Back in the 1900’s, the rise of the star system developed a new Italian film genre based on beautiful female stars. These very famous actresses were known as divas (goddesses). Their movies, known as frock coat films, featured stories of passion and intrigue in upper middle class and aristocratic settings. The situations were unrealistic and often resulted tragic, with eroticism and death. The inspiration for these films was Asta Nielsen, whose role in The Abyss (1910) made her the first international film star.
Diva films usually included luxury, fashionable attires and excellent acting performances. One of the most famous divas of the era was Francesca Bertini, whose 1915 film Assunta Spina was set in working class Italy. This was a rare setting for a diva film, but her melodramatic tendencies turned her into a star. The movement declined at the beginning of the 1920’s, but there are still movies that include characteristics of diva films. Here are 15 great examples.
15. Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Valmont: “I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that’s most important to her. I thought betrayal was your favorite word.” Merteuil: “No, no, cruelty. I always think that has a nobler ring to it.” Dangerous Liaisons is a film about lust, greed, deception and romance. It is a battle of love and war between Valmont (John Malkovich) and Merteuil (Glenn Close). A battle ground with witty dialogue as weaponry and love letters serving their duty as blackmails and bribes. Not even the most innocent nor the most noble-minded can deal with the cynical games of ex-lovers Marquise de Merteuil and Le Vicomte de Valmont. Twisting the hearts of others serves as ecstasy for both, until Le Vicomte de Valmont truly falls in love.
Although the Marquise manipulates profusely, her mask of deceit can’t conceal her forever, and this is what makes her a diva. Weakness lies within her lovers, as she presents the need to feel cherished. Even if she claims a war against Valmont the true war is with herself. A victim of her times, lonely amongst her luxuries, she uses the power of her intellect and beauty to surpass the “weakness of her womanhood”. Her actions are mainly to protect her stand over other men and to not be submissive, when in reality her desire to be loved is too strong. Glenn Close plays this complex role magnificently, especially during the scene where she “unmasks herself” while looking at a mirror. Her emotional outburst towards the end represents a loss that cannot be replaced as her cries of longing and desperation shatter everything around her, critics have not seen such sincere dramatization before.
14. L.A. Confidential (1997)
A Neo-noir crime thriller featuring lust, murder and betrayal. This film has a very typical film noir plot: three policemen investigate a series of murders in spite of a corrupt system. And staying true to it’s Noiresque 40’s style, is the femme fatale played by Kim Basinger. In the movie she stars as Lynn Bracken, a high class prostitute who ends up being involved in the case. She follows the guidelines of a femme fatale by seducing Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Exley (Guy Pierce). This makes the two detectives go against each other, and stirs drama by her actions, which was notoriously done by femme fatale characters. However, Lynn eventually turns out to be a victim of social hierarchy instead of a villain.
Thus, Lynn Bracken is society’s prey. She demonstrates sensitivity as she speaks about her understanding of Bud White’s behavior and yet manages to promiscuously survive her subjugation, what her own beauty has made her become. This diva character was triumphantly acted out by Kim Basinger as she won an academy award for her performance, as well as the screenplay. It was nominated for seven other academy awards but it lost to titanic the same year. However, Roger Ebert gave the film a review of four stars, and it has a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.
13. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Set in New York, a recently graduated journalism student Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) is hired to work as second assistant for the merciless executive of the Runaway fashion Magazine Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). Although her coworkers warn Andrea of the sacrifices she must make to gain Miranda’s approval, she still thinks this job would help her become a journalist.
Even if most of the conflicts presented are Andrea’s, the central figure of the movie is really Miranda Priestly. She possesses the ideal qualities of an elite woman: powerful fashion magazine editor, highly successful, intelligent, beautiful, thin, married with children; in other words she “has it all”. However, Miranda is also constructed in the movie as “hell on heels”, and little did Andrea know the sacrifices she has made in order to gain her prestigious position. By focusing her priorities on making Runaway the best fashion magazine instead of her reputation as “the devil”, she becomes the modern diva. A leader who doesn’t allow either gossip or misogyny get in her way. Perhaps this fear of not being regarded as equal with other male superiors is where her “queen be” attitude comes from. Nevertheless, this role earned Meryl Streep her 14th academy award nomination. Although she lost, her character has remained an icon of popular culture.
12. Blue Jasmine (2013)
Cate Blanchett stars in this film as an emotionally wounded former New York socialite. Her mistreatment towards her sister’s “lower class” lifestyle and devotion for the past could make this character pathetic at times, however, she still represents a diva. Her life is a melodrama and she can’t seem to get off the stage, to let go of the loss of her riches and husband. She lives in her own little bubble of pain, still feeling like the prima donna of the elite, yet sadly not realizing that the boat had already sailed a long time ago.
Blanchett’s performance was quite tricky, an actress playing an “actress” because she keeps fooling herself. Even her matter of speaking cleverly depicts Jasmine’s insistence of her different social standing than that of her own sister. It is a sad tale more so of falling out of grace rather than wealth, as she depends on medications to reduce her psychosis, as she cannot forget she was the woman who once threw “the best parties” in New York. Thus, Cate Blanchett won a well deserved Oscar and BAFTA for perhaps one of Woody Allen’s most complex characters.
11. The Blue Angel (1930)
Marlene Dietrich plays the role of a femme fatale known as Lola Lola. She sings at a cabaret named Blue Angel in which she seduces a professor to ruins. A diva that crosses her tight covered legs as she sings “From head to toe primed with love… that is my world.” which stirs men out of their seats. Yet somehow, she doesn’t mean any malice nor strives to torment, rather, her job just happens to include dancing with a chance of tragedy.
One of those victims is the professor, whose tragic demise is shadowed by Marlene Dietrich’s “sex incarnation” on stage. Even if it is a drama about a falling professor, her body, voice, personality and face conquers every kind of audience. Which suddenly makes this film more about Lola Lola rather than the professor himself.
10. Camille (1936)
This is an American romantic drama which even inspired Milton Benjamin to write and publish a song called “I’ll Love like Robert Taylor, be my Greta Garbo”, both of which are the stars of the film. The movie was featured in Time magazine’s All-Time 100 movies in 2005 and was #33 in AFI’s 100 years, 100 passions.
Camille (Greta Garbo) is a Parisian courtesan who must choose between a young man who loves her and a rich baron, all while she suffers from her health. Garbo is incredibly memorable in this film due to the frequent close ups of her beauty, falling weakly in the hands of Armand (Robert Taylor). It’s an immortal pose, her limp body, falling amidst the difficult decision she has to make between her two lovers, actions only a true diva would regretfully face. The only academy award nomination from this film was of her role, which even if she lost, is still remembered as a classic permeated out of the silver screen.
9. Lola Montès (1955)
Known to be famous American film critic Andrew Sarri’s favorite film: “Lola Montès is in my unhumble opinion the greatest film of all time, and I am willing to stake my critical reputation, such as it is, on this one proposition above all others”. It is a film about passions and scandals led by the heroine of its tittle. It extraordinarily depicts the lush, romantic style of the celebrity during a circus act. This metaphor could not have been used any better, as the star of the act was Lola herself, in which at the end she would kiss any man’s hand for a dollar.
Based on a real persona, it was the last film completed by Max Ophüls and possibly one of his most famous. Although Martine Carol’s acting was not celebrated by critics, Max Ophüls managed to get away with presenting her as a doll in a circus act. The movie alternates between the circus and her past memories, but her character stays at the same momentum, regardless of her situation. She maintains the same tone, which makes it all the more believable that her life was already a circus act. She presented towards society and men a side which was not entirely what she was feeling, but in order to survive, she complied with this. This would explain the color usage, the extravagance, and most of all, Martine Carol’s still beauty as she was dubbed as “The Most Scandalous woman in the world”.