Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The women of Indiana Jones

Indiana Jones pursues two things in his movies: an artifact and a woman. Two out of three times, he gets both. But just as the Ark is long forgotten by Temple of Doom, so is Karen Allen. And just as the jewels of the Temple of Doom vanish from Indy's radar by Last Crusade, so does Kate Capshaw. I like to think Indy puts his women in a museum, alongside the artifacts, and visits them from time to time to tap on the glass and wink.

So, for The Film Experience's Action Heroine Blogathon, I'm curating an exhibit on the women of Indiana Jones. It's easy to exclude them in the canon of action heroes because the trilogy does not belong to them. It's very much a masculine affair, though they share much of Indy's screentime. They accompany him on his adventures. They bed him. They smack him. They get taken hostage at inopportune times. They save Indy from certain death on multiple occasions. They get dirty, they kick bad guys, they scream about snakes with Indy, they hang from things and get knocked around.

I revisited each movie in the trilogy to ruminate on these women: to what extent are they heroes? To what extent do they use their womanhood to get the job done? Are they on equal footing with Indy, or are they just a pretty accessory? And how does the female role change throughout the trilogy, and what can we expect of Cate Blanchett, who is poised to inherit the mantle in Indiana Jones 4?

Without further ado, I give you the women of Indiana Jones. Please, don't tap on the glass.

Karen Allen
as Marion Ravenwood
in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Age at the time of release: 29
Character profile: A hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, freckled, brassy tomboy who knows how to manipulate men because they're always underestimating her.
We first see her as her hand reaches for a shot glass. She's engaged with a burly Nepalese man in a drinking contest, which she wins handily.
Feminine wiles: She punches Indy at 25:53. "I learned to hate you in the last 10 years," she tells him. She's in a dress shirt, with the sleeves rolled up. Masculine. She sucks down cigarettes and does not demur. She blows smoke in a Nazi's face. "Nobody tells me what to do in my place." She saves Indy twice (one time by killing a guy). "I don't need a nurse," Indy protests after a brawl. She dabs him with water, then kisses him where it hurts. He points to his lips. They lock. Her drinking ability serves her multiple times in the movie.
Feminine woes: He needs her, but he also seems to have ruined her life 10 years ago. She's not quite over that. She also plays the hostage several times, gets her skirt torn off to serve as a makeshift torch, and is ogled by a bad guy (and Spielberg's camera) as she disrobes. We get a look up her skirt as she hangs by a rope. She's always shouting "Indy!" and does a lot of screaming, especially when confronted by skeletons.
Denouement: She straddles the paramour/buddy fence right to the end of the movie. "They don't know what they've got there," Indy says. "But I know what I've got here," she replies, smitten, then tough: "C'mon I'll buy you a drink."
Gender study: Marion is more sidekick than love interest, though she does duty as both. There isn't much chemistry between Allen and Ford, so Marion seems very much her own woman and her own hero, despite the deference imposed on her by the film. Of our three women, she is the toughest and most steadfast. Reliable, canny, inventive. A snappy way to start off a trilogy.
Where would Marion be now? At an AA meeting. Or playing softball somewhere.

Kate Capshaw
as Wilhemina "Willie" Scott
in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Age at the time of release: 30
Character profile: A squealy, girly diva. The "famous American female vocalist." The anti-Marion.
We first see her 23 seconds in as she emerges from the mouth of a Chinese dragon, singing "Anything Goes." Soon, we'll all be wishing that the dragon would become real, swallow her back up, and digest her into oblivion. This is a markedly different entrance from Karen Allen's. It's drinking game versus Broadway melody.
Feminine wiles: She's good at being helpless/attractive. She's capable of seducing people.
Feminine woes: She meets Indy and he immediately takes her hostage. This is pretty standard: she's a pawn for most of the movie. She can't hold a gun. "I burnt my fingers and I cracked a nail!" she laments after one particular scrap. She's no good in tough situations like Marion was. "I hate the water and I hate being wet and I hate you!" she screams to Indy at one point. She won't drop her purse to get on an elephant. Her general incompetence draws stares from women of an Indian village. As she rides an elephant backward, she wails, "I'm a singer! Oh I need to call my agent. I hate being outside! I'm a singer!" Blah blah blah. Indy says, "The biggest trouble with her is the noise." Agreed. She is game to visit the maharaja only after she learns that he's loaded, but she faints theatrically when monkey's brains are brought out for dinner.
Denouement: They end up surrounded by the children of the village they helped -- virtual "parents" of a whole generation saved by old-fashioned adventuring and romancing. It's a tad biblical and a tad domestic. It's the weakest of the trilogy, both heroine-wise and movie-wise.
Gender study: "I'm allowing you to tag along so why don't you give your mouth a rest, okay, doll?" Indy says with clear disdain. Even Shortround calls her "doll," and instructs her to call Indy "Dr. Jones." Indy is clearly the man in charge and Willie is clearly the dame. Their first kiss comes at 48:15, and Willie tells him, "I could've been your greatest adventure." Really? Steven Spielberg wanted Allen reprised her role as Marion but he and George Lucas decided that every movie should include a different woman for Indy. They obviously wanted to go to the opposite end of the female spectrum here. The character of Willie and Capshaw's performance combine to make one big shrillfest, and it does nothing favorable for the action heroine archetype.
Where would Willie be now? In Vegas, opening for Cirque du Soleil.

Alison Doody
as Dr. Elsa Schneider
in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Age at the time of release: 22
Character profile: An exotic, cold, somewhat forbidding Aryan goddess with a brain that rivals her beauty.
We first see her at 25:46, standing in front of choppy Viennese port in the sunshine. Very Kim Novakish. Indy was expecting to be met by a male doctor. Instead, we have Elsa, golden-haired and Austrian-voiced. The flirting starts immediately ("You have your fathers eyes." "And my mother's ears. The rest belongs to you.")
Feminine wiles: She has the thrill of the hunt in her eyes, and is as hungry for treasure as Indy. At last a formidable foil? She's knowledgeable. A scholar. We get the first hint of her duplicity at minute 32, when she gives Indy the look a predator might give its prey -- a simple, subtle flare of the eyelids as she realizes he's going to do the dirty work for her by breaking down a wall in the catacombs...
Feminine woes: ...but she doesn't like rats, and womanly yelps abound before Indy picks her up like a sack of potatoes. At 36:19, she's trapped under a coffin with a bunch of squealing rodentia as Indy finds a way out. To boot: she's in a wet white blouse. And as you'll see, she gets a little hysterical as the film wears on, her psyche unraveling like yarn.
Gender studies: Elsa is, of course, a villainous Nazi (always an object of Indy's hate) in addition to being the woman of the movie (always an object of Indy's lust). At the height of an argument, Indy kisses her. She acts indignant. "I don't like fast women," he says. "And I hate arrogant men," she replies as she bites his ear. Neither, of course, is true. Later, she shows Indy how Austrians say goodbye: bye biting your lower lip. The attraction between the two is aggressive and animalistic -- the flip side of their everyday intellectual mentalities. There's serious chemistry between the two. It's perhaps the most convincing matchup of the trilogy, from a sexual standpoint. Maybe this is because they are really hero and villainess, not hero and heroine.

There is much to say about her. Elsa starts out as a very strong, conniving character, but by 1:08, she is crying at the bookburning. Why? Because she feels terrible about betraying Indy, or because she hates to see books burned? The answer's the key to her character. What do you think?

Other points in the movie are equally curious. At 1:41, in the grail cavern, she says to Indy, "I never expected to see you again." What an ambiguous reading. Was that restrained joy, or just fatigue? She's distraught again when the villain shoots Jones Sr. She's remorseful, shaking her head as if to say, "I'm not a part of this." Her elation is restrained when Indy gets through the Breath of God. She loves him. It's a nasty, rotten love, just like her love for the grail. At 1:55, she goes into her batshit-tantalized-hungry mode again. "It's ours Indy--yours and mine!" she squeals, holding the grail, but she screws up and crosses the seal. She chases the grail into the crevass. She wants both life and Indy and eternal life. Her lips are blood-red, her teeth bared, her hair wild -- she reaches for the grail like a vampire, refuses the help of our hero, and falls through the fog to death.
Where would Elsa be now? In hell...? Or at least at the bottom of a very deep pit.

Concluding remarks

In the arc of Indiana Jones' women, we go from hard-drinking jock to squealing waif to a woman who is a bit of both, but smarter and more of a femme fatale. Regardless of the type of woman, Indy is all about letting them "tag along." He says something to this effect in each movie. Here's the exchange in Last Crusade:

ELSA: You didn't trust me.
INDY: I didn't know you. At least I let you tag along.
ELSA: Oh yes. Give them a flower, and they'll follow you anywhere.

Precisely. These women are along for Indy's ride. It's just that the last time around, it's a little more interesting. Elsa is a complex character -- more dimensional than butch Marion and dainty Willie -- whose character flaws send her not into Indy's beefy arms, but into a chasm of insanity. It's kind of refreshing.

At the end of the trilogy, though, Indy rides into the sunset as a gleeful bachelor, free to have more adventures and acquire/discard women as he see fits.

Despite starring alongside Harrison Ford in a highly successful action trilogy, none of these actresses have had notable careers. Doody has made just eight appearances on film or TV since 1989, though she's done some work this past year on the UK series Waking the Dead (she's 40 years old now). Capshaw married her director, did SpaceCamp, produced The Love Letter and hasn't worked since 2002 (she's 53 now). Allen did Starman and Scrooged, was memorable as the mom in The Sandlot, and is now rumored to be in the fourth Indiana Jones movie, according to IMDb (she is now 55 years old; Ford is 64). Which brings us to:

Cate Blanchett
as Shira Brookingstone, Esq.
in Indiana Jones and the Unfiled Tax Return

Ho ho. Ha ha. It's important to note that Blanchett (at age 38) will be the first Indiana Jones woman who is a movie star in her own right. Expect her to break the mold and give Ford a run for his money. And if Karen Allen does appear in the movie, keep your fingers crossed for a cat fight. Although, between the two of them, there'd be nothing catty about it. They could kick my ass and drink me under the table.


Joe Valdez said...

I thought this was a good idea for the Action Heroine blog-a-thon when I heard it. Sharp entry, J.J.

It's hard to disagree that Capshaw and Doody were just along for the ride, but I think Karen Allen was a true heroine in the mold of '30s and '40s adventure films. She was almost set on fire, blown up in a truck, blown up in a plane, melted by ghosts and had to contend with snakes as well as a monkey. And back in the late '70s, there was no one more adorable.

J.J. said...

Allen definitely harkens back to the '30s and '40s, though I can't quite think of examples. I think it's just the pitch of her performance. I can see Hepburn or Jean Arthur playing Marion.

Capshaw was very much along for the ride. Doody's a bit of an anomaly. She's manhandled by the screenplay -- yanked from one extreme to the other. It's quite interesting.

Damian said...

I don't think anyone denies that Karen Allen was the best of Indy's three heroines / leading ladies / damsels in distress, but I think I may be the only person in the world who actually prefers Kate Capshaw to Allison Doody. Everyone else seems to find Kate annoying whereas I actually think she's funny. Also, while there is no denying Doody's beauty, I find her to be a very bland, very "vanilla" character. I don't see it as complex or ambuguous so much as there's just really nothing there. Capshaw might have been grating but I prefer an obnoxious personality to no personality.

J.J. said...

I can agree with the no personality thing -- she was vampirish, in my mind, feeding on the situation and subject to inconsistent fits. I just have a hard time believing that Indy would fall for Capshaw's character. Although I suppose he's probably just horny.

Anna said...

What a good post. Ah - the memories . . . K. Allen's character was great, Capshaw's was grating (A feminist nightmare!), and number three - well she was OK. I am not surprised, though still annoyed, that the idea of aging men as young babe magnets is going to continue in part 4. I do like Blanchett and sincerely hope she is given a character NOT drawn on tired female stereotypes. Can you tell this is a pet peeve of mine? Sorry to complain on your blog - I really enjoyed your insightful post.

Damian said...

I just have a hard time believing that Indy would fall for Capshaw's character. Although I suppose he's probably just horny.

I'm gonna venture to say that I don't think Indy truly loves any of the ladies in the three movies. I think he has affection for them (particularly Marion) and, like James Bond, he certainly "enjoys" them for the many pleasures they can bring, but ultimately Indy's real passion is for archaeology. That's his true mistress.

J.J. said...


Matt said...

Temple of Doom takes place before Raiders, so it's not fair to say that the Ark and Karen Allen were "forgotten" in that movie.

Juanita's Journal said...

I am so SICK AND TIRED of people putting down Willie Scott.

So what are you saying in this article? The only worthy women are those who act like a man? Is that what you admire about Marion Ravenwood? Because he's tomboyish?

Oh for God's sake!

By the way, Marion did her own share of screaming in RAIDERS. Willie came to both Indy and Short Round's rescue at least two or three times. And even Indy himself managed to his share of screaming in the movies . . . including a few SQUEALS of terror in "CRYSTAL SKULLS".

And if Kate Capshaw had to put up with Spielberg's bullshit about how he loved the Marion Ravenwood character for all of these years, I'm surprised that she hasn't divorced this moron yet.

Adi said...

Thank you for shared it.
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