With a tip of the hat and, perhaps, apologies to Nathaniel R, here is my version of his 20 Actress meme – not just 20 favorite actresses, but 20 outstanding 20th Century co-stars. Here are 10 pairs of actresses (with two bonus pairs for the 2000s) who were not just wonderful individually, but who, co-starring in the same film, managed to make each other look even better, the contrast between them bringing out the distinctive qualities in each. With a nod to the directors who were inspired to cast them opposite each other in the first place.
Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers in Stage Door (Gregory LaCava 1937): A boarding house full of young actresses dying to make it on the NY stage. La Cava makes everyone in this female ensemble film count, but the stars are Hepburn and Rogers. And what a contrast between them! Hepburn is brunette, lean, aristocratic, and angular. Rogers is blonde, working class, wisecracking, and softly curvy. At first, we sympathize more with Rogers’ character. By the end of the film we love all of them.
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks 1953): Monroe is the blonde, looking for money. Russell is the brunette, looking for love. Monroe is a smart girl pretending to be dumb. Russell is a smart girl not pretending to be anything other than what she is. Under the direction of Howard Hawks, they make a great team with genuine comic chemistry , though in a more just world, co-directing credit would be given to choreographer Jack Cole who conceived and directed all the musical numbers (e.g., “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”) that Hawks insisted on having nothing to do with.
Machiko Kyo and Kinuyo Tanaka in Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi 1953): By the time this film was made, its two female leads had already established themselves as international stars: Machiko Kyo for playing the nobleman’s wife who may or may not have been raped in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Kinuyo Tanaka for playing the title role, an aging prostitute, in Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu. In Ugetsu, Mizoguchi cast these two great actresses as rivals: Tanaka as the loyal wife and helpmate of a potter (Masayuki Mori), Kyo as the unattainable, erotic ghost princess who enchants him. In short, reality vs. dream.
Lillian Gish and Shelley Winters in Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton 1955): The contrast here is between the innocence, not to say gullibility, of youth (Winters) vs. the wisdom of age (Gish). Each woman is defined by her reaction to the psychotic fake preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). Winters can’t resist him. Gish sees right through him. Winters had already given a great co-starring performance opposite Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun. Gish’s career, spanning nearly a century, is filled with great performances, up to and including her final co-starring role opposite Bette Davis in The Whales of August. But neither ever topped their work in Night of the Hunter, a film recently voted No. 2 in a Cahiers du Cinema poll of the 100 Most Beautiful Films ever made.
Audrey Hepburn and Anita Ekberg in War and Peace (King Vidor 1956): Vidor’s adaptation of the Tolstoy epic provides another study in contrasts. Warm lithe brunette Hepburn vs. cool zaftig blonde Ekberg. Both rivals for the love of Pierre (Henry Fonda). Both stunningly beautiful.
Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes in Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock 1958): Jimmy Stewart is a detective. Novak is the object of his investigation, the beautiful ethereal Madeleine. Bel Geddes is Stewart’s old girlfriend, the practical down-to-earth Midge. As Robin Wood pointed out, it is the same dream vs. reality dynamic that we see in Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu. Except Hitchcock takes it one turn-of-the-screw further. Bel Geddes’s Midge disappears about two thirds of the way through the film, and a second Novak appears. Unlike the first Novak, the blonde aristocratic Madeleine, the second Novak, Judy, is brunette, working class, and most important, attainable , the dream vs. reality theme repeated in a different key. Alas, neurotic Man will always prefer that which he cannot have.
Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich 1962): This might be the ultimate in actress pairings. Crawford and Davis play the Hudson Sisters, Blanche and Baby Jane, former stars condemned now to a kind of Sartrean hell, a decaying Hollywood bungalow where each in her way tortures the other. The contrast here is between Davis’s overtly aggressive bitchiness and Crawford’s passive aggressive “niceness.” You decide which is scarier.
SPECIAL BONUS PAIRS FOR THE 2000’S