Yesterday evening there was an enthralling programme on BBC4 (do I ever watch any other channel?). One of those occasional Arena documentaries. It was about Screen Goddesses: those women who were famous in their day for their beauty, their glamour, their allure, their sexiness, and in one or two cases, their on-screen cruelty. Famous too for being victims of the star system at Hollywood, or for transcending it.
It kicked off with the likes of Theda Bara, Lillian Gish, and Clara Bow, who had such an impact on innocent, impressionable audiences in the silent era of the movies. Then on to the the female stars of the talkies, such as Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner. Untouchable Scandinavian goddesses such as Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman. And finally Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn and Marylin Monroe. What a list of names!
I have to say, the goddesses of the silent era had such expressive faces. Huge eyes (all the better for captivating the audience), and luscious lips glistening with dark lipstick (all the better for making the audience yearn). I realised while watching that one of my friends looked exactly like Lillian Gish, and I texted her at once to tell her so. She was blown away with this exciting news.
I've checked: I haven't a single book about movie stars on my bookshelves at home. A visit to the second-hand bookshops of Sussex is indicated, I think!
Of course, most of these screen portrayals were manufactured, but clearly these women also had something extra which they could slip past the rigid requirements of the director. I especially liked Marlene Dietrich's style, and the feisty attitude of Jean Harlow.
But there was a type of goddess that I really didn't like - the narcissistic controlling sort, who made their men go through hell in the name of love. In one film, one of these big-ego goddesses challenges the man in her life to destroy the gorgeous sports car he made with his own hands, by pushing it over the edge of a cliff. He hesitates, then complies. That's awful, I thought. A thing of power and beauty sacrificed to your need to put this man to an ultimate test. (She was of course getting rid of a 'rival', as well as demonstrating her own power) Immediately after the beloved car crashes onto the rocks far below, she asks him when they will get married, supremely confident of his reply (the bitch). 'Tomorrow' is his gruff reply, through gritted teeth. No, walk away now, I thought, walk away before she totally consumes you!
I don't know how that film ended, but I bet the man was twisted into a mockery of himself before she killed him off. Not nice.
It reminded me of those wives and girlfriends who insist that their man discards his teddy bear, his lifelong friend. No woman of sense and sensitivity should even contemplate such a request. It kills love, not proves it.
I would never demand it. Never.
Would you, though? How much of an imperious goddess are you?