The Woman King: next Oscar candidate with a strong woman in mind?


Women are a force to be reckoned with both in real life and in real life. Over the decades, strong women have permeated cinema since its inception – remember White pearl in the series “The Perils of Pauline” of 1914? Viola Davis plays the title role in Gina Prince Bythewoodthe hit movie “The Woman King”. The Oscar Emmy and Tony winner’s character leads a group of female warriors called the Ajogic who protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey from the 17th to 19th centuries. (The Ajogic inspired Dora Misaje, the all-female military group protecting the kingdom of Wakanda in 2018’s “Black Panther” and the upcoming “Black Panther: Wakanda.”)

Reviews were strong for “The Woman King,” which grossed $19 million in its opening weekend, especially for the Davises. Variety noted: “She plays Nanisca, who in the film’s aggressive prologue stands her ground before a phalanx of well-armed soldiers, her hair styled into a sort of Mohawk. Visible scars on her face and shoulders We’ve never seen the actress like this, and not for a second do we doubt Davis’ ability to defeat her rivals.

Strong women have taken all sorts of forms in movies. There were female pirates (“Anne of the Indies” with John Stones and “Cutthroat Island” with Geena Davis) and kick-asses like Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the “Alien” franchise. george miller gave us both the ruthless Aunt Entity (Tina Turner) in 1985’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” and War Captain Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in “Mad Max: Fury Road” in 2015. And the Marvel and DC universes are populated by “Black Widow” (Scarlett Johansson), “Captain Marvel” (Brie Larson) and “Wonder Woman” (Gal Gadot). And here is a little anecdote: the legendary Dorothy Dandridge played Melmendi, Queen of Ashuba, in “Tarzan’s Peril” in 1951.

These characters are all fictional. But that’s not the case with Jeanne D’Arc, who lived from 1412 to 1431 and was declared a saint by the Catholic Church in 1920. There have been many books, films, plays and limited television series about this patron saint of France. At the age of 13, the peasant woman from the countryside of Domremy began to hear voices that she believed were sent from God. The voices told her she must save her country by leading an army to defeat the British and have the Dauphin, CharlesVII, appointed King of France. Cutting her hair and dressing like a man, Joan led her troops to victory against the English in 1429 at Orléans. She was eventually captured by the Duke of Burgundy’s men and imprisoned for a year before being tried for heresy, witchcraft and even dressing like a man (they said she was breaking divine law). Joan was convicted and burned at the stake in 1431 at the age of 19.

The greatest of all Joan of Arc films is the Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyerfrom 1928 “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, which is one of the masterpieces of the silent era. Dreyer had been invited by the Société Générale de Film de France to make a film with them in 1926. They agreed on Joan of Arc who had just been made a saint six years earlier. Dreyer used the actual trial transcripts for the film. He insisted that none of the actors wear makeup despite everyone being in close-up. The off-kilter camera angles heighten the sense of dread and disorientation, as does its fast-paced editing.

His directing style proved difficult for the actors, especially for Renee Falconetti, the French theater actress Dreyer chosen to play Joan. Dreyer persisted in chaining takes, sometimes close to 40, before being satisfied Said Dreyer: “With Falconetti, it often happened that after working all afternoon, we couldn’t get exactly what it was necessary… And the next day, we had the bad take from the day before projected, we examined it, we looked for it and we always ended up finding, in this bad take, some small fragments, some small light which made the exact expression and tone that we were looking for. This is where we would start again, taking the best and leaving the rest behind.

Falconetti’s performance is considered one of the most indelible ever to appear on screen. The New York Times Mordunt Room noted: “She, it is true, was guided with true genius by Mr. Dreyer, but as one sees her eyes fill with tears or catches a glimpse of a graceful faint smile crossing her attractive countenance, one senses that he would be in indeed difficult to obtain from any other actress such an eloquent interpretation as she gives in this production. Years later, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker said, “One of the greatest of all films… No other film has so subtly tied eroticism to religious persecution. Falconetti’s Joan is perhaps the finest performance ever recorded on film.

Despite good reviews, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” failed at the box office. Just like the sumptuous “Jeanne d’Arc” of 1948, starring Ingrid Bergman like Joan and Jose Ferrer in his film debut as Dauphin. Clocking in at two hours and 25 minutes, “Joan” is a pretty substantial piece of work. Bergman had long wanted to play Joan of Arc. She won the first Tony for her performance in the 1947 production of Maxwell AndersonJoan of Lorraine. Victor Fleming, the Oscar-winning filmmaker of 1939’s “Gone with the Wind” who directed Bergman in 1941’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” oversaw “Joan of Arc.” (Fleming and Bergman had an affair during production). “Joan” ended up being his final film; he will die the following year.

Despite his flaws, there’s no denying that Bergman is bright as Joan earns an Oscar nomination, as does Ferrer who nearly steals the movie. In all, it was nominated for seven Oscars (it was the first film to win so many bids without earning a Best Picture nomination) winning for its gorgeous cinematography and Technicolor costumes. Producer Walter Wanger received an honorary Oscar for “distinguished service to industry in adding to her moral stature in the global community through her production of the image of ‘Joan of Arc’.” But he turned down the prize because his film was not in contention for the top prize.

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