Golden age Hollywood: why these female trailblazers are finally getting the recognition they deserve

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Moya Crockett
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When it comes to Old Hollywood, the same women tend to be referenced again and again, the same faces printed on postcards and blown up on “vintage-inspired” t-shirts. You’ll know the names of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and the like: they were all icons, all actresses, and all white.

But while these women’s achievements shouldn’t be understated (they were, after all, building astonishingly successful careers in what was undoubtedly a man’s world), there are other female stars from Hollywood’s golden age who don’t get anything like the recognition they deserve.

The American Film Institute is hoping to change that this autumn, by honouring three female cinematic pioneers: Dorothy Dandridge, Anna May Wong and Ida Lupino.

Films starring and directed by the three women will be screened at the annual AFI Fest in Hollywood, and the trio will also be celebrated in art for the event, Variety reports.

“This year, AFI Fest continues its annual commemoration of influential women in film by reviving the contributions of these three screen legends,” said Jacqueline Lyanga, the director of the festival.

Born in 1922, Dandridge was the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award (for her role as Carmen in the 1954 musical Carmen Jones). Despite losing out to Grace Kelly, her beauty and screen presence made her an overnight Hollywood sensation.

Dandridge had a hard life. She grew up in the Great Depression, was stuck with an adulterous husband, and blamed herself for her daughter’s brain damage. Her career was also constrained by racism; she was attacked in the press for dating white men, and was often forced to take stereotypical “exotic woman” roles. But she has nevertheless gone down in history as an African-American icon. When Halle Berry became the first (and, as of 2016, only) woman of colour to win a Best Actress Academy Award in 2001, she thanked Dandridge in her acceptance speech. 

Anna May Wong was another trailblazer for women of colour in Hollywood. Born and raised in Los Angeles by second-generation Chinese immigrants, Wong started her career with small parts in silent movies (among them the role of Tiger Lily in the 1924 silent adaptation of Peter Pan), and later became the first real Chinese-American movie star.

Like Dandridge, Wong was often limited by Hollywood racism. She was stuck playing Asian stereotypes in many of her films: the villainous seductress, the “dragon lady”. But her meticulous “flapper” image saw her deemed a fashion icon in both Europe and America, and she has been hailed a screen legend for her glamour, wit and composure.

Ida Lupino, the third woman honoured by the American Film Institute, was a pioneering female director, writer, producer and actress. Born in south London to an old theatrical family, Lupino enrolled in RADA at the age of 13. After moving to Hollywood in her mid-teens, she spent a few years shuttling between ingénue and vamp roles as an actress, before starting writing, directing and producing her own films in the 1950s – the only woman to do so in the studio system of the time.

Lupino founded her own independent production company eons before modern actresses like Reese Witherspoon and Drew Barrymore decided to start producing their own films, and in 1953 became the first woman to direct a film noir movie: The Hitch-Hiker, inspired by the crime spree of real-life psychopathic murder Billy Cook. In her later career, she directed over 100 episodes of TV shows, ranging from Westerns to murder mysteries and gangster stories. 

Images: Rex Features


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Moya Crockett

Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.