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Nurse Ratched, My Hero: 4 Female Movie Villains I Love

What do my favorite film femme fatales have in common?

by
Kathy Shaidle

Bio

August 1, 2012 - 7:00 am

Earlier this month at PJ Lifestyle, Chris Queen asked, “What drives the Disney villain fascination?” — specifically, those female Disney villains who are popular enough to merit an all-new, rebooted merchandise line.

Clearly, moms forced to indulge their daughters’ “princess” phases are eager to add an “edgy” treat for themselves to their Disney Store shopping carts.

I doubt they ponder the Miltonian “glamor of evil” implications behind their purchases, unless they hang out at the Disney forums Queen perused.

Women are supposed to be nice, nurturing, and harmless. But those types of women don’t make memorable movie characters, unless they’re memorable for being annoying. (Can you imagine Gone With The Wind with Melanie as the main character?)

Fortunately, I have a rather masculine personality type, and have no qualms about revealing my affection for particular female cinematic villains, even the most loathsome.

What do my favorite film femme fatales have in common?

Defensive walls constructed over the course of decades, starting in childhood — and not built according to code, so they’re starting to crumble. A horror of human frailty. Epic vanity. Hermetical self-containment.

Oh, and in one case, wicked karate skills…

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Portrait by Jason Mercier

Varla in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is the Citizen Kane of crap.

Before the advent of video rental, John Waters would travel out of state just to see Russ Meyers’ 1965 magnum opus at a rumored drive-in booking.

If I could afford it, I’d give the movie the “24 Hour Psycho” treatment and project it on my living room wall.

(I won’t elaborate here on my post-modern theory that the film’s female trio represents the Marx Brothers…)

Much of FP!K!K!‘s lasting appeal is due to the late Tura Satana’s performance as Varla, the leader of the gang.

Even if only half of Satana’s hair-raising biography is true – gang raped as a child, married and divorced at 13 (!), photography model for Harold Lloyd — she was born to play the role of the heartless, greedy, lethal man-hater Velma.

To her credit, fandom has it that Satana was more amiable in person than the character that made her an underground icon.

Not that that would be too difficult. Like Edward G. Robinson’s Rico in Little Caesar (1930) Varla is one of the few movie villains with no redeeming qualities (unless you count her astonishing figure and wicked driving skills).

I couldn’t stand being Varla 24/7 – I’m not the dominatrix type. (It’s way too much work, for one thing.)

But once in a while, being able to deliver a roundhouse kick would come in handy.

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Ellen in Leave Her To Heaven (1945)

Let it be said that neither the Siren nor her friend condones, approves of nor has any plans for drowning crippled children, indulging in do-it-yourself miscarriages or committing suicide in hopes our significant others subsequently will be executed for murder. One has certain moral limits.

Yet we were both serious. Tierney’s character isn’t unsympathetic to either one of us. “She just wants to be left the hell alone with her man,” remarked the lady. “I get that way sometimes, too,” admitted the Siren.

Self-Styled Siren

Atypically for that genre of academic writing, feminist “readings” of Leave Her To Heaven don’t sound like they were forced through a strainer of desperate, mandatory “originality” or po-mo pop culture theory.

Ellen is simply a breathtakingly beautiful, deeply “broken” woman of whom there were likely a few in the days before birth control and second-wave feminism.

She doesn’t particularly like or want children. Maybe she would’ve been a better writer than her husband, but didn’t feel that was a viable option.

She looks and speaks and moves so perfectly. But to what end? To use a word popular in those Freud-pickled times, Ellen is clearly “sublimating.”

Unfortunately, she channels her ingenious creativity into destruction.

But before that, she channels it into marriage. Unfortunately for everyone involved, her husband is a package deal:

His “crippled” little brother has to live with them — which doesn’t seem to have been part of the “deal,” pre-vows.

And Ellen wants her husband to herself.

I’m not sure why. He does thoughtless things like dedicate his new novel to… Ellen’s sister (?!)

The couple live in a gorgeous, supposedly secluded rustic paradise — yet every five minutes, some “old family friend” or somesuch is sputtering up to the dock, calling “Yoohoo!”

And hubby seems thrilled to see them, even though he is a professional writer who should be jealously guarding his solitude.

James Agee saw what was billed in 1945 as a tale of an evil woman’s obsessive love, remarked, “Audiences will probably side with the murderess, who spends all of the early reels trying to manage five minutes alone with her husband. Just as it looks possible, she picks up a pair of binoculars and sees his brother, her mother, her adopted cousin and the caretaker approaching by motorboat.”

Also, Mr. Movie Husband Guy? You’re married to Gene Tierney.

For me, the poignant aspect to Ellen isn’t that she’s, well, crazy. It’s that she’s got a face for the ages, but if she isn’t willing to play along, if she insists on being the most important thing in her man’s life, that face avails her nothing. She still loses her husband to a girl who uses niceness the same way Ellen used those sunglasses in the rowboat: as a cover for the schemes churning inside. And nobody will be on her side, except James Agee, bless him, and Vincent Price, and you, and the Siren, and whoever else is crazy enough to say, “I kind of sympathize with her.”

AltScreen

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Fanny in Mr. Skeffington (1944)

I had a hard time choosing just one Bette Davis character for this list.

There’s Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1934):

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And Regina in The Little Foxes (1941):

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And the titular Baby Jane (1962):

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However, I’ve settled on one of Davis’s lesser-known roles: Fanny in Mr. Skeffington.

If you find the slightest momentary flaw in a CGI extravaganza enough to ruin your entire moviegoing experience, imagine having to suspend disbelief for more than two hours, and accept Bette Davis as the most beautiful woman in town.

However, if you can trick your brain into playing along with Mr. Skeffington’s audacious conceit, you’ll see what might be called the lost last act of Gone With The Wind.

When we leave Scarlett O’Hara, she is — while no longer fresh produce at the all-important marriage marketplace — still an exquisitely beautiful woman. Not that it matters; she’s always used that beauty to secure wealth and the security it brings, and after Rhett’s departure, it’s safe to assume he lets her keep the house; that would be entirely in keeping with his character. Property is Scarlett’s idol.

Fanny Skeffington is her own idol. Her beauty was an end in itself.

As she ages and sickens and her face implodes, you may feel pity, or the thrill of watching an unsympathetic character get their comeuppance.

For while not exactly a villain, Fanny is an exceedingly cold, shallow, vain, and selfish creature.

She’s helpless as the only power she ever had (feminists would say allowed to have – this is a period piece) is crumbling before her eyes.

Scarlett could, if necessary, always finagle another husband, and more importantly, another home.

Fanny can’t acquire another face, or the supernatural ability to stop time.

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The subject mesmerizes me, although (or because) I’ve never had any beauty to lose. (Yet like many plain women, I’m terribly vain.) For a surprisingly astute take on the theme of women, beauty, power, and aging, one could do much worse than indulge in another one of my favorites, the Z-grade public domain curio, 1959′s The Wasp Woman:

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Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

It’s 1963. You’re a smart, capable woman, but were told all your life — by guidance counselors less clever than you are, or perhaps your own embittered mother — that your only career options are teaching or nursing.

So you finished nursing school at the top of your class. You’ve adopted an impeccable, ice queen persona to deflect the unwanted attention of coarse, creepy doctors (some of whom strike you as troublingly dimwitted).

Most of your fellow nurses dream of marrying such a doctor and getting to retire in luxury from the daily grind of bedpans and ingrates.

You don’t entertain such daydreams. Men find your self-containment repellent.

Your job doesn’t pay very much, but it is your whole world.

A world of dealing with weird, weak, helpless men in diapers all day.

Some of whom waste your valuable time, and the state’s resources, by pretending to be crazy, the better to evade life’s responsibilities, or the harsher consequences of their despicable actions.

The cocky one who seduced and abandoned a 15-year-old girl has been particularly difficult from the start…

If you watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and pretend Nurse Ratched is the main character — not that shiftless, fake-crazy rapist who’s meant to stand in for all the would-be draft dodgers in the 1975 audience — the movie is a revelation.

Ratched is a model of stoicism: a competent, solitary lioness of a woman surrounded by incompetent (and incontinent) hyena-like males, a woman who defies the average man’s belief that women should be beautiful and gentle only, almost an Ayn Rand heroine (except for her “altruistic” career choice — assuming again that she felt she had much of a choice).

(Not incidentally: those “inhumane” therapeutic modalities in the movie were still considered cutting edge and enlightened in the early 1960s. Just like progressives today assure us that de-institutionalizing the mentally ill — a cause helped considerably by the popularity of Cuckoo’s Nest — and indulging the perverse surgical whims of disturbed castration fetishists who call themselves “transgendered” are enlightened, too.)

Does Nurse Ratched take time off work after a patient puts her in a neck brace? Nope.

Only faint traces of youthful idealism still detectable in her puffy, sleep-deprived eyes, does she quit her thankless job in petulant disillusionment? No again.

I love you, Nurse Ratched. You’re my hero.

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(KATHY SHAIDLE is a blogging pioneer who runs FiveFeetOfFury, now in its 14th year. She's been called "one of the great virtuoso polemicists of our time," by MARK STEYN. Her NEW book is Confessions of A Failed Slut (Thought Catalog, 2014).
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