Bad girls: Playing fast & loose
In one of Mae West’s most famous film scenes she plays a gangster’s moll who flashes her jewels before the hat check girl in a speakeasy. “Goodness what beautiful diamonds” says the girl. West memorably replies: “goodness had nothing to do with it!” The cinema has always relished bad women. Film titles reflected the fascination: Manhandled, The Constant Sinner, Dishonoured, The Gorgeous Hussy, Notorious. Such roles were very often the only challenging ones offered to ambitious actresses who wanted to show their mettle. Claire Trevor, who played the mobster’s mistress in the Bogart classic Key Largo once said, “if a part has enough facets, I don’t mind playing the bad girl.”
Audiences too have always loved wicked women who are seen as powerful: a threat to men, morality and marriage. They’ve long been a strong fantasy for women in the audience and a potent turn-on for men.
Good gals from Mary Pickford through Doris Day to Natalie Wood never gained the cult status of stars that specialised in playing Jezebels and scarlet women. Ironclad virgin Audrey Hepburn is best remembered for her role as the call girl Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, just as Vivien Leigh is best known for the spoilt, uppity Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With The Wind in more recent times Julia Roberts played the tart with a heart in Pretty Woman and Jessica Alba was in The Killer Inside Me and now the British Film Institute has released a special 30th anniversary Blu-ray edition of Scandal.
In the movie Joanne Whalley plays Christine “the tart who toppled the Tories” Keeler who, although initially a sympathetic character, ends up betraying “the only man I ever loved”. The Keeler story is so potent that a six part TV drama was the highlight of the January 2020 TV schedules. Keeler was a party girl of the early 1960s who was discovered to have been sleeping with the war minister and a Russian spy at the height of the Cold War. In the TV version Keeler is seen more as a vulnerable victim exploited by powerful men in a world she doesn’t fully understand.
In Hollywood bad girls, like the stereotype of the prostitute with the heart of gold, were shown again and again to be honest and pure inside, just waiting for a good man to make them decent. One of the first American feature films to be a box office hit was Traffic in Souls, which was based (albeit loosely) on an official report about white slavery.
Under the guise of semi-documentary this cautionary tale promised to reveal the naked truth about how nice girls became vice girls. Film floozies come in all varieties from Tallulah “pure as the driven slush” Bankhead to Melanie “sleaze bunny” Griffith. According to Lotte Da and Jan Alexander, authors of Bad Girls of the Silver Screen: ‘unlike the swashbuckling male renegade who
usually ended up conquering civilisations the female counterpart would always end up suffering or darning socks for a man willing to forgive her ‘mysterious past’.
From the earliest days of the star system the first sex symbols were women of easy virtue. Theda Bara made the vamp famous, in roles like Salome and Cleopatra. Like a vampire she was the very incarnation of evil, luring men away from fidelity and family to their certain doom. Evil men, by contrast, lived to fight another day. Women who were shown to flaunt the sexual mores of the time were made to repent or, failing that, expire at the end of the picture.
Following this was the coquettish Clara Bow the quintessential 1920s jazz baby. The 30s saw slutty Jean Harlow and great chorus lines of gold-diggers. The pattern was set, sexy women were bad news but good box office. The 40s saw the advent of the femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis) and the 50s had pneumatic sex goddesses like Monroe and Mansfield. One of the most famous bad girls from the 60s was Julie Christie who played the jet-set courtesan in Darling.
In 1971 there was a more realistic depiction of the call girl with Jane Fonda in Klute and, more daringly, Jodie Foster who played the streetwise child prostitute in Taxi Driver. And dozens of memorable bad girls have followed: Kim Basinger in LA Confidential; Emily Browning in Sleeping Beauty; Cameron Diaz in She’s the One; Freida Pinto in Slumdog Millionaire and Jennifer Garner in Catch Me If You Can.
The Deuce was (and is) a successful TV drama series starring Maggie Gyllenhaal (who co-produced the show) as a brass-tacks sex worker in 1970s New York. Its blunt street style didn’t mask the dangers of street hustling – abuse, male violence and exploitation – and the street smarts you need to survive.
The shape of the bad girls may have changed – unhappy hookers have given way to poor heroines who know what they want and are very much in control. And while movie moguls always wanted to have their cheese cake and eat it things have changed in recent years with the #MeToo movement.
Info: Scandal 30th anniversary edition is out on Blu-ray from the BFI and The Trial of Christine Keeler is available on DVD
Kennedy Wilson on how nice girls become vice girls in the movies
The poster for Traffic in Souls, loosely based on an official report about white slavery