Like a Natural Woman: Spectacular Female Performance in Classical Hollywood

Like a Natural Woman: Spectacular Female Performance in Classical Hollywood

Like a Natural Woman: Spectacular Female Performance in Classical Hollywood

Like a Natural Woman: Spectacular Female Performance in Classical Hollywood


Bathing beauty Esther Williams, bombshell Jane Russell, exotic Carmen Miranda, chanteuse Lena Horne, and talk-show fixture Zsa Zsa Gabor are rarely hailed as great actors or as naturalistic performers. Those terms of praise are given to male stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean, whose gritty dramas are seen as a departure from the glossy spectacles in which these stars appeared. Like a Natural Woman challenges those assumptions, revealing the skill and training that went into the work of these five actresses, who employed naturalistic performance techniques, both onscreen and off.

Bringing a fresh perspective to film history through the lens of performance studies, Kirsten Pullen explores the ways in which these actresses, who always appeared to be "playing themselves," responded to the naturalist notion that actors should create authentic characters by drawing from their own lives. At the same time, she examines how Hollywood presented these female stars as sex objects, focusing on their spectacular bodies at the expense of believable characterization or narratives.

Pullen not only helps us appreciate what talented actresses these five women actually were, but also reveals how they sought to express themselves and maintain agency, even while meeting the demands of their directors, studios, families, and fans to perform certain feminine roles. Drawing from a rich collection of classic films, publicity materials, and studio archives, Like a Natural Woman lets us take a new look at both Hollywood acting techniques and the performance of femininity itself.


I began working on what finally became this book in 2004. Over the next ten years, I moved from the University of Calgary in Canada to Texas A&M University in College Station. My husband and I bought and sold a house, and bought another. I got tenure. We had a wonderful baby girl who is now a wonderful first grader. I helped start two different graduate programs in performance studies. I took research trips to Dallas and Los Angeles. We fell in love with the Texas heat if not always the Texas politics. I got the incredible opportunity to direct the Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts at Texas A&M University. and I watched a lot of old movies and television programs; read a lot of books, magazines, and gossip columns; and wrote lots of conference papers about film and television performance in the 1930s–1960s. It took a long time to get here, but I’ve enjoyed nearly every part of the process.

When I began working on what finally became this book, all of my subjects were still alive, except for Carmen Miranda, who died in 1955. All of the subjects except Zsa Zsa Gabor (who may outlive us all!) have since died. My world is smaller with their passing, and I wish they knew how important, inspiring, challenging, and entertaining I found their lives and work. They are all spectacular women, and I want to first thank them for living such interesting lives and producing such indelible personae. Every time there’s a movie sold with the image of a buxom babe, we should thank Jane Russell—and every time we hear of another Hollywood starlet starting her own production company because she’s been pigeonholed by Hollywood, we should remember that Russell was one of the first to leverage her celebrity this way. the Aqualillies are reviving Esther Williams’s classic water ballet style for a new generation, combining athleticism and eroticism much as she did three generations before. After Lena Horne’s death in 2010, hundreds mourned at her funeral, and the contemporary mixed-race actress Halle Berry gave her a tribute at that year’s Academy Awards . . .

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