Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Despicable Dames

I think it would be fun to give a nod to some of the truly nasty ladies on screen who are not given the spotlight very often.  Of course there are the oft-discussed greats like Bette Davis in The Letter or Of Human Bondage and Gene Tierney in Leave Her To Heaven -- but there are other wicked women in wonderful movies.  I've chosen six who have absolutely no redeeming qualities, not even remorse at the end.  No mental illness, no childhood traumas -- they are just evil, plain and simple.

Glamorous Olga Baclanova as Venus, the trapeze artist, in Freaks (1932)

This nasty woman works her wiles on a love-struck little person
(Harry Earles).  Her greed and incredible cruelty give her
a special place in the annals of  despicable dames.
 But Venus gets hers in the end:

Not a cute chick anymore...


Gorgeous Claudette Colbert as Empress Poppea in The Sign of the Cross (1932).

DeMille always created larger-than-life characters, and Poppea certainly qualifies.  She does her best to corrupt a Roman centurion (Fredric March), routinely cheats on her admittedly disgusting husband, Nero (Charles Laughton), submits a beautiful Christian girl (Elissa Landi) to orgies, and looks forward to watching the Christian-chewing lions.

Platinum vamp Jean Harlow turned Red-Headed Woman (1932)

"Red" wastes no time or effort in luring a weak husband (Chester Morris) away from his heart-broken wife.  Red will stop at nothing for his name and money, but still wants more.  She has an affair with an older rich man AND his chauffeur (young Charles Boyer).  Oh, and she LOVES it when Chester hits her (and he seems to like that a lot).    (Perhaps they really were made for each other.)

Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles' version of Macbeth (1948)

Shakespeare's queen of Scotland is one of the great evil women in literature.  Her ambition is limitless, driving her to corrupt her morally weak husband so far as to murder the king. When Macbeth cannot do it, she snatches the knives from his hands and does the bloody deed herself, scorning him for his unmanliness.  Of course, she gets hers in the end as well, losing her mind completely, but you can't feel sorry for her -- she did it to herself.  As Rhett said to Scarlett:  "You are like the thief who is not the least bit sorry he stole, but is very, very sorry he is going to jail."

Sian Phillips as Livia in the BBC production of  I, Claudius (1976)

No, she is not from the classic era of the silver screen, but Livia is probably the most despicable dame on any screen, and this is a true story.  As wife to Roman Emperor Augustus (Brian Blessed), Livia spends years poisoning every heir to Augustus' throne who is in the way of her own son, Tiberius.  Her victims include her other uncooperative children, nieces, nephews, including at last her own husband.  Livia, a real Empress of Rome, proves that nothing can top real life.

And let's not forget ...
The Wicked Witch of the East ... we hardly knew ye ... R.I.P. 1939

The men will get their turn -- there are many god-awful guys to discuss at a later date.  Do you have any favorite despicable dames?  I'd love to hear about them!


  1. Fun post and I love your selections of Olga and Sian! I would also add Angela Lansbury--cinema's worst mother--in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

  2. Thanks, Rick! Oh yes, Angela Lansbury was absolutely chilling in that role!

  3. This made for interesting reading! The one that first popped into my mind reading the title of this post was Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca--Judith Anderson is perfection!

  4. It's funny Rick mentioning Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian a Facebook friend asked some other FB people who their favorite "muthas" in movies were and Eleanor Shaw Iselin was the first one that came to my mind. (Anne Revere's ma in Gentleman's Agreement is my favorite non-sinister matriarch.)

    Still remember the first time I saw Sign of the Cross -- it was one of the first movies featured in the first preservation festival hosted by AMC. How far they have fallen since then.

    And of course, everyone on the Internets knows of my undying passion for Jeannette Nolan -- she's sensational in MacBeth, and she's also evil...EEVILL!!! Bertha Duncan in the 1953 film noir The Big Heat.

  5. Brandie: Mrs. Danvers gives me the shudders too!
    Ivan: Mrs. Iselin was indeed a mutha! I remember seeing Sign of the Cross as a kid, and fell in love with DeMille right then and there. And Jeanette Nolan -- she plays EEVILL!!! perfectly!

  6. Ah, what about Phyllis Dietrichson (Double Indemnity, 1944)? ;) Liked the list though, you've got some pretty awful people on there.
    -- Natalie

  7. Phyllis was definitely nasty! Thanks for visiting -- hope you come back again!

  8. I agree with Phyllis from Double Indemnity for sure! Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane also come to mind.

  9. Hi Kim -- Jane was truly awful, but I guess I always thought of her as awful and pitiful at the same time, twisted by fate and deceit. However, her rat entree is one of cinema's nastiest tricks!

  10. How about Bette Davis in the classic film, The Letter.

  11. Great fun! I was thinking of Ann Blyth as Veda in "Mildred Pierce." You just want to wring her neck LOL

  12. Becky and company, I agree with all of you about those wicked women in cinema history, and I'd like to add one of my own: Madame Leopoldine Konstantin in Alfred Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS. For me, the way she pulls the strings behind the scenes on her suave Nazi son Claude Rains as they plot to kill Ingrid Bergman is as scary as "Mother" in Hitch's PSYCHO, because unlike "Mother," this evil broad is still alive! :-) Superb post, my friend!

  13. Hi Becky,

    I particularly found Jean Harlow's performance in RED HEADED WOMAN a fine piece of deceitful work. She pretty much slept her way through just about every guy in the film and with such a classy low class performance. Ida Lupino in THE HARD WAY, Kathleen Turner in BODY HEAT and Bette Davis in WHATEVER HAPPEN TO BABY JANE, Nicole Kidman in TO DIE FOR and of course Stanywck in DOUBLE INDEMNITY are a few others I can think of offhand.


  14. The wicked witch of the west wasn't so nice either! Good to see you back in action!

  15. Becky - great to see your posts again. I'm getting chills just thinking about these dames. But I have to say Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven has that perfect siren's lure to unavoidable calamity. Keep them coming Becky!

  16. Great selections. I would add Ellen from "Leave Her to Heaven". A brilliant performance by Gene Tierney. I agree with Dorian about Madame Constantin in "Notorious." Another evil mother was Livia Soprano on "The Sopranos" as played by the late great character actress Nancy Marchand.

  17. Thanks so much guys for coming over and for welcoming me back to blogging - I missed it!

    DAWN: The Letter is my favorite Bette Davis movie. She was marvelous!

    CFB: Oh yes, VEDA! Best spoiled, evil brat in movies!

    DORIAN: Notorious wouldn't have been the same without her!

    JOHN: You brought up some really good ones. Nicole Kidman in To Die For really was a sociopathic siren.

    LAURA: Good to see you here, Sis! Yeah, they were a couple of evil sisters -- LOL!

    CHRISTIAN: I thought beautiful Gene Tierney could play evil so well, in Leave Her to Heaven and The Razor's Edge as well.

    GILBY: You are so right about Livia Soprano! I always wondered if they named her after Livia in I, Claudius. They were so much the same.

  18. Nicely done Becks!
    Your caption for Freaks had be cracking up. I don't remember her being all that bad but I was a bit traumatized with all of the other craziness going on, crawling about.

    I certainly agree about Macbeth! One scary lady.

    I hope you'll do more on this topic for your fans.

  19. Thanks so much, Page! Yeah, that woman from Freaks was just horrible. And Lady Macbeth -- this is one of my favorite performances. I am going to do a post on some of the more unsung bad boys!

  20. You’ve chosen some extremely despicable dames for your gallery of nasty ladies, Becky. I can’t argue with any of your picks - & was especially pleased to find Sian Phillips’ Livia of I, Claudius included. Evil creature!

    Mentioned in comments are some dames that remind me of a poll I posted in early 2010 for the Classic Film & TV Café (the weekly poll used to be in blogpost format) called “Who’s Your Mommy Dearest?” The contenders for most “monstrous mom” were Gladys Cooper as Mrs. Vale in "Now, Voyager," Leopoldine Konstantin as Mme. Sebastian in "Notorious," Katharine Hepburn as Violet Venable in "Suddenly Last Summer," Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin in "The Manchurian Candidate" and Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate." All despicable dames, but Lansbury’s Mrs. Iselin won the poll…

  21. Eve, I remember your post -- mothers from hell! I remember having a hard time picking, but I'm sure I picked Gladys Cooper. Whenever I watch Now, Voyager I just want to reach through the screen and wring her neck! I'm glad you are an I, Claudius fan too -- Livia was just plain -- well, unbelievable! And wasn't Sian Phillips marvelous?!!

  22. Hi Becky! I'm a little late making the rounds this week, but may I add Miriam Hopkins in "Old Acquaintance"? She out-bitched the great Bette in that one!

  23. Miriam Hopkins usually irritates me anyway, and Old Acquaintance really did it! Selfish, nasty woman!

  24. I'm welcoming you back as well, Becky. A little late, but hey, it's hearfelt. I'm always a day late and dollar short so it's not as though I picked on you especially. :)

    I'm glad you missed blogging, maybe this time you'll stick around for awhile.

    But you came back with roar, that's for sure. This is a fabulous post. Why didn't I think of it first??? Ha!

    Can't wait to see who your bad guys are going to be...

    Sian Phillips was so vile in I, CLAUDIUS that I used to wince when she came on screen. Then I'd get afraid. Who's next?? I mean, she was deadly. I'd like to know why someone didn't do away with her early on. I mean, were they blind? Jeez.

    But you left out the Queen in SNOW WHITE. Now there's a lady you wouldn't want to run into in a back alley at night.

  25. Hi Yvette -- thanks for the welcome back. I feel bad that I haven't been to your blog lately, but it wasn't anything personal -- I didn't go to anybody's blog for a while there! Yours is one of my faves. I couldn't agree more about Sian Phillips. Marvelous actress, and as Livia you loved to hate her! There are so many great evil parts, and Snow White's Queen is one that scared me as a kid!