“The blonde” is a familiar caricature on movie screens as well as in the pages of noir fiction—she’s a trope as old as Hollywood itself. From Raymond Chandler’s derisive catalogue of blondes in his novel The Long Goodbye to Hitchcock’s obsession with icy blondes, she is a construct, created by men for their consumption. She is a shade—pale, brassy, dirty, platinum—not a person. For some actresses, the right look launched a career. Veronica Lake became famous for her side part rather than her acting.
Often the women who played these roles weren’t naturally blond and didn’t go by their real names—another layer of artifice. Everyone is familiar with the images of a young mousy-haired Norma Jeane smiling shyly at camera. How distant, how ordinary she seems compared to the infamous symbol she would become. Aside from Marilyn Monroe, this era of classic Hollywood cinema produced a slew of iconic and talented actresses who managed to transcend labels and who were far more interesting than the color of their hair. Here are some of my favorite movie blondes.
Lauren Bacall: the sultry blonde.
Bacall was discovered by Howard Hawks at the tender age of nineteen, and her romance and subsequent marriage to Humphrey Bogart is the stuff of legend. Known for her smoldering gaze and husky voice, Bacall insisted on doing her own hair, and kept her signature style—dirty blond waves, thick brows, and red lips—throughout her career. Having acted in dozens of films, Bacall surpassed being one half of Bogart and Bacall. After her death, Harper’s Bazaar described her bold look: “Her insistence on owning her image was a feminist move in an age where producers discovered, shaped and created female stars.”
Ingrid Bergman: the natural blonde.
A Swedish beauty, Bergman was hugely popular with the American public. In her early roles, she was cast as an innocent, the tormented wife in Gaslight or the young woman who cracked Bogart’s tough guy exterior—and broke his heart—in Casablanca, for example. My favorite Bergman film is Hitchcock’s Notorious, where she plays against type, a woman with a past who’s recruited by the CIA to become a spy. Bergman became embroiled in scandal when she left her family and her Hollywood career for Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. “I’ve gone from saint to whore and back to saint again, all in one lifetime,” she said, acknowledging Hollywood’s fickle treatment of her.
Grace Kelly: the icy blonde.
A favorite of director Alfred Hitchcock, Kelly epitomized the cool glamour of high society. She left Hollywood to become a real-life princess when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco. Retired by age twenty-six, neither Hitchcock nor anyone else could persuade her back to Hollywood as it would have conflicted with her royal duties. Of all his costars, Cary Grant singled out Grace Kelly as “serene” and the most “relaxed” on camera. I wonder what roles she might have taken had she continued her career.
Barbara Stanwyck: the dangerous blonde.
Famous for, among other roles, her turn as femme fatale Mrs. Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s noir classic Double Indemnity, Stanwyck played a temptress who convinced an insurance salesman, played by Fred MacMurray, to bump off her husband. In this film she wore an unattractive blond wig. Stanwyck was often cast as the “fallen woman.” There was a real flinty edge to her acting; she’s unpretentious and a force to be reckoned with. “I couldn’t stand being passive. I couldn’t play the placid girl,” she once said.
Rita Hayworth: the pinup.
Hayworth was more famous as a redhead, but she was blond in the noir film The Lady from Shanghai, directed by her then husband Orson Welles. Blond or redhead, both were inventions. Born Margarita Carmen Cansino to a Spanish father and Irish mother, she had a career as a dancer in Mexican nightclubs. When Hollywood discovered her, her Spanish roots were erased—literally—when her dark hair was dyed red and she had to undergo painful electrolysis treatments to push back her hairline. Her most famous role as the nightclub singer in Gilda cemented her bombshell status, which was at odds with her shy personality. She would later lament, “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda . . . and woke up with me.”
Elizabeth Ross’s new novel The Silver Blonde, a lush noir mystery set in postwar Hollywood and featuring its own set of legendary blondes, came out on July 27.
About the Author
Author Elizabeth Ross is the author of Belle Epoque, a finalist for both the William C. Morris Award and the California Book Award. Her career working as a film editor in Los Angeles inspired her second novel, The Silver Blonde. Originally from Scotland, she lives with her family on the coast of British Columbia, Canada. To learn more about Elizabeth and her works, visit her at elizabethross.com or follow @RossElizabeth on Twitter and @elizarosswrites on Instagram.