Here’s looking at you, kid

I have a major soft spot for old movies–something about the very theatrical acting style, the bare-bones sets and effects, and the way so much potentially “offensive” content had to be creatively implied and left to the viewer’s imagination. I love them despite the fact that female characters are often only slightly less interesting than the props.

Rewatching Casablanca a few weeks ago after several years between viewings, I was pleasantly surprised by Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa. Not only is she interesting, she is also genuinely strong. In a lot of ways, her strength revolves around supporting her heroic husband, Victor Laszlo, but it’s apparent that he perceives her as valuable in her own right. Each of them goes to Rick individually and asks him to get the other on the plane out of Casablanca, and it’s just as much of a sacrifice in both cases–while Laszlo will almost certainly be taken in by the Nazis if he stays, Ilsa knows very well that, with him gone, they would likely come after her. When she does it, there’s not a trace of self-pity or martyrdom, just grim acceptance that her husband’s work is more important in the grand scheme; when he does, it’s not because she’s the “little woman” who should be protected out of some abstract notion of chivalry–it’s done from both sides completely out of love. There is the sense that Rick’s presence makes it easier for her to make this sacrifice, and that she knows that she has someone who can “take care” of her, but at the same time, the probability that she’s deluding herself is apparent, just beneath the surface.

The best part of Ilsa’s strength, in my opinion, is that she’s never held up as a “strong woman”. She just is. I always find that when writers feel the need to constantly point out that their character is a “strong woman”, they’re saying something about all the rest of the women out there (granted, generally they’re saying something about the women we see on our screens, which is why we’re all here, but still) and making this one exceptional. I’ll feel much more equal and much less frustrated when we see strong characters that also happen to be women without much comment from the other characters, because her sex and her strength are just facets of her personality, and it’s not that shocking to see the latter in a package with breasts. Others acknowledge (in Peter Lorre’s case, extremely smarmily) that Ilsa is a beautiful woman, and her strength tends toward that which is available to her in the world as it is (which means, to some extent, backing up her husband, as he is the public face of all the risks), but no one ever seems shocked to hear confident, forceful, self-sacrificing words coming out of that beautiful mouth beneath that blonde hair. If they’re shocked or moved, it’s because anyone is standing up to the Nazis at all, and Rick’s character development is based on the actions of both Laszlo and Ilsa, as human beings, in equal measure. Not holding her up as the icon of strong womanhood also means that she doesn’t have to be the standard-bearer for all of us, and she can be strong, weak, flawed, great and complex just as much as the male characters. I appreciate that, because if they were calling her a strong woman, I’d probably be here pointing out all the holes in the argument about what feminine strength looks like, and I wouldn’t let her be as real as she is.

The fact that this movie was made in 1943 makes this pretty remarkable to me, especially since so many screenwriters still haven’t gotten the memos about equality that came out somewhere around 1972. Plus, Ilsa manages to get away with a torrid extramarital affair without getting punished with either a horrible death or a humiliating public divorce at the hands of her righteous husband.


  1. scarlett says

    I suggest you find ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’. Playing an middle-aged/elderly wife, Katherine Hepburn radiates this dignity and backbone that I haven’t seen afforded to women over fifty since.

  2. Purtek says

    Oh, so totally in love with most everything Katherine Hepburn ever did. In some cases, she even manages to play an explicitly feminist woman who’s not a shrill, man-hating harpy.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    I think strong women were actually less threatening to the target audience back then. Look at Barbara Stanwyck’s roles, for example. One strong, cool-headed woman after another, and I don’t recall anyone ever pointing out the strength.

    When the target audience switched from grown-ups to young men whose age range becomes a little less mature with every passing generation, grown women with guts were perceived as annoying mother figures rather than alluring, powerful individuals.

    That’s my theory du jour, anyway.

  4. scarlett says

    Well I remember watching a few of Bette Davis’s moveis that she made when she was older, like All About Eve and Baby Jane, and being struck that, while she was playing these bitter, dried-up women, the roles were so fleshed out. Women like Davis and Hepburn were still playing headlining, fleshed-out characters well into their fifties and sixties – I believe Hepburn won her last Oscar in her sixties.

  5. says

    OTOH, didn’t Ilsa have a line in which she tells a man (Rick) that “You have to think for me now”? I’ve only ever watched CASABLANCA just the once but clearly remember letting out an involuntary groan — to the amusement of many of my fellow viewers (all men, as I also recall) — upon hearing that line. :S

    Also, for a fun — and more feminist — take on CASABLANCA, check out Hong Kong’s ALL THE WRONG SPIES (1983) with Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia in the Ilsa role (sorta). When the line that all the good agents — male as well as female — have to spout to identify themselves is “I am a woman”… ;b

    Oh, and yeah, am a fan of Katherine Hepburn. Have to say though that the real life personality — with her preference for pants over dresses, etc. — often seemed much more interesting than the characters she played on film!

  6. scarlett says

    I’ve only ever seen one KH movie – Guess Who – but I find her real-life person fascinating, how she was always in control of her personal and professional life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *