Nine Women Whose Remarkable Lives Deserve the Biopic Treatment

History

SMITHSONIANMAG.COM |
Feb. 7, 2020, 12:41 p.m.

This year’s roster of Academy Award nominees is much like those of previous decades: predominantly male and white. Of the 20 men and women nominated for acting awards, only one—Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo—is a person of color. And despite strong offerings from the likes of Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang and Lorene Scafaria, the list of Best Director contenders is all-male for the second year in a row.

The movies set to be honored at this weekend’s ceremony fare no better in the diversity department. 1917, widely predicted to win Best Picture, has just one female character. Anna Paquin says a single line in the more than three-and-a-half hour The Irishman, while Margot Robbie, who plays actress Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, is seen more often than heard. Because these and similarly biographical films take place in the past, which is assumed to be “overwhelmingly white and male” in and of itself, points out Aisha Harris for the New York Times, filmmakers have a ready excuse for centering their narratives on white men.

Hollywood creatives certainly have the artistic license to continue elevating stories dominated by white men, but as Harris writes, “[L]et’s not pretend that this isn’t also a choice—a choice dictated not by the past, but by an erroneous (and perhaps unconscious) belief that white men have done the most and lived the most interesting lives of us all.”

Though the movie industry is making some progress in rejecting this perception—biopics of such prominent women as Sally Ride, Rosa Parks and Aretha Franklin are currently in the works—gaps in the cinematic record remain. Harriet, for instance, is the very first biopic centered on the Underground Railroad conductor. Civil rights leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, and American flag creator Betsy Ross are among the famous women who are long overdue for either their very first biopics or new takes on decades-old productions.

To perhaps inspire Hollywood, Smithsonian magazine has curated a list of nine women—one for each of this year’s Best Picture nominees—who you may not have heard of but whose fascinating lives warrant the biopic treatment. All of these individuals, drawn from an array of countries and backgrounds, are now deceased.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman in 1923

(Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: The daring aeronautics of The Right Stuff with the inspiring story beats of 42

The Backstory: Eleven years before Amelia Earhart piloted her first transatlantic flight, Bessie Coleman earned her international pilot’s license, becoming both the first African American and Native American woman to do so. “Queen Bess,” as the aviatrix became known, had saved up money to leave her sharecropper mother and some of her 12 siblings in Texas and join her brothers in Chicago. Her brother John, a WWI veteran, talked about the women overseas who piloted aircraft, and Bessie grew determined to take to the skies too. She swapped her job as a manicurist for a higher-wage gig as a restaurant manager and secured the financial backing of the Chicago Defender’s millionaire owner Robert Abbott, among others. Since stateside flight instructors refused to tutor a black woman, Coleman studied French and then sailed across the Atlantic to an esteemed flight school in northern France.

By 1921, Bessie was a licensed pilot. After a second round of training in Europe, as Doris L. Roch relates in Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, she took to the skies as a “barnstorming” pilot, who’d perform flashy and dangerous figure eights, walk on wings, and parachute down from the plane. She made a foray into showbiz, too, signing a contract to star in a feature film, but then left the project when she learned her character would arrive in New York City wearing tattered clothing. “No Uncle Tom stuff for me!,” Coleman told Billboard. Her commitment to the black community was apparent in other areas of her professional life too: Coleman refused to fly for segregated crowds, had ambitions to start an African American aviation school and once, when the Chicago Herald offered to interview her if she’d pass as white, brought her darker-skinned mother and niece with her to the newspaper’s offices, flat-out refusing to whitewash herself.

Stunt flying only 20 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight was a risky endeavor, and after surviving a California crash that took two years to recover from, Coleman died at the age of 34 in another crash. The plane flipped mid-air. Coleman hadn’t been wearing a seat belt—she was too short to peer out at the land below otherwise—so she fell out of the plane and plummeted 500 feet down. According to a New York Times obituary written just this past December (as part of a series that pays due respect to notable figures whose deaths were unreported at the time), 10,000 people attended the memorial services for the barrier-breaking pilot.

Frances Glessner Lee






Frances Glessner Lee, at work on one of the Nutshells in the early 1940s

(Courtesy of Glessner House Museum)

The Pitch: Wes Anderson brings a Hereditary-inspired dollhouse aesthetic to a “Sherlock”-style whodunnit

The Backstory: The field of forensic science owes much to Frances Glessner Lee, a 20th-century American heiress who used her vast fortune—and crafting skills—to train a generation of criminal investigators. Introduced to forensics by her brother’s friend, a future medical examiner and pathologist named George Burgess Magrath, during the 1930s, Lee spent much of the following decade creating dollhouse-sized crime scenes she dubbed the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”

Numbering 20 in all, the dioramas draw on true-life crime files to present intricate domestic interiors populated by battered, bloodied figures and decomposing bodies. Each Nutshell—the roster runs the gamut from a farmer found hanging in his barn to a charred skeleton lying in a burned bed and a high school student murdered on her way home from the store—includes clues pointing to the case’s solution, but as Lee warned the students tasked with studying her macabre scenes, red herrings abound.

Frances Glessner Lee magazine cover
A magazine cover featuring Glessner Lee

(Courtesy of Glessner House Museum)

The Nutshells’ goal, according to Lee, was to teach detectives-in-training the skills needed to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”

Speaking with Smithsonian magazine in 2017, Nora Atkinson, curator of the “Murder Is Her Hobby” exhibition then at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, said the Nutshells’ subversive qualities reflect Lee’s unhappiness with domestic life. Married at age 19, she was unable to pursue her passion for forensic investigation until later in life, when she divorced her husband and inherited her family’s fortune.

“When you look at these pieces, almost all of them take place in the home,” explained Atkinson. “There’s no safety in the home that you expect there to be. It’s really reflective of the unease she had with the domestic role that she was given.”

Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandra
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandra, 1615-17

(Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: Frida meets “The Borgias,” but Baroque, biblical, and—unlike Agnès Merlet’s 1997 French-German-Italian film Artemisia—not a complete reworking of the historical record

The Backstory: For centuries, European artists looked to the biblical story of Judith killing the Assyrian general Holofernes as an example of serene courage in the face of tyranny. But when 17th-century artist Artemisia Gentileschi put paint to canvas, what emerged was a scene art critic Jonathan Jones describes as “revenge in oil.” Painted in the aftermath of a seven-month rape trial, the violent work casts Gentileschi as Judith and her rapist as Holofernes. Here, on the confines of the canvas, she emerges victorious, enjoying the vindication she never received in real life.

Born in Rome in 1593, Gentileschi received artistic training from her father, a successful Tuscan painter named Orazio. She worked in the tenebrism style pioneered by Caravaggio, completing commissions for nobles and producing large-scale history scenes at a time when most female artists were consigned to still lifes and portraiture. She became the first female artist admitted to Florence’s Accademia del Disegno and the toast of cultural hubs from Venice to Naples and London. Her religious scenes centered on powerful women; she casted herself in the roles of such figures as Saint Catherine of Alexandra and Judith, and didn’t shy away from the gorier aspects of history. But before finding success across Europe, Gentileschi endured a traumatic experience that would reverberate throughout the rest of her career.

Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Beheading Holofernes
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1612

(Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1612, Orazio accused his daughter’s art teacher, Agostino Tassi, of sexually assaulting her. (At the time, women were barred from pressing rape charges themselves, so Orazio acted on Gentileschi’s behalf, detailing the decline in “bartering value” inflicted by her loss of virginity.) During the months that followed, Gentileschi retraced Tassi’s actions in excruciating detail, even undergoing torture in hopes of proving her claim. Subjected to “moderate use of the sibille,” a torture device consisting of metal rings tightened around the fingers by strings, she declared, “It’s true, it’s true, it’s true.”

Despite being found guilty, Tassi—who evaded similar physical torment during the trial—was never actually punished.

Though Gentileschi’s reputation faded in the centuries following her death, she has since enjoyed a resurgence of critical acclaim—a trend evidenced by the London National Gallery’s upcoming “Artemisia” exhibition, which will feature the museum’s $4.7 million 2018 acquisition, her 1615-17 Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandra.

Policarpa Salavarrieta

Policarpa Salavarrieta
Policarpa Salavarrieta

(Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: The thrilling espionage-driven suspense of “The Lives of Others” meets the lush landscapes and revolutionary biography of “The Motorcycle Diaries

The Backstory: La Pola, as Policarpa (or Apolonia—her given name is disputed) Salavarrieta is affectionately known in Colombia, is a famous enough revolutionary within the country that her face graces the 10,000 peso bill. She’s also been the subject of an eponymous telenovela. The fifth of nine children, Salavarrieta was orphaned by smallpox at age 6 and grew up in the colony of New Granada (largely modern-day Colombia and Panama), which, by the time she reached her 20s, was rife with tension between the pro-Spanish-rule royalists and the independence-seeking patriots. La Pola became involved with the patriot movement starting in her hometown of Guadas, where she worked as a maid, and only escalated her anti-royalist activities once she moved to present-day Bogotá.

In the capital city, La Pola used her skills as a seamstress to ingratiate herself into wealthy households, learning about the movement of enemy troops. Along with other patriot women, many of whom came from aristocratic backgrounds, La Pola made uniforms, secured weapons, sussed out which impressed soldiers in the royalist forces could be persuaded to desert and join the patriot troops—she even, according to BBC Mundo, distilled illicit aguardiente (liquor) to bankroll the revolutionary efforts.

Soon enough, royalist forces arrested her. As historians James and Linda Henderson relate, La Pola’s lover, Alejo Sabaraín, and others were caught making their way to the plains to join the rebels, with signed evidence of La Pola’s counterintelligence efforts on them. She and eight other patriots, including Sabaraín, were sentenced to death by firing squad in November of 1817. To the end, La Pola remained unrepentant and sharp-tongued; she’s said to have argued with the priests sent to administer her last rites and cursed out the soldiers and government at her own execution so vehemently she competed with the noise of the drums and refused to comply with the executor’s demands. “Although I am a woman and young, I have more than enough courage to suffer this death and a thousand more!” shouted La Pola, only in her early 20s,to the assembled onlookers.

Empress Dowager Cixi

Empress Dowager Cixi by Katharine Carl, 1904
Katharine Carl’s 1904 painting of Empress Dowager Cixi, as seen at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

(Lumrs via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Pitch: The political machinations of “Game of Thrones” meet the opulent costuming of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette

The Backstory: China’s last empress, recently spotlighted in the exhibition “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, had an unusual rise to power. At 16 years old, she was selected in a nationwide search for consorts for the Xianfeng emperor. After initially coming to the Forbidden City as a concubine, she gave birth to the emperor’s only heir.

In 1861, when her son was five and Cixi herself was only 25, the Xianfeng emperor died, and the low-ranking consort became Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, or Cixi. A cadre of ministers was initially supposed to help direct her son’s rule, but Cixi and a former senior consort of Xianfeng’s ultimately shared power as regents. After her son died in 1875, the dowager empress consolidated power by breaking with succession tradition to adopt her three-year-old nephew, who was also too young to rule. All told, Cixi was China’s de facto leader for nearly half a century, ruling Qing China and holding imperial audiences from behind a screen in accordance with gender norms.

Was she a good leader? Historians have debated that point, as sensationalized Western accounts and modern Chinese schooling both maligned the “Dragon Lady,” who was said to have “the soul of a tiger in the body of a woman.” Theories have swirled that Cixi may have had a hand in the death (officially by suicide) of her son’s pregnant consort, or the arsenic poisoning of her nephew. In a recent biography, writer Jung Chang argues that Cixi helped China modernize, but it’s also true that she had a taste for opera and palatial extravagance and backed the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion, a string of attacks on missionaries and diplomats that resulted in thousands of Chinese deaths and a humiliating foreign occupation of Beijing. One thing’s certain: The complicated legacy and the palace intrigue of this contemporary of Queen Victoria would make for an engrossing biopic.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin

Victoria Claflin Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin
Victoria Claflin Woodhull (left) and Tennessee Claflin (right)

(Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: The infectious sisterhood of Thelma & Louise combined with the biting political satire of Election

The Backstory: Despite sharing a name with Britain’s then-monarch, Victoria Claflin Woodhull was far from a shining beacon of Victorian propriety. She was so controversial, in fact, that political cartoonist Thomas Nash dubbed her “Mrs. Satan,” while Susan B. Anthony described her as “lewd and indecent.”

During the 1870s, Woodhull and her younger sister, Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, scandalized Gilded Age America with their outspoken embrace of free love, otherworldly spirituality and women’s rights. After starting a stock brokerage firm backed by Claflin’s rumored lover, railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, the sisters earned enough money to launch a newspaper—and a presidential campaign centered on Woodhull, who became the first woman to run for the nation’s highest office.

Thomas Nast's "Mrs. Satan" cartoon
An 1872 political cartoon by Thomas Nast satirized Woodhull as “Mrs. Satan.”

(Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When election day arrived in April 1872, Woodhull was unable to vote for herself, in part because many American women were still decades away from enfranchisement, but mainly because she and Claflin were being held in jail on charges of obscenity and libel. The pair had published a newspaper detailing the sordid stories of a New York orgy and, more controversially, an affair had by preacher, abolitionist and free love critic Henry Ward Beecher, whose reputation was irreparably damaged by the adultery trial that followed. (Beecher’s sister, Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, responded to the incident by labeling Woodhull a “vile jailbird” and “impudent witch.”)

In August 1877, the sisters left their home country for London. There, Claflin married a member of the English peerage and became Lady Cook, Viscountess of Montserrat. Woodhull, meanwhile, married a wealthy banker, became an automobile enthusiast, ran yet another newspaper, founded an agricultural school, volunteered with the Red Cross during World War I and worked to preserve the English home of George Washington’s ancestors. Claflin and Woodhull died in 1923 and 1927, respectively.

Carrie A. Nation

Carrie Nation
Carrie Nation in 1910

(Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: A Paul Thomas Anderson-directed psycho-drama looking at how Nation’s religious zeal and personal hardship brought her to the brink of saloon-smashing. There Will Be Blood, but for booze instead of oil

The Backstory: It’s morning, and a nearly six-foot-tall, 53-year-old woman wearing spectacles and all black enters a Kansas saloon. Wielding a hatchet or newspaper-wrapped bricks, she lays waste to the place, shattering mirrors and bottles everywhere. Meet notorious Temperance crusader Carrie A. Nation, described as “another cyclone out in Kansas” and a “bulldog of Jesus.”

Nation’s anti-alcohol fervor stemmed, in part, from personal experience. Her first husband, a doctor, had died of an alcohol use disorder, and Nation attributed their daughter Charlien’s chronic mental and physical health issues to her father’s drinking and “the curse of rum.” She remarried an older lawyer, David Nation, but it was a loveless marriage. Carrie was deeply religious, although she was kicked out of her Kansas church due to her “strenuous personality,” and spent time as a jail evangelist, an experience that cemented her belief that booze was to blame for many societal problems. In 1899, after “a great anxiety at one time that threatened to take away my reason,” as she wrote in her autobiography, she received guidance from God: Go to nearby Kiowa and wreak havoc on its bars. In her first outing, she damaged three saloons, taking Kansas law (which had technically forbade such businesses starting in 1881) into her own hands and daring people to arrest her.

Though the state Women’s Christian Temperance Union did not endorse her vigilante-justice approach, Nation continued assailing drinking establishments, sometimes accompanied by fellow “Home Defenders,” as she called her followers, and making speeches. She was arrested dozens of times for her “hatchetations,” got into a full-blown fight with a saloon owner’s wife who attacked her with a horse whip, and became a turn-of-the-century celebrity: She once paid the fine for disturbing the Senate peace by selling hatchet souvenirs.

Nation died in 1911, eight years before nationwide Prohibition was enacted, after collapsing during a speech in Arkansas. The New York Times reported that she’d entered a sanitarium for “nervous disorders” (Nation’s mother and daughter both died in mental institutions) after the mid-speech collapse, but her doctor said she’d suffered heart failure. Her last public statement? “I have done what I could.”

Gladys Bentley

Gladys Bentley
Gladys Bentley’s powerful voice, fiery energy on the piano and bold lyrics made her a star of New York City nightclubs.

(NMAAHC)

The Pitch: Lady Sings the Blues meets Cabaret and Victor/Victoria

The Backstory: Even in an era defined by boundary pushing, Blues singer Gladys Bentley stood out. A regular at Harlem’s Clam House speakeasy, she won acclaim for performing raunchy reimaginings of Prohibition-era hits while decked out in a signature tuxedo and top hat. With her deep, throaty voice and unabashed display of sexuality, Bentley quickly became one of the Harlem Renaissance’s biggest stars; at the height of her fame, she headlined gigs at the Cotton Club and the Apollo, hosted her own weekly radio show, led a musical revue backed by a chorus of male dancers dressed in drag, and rented a Park Avenue apartment for the then-exorbitant sum of $300 a month (more than $5,000 today).

She was, in the words of contemporary Langston Hughes, “an amazing exhibition of musical energy … animated by her own rhythm.”

Gladys Bentley photographic postcard
Gladys Bentley: America’s Greatest Sepia Player—The Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs by an unidentified photographer, 1946-1949

(NMAAHC)

As American society grew more conservative with the repeal of Prohibition and dawning of the Great Depression, the openly lesbian Bentley found herself struggling to maintain a career on her own terms. During the late 1930s, she was forced to perform in skirts while living in the Bay Area, and in 1952, with the Red Scare in full swing, she penned an Ebony magazine essay claiming she’d undergone hormone treatments aimed at helping her identify as heterosexual. Eight years later, the 52-year-old Bentley died of complications from the flu while studying to become an ordained minister.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has several Bentley-related artifacts in its collections. A black-and-white photographic postcard of her is on view in the museum’s “Musical Crossroads” exhibition.

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller
Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected chief of the Cherokee Nation, poses in front of the tribal emblem at the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma on July 19, 1985.

(Associated Press)

The Pitch: Milk meets the aspirations of community activism in HBO’s “Show Me a Hero”

The Backstory: “Most feminists would love to have a name like Mankiller,” Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected principal chief of a major Native American tribe, told the New York Times in 1987. “It fits my work real well, and I’ve broken new ground for women.” But the path that took Mankiller—her last name stems from a Cherokee title for a soldier or watchman—to the helm of the second-largest Native nation wasn’t straightforward. Mankiller was born in 1945 in rural Oklahoma to a full-Cherokee father and white mother, and at age 11, left her family’s land due to a government program that promised jobs in metropolitan areas. “My own little Trail of Tears,” as she’d refer to the move, took her to San Francisco.

It was the Bay Area in the ’60s, and particularly the one-and-a-half-year indigenous activist occupation of Alcatraz as a symbol of “our last lands,” that incited Mankiller to be a leader. “The occupation of Alcatraz excited me like nothing ever had before,” she wrote in her autobiography of the protest, in which four of her siblings participated. Her increased involvement with the local Native community and newfound independence brought her into conflict with her first husband, Ecuadorian-American businessman Hugo Olaya. “I could no longer remain content as a housewife,” Mankiller, who would go on to host famous feminist Gloria Steinem’s wedding, wrote.

In 1977, after divorcing Oyala, she and her two daughters returned full-time to her 160-acre property, Mankiller Flats, in Oklahoma. As Eve McSweeney reports in a Vogue writeup of the 2017 documentary that chronicles Mankiller’s life story, she became a community organizer who fought for improved medical facilities. (She herself faced a slew of medical setbacks throughout her life, including multiple bouts of cancer, life-threatening kidney failure and a head-on car crash.) In 1983, she partnered up with Cherokee Nation chief Ross Swimmer—the political opposite of Mankiller, who considered herself a liberal Democrat—and the bipartisan ticket, with Mankiller as deputy chief, won, despite resistance to a woman filling the tribal leadership position. When Swimmer took a federal government position in 1985, Mankiller succeeded him as chief, winning two subsequent elections in her own right before stepping down in 1995 due to health problems.

Remembering Mankiller after her death from pancreatic cancer in 2010, then-Principal Chief Chad Smith told the Washington Post, “She went to the mat many times, making it clear that the Cherokee Nation will not surrender one more acre as long as we live. Her marching orders were to rebuild the nation.”

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