Herstory on Film

Each month, the Herstory Club curates a selection of films that complement our monthly theme. This collection will be female-focused – both in front of the camera and ideally behind too – and range from fiction to biopics of real women in history. The films we’ll be recommending aim to both entertain and educate, showcasing cult classics, new hits, and movies you may never have heard of.

This month, we were simply spoilt for choice with films about women in film. Many well-known actresses have taken on the role of real-life actresses, in both biopics and dramas, gaining critical acclaim and awards in the process. Margot Robbie shone as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood; Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator; and Amanda Seyfried has played both porn star Linda Lovelace in Lovelace, and more recently, Marion Davies in Mank

In addition, there are films that showcase the lives of fictional film stars, from Emma Stone’s award-winning turn as an aspiring actress in the 2016 musical La La Land; to Julia Roberts’ iconic role as the most famous actress in the world (but also just a girl standing in front of a boy) in Notting Hill; to Deepika Padukone in Om Shanti Om, as a ‘70s Bollywood actress who is loved from afar by a movie extra; to the excellent trio of Juliet Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz in Clouds of Sils Maria, charting the story of an older movie actress facing a reflection of herself during a revival of the play that launched her career.

Hollywood provides the perfect backdrop for films about the industry. Bérénice Bejo plays a young dancer in The Artist, the Oscar-winning black-and-white film set during the silent era; Mélanie Laurent is a vengeful French-Jewish cinema proprietor in an alternate history charting assassination attempts on members of Nazi Germany’s leadership in Inglorious Basterds; and Scarlett Johansson plays an actress in 1950s Hollywood in the Coen brothers ensemble comedy, Hail, Caesar!

Our top five films for this month feature biopics of Hollywood icons; previously untold true stories; an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel from a beloved late actress; and a look at the creation of British film propaganda in the Second World War. Without further ado…

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

(2017, Dir.: Paul McGuigan)

This biographical romantic drama based on the memoirs of Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) charts the relationship between American Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) and the much younger Turner. It cuts between Grahame’s convalescence in Liverpool towards the end of her life, to the lovers’ first meeting in London in 1979, painting a bittersweet picture of their romance through the years. The film boasts a truly excellent cast – with Vanessa Redgrave and Julie Walters in memorable and scene-stealing roles – but the main focus here is Bening, who captures the former film star’s complexity beautifully. 

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video

Judy

(2019, Dir.: Rupert Goold)

There’s no doubt about it: this is Renée Zellweger’s film. This biopic sees Zellweger on Oscar-winning form, portraying the beloved Judy Garland in the last year of her life during her run of sell-out concerts in London in 1968. By showing flashbacks of Garland filming The Wizard of Oz as a teenager, the film juxtaposes the early years of Garland’s career and her most iconic role, with the sadness and tragedy of her final act. Judy also features a stellar performance from Irish actress Jessie Buckley. 

Judy is available to buy on Amazon Prime Video and stream on Sky Cinema

My Week with Marilyn

(2011, Dir.: Simon Curtis)

Based on the memoirs of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), My Week with Marilyn depicts a week of shooting during the 1957 film, The Prince and the Showgirl, which starred Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) and Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). Williams is luminescent as the damaged and sensual Monroe, who is anxious to prove her acting prowess. Her Oscar-nominated turn as the famous movie star is the highlight of this delicately romantic and entertaining film.

My Week with Marilyn is available to buy on Amazon Prime Video

Postcards from the Edge

(1990, Dir.: Mike Nichols)

In her first screenplay, beloved late actress Carrie Fischer adapted her semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. In order to continue working following a stint in rehab, a substance-addicted actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) has to move in with her mother (Shirley MacLaine) at the behest of a film company’s insurance policy in order to maintain her sobriety. The film earned Streep her ninth Oscar nomination. Interestingly (given another film recommendation this month), Liza Minnelli reportedly commented that the central mother-daughter relationship mirrored that of her and her own mother, Judy Garland.

Postcards from the Edge is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video

Their Finest

(2016, Dir.: Lone Scherfig)

During the Blitz, former secretary Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is recruited by the British Ministry of Information film division to help write the script for a morale-lifting film (and unsubtle call for America to join the war) about the Dunkirk evacuation. The film within the film – “The Nancy Starling” – is a celebration of female bravery in wartime, with Catrin pushing back in the male-dominated writers room to ensure strong female voices are featured on screen. Celebrated Danish director Lone Scherfig takes the helm in this adaptation of Lissa Evans’ novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half

Their Finest is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video


About the Author: Emma Forth

Contact:

I’m a first year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. My research combines my passions for the First World War and film by exploring the development of early cinema, 1909-1918, across all four nations of the United Kingdom. For the last six months I have been producing the first database and maps of British and Irish cinemas in 1914, showcasing the position of cinema at the outbreak of the Great War. In a four-year hiatus from education prior to postgraduate study in 2018 I worked as a risk analyst; ran the admissions department in a high school; and was a receptionist and volunteer at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. I am an avid reader, theatregoer, and cross-stitcher, and when not frantically Marie Kondo-ing my possessions and renovating my flat and during a pandemic, I can be found watching superhero films and dreaming of museums.

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