Woman's Pictures


It was not until several decades after its heyday that the classic Hollywood woman's picture at last began to attract serious critical and scholarly attention; in fact, this much-denigrated genre has inspired some of the most significant advances of the past twenty-five years in film history, theory, and criticism. In the 1970s and 1980s, film critics who were also feminists began to interest themselves in the place of women in cinema—at first looking at women as characters in films and as filmmakers and later at women as spectators of films.

b. New York, New York, 7 July 1899, d. 24 January 1983

The son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, George Cukor began his career directing plays on Broadway. In 1929 he moved to Hollywood, embarking on a fifty-year career in the course of which he directed more than fifty films, from his debut picture at Paramount, Grumpy (1930), to Rich and Famous (1981). Reflecting his background in the theater, many of Cukor's best-known films are adaptations of stage plays (such as The Philadelphia Story , 1940, and My Fair Lady , 1964) or are set in the world of actors and acting (including Sylvia Scarlett , 1935, AStarisBorn , 1954, and Les Girls , 1957).

However, while Cukor's cinema work embraces a variety of genres, he is probably best remembered for sophisticated comedies like Adam's Rib (1949) and Born Yesterday (1950), with their trademark quirky, and very modern, heroines. Cukor worked with many of Hollywood's finest actresses (among them, most memorably, Katharine Hepburn and Judy Holliday) and female scriptwriters. (Ruth Gordon co-scripted the enduring Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy vehicles Adam's Rib [1949] and Pat and Mike [1952].) This earned him a reputation as a "women's director."

Cukor's independent, acerbic, intelligent heroines are never less than interesting, and his films characteristically proffer a kind of feminine angle on the world. Yet they rarely identify fully with the woman's point of view, nor as a rule do they address themselves exclusively to a female audience. In this regard, Cukor has been likened to the American novelist Henry James.

In the 1940s, however, like many other Hollywood directors of the time, Cukor ventured into directing "woman's pictures"—family melodramas with "female-centered" plots, closely addressed to female spectators and audiences. A Woman's Face (1941), made at MGM, stars Joan Crawford as a nursemaid with a hideously scarred face who is eventually redeemed from a life of bitterness. Gaslight (1944), another MGM film and an example of the paranoid gothic woman's picture, stars Ingrid Bergman as an upper-middle-class Victorian wife whose husband (Charles Boyer) is methodically driving her insane.

Released in 1981, Cukor's last film, Rich and Famous —he was over eighty when he directed it—is a story of female friendship, featuring Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen as college acquaintances whose difficult relationship survives many years and divergent life choices. As a remake of the 1943 Bette Davis-Miriam Hopkins vehicle, Old Acquaintance , the swansong of this veteran "women's director" fittingly pays homage to, and updates, the classic Hollywood woman's picture of the 1940s.


Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Philadelphia Story (1940), A Women's Face (1941), Gaslight (1944), Adam's Rib (1949), Born Yesterday (1950), Pat and Mike (1952), A Star Is Born (1954), My Fair Lady (1964)


CineAction! , "Hitchcock and Cukor," 50 (1999).

Clarens, Carlos. George Cukor . London: Secker and Warburg/British Film Institute, 1976.

Higham, Chalres, and Joel Greenberg. The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak . Chiacgo: Regnery, 1972.

Lambert, Gavin. On Cukor . New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1972.

Levy, Emanuel. George Cukor, Master of Elegance: Hollywood's Legendary Director and His Stars . New York: Morrow, 1994.

Annette Kuhn

In contributions to analyzing the internal textual operations of films and to developing methods for interpreting films, some of these critics explored the potential for reading mainstream Hollywood films "against the grain," against the surface meanings they offered, producing interpretations that opened up a space for understanding women's engagements with films that, on the face of it, seemed to reinforce patriarchal attitudes towards women. Foremost among such films, of course, is the woman's picture, with its fictions of female desire, transgression, punishment, and loss. Could the female-centered narrative viewpoint that marks out the woman's picture, in eliciting identification with the protagonist and sympathy for her plight, undercut the characteristic storyline in which she is restored to her "proper" place? Could the text, at a subtextual or unconscious level,

George Cukor.

generate contradictions that the film's eventual resolution could not contain?

In an essay on the relationship between melodrama and the woman's picture, Pam Cook has argued that, in exploring the conflicts faced by women in patriarchy, the woman's picture can never satisfactorily resolve these dilemmas, because it "must first posit the possibility of female desire, and a female point-of-view, thus posing problems for itself which it can scarcely contain" (p. 17). Thus, while the woman's picture brings to the fore the possibility of female desire, the conventions of the genre must at the same time seek to contain it. This conflict, it is then argued, disturbs the text of the woman's picture, which is marked by such "symptoms" as circular rather than linear narrative structure; "impossible" or implausible "resolutions"; multiple points of view; and themes of blindness, mental instability, and suchlike. In this sense, the woman's picture came to be considered the limit case of classical cinema under pressure, a point amply demonstrated in Cook's reading of the maternal melodrama Mildred Pierce , which tells the story of a troubled mother-daughter relationship and in whose closing scene the eponymous heroine (played by Joan Crawford) goes back to her less-than-satisfactory husband.

Alongside these advances in thinking on film's form and textual operations, film theorists began to consider what is distinctive about spectatorship in cinema. Following Christian Metz's exploration of the unconscious aspects of spectatorial engagements with films, Laura Mulvey advanced the concept of a gendered gaze and gendered spectatorship, thereby introducing the conundrum of the possibility of pleasure in cinema for the female spectator. In her 1987 study of "ideological stress" in the classic woman's picture, Doane takes up this idea, distinguishing between the woman's picture's subgenres on the basis of the kind of gaze, or mode of spectatorship, each elicits: in the medical melodrama, she argues, "the woman is most nearly the pure object of the gaze"; the maternal melodrama is marked by voyeurism; the love story by a narcissistic gaze; and the paranoid gothic by the "aggressivity … of the look … directed against" the woman (pp.178–179).

Doane shows that the woman's picture offers ample scope for drawing on concepts from psychoanalysis in analyzing classical cinema's rhetoric and modes of spectatorial engagement; and in relation more specifically to the woman's picture, her work raises a number of key questions. Does the woman's picture set up a specifically female, or feminine, position for the spectator? Does it provide some space for the free play of female desire, or does it simply document a troubling of patriarchally defined modes of subjectivity centered upon the figure of the woman? Questions about female spectatorship raised by the woman's picture have wide-ranging implications not only for film theory, but for the historical, social, and cultural study of the medium as well. Above all, they demand a distinction between, on the one hand, the idea of spectatorship as a description of the modes of (potentially gendered) subjectivity proposed by the operations of the film text—the "spectator-in-the-text"—and on the other, the idea of the social audience for films—the actual people, male and female, who go to the cinema.

It was a woman's picture that prompted a landmark exploration by feminist critics of all these issues: film texts, spectatorship, pleasure, genre, and gender. During the 1980s, the 1937 Stella Dallas , arguably the founding text of the classic maternal melodrama, was at the center of an extended debate in which it was suggested, among other things, that no identity can be assumed between a present-day feminist reading of Stella Dallas and the responses of female audiences in the 1930s. The debate foundered at the point at which this question of the social audience—and specifically the historical audience, the women who saw Stella Dallas in the 1930s—was raised, and this issue remained unresolved. The Stella Dallas debate thus prefigured a key problem facing film theory: the question of the function, and the address, of popular culture—specifically of genres within mainstream cinema—in relation to audiences, both past and present, male and female. What is the relationship

Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott, and Joan Crawford in the maternal melodrama, Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945).

between the modes of subjectivity proposed by the woman's picture and the female audiences to which these films were marketed? How does the woman in the cinema audience, as a social subject, negotiate meanings proposed in the rhetoric of the film text?

Other articles you might like:

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: