All women are beautiful, but Hollywood still subscribes to the belief that some are “classic” beauties. The definitions of what’s attractive in Hollywood are always fluctuating but in this week’s new release, I Feel Pretty, Hollywood will try to convince women that Amy Schumer is unattractive. So, to inject some positivity into a movie that categorizes women into “glamazons” and “non-glamazonian,” the Dames honor the actresses Hollywood has seen as “unconventional.” Feel free to honor your forgotten leading ladies in the comments below!
This was a hard choice for me because I kept saying, “All these women are beautiful and talented.” It was hard for me to subscribe to the notion that any of these women are unconventional in any regard. So, similar to Lauren’s list, I focused on women who could be described as “character actresses.” Those who aren’t perceived as leading ladies because of stupid sexist standards or who always tend to show up on “unconventionally attractive” lists. These women are all bad-ass and we should be in awe of them daily.
To nearly everyone Billie Burke is forever known as Glinda, the Good Witch in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. But to only know her as Glinda is to ignore 91 other credits and a career spanning 44 years, going all the way back to 1916! Burke was a Ziegfeld Girl and married the Big Cheese himself. She married Florenz Ziegfield and the two had a happy marriage till he died in the ’30s. During all that Burke situated herself as a comedienne, playing daffy society women in the likes of Dinner at Eight (1933) and the Topper series. Even if the movie is terrible Billie Burke is utterly delightful, airy, and a joy. It’s easy to see why she was cast Glinda, but it’s far from her best performance.
It is my dream to one day tell Anjelica Huston how much she means to me, and how much she utterly terrifies me. Huston goes on the list of people who first scared me after I watched 1980’s The Witches. Yep, you can’t make me disbelieve that Huston doesn’t commands all the witches in the world to this day. Regardless of that, she’s a woman who has carved out an amazing career and is utterly immortal. From her performance as Morticia Addams to the cool, sophisticated and utterly brutal Baroness in Ever After, Huston taught me all I know about commanding people and looking flawless in the process.
I love that Lauren put Agnes on her list because it made me remember how much I adore her. To me, Moorehead will always be Endora Stevens, the obnoxious, meddling mother to the best witch of the ’60s, Samantha Stevens, in Bewitched. (Watching the episodes now, Darren deserves all the flack she gives him.) But like Billie Burke, you can’t limit Agnes Moorehead to just television. She was one of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre members; she starred in Citizen Kane, and made a career starring in practically every genre of classic film. If I had to recommend an Agnes Moorehead movie you should watch, sit down and enjoy her role as the sympathetic warden of a women’s prison in Caged (1950).
Like Billie Burke, Eve Arden is a living legend who looked utterly astounding at over 65. Watch Grease (1978) and tell me you believe that woman is 70 years old! Arden’s dry, acerbic wit made her the best friend/audience surrogate to practically every classic star, from Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945) to Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn in Stage Door (1937). She was always given the best lines and said them in such a way you could only wish they’d zing like that in your mouth.
Ethel Mae Potter, we never forgot her! I thought about putting both I Love Lucy women in this last slot, but I figured there’s never enough love for Vivian Vance. Vance wasn’t a big movie actress like Ball, but so many of the I Love Lucy episodes I love wouldn’t work without Vance’s remarkable comedic timing.
This is really tough, because I honestly think these women are all beautiful, and not in the “real beauty is on the inside” way. They’re gorgeous and I love them all. But, hey, they can’t all be Charlize Theron, right? There are many women that fall into the “unconventional” category, but I opted for more modern choices since Hollywood’s standard of beauty is just different these days, and it’s harder for women who don’t look like Gal Gadot and Sandra Bullock to land the big roles.
I first discovered Irish actress Fiona Shaw in the charming Three Men and a Little Lady in 1990. She played the headmistress of a boarding school who fancied Tom Selleck. Because who wouldn’t? Little did I know that was only her third feature film. Since then she has been in a bunch of films I loved (and maybe a few I didn’t). She was a perfect addition to the Harry Potter franchise and can seamlessly go from fun-loving to dastardly.
Have you seen this woman on a red carpet? She’s stunning. But she’s also hilarious and smart and brilliant, and I’m so excited for all the things that are coming her way soon. Octavia Spencer has been around for years. Did you know she played a nurse in A Time to Kill? Remember when she played one of Drew Barrymore’s co-workers in Never Been Kissed? Way before she made everyone think twice before biting into a slice of chocolate pie, she was all over TV and movies. It’s really fun to see what she’s got coming up soon, and it’s great to see this talented lady getting all the love she deserves.
Helena Bonham Carter
I don’t really care if everyone thinks she’s crazy. Helena Bonham Carter is brilliant and awesome and it pains me that this woman doesn’t have an Oscar. She does have two nominations, but they aren’t even for the right films but that’s neither here nor there. The fact is she is not afraid to take on weird, quirky, bizarre characters. She’s played Ophelia and Mrs. Lovett and Bellatrix Lestrange (because of course!). Sometimes she plays something more mainstream, like Queen Elizabeth, which, hey, scored her an Oscar nomination. It will be fun to see her take on the role of Princess Margaret on The Crown, and you know we’re all excited about Ocean’s 8 coming this summer!
Dame Maggie Smith
It’s not my fault that most of my choices just happen to have starred in Harry Potter films. That is a total coincidence. But seriously, I adore Maggie Smith. Whether she’s giving teenage witches and wizards a hard time for being late to class, or she’s throwing out all the best one-liners in Downton Abbey, this two-time Academy Award winner (and 6-time nominee) is still amazing after all these years. There aren’t too many actresses who started their careers in the 1950s and are still going. And she’s done it all, from serious drama to silly comedy. What’s not to love?
Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo is another one of those actresses who shows up in unexpected places and instantly makes things better. She isn’t as well known as she deserves to be, but she did score an Oscar nomination for House of Sand and Fog in 2003. She started working in film in Iran in the mid-’70s, and eventually came over to the US in the late ’80s. She didn’t really start to get a lot of notice, though, until House of Sand and Fog, but that film opened a lot of doors for her. She went on to more movies like The Lake House and Star Trek: Beyond, and she worked in TV on shows like 24 and The Punisher. Which is awesome, but…more, please.
Agnes Moorehead had a long career as a character actress, often playing the shrill busybody, the Spider Woman, and, every once in a while, the best friend. She’s equally good as the dangerous woman in Dark Passage, as Bette Davis’s loyal housemaid in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, and as a far more sympathetic character in All That Heaven Allows. But one of my absolute favorites of hers is her role in the B-movie noir The Bat, in which she gets to be a delicious Agatha Christie type who figures everything out and faces down Vincent Price like no one else could.
Like her husband Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester had an extensive career as a character actor, spanning generations of film and television, playing everything from the deliciously nasty baddie to the dotty old aunt, and even Mary Shelley. Lanchester was never anyone’s idea of a bombshell, but she was an excellent actress and a joy to watch. She was a bit off, a bit weird, someone who might be your loving friend or slaughter you in your sleep…or both. And she always elevated any film she chose to grace with her presence. It says a lot that in Bride of Frankenstein she only appears on screen for a few minutes and yet is one of the most indelible onscreen monsters of all time.
Look, I want to go drinking with Frances McDormand. Like, the woman is a stone-cold badass that I feel would give excellent life advice and possibly also drink everyone under the table. Can I please go drinking with Frances McDormand?
I have loved Sally Hawkins since Happy Go Lucky, the Mike Leigh film that has her playing an apparently naïve young woman whose go-to philosophy is just to try to be happy, no matter what. And like everyone on our lists, she can play any number of different characters. She was transcendent in The Shape of Water, charmingly quirky in the Paddington films, and damn sexy in Tipping the Velvet. I’m glad that she’s made it across the Atlantic. Here’s hoping we see her in more American films.
As with Lanchester and Moorehead, Thelma Ritter often wound up playing the comic relief—the tough-talking housekeeper or mother-in-law who helped those crazy kids with their schemes, or provided running commentary on why they needed to get a grip. She’s my favorite part of Rear Window and was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in All About Eve. I always feel just a little bit happier when I see her name in the credits.
I initially discovered Eve Arden the way most of my early millennial generation did, through Grease. However, my love of the actress was truly cemented when I finally caught gestating re-runs of her long running radio and television series turned movie, Our Miss Brooks. She stars as Connie Brooks, a delightful high school English teacher with a crush on Mr. Boynton (Jeff Chandler is one of a number of actors to appear as the uninteresting man forever hitting above his weight class). Arden is a joy whenever, in everything she’s in, and her personality leaps off the screen, making her one of my favorites.
Miranda Hart began her career as a comedian in her home country of England. Her face is undoubtably known to many as she continues a much deserved break-out. Most probably recognize her from Call the Midwife or Spy. I was first introduced to the actress in her self-titled television series (Miranda) which ran for 20 episodes on the BBC. This is also the series which gave us Tom Ellis (squee!). Anywhoo, the actress distinguishes herself through an amazingly honed voice in the series. She’s instantly likeable, and above all relatable in her struggles. I mean, haven’t we all been called “Sir” at one time or another?
Kids, ask your great-grandparents. Ultimately, Portland Hoffa is now a blip on the entertainment radar. She’s pictured here with husband and co-star Fred Allen. Hoffa appeared in a co-starring role in The Fred Allen Show (written and starring her husband). Like contemporaries Gracie Allen and Mary Livingstone, Hoffa shined just as brightly as her male other half, carrying a tremendous amount of the comedic heavy lifting. If you haven’t heard of The Fred Allen Show, make sure you look this one up. It’s a delight to listen to. If you want to hear why she’s “unconventional”, wait till you hear the voice she uses.
I initially came to Mary Wickes (much like Eve Arden) backwards. I often discuss my love of Little Women on this website; Wickes appears in the 1994 film as Aunt March. However, delving further into her career, it seems she was everywhere in character roles throughout twenty years of work in classic Hollywood. Who Done It, White Christmas and The Music Man are just a few of the many roles she shined in. Wickes will forever be one of the greatest character actresses to grace the silver screen.
This probably needs another “kids, ask your great-grandparents.” Joan Davis is perhaps best known for her work in the Abbott and Costello classic Hold That Ghost (also known as the film where I discovered the joy that is Richard Carlson, but I digress). Davis made her name in B-movies throughout the 1930s and 1940s before eventually making the transition to radio and television in the 1950s. She starred in the long-running radio show turned sitcom I Married Joan from 1952 until 1955, placing her toe to toe with comedic heavy-weights like Eve Arden and Lucille Ball. Check out Davis’ work if you can.