythic level of early achievement in American cinema and to the surprises she keeps delivering in 21st-century pop movies and art films alike. We will pointedly pause, though, in the 1990s, the one interval in Streep’s career, now unthinkable, when public voices wondered if the end of her run was coming. Some balked at her choices to sing, laugh, and court the mainstream; others fretted that the “gears” in her acting were becoming too visible. But to think so is to misunderstand Streep, who worships entertainers and dislikes idolatry, and who presents her characters as, in their own way, actors.
Suggested screenings: Postcards from the Edge (1990, dir. Mike Nichols,101 min.); The Bridges of Madison County (1995, dir. Clint Eastwood, 135 min.)
Feb. 8 Alfre Woodard: “At the Spotlight’s Edge
Woodard has sustained a career as durable as Streep’s and at a comparably high artistic bar, but more than anyone else in this course, she often finds herself in the midst of ensembles, somber or comedic. A stalwart of episodic dramas as well as “event television,” she has balanced her career almost equally between screens large and small, though in cinema she tends to fall farther from the narrative center. As with Tyson, the shape of Woodard’s career reflects a racial disparity in opportunity, but beyond or alongside that fact she deserves non-asterisked credit as one of the medium’s expert miniaturists: a performer who plumbs more than most do from single scenes and close-ups. Her infinitely nuanced work in rare, center-ring roles reflects her decades of proving there are indeed no small parts.
Suggested screenings: Passion Fish (1992, dir. John Sayles, 135 min.); Clemency (2019, dir. Chinonye Chukwu, 112 min.)
Feb. 15 Tilda Swinton and Julianne Moore: “Acting in the Twilight of Identity”
Scottish aristocrat Swinton began her film career in a radical leftist friend’s experimental films. Army brat Moore got her start as twin sisters (one good, one evil!) in a daytime soap. Devotees of the silver screen, with almost no footprint on the stage, neither followed a typical path to the Oscar podium. But perhaps their strongest link, reflecting the early-90s moment of their artistic emergence, is their remarkable penchant for playing characters who look and feel like concepts; they stylize their voices, bodies, and manners in sync with openly intellectual directors who advance theories and explore abstractions through their movies. In an era when scholars increasingly critiqued notions of identity, psychic interiority, or biological essence, both actors offered new ways of thinking about personhood.
Suggested screenings: Orlando (1992, dir. Tilda Swinton, 90 min.); Safe (1995, dir. Todd Haynes, 119 min.)
Feb. 22 Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman: “New Frontiers and Outer Limits”
Kidman and Blanchett, trained in Australia’s distinctive system but soon invited to Hollywood, gravitated early and often toward some of recent cinema’s wildest visionaries: Kubrick, Campion, Fincher, Kapur, Anderson, Malick, Scorsese, Luhrmann, Iñárritu, Von Trier. Shapeshifting constantly and drawn to challenging narratives, they have amassed a level of auteur status often reserved for directors, presiding over festival juries and inspiring book-length studies. Having pushed so many aesthetic envelopes, even while retaining major careers in mainstream cinema, Kidman and Blanchett have also taken the reins of significant production companies and theatrical troupes. Most recently, their fearless, unpredictable styles have taken the format of the prestige-TV limited series into new terrain.
Suggested screenings: Blue Jasmine (2013, dir. Woody Allen, 99 min.); Birth (2004, dir. Jonathan Glazer, 100 min.)
Mar. 1 Viola Davis and Frances McDormand: “My Voice Is in My Sword”
These two names are as synonymous as any with the current gold standard in American acting, each tied to rich and overlapping careers in film, theater, and TV, each with the trio of Oscar, Tony, and Emmy to prove it. Davis’s and McDormand’s eminence is all the more remarkable given their far-from-the-limelight upbringings, uneasy paths through distinguished training programs, and steadfast adherence to the very qualities that make them unique, even eccentric by Hollywood standards. In 2020, each drew acclaim for a film performance that felt summative of their careers to date and yet atypical of their styles: Davis more flamboyant than ever in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and McDormand working all but anonymously amid a nonprofessional ensemble in Nomadland.
Suggested screenings: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020, dir. George C. Wolfe, 94 min.); Nomadland (2020, dir. Chloé Zhao, 108 min.)
Information is subject to change. Full course and policy descriptions are available at www.nualumnae.org
• EACH 90 minute, 9-week online course is $155.00 for access to both a live webinar and a temporary recording of the week’s session.
• Late registrations require payment of the full course price. Courses cannot be prorated. Late registrants will NOT be able to access recordings from prior weeks if the links and passcodes have expired.
• There are no multi-course discounts.
• Per Diem pricing is not available for these courses.
• Registrations can only be purchased online at www.nbo.northwestern.edu. A payment card is required. No other forms of payment can be accepted at this time. No in-person registration at Norris Box Office, no mail-in registration, and no phone registrations will be available. Neither the Norris Box Office nor the Alumnae Continuing Education group can process any other type of registration payment. There are no exceptions.
• After registering for a course, you will see a six-letter reference code on your screen. Please note this for your records. You will also receive an email from firstname.lastname@example.org confirming your registration and payment. It will be sent to the email address associated with your profile. Though it is not your entry to the ZOOM class, it is important that you locate the confirmation as soon as possible. If you don't receive an email, it could mean that there is a problem with how your email address is listed in our system. A typo in your email address could result in the Zoom link being lost. You can correct your information by logging in at www.nbo.northwestern.edu, clicking on your name in the purple bar at the top, and then on Edit Profile.
• To access the first webinar on January 4, your online registration must be completed by midnight, December 30, 2021.If you have not completed registration by December 30, we cannot guarantee timely entry to the first sessions on January 4, the first day for Courses A and B, or January 6, the first day of Courses C and D. No new registrations will be accepted after January 20, 2022 at 11:59 m. Late registrations are not prorated for missed sessions and will not allow for access to expired recordings.
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Linking to Live Sessions
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Limited Access to Recorded Sessions
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• Your Zoom link and passcode are specific to your email and may not be shared.
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• If you don’t receive the email with the link and passcode to the recording, please complete the online Help Form at bit.ly/ContEdHelp or contact Norris-Virtual@northwestern.edu as soon as possible to ensure timely assistance. Weekend support is not available.
• For additional support, call The Alumnae voicemail number: (847) 604-3569.
• If you intend to withdraw from a course, you must purchase a $10.00 cancellation fee by January 4, 2022. A full refund will be processed to the payment card used for the initial purchase.
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• Credits are not given for future classes.
• Contact the NorrisBoxOffice@northwestern.edu if you would like to transfer to another class offered during the same quarter. There is no additional cost. But you will have to wait until the following week to access the new course links.