When you think of classic films, deeply flawed female characters are perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind. Old movies are jam-packed with clear-cut dividing lines between the good girls and the bad. Women were not as often the focus of movies, and even when they were, characterizations were often one-dimensional stereotypes: the supportive, dutiful wife, or the shameless vamp trying to steal husbands.
Luckily, times have changed, and we now have a lot more movies to choose from when it comes to looking for complicated, nuanced portrayals of women, not necessarily good, not necessarily bad, but just real, flawed people.
But this isn’t to say that there aren’t classic movies we can look to for these more complex characters: Here are ten classics that featured beautifully flawed female characters, brought to life by the talented actresses who played them.
10 Norma Desmond – Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Gloria Swanson gave the performance of a lifetime in Billy Wilder’s 1950 hit as Norma Desmond, a washed-up film star who refuses to believe her career is over. We know from the outset that a man named Joe Gillis (William Holden) has been found dead in her swimming pool, and the film takes us back six months so Joe himself can tell us how it happened. He was a not-terribly-successful screenwriter when he happened to meet Norma, who latched onto him and the idea that he could help fine-tune the script she’s written for her grand comeback film.
Although she puts on a good show, it’s soon evident to Joe that a comeback is not in the cards, that her butler, Max, has been writing what she thinks are fan letters, and that Max was actually a respected director and then Norma’s husband before he was demoted to the role of butler.
She’s also fallen in love with Joe, and resorts to threats of suicide when he talks of leaving. Norma is revealed as the killer, but by the end of the film she has also entirely lost her mind, to the extent that she thinks the camera crews covering her arrest are filming the long-awaited comeback. There are many times throughout the film that Norma seems like a monster, but in the end, she’s a pitiable thing, a former star chewed up and spit out by the studios once they had no more need of her.
9 Phyllis Dietrichson – Double Indemnity (1944)
Our second Billy Wilder film in a row, this one the film noir classic from 1944 starring Fred MacMurray and the always intriguing Barbara Stanwyck, who was initially reluctant to play the murderous Phyllis, given her track record of success playing nicer girls. But she knocked it out of the park as the overtly sexy wife who sets out to seduce MacMurray’s bumbling, fumbling insurance salesman, Walter Neff, steamrolling his sizable reservations until he agrees not only to embark upon an insurance scam, but to kill her husband, Dietrichson.
Soon, Phyllis’ stepdaughter Lola comes to Walter with her suspicions that Phyllis not only killed her father, but her mother as well, when she worked as her nurse. Oh, and she is having an affair with Lola’s boyfriend. During their final showdown, Phyllis shoots and wounds Walter, but finds she can’t kill him, having genuine affection for him. Walter is able to rise above his feelings and kill her. Stanwyck is enduringly fascinating as a ruthless woman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, but doesn’t always know what to do once she gets it.
8 Scarlett O’Hara – Gone with the Wind (1939)
Scarlett O’Hara, as played by Vivien Leigh, was a refreshingly flawed character at the head of the 1939 epic, Gone with the Wind; a spoiled and entitled southern belle about to learn some harsh truths about what she can and cannot have. On the one hand, it’s easy to admire her ambition and forthrightness, her refusal to be what other people tell her she should. On the other, she’s an inveterate husband stealer, hopelessly selfish, and unapologetically materialistic.
Even when she’s doing something heroic (taking Melanie and her baby to the relative safety of Tara after fleeing Atlanta), she doesn’t shut up about how much she’d rather be doing anything else. She puts others in danger without a second thought, and she’s got a real problem with procrastination. Her moral compass is practically absent, and it’s a little wild to watch various men fall for her simpering superficial charms, only to realize there is very little underneath the surface. An anti-heroine for the ages.
7 Cora Smith – The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Lana Turner cemented her femme fatale status in the 1946 adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel, playing Cora, who lives and works at the middle-of-nowhere diner/gas station Twin Oaks with her much-older husband Nick. Drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) wafts in on the breeze and lands a job in the diner, swiftly embarking upon an affair with the bored and restless Cora. Initial plans to run off together are scotched when Cora realizes they’d be penniless, so a new plan is hatched, to kill Nick.
When that plan goes awry and the police are onto them, Cora shows little hesitation in throwing Nick under the bus, his small dreams of the two of them going to live with his incapacitated sister in Canada not being exactly what she had in mind. Cora is intriguing in that while she wants love to be enough of a motivation, it’s nothing compared to money and security, and every time you think she might choose love, she swerves at the crucial moment.
6 Holly Golightly – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Blake Edwards’ 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella changes many things in translation, but not the overwhelming feeling that Holly Golightly (iconically portrayed by Audrey Hepburn) is a deeply damaged character underneath her brash beauty and quirky charm. Her new neighbor Paul (George Peppard) is instantly enraptured by her waifish charms and fiercely independent nature, but cracks in her bravado are soon very apparent, and much of the mystery in her life is actually very sad.
Paul doesn’t learn the full extent of her unhappy past until her much-older estranged husband comes to New York to find her, and hopefully take her home. Holly is clearly in need of help, but both unwilling and unable to effectively ask for it, trying desperately to believe in the carefree persona she’s so carefully crafted for herself.
5 Tracy Lord – High Society (1956)
In this 1956 musical, Grace Kelly takes on the role played by Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, that of wealthy, beautiful Tracy Lord, about to have a lavish wedding, despite the best efforts of her still-besotted ex-husband, Dexter (Bing Crosby). Tracy is spending the lead-up to the nuptials trying to fend off a couple of tabloid journalists, and we get a good glimpse of her decidedly ice-queen exterior, and her habit of plowing through life with little consideration for anyone else.
Underneath her wealth and chilly beauty, there’s a woman longing for more human connection, but Dexter is the only one who really sees it. It takes a night of wild drunken mistakes and embarrassments to realize that she needs to change her ways, which probably isn’t a great sign for the future, but it gets her back together with Dexter and on the right track again.
4 Alicia Huberman – Notorious (1946)
In today’s parlance, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) would be known as something of a hot mess. Her father was a Nazi spy, she drinks too much, and she’s got a different boyfriend every week. Agent Devlin (Cary Grant) shows up to recruit her as a spy for the Americans, and they quickly fall for each other, although both her past and the nature of the mission she’s expected to undertake complicate matters.
She is instructed to seduce a sinister former friend of her father’s, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), and, believing that Devlin’s feelings for her were a ruse to get her to take the job, she ends up marrying Sebastian as a sort of revenge, unwittingly putting herself in a good deal of danger by doing so. Hitchcock loved a conflicted character, and Bergman played this one beautifully in the 1946 spy thriller.
3 Eve Harrington – All About Eve (1950)
There are a number of flawed characters in this 1950 Joseph Mankiewicz drama, and the first one you probably think of is Margo Channing, played by a razor-sharp Bette Davis, a successful Broadway actress whose star just might be on the wane, and who has no qualms about fighting dirty to retain her position. Enter flawed woman number two, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), an apparently meek and mousy superfan, and her sad background story and apparent devotion lead Margo to hire her as an assistant.
Before Margot knows what’s happening, Eve has gotten herself cast as Margo’s understudy, and it becomes apparent to those around them that this has been Eve’s plan all along, to inveigle her way into Margo’s world and eventually take as much as she can of it for herself. Which she does, quite successfully. At the film’s end, Eve is the one on top enjoying Broadway raves and acting awards, but doesn’t seem to be as alert as she should be to Phoebe, the young fan who has turned up in a manner reminiscent of Eve’s own arrival.
2 Sylvia Fowler – The Women (1939)
George Cukor directed this absolute delight of a comedy in 1939, based on Clare Booth Luce’s play. Although men are a pretty constant topic of conversation, not one of them ever appears on-screen, in a story about a blissfully happy society woman, Mary (Norma Shearer), who discovers that her husband is cheating on her with a vicious perfume counter girl named Crystal (a slinky Joan Crawford). Rallying around Mary at all times is her gang of society friends, some supportive, and some dismissive, some going through the same sort of situation themselves.
And then there’s Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell at her witty best), who is Mary’s cousin and confidante, but perpetually going behind her back to stir up trouble, in fact, it was down to Sylvia that Mary first heard the news about her husband’s infidelity from a manicurist. Sylvia is an incorrigible gossip, and will go where the gossip is best, so when Mary cuts ties with her, she becomes bosom buddies with Crystal. It’s hard to say what Sylvia’s end game is besides being the center of attention and the first to break the news, but it’s a riot to watch her veer from one disaster to another, all of her own making.
1 Susan Vance – Bringing Up Baby (1939)
Howard Hawks’ 1939 screwball classic paired the unstoppable team of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and proved that a heroine can be all sorts of flawed, but still lovable in the end. Grant is David Huxley, a paleontologist awaiting the delivery of the last bone he needs to complete the brontosaurus skeleton that will make his career, when he has the (mis)fortune to meet Hepburn’s Susan Vance on a golf course, kicking off a series of shenanigans that result in David helping Susan take a leopard named Baby to her family’s Connecticut farm.
While Susan is high-spirited and fun, she is also reckless, scattered, and confusing, three things that are an anathema to the reserved and logical David. She means well, but David’s life falls apart once he meets her, losing his dinosaur bone and his fiancée as well. Her flaw is largely an inability to see how her actions affect others, but she’s so charming while she does it!