The Femmes Fatales could easily be called Leading Ladies and the Leading Ladies could definitely be Femmes Fatales. When an actress is given a title such as “The It Girl”, “The Sweater Girl”, or “Love Goddess” it is inevitable that they will be a Femme Fatale.
It takes a lot of talent and charisma or sometimes just a powerful charisma to become famous in Hollywood. The ladies in this video all succeeded in making a name for themselves.
They were style icons and they helped the people of their time recover from the Great Depression, WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam and all the events that transpired in their time.
People need entertainment and escape. These beautiful Femmes Fatales became the fantasies of their day and we salute them.
These are just some of the iconic sex symbols. I am sure that you can think of others.Since the dawn of film, sex symbols or Femmes Fatales have been part of the art and . . . beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Sex Symbols in Cinema: The Femmes Fatales
Clara Bow – After a traumatic, abusive childhood, Clara Bow was driven to find fame and fortune in Hollywood. With her bright red hair, expressively pretty face and exuberant personality, Clara became a silent screen star in the 1920’s. Since movies were in black and white the audience could not see her vibrant hair but, there was no mistaking her vivid expressions. She was a powerful star; she was ultimately called the “It Girl”.
Clara’s career was affected by talking films. Although she made a few talkies, the kind of characters she portrayed were becoming passé. Our country was now in the grips of the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The flapper girl was out. Clara later married, but the demons of her past were deeply imbedded and continued to torment her throughout her life. Clara passed away in 1965. Her legacy to film will always be a part of Hollywood.
Jean Harlow – Called “Baby” by her family and friends, Jean possessed an overt sexuality and a flair for comedy that ignited the screen. Her persona was larger than life and audiences flocked to her movies.
After a disastrous marriage to Paul Bern, she fell in love with actor William Powell. They were together until her untimely death in 1937, when she was only 26 years old. Jean died of a kidney infection.
It should be noted that Jean was in the middle of filming Saratoga at the time of her death. MGM planned to replace her with another actress but the public wouldn’t hear of it. The film was finished by using three doubles for long shots, close-ups and the dubbing of Harlow’s lines. Saratoga was MGM’s highest grossing movie of 1937. It was said to be Jean Harlow’s best film. When watching this film, you may find yourself trying to identify whether you are looking at Jean or a stand-in.
Rita Hayworth – Talent and beauty combined to make this legendary star unique for her time. Rita’s image on a bed in profile was one of the most popular pin-ups of WWII.
Rita Hayworth began as a dancer. Her talent was so extraordinary that she attracted people in Hollywood to watch her perform, which lead to her becoming a major singer, dancer, and actress for Columbia Studios. Her movies like Cover Girl and Tonight and Every Night made her a star. With vibrant red hair and a killer body, Rita knew how to turn the charisma switch on for the public. Her portrayal of Gilda in the movie Gilda solidified her image and legacy in Hollywood.
Sadly, while the world swooned at her beauty, Rita was not a confident woman. She is known to have said “men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me”. She died of Alzheimer’s disease at 68. She left two daughters and many fans to mourn her passing.
Veronica Lake – Veronica Lake was the quintessential femme fatale. The phrase Femmes Fatales may have even been coined for her. With movies like This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key, Veronica intercepted time and became a major star. With her peek-a-boo hairdo, Veronica Lake became the style icon pre-WWII. Every woman copied this hairdo until the war. When Rosie the Riveter went to work during WWII, women simply couldn’t do their job with their hair getting in their eyes. Sadly, this quirk of fate spelled the end for Veronica Lake and her meteoric career. Although she died young, her contribution to films is evident in all of her movies and on those gorgeous posters.
Betty Grable – Betty was an adorable singer, dancer, and actress. She got her start working in a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, The Gay Divorcee. She exuded beauty, youth and exuberance to say nothing of her gorgeous legs. Her photo in a bathing suit looking behind her was one of the most popular photos for the soldiers in WWII. It has been said that Betty was pregnant in that photo and that is why Betty posed backwards.
Her career reached the pinnacle in the 1940’s and her legs were insured with Lloyds of London for one million dollars. She married band leader Harry James and in the 1950’s she began working less. Proof of her sweet nature came in the 1950’s when she made How to Marry a Millionaire with Marilyn Monroe. Betty’s career was winding down and Marilyn was on her way up. She kindly told Marilyn “Honey, I had my time. This is yours.” Betty died of lung cancer in 1973. Her legacy to films cannot be denied.
Hedy Lamarr – Hedy Lamarr was one of the greatest beauties on film. It was said that when she entered a room, people were spellbound. She was born in Vienna, Austria to Jewish parents. Her first movie was Ecstasy. The film became famous because of the several nude shots of a very young Hedy, which was very unusual for its time. She made some extraordinary films like Tortilla Flat and The Ziegfeld Girl.
Many have speculated that Hedy did not choose her parts wisely. She was offered many famous movies of that day and turned them down. In 1967 her autobiography called Ecstasy and Me was published. In her book she was quoted as saying “I figured out that I had made and spent some 30 million dollars, yet earlier that day, I had been unable to pay for a sandwich at Schwab’s drugstore”.
The reality is that when Hedy was 19, she had married a man who was much older and extremely wealthy. He was a manufacturer of weapons and he helped supply these weapons to Mussolini during WWII. Hedy knew she had to escape from her husband and from Vienna during this time.
It is also widely known now that Hedy was brilliant in the sciences. She and composer George Antheil invented an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping, necessary for wireless communications. The idea was not implemented until 1962 when it was used by the US military ships during the blockade of Cuba. Hedy’s ideas are used today in some of our modern inventions like Bluetooth and cordless and wireless phones.
The passing of time took its toll on this beautiful and brilliant woman; perhaps given so great a beauty required a price to be paid. Fortunately she had the love of two children, Denise and Anthony. Hedy lived a full and exciting life. But it wasn’t without its darkness. In real life, she was a femme fatale.
Lana Turner – Lana Turner was born Julia Jean Turner. However, the name Lana suited her so much better. She was a born femme fatale. Legend has it that Lana was having a soda at the Top Hat Café when she was discovered by the publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. He introduced her to Zeppo Marx (one of the Marx brothers) and then to director, Mervyn LeRoy. Her first part was in a movie called They Won’t Forget, and they didn’t. Lana wore a tight sweater and walked across the screen. That was it. She was called ‘the sweater girl” and a star was born. She was only 16. Blessed with great beauty, she arrived on the MGM lot as a teenager and proceeded to break hearts, as well as be cast in some of the best roles in Hollywood. One of the classic femme fatale roles was that of Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice. When Lana appears on screen, in those little shorts and turban around her head, jaws dropped open and her reputation was solidified.
Lana proved to be a great actress as well as a great beauty. Some of her best roles were in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Green Dolphin Street, and the unforgettable The Bad and the Beautiful. She was dedicated to her profession but she had a weakness for living the good life. Her beauty brought many lively liaisons but perhaps very little love. She had one daughter, Cheryl, with husband, Steve Crane.
Scandal became a part of Lana’s life when her boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, was murdered in her home by her daughter, Cheryl, who was trying to protect her mother. No one will ever know what happened in that home but mother and daughter were profoundly affected for the rest of their lives. Lana’s career survived and she went on to make some wonderful movies. Cheryl found success as a writer and she was also able to find her own identity as Cheryl Crane. When one thinks of a femme fatale, you can put Lana Turner at the head of the class.
Ava Gardner – Dark, sultry and undeniably gorgeous, Ava appeared on the silver screen in the late 1930’s. She was discovered because her brother-in-law, a photographer, sent her photo to a movie studio in California. Insecure about her talent, Ava never had confidence.
Her great beauty attracted the successful men of that time and her liaisons became famous. She was married to a young Mickey Rooney and band leader, Artie Shaw but it was her affair with a married Frank Sinatra that set the tongues a waggin’. This was a relationship that shook Hollywood to its foundation. Frank wound up leaving his wife and three children for the gorgeous Ava. His career plummeted and hers reached the pinnacle. They were beset by jealousy and ultimately their marriage was tumultuous, passionate but short lived. Frank Sinatra went on and found great success after the movie, From Here to Eternity. Ava’s many successful movies included The Killers, The Barefoot Contessa (in this movie she was called ‘the worlds most beautiful animal) and On the Beach as well as many others.
Ava had a weakness for bull fighters. She loved Spain and the freedom to just live her life. In later years she had health problems, but she never lost her sense of humor and her zest for living. It should be noted that although Frank later remarried, he always had a soft spot in his heart for Ava. He would help her whenever she needed him. When Frank died, several years after Ava, I always wondered if his first visit on the other side was to the beautiful Ava Gardner.
Diana Dors – Diana Dors was beautiful. Signed at 16 by the Rank Organization she joined their “charm school for young actors”. In the early 1950’s Diana’s gorgeous appearance as a classic sex symbol came to light and she was known as the English Marilyn Monroe. According to her fans, her best work as an actress was in 1956’s Yield to the Night. British movie house owners voted her the 9th most popular star in 1955.
Diana never had quite the fan base in the United States. This was because we had Marilyn Monroe, Mamie Van Doren and the emergence of the French sex symbol, Brigitte Bardot. Diana appeared in several movies and my personal favorite is The Unholy Wife. In 1958, in order to pay her bills, she began a theater based cabaret tour called the Diana Dors Show. Comedian Dickie Dawson was hired to write the show. She found Dawson very funny and attractive. She married Dawson and they had a child in 1960. She was married 3 times and had 3 children. In the latter part of her career, she was seen on several game shows like Jokers Wild and Celebrity Squares.
An interesting story about her is that her maiden name was Diana Fluck. Terrified of using this name for fear that the lights illuminating the “L” could go out, provoked her into changing her name. One day she was in a church and the Priest introduced her as Diana F… Although the Priest was embarrassed, it was an event that both Diana and the audience never forgot.
The life of a sex symbol is never easy because time passes. Although blessed with beauty and a quick wit, the passage of time took a toll on Diana as all the other sex symbols. She made the most with what she had and even today, people can recall the beautiful blonde bombshell, Diana Dors. It is interesting to note that the Dickie Dawson who married Diana later became Richard Dawson, the kissing host of the Family Feud.
Jane Russell – In 1940 Jane was signed to a seven year contract with Howard Hughes and she made her motion picture debut in The Outlaw in 1943. Jane was a beautiful young lady with a voluptuous figure that Hughes sought to showcase for his movie. Because of Jane’s ample cleavage, there were problems with censorship and the movie did not go into “general” release until 1946. Because of all the “to-do” over Jane’s breasts, she became quite famous during this time.
Contrary to popular belief, Jane did not wear the bra that Howard Hughes had designed for her to wear during the filming of this movie. She said the bra was too uncomfortable and she wore her own bra and was able to accentuate her positives. The image of her posing on a pile of hay for The Outlaw became a popular pin up photo with service men during WWII.
Although her first movie was made in 1941, her true career did not get started until 1947. She performed in The Pale Face with Bob Hope and the magnificent movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with fellow sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe. Other movies included Gentlemen Marry Brunettes and The King and Four Queens with Clark Gable.
In October 1957 she had a successful nightclub act at The Sands hotel in Las Vegas. In later years, she was asked why she quit movies and she said she was getting too old. She wasn’t really getting old, but sex symbols have a short shelf life and Jane was a smart woman who knew when to move on. To those of the last generation, she is remembered for advertising Playtex Cross Your Heart bras. She was voted one of the forty most iconic movie goddesses of all time. She lived to a great age and was sassy to the end.
Mamie Van Doren – Mamie was a 1950’s sex symbol in the style of Marilyn Monroe and Diana Dors. She was discovered by Howard Hughes, who launched her career. She became a Vargas Girl in 1951. In 1953, Mamie signed a contract with Universal, who had big plans for her. She was their answer to 20th Century Fox’s Marilyn Monroe. She signed her contract with Universal Studios on the same day as the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower. Her real name Joan Lucille was changed to Mamie, after President Eisenhower’s First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower. Her most famous movies were: Teacher’s Pet, Born Reckless, High School Confidential and The Beat Generation.
Mamie became successful and she, Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield were known as the Three M’s. But sex symbols lives are short because of the law of diminishing returns. Mamie made few movies in the 1960’s and 70’s. Her autobiography, Playing the Field, was released in 1987, and brought her new attention.
Although she has been married five times, her last marriage to actor and dentist, Thomas Dickson, has lasted since 1979. Congratulations, Mamie!
Mamie is a survivor. She is 81 years old and maintains an active social media outlet that promotes her work throughout her career. Where many other sex symbols careers and lives were cut short, Mamie went on to live a long life and enjoys the fame and notoriety that she created for herself. Way to go, Mamie!
Ann Sheridan – Ann was a strong and powerful actress, as well as, a beautiful woman. I’ve included her in the femmes fatales because, earlier in her career, she was tagged the Oomph Girl. She was a popular pin-up in the early 1940’s.
Where most sex symbols get pigeonholed in this type of genre, Ann was lucky and talented enough to get some very important roles in her career. She starred in Dodge City with Errol Flynn, They Drive by Night with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, and The Man Who Came to Dinner in 1942 with Bette Davis. Two of my favorite Ann Sheridan movies are Kings Row from 1942, and 1943’s Edge of Darkness. In Kings Row she played opposite Ronald Reagan and Robert Cummings. She received top billing and deserved it. She played a strong and powerful character in this movie and the movie itself should be seen by everyone who likes quality films. She starred in Edge of Darkness with Errol Flynn, and in this movie they were both fighting the Nazis in WWII.
Ann was both lucky and unlucky. She was blessed with beauty and talent. Her career reached great heights and she performed in some fine films that are recognized today as classic films. She was unlucky, that although she did reach great heights, it did not last because she passed away at a young age.
The legacy we leave behind is what we are remembered for in this world. Ann’s image and performances remain iconic. She was both a great actress and a femme fatale.
Jayne Mansfield – When we reflect upon Jayne Mansfield, in our minds eye, we see a beautiful blonde bombshell. However, in my own opinion, Jayne would have been better off pursuing a career that would have longevity. Bombshells do not last long, but actresses can live forever. Jayne was a smart woman, despite her choices.
Jayne became a major Broadway star in 1955 and a leading celebrity in 1957. Her movie career was short lived but she had several box office successes and even won a Golden Globe. She starred in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, The Girl Can’t Help It, The Wayward Bus, and Too Hot to Handle. She was one of the 3 M’s (Marilyn Monroe, Mamie Van Doren, and Jayne Mansfield) and she was considered “The Working Man’s Monroe”. She became well-known for her personal life and publicity stunts.
Her film career was short lived and her box office popularity declined in the early 1960’s. It is interesting to note that Jayne’s early aspirations were to be a star like Shirley Temple. While in high school, she took lessons in violin, piano and viola. She also studied Spanish and German. At age 12, she took Ballroom dance. Jayne spoke five languages and was reputed to be Hollywood’s smartest dumb blonde. She later complained that Hollywood did not care about her brains, but was more interested in her measurements.
Her later career consisted of shows in Las Vegas and television. She was a celebrity and always fascinated the public. She traveled with Bob Hope to entertain the troops. She appeared on a large number of talk shows. In 1964 she turned down the role of Ginger Grant in the upcoming hit series Gilligan’s Island. This star making role eventually went to beautiful Tina Louise.
A series of ill fated publicity stunts kept Jayne in the limelight.
Jayne Mansfield was a talented and intelligent woman. Perhaps she would have had a greater career if she hadn’t put so much emphasis on her body and sexuality. Jayne had to turn down two major film roles, Bell, Book and Candle and Kiss Me Stupid due to pregnancies. Both roles ultimately went to Kim Novak. It should be noted that Hollywood has a way of labeling actresses as sex symbols even if that is not the actor’s intentions. With Jayne, I believe, it was a mutual decision. She died much too young and left her children to remember her with her movies, photographs, and stills. Beautiful Mariska Hargitay of Law and Order: SVU is her daughter. Jayne had a lot of potential, incredible fame and she passed on some wonderful genes. She will always be remembered.
Anita Ekberg – Anita Ekberg was one of the six finalists in the 1952 Miss Universe Contest. Although she did not win, her beauty and statuesque figure drew the attention of everyone who came in contact with her. She was a starlet at Universal Studios and she also met the infamous Howard Hughes, who loved his femmes fatales. The irony is that Howard wanted to change her nose, her teeth, and even her name. Looking at photographs of the young Anita, one has to wonder if Howard’s eyesight was failing.
By the mid 1950’s Anita went from modeling into the film industry. She had small roles in Casa Blanca, Blood Alley (with John Wayne and Lauren Bacall). Her most famous part was that of Sylvia in the Federico Fellini’s 1960’s La Dolce Vita. She was cast as the unattainable dream woman, opposite Marcello Mastroianni. She would later star with Ursula Andress, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin in Four for Texas.
Anita is one of the few women who, although her career was not extensive, she is remembered by the illusion she created; particularly in La Dolce Vita.
Brigitte Bardot – Brigitte began her career as a fashion model. She is one of the best known sex symbols of the 1960’s. In her early life, Brigitte aspired to be a ballet dancer. Her acting career began in 1952 in God Created Woman with her then husband, Roger Vadim. In 1963, she starred in Le Mépris for Jean-Luc Godard. She was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Louis Malle’s 1965 Viva Maria!
When she was very young, Brigitte attended ballet classes with the very talented Leslie Caron, who went on to a stellar acting and dancing career. Brigitte, however, went in to modeling at a young age and at 15, was on the cover of Elle Magazine. This was how she was noticed by Roger Vadim. Her early photos showed a remarkable sensuality and these images made her an icon in her own time. She was France’s answer to Marilyn Monroe. Where the Americans had a playful take on sensuality in films, the French were more risqué and Brigitte became known as “BB”. Other movies she made were Spirits of the Dead, Shalako. Oddly enough, in 1973, at the age of 39, she announced that she was retiring from acting.
She married Roger Vadim at age 18 but this union was not to last. In 1959, at 27, she married Jacques Charrier and they had a child. She married several times after that and has had a full life. To celebrate her 40th birthday, she even had a nude photo shoot in Playboy Magazine.
Brigitte Bardot made 40 films and collaborated on several musical albums. In the second part of her life, she has dedicated herself to protecting the rights of animals. She has also been very politically outspoken and this has sometimes gotten her into trouble. It should be noted that Brigitte is recognized today for popularizing the bikini bathing suit and her own version of the Beehive hairstyle. She definitely was one of the more popular femmes fatales of her day.
Marilyn Monroe – Born Norma Jean Baker, Marilyn began as a model and was so successful, that Hollywood beckoned and Norma Jean’s life was never the same. She had a luminescence that translated well to the silver screen. Her breathy talk and her sashaying walk made her immortal. She was one of a kind and all of the other sex symbols of her day tried to copy Marilyn’s mystique.
Her movies, like Don’t Bother to Knock, Niagara, How to Marry a Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Some Like it Hot, and The Misfits were successful and set her apart from her contemporaries. Marilyn Monroe set the bar high in the 50’s. She became known as “MM” but she learned, as the other femmes fatales learned, that being a sex symbol is not long lasting. She passed away at 36, before age had a chance to take its toll. She will always be remembered for her iconic look, walk and personality.
Kim Novak – Kim was a seductive and talented young woman who was promoted by Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures. Rita Hayworth was near the end of her tenure as Columbia Pictures reigning sex symbol. Although Rita was still beautiful, Cohn wanted someone young to inherit the femme fatale title for Columbia. Kim made many successful films including The Man with the Golden Arm with Frank Sinatra, Picnic with William Holden, The Eddy Duchin Story with Tyrone Power and Pal Joey with both Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth.
In 1958, Kim starred in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Vertigo. She gave a brilliant performance. That same year she starred with James Stewart in Bell, Book and Candle, a major box office success. One of my favorite Kim Novak movies was Strangers When We Meet with Kirk Douglas. Kim said her favorite movie role was Middle of the Night with Fredric March.
In the 1960’s Kim continued to act in films but did not have the iconic success that she had in the 50’s. Extremely bright and sensitive, Kim sought other outlets for her creativity and sensitivity. In 1980, Kim played an aging actress in The Mirror Crack’d with Elizabeth Taylor. Kim had a long and illustrious career marked with great success and many challenges. She was wise enough not to put all of her eggs in one basket and she has gone on to live a long and successful life. In 1976 she married veterinarian Dr. Robert Malloy. Always an animal lover, the couple raises horses and llamas. She has two stepchildren. It should also be noted that Kim is an artist who paints in watercolor and oil. She is also a sculptress. Kim relied on her beautiful, seductive face to emphasize her femme fatale qualities. Although she had a beautiful figure and could pose for “cheesecake shots”, her career was not built on showing her body. Kim Novak smoldered on screen and she did it with her face and eyes.
Raquel Welch – In 1966, Raquel Welch posed in an animal skin bikini for One Million Years B.C. She was unforgettable. She went on to star in 1967’s Bedazzled, 100 Rifles, and Myra Breckinridge.
Her career started with small roles on Bewitched and The Virginian. She was the billboard girl for the Hollywood Palace. The movie, Fantastic Voyage, in 1966 was a hit and made her a star. Her looks lead Playboy to label her “The most desired woman of the 1970’s”.
Raquel Welch’s sensuality led her to playing sex symbols throughout her life. She received great reviews for starring on Broadway in Victor/Victoria. She received a Golden Globe for Best Actress in The Three Musketeers. With the power of her looks, she naturally became a fitness guru in 1984. She wrote The Raquel Welch Total Fitness and Beauty Program. She starred in a yoga video that was very successful and she designed a line of signature wigs. In January of 2007, she was the newest face of MAC Cosmetics and as late as June 2007, she appeared in TV ads for Foster Grant sunglasses.
Raquel Welch has had a long and successful career. She was able to take the title of sex symbol and mold it into a career that would span a lifetime.
Ann-Margret – Ann-Margret was the “it” girl of the 1960’s. Sweet, gentle spirited and very kind in real life, when Ann was on screen, it was as if someone lit a firecracker. She became one of the sexiest actresses ever.
When Bye, Bye Birdie was made in 1963, it was supposed to star Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh as the leads. After the producers saw Ann-Margret ignite the screen, her role was increased and she became a major star as a result. Life Magazine is quoted as saying “Ann-Margret’s torrid dancing almost replaces the central heating in the theater.”
She went on to star in films like Kitten with a Whip, The Swinger, and Bus Riley’s Back in Town. She is well known for having starred with Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas. There is a great advantage to being a great beauty in Hollywood. But time passes and beauty must be supported by talent and a willingness to mature on screen. By 1970, after having married Roger Smith, Ann-Margret was ready to become a leading lady. Although still sexy and beautiful, she was able to make the transition. To this day she continues to amaze us with the power of her talent. Ann was nominated for an Academy Award in 1975’s musical Tommy. She has won five Golden Globe awards.
In 2010, she starred in an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and she received the Emmy Award for this performance.
Ann-Margret is a class act. Her career has spanned almost 50 years. She is an icon for all time.