Best Movies by Farr
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Feminist Films

February 22, 2010

by John Farr

John’s salute to empowered women characters.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)


Young widow Alice (Ellen Burstyn) is left to make a new life for herself and her young son, with no prospects and precious little money. With Alice harboring vague hopes of becoming a singer, she and her boy take an eventful road-trip west. Watching their challenging but colorful journey unfold is as satisfying as the hopeful outcome they ultimately achieve.


Here Martin Scorsese branches out into fresh cinematic territory, a world away from the gritty, urban, ethnic male preserves of “Mean Streets”. Yet the personal, heartfelt quality of “Alice” helps the director score a bulls-eye. The gifted Burstyn, noble yet far from glamorous, seems to personify every average woman forced to face a new life chapter on her own, while singer/actor Kristofferson helps spark some divine chemistry as Alice’s new, no- nonsense boyfriend. But Diane Ladd (Laura Dern’s real-life Ma) nearly steals the picture playing Alice’s hard-edged waitress colleague, Flo. Also look for a young, predictably precocious Jodie Foster in a small role.

The Goodbye Girl (1977)


Dancer/divorcee Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) is raising a precocious daughter on her own, and suddenly learns that her recently departed actor boyfriend has leased their apartment right out from under her to yet another actor, one Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss). After some predictable conflict on Elliot’s unexpected arrival, Paula and the new thespian in her life form an uneasy truce and start sharing the apartment. Cupid takes care of the rest.


Beyond Neil Simon’s sharp, knowing script, both Dreyfuss and Mason shine in the central comic roles-in fact, Dreyfuss even took home the Oscar that year. The adorable Quinn Cummings more than holds her own as Mason’s wisecracking daughter. Funny and touching, “Goodbye” is an ideal feel good movie. Appropriate for older kids.

Norma Rae (1979)


After hearing union organizer Reuben (Ron Leibman) deliver a speech at the textile mill where she works, Norma Rae (Sally Field) joins the effort to organize workers. Butting heads with management, and alienating husband Sonny (Bridges) with her new activism, Norma Rae perseveres and becomes a confident, courageous fighter.


The diminutive but plucky Field, who got her start playing Gidget on television, achieved breakout movie stardom with her assured, Oscar-winning performance as Norma Rae, who evolves from pliant employee to impassioned agitator for workers’ rights. The interplay between Norma Rae and unlikely ally Reuben (Leibman) is interesting to watch, but ultimately it’s the emergence of Norma Rae’s righteous fire that’s most memorable, reminding us that in this country, fighting for the fair treatment of working people is both a right and necessity.

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  • View Comments
  • Nikki

    To your good list I’d add the Russian film “Bed and Sofa,” when the wife leaves the two men and strikes out on her own, something rare in the 1920’s. Then “Fried Green Tomatoes” with Kathy Bates in the great parking lot scene. And finally, “Whale Rider” where a young women earns respect in a male dominated society.

  • rayban

    Great list, John, I’d like to add Joan Crawford in Michael Curtiz’ “Mildred Pierce”. And, much more recently, Meryl Streep in David Frankel’s “The Devil Wears Prada”.

  • Joan Fillot

    Don’t forget Charlize Theron in North Country. She’s a true heir of Norma Rae. Much as I love Meryl Streep, I wouldn’t want to hold up her “Devil” as a model of feminine freedom.