Sun
Apr 27 2014 3:00pm

15 Fierce Female Roles: Women in Westerns

In a genre that revels in the lone male protagonist, there are few meaty roles for women beyond the standard soiled doves or window-dressing (seems more often than not, even the horse gets greater attention than the ladies). Of those who have elbowed their way into this testosterone-laden landscape, here are my picks for the fifteen most notable female roles, whether in a brief appearance or as a leading character, both in Western films and on television.

Amanda Blake

Role: Miss Kitty Russell in Gunsmoke (1955-1975)

Miss Kitty is a tough-as-nails saloon owner who carries a soft spot for Marshal Matt Dillon. Her grit is exemplified in 1969’s “Mannon” episode when she is brutally raped by Will Mannon (Steve Forrest), an amoral character hell bent on terrorizing Dodge City while he awaits Dillon’s return. When Mannon returns to Kitty with flowers and an apology, she cuts him down to size hoping to take away his edge before the final showdown. Unforgettable.

Katy Jurado

Role: Helen Ramírez  in High Noon (1952).

I could never understand all the fuss Will Kane (Gary Cooper) made over Quaker good girl Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) in this landmark film. I would have told her thanks for nothing and settled down with Helen Ramírez (Jurado)…that is if I survived the gunfight. The lovely actress also starred in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), where she comforts her husband (Sheriff Baker played by Slim Pickens) as he sits dying by the river. The scene is gut-wrenching and memorable, accompanied by the music of Bob Dylan, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Side note: Ms. Jurado became the first Latin American actress nominated for an Academy Award for her work in 1954's Broken Lance.

 

Katherine Ross

Role: Etta Place in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Katherine Ross holds her own against acting titans Paul Newman and Robert Redford in 1969’s iconic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. So many fine scenes, but my favorite is her riding elegantly atop Butch’s bicycle handlebars to the strains of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Her sobering line in the film comes when she tells the two-bit outlaws, “I'll do anything you ask of me except one thing. I won't watch you die. I'll miss that scene if you don't mind.”

 

Hailee Steinfeld

Role: Mattie Ross in True Grit 2 (2010)

In search of her father’s killer in this second adaptation of the Charles Portis novel, 14-year-old Mattie manipulates Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and the other men around her, marking one of the strongest performances by a woman in any genre, let alone any Western. Ms. Steinfeld was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

 

Kerry Washington

Role: Broomhilda Von Shaft in Django Unchained (2012)

Kerry Washington as Broomhilda (in German Brunhilda) Von Shaft. Through the pulp lens of Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained (2012) depicts the stark brutality of slavery in America and the depths of hell one woman endures to reach freedom. Broomhilda is intensely brought to life by Ms. Washington, who received a much-deserved Image award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture. Side note: she also played a standout role in Lincoln that same year.

 

Claudia Cardinale

Assorted Roles

Claudia Cardinale staked her Western roles on playing intelligent women in distress in classics like The Professionals (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). The Legend of Frenchie King (1971), a French comedy, may have been a comedown, but it made for some great film posters, pairing her with sex goddess Brigitte Bardot.

 

Annie Galipeau

Role: Gertrude Moltke Bernard, aka Anahareo, in Grey Owl (1999)

Anahareo falls in love with trapper Archie Grey Owl (Pierce Brosnan) and converts him into an environmentalist with her loving care of a couple of orphaned beavers. There's much more worth saying about this one, and I explored it in detail here.

 

Marlene Dietrich

Roles: Frenchy in Destry Rides Again (1939) and Altar Keane in Rancho Notorious (1952)

It doesn’t seem like it should work, taking a heavily-accented German actress—the star of Josef von Sternberg films—and plopping her down in the American West. But it does, because Dietrich’s hard-hitting persona would strip off the smirk of any gunslinger. My personal favorite Dietrich oater pits her opposite Randolph Scott and John Wayne in The Spoilers (1942). Most amusing line comes from the Duke: “I imagine that dress is supposed to have a chilling effect. Well if it is, it isn't working, 'cuz you'd look good to me, baby, in a burlap bag.”

 

Chelo Alonso

Role: Steven's Wife (uncredited) in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)

If you are scratching your head over who this is, she had a bit part at the movie’s beginning as the mother who hears her family being slain by Lee Van Cleef. It’s just a cameo scene for the 1960’s sex symbol, known more for her sensual dance numbers in films like 1959’s Goliath and the Barbarians. But in this Sergio Leone classic, the anguished face of a woman who’s lost everything will remain etched in your mind.

 

Julie Christie

Role: Constance Miller in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Julie Christie a drug-addicted, straight-talking businesswoman (“Look, Mr. McCabe, I'm a whore!”) in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, one of the many revisionist Westerns that were cropping up everywhere in the late 1960s and 70s. Best scene is the gripping ending, where Christie’s addiction leaves her unaware that her friend and partner (played by Warren Beatty) is fighting for his life against insurmountable odds.

 

Diane Lane

Role: Lorena Wood in Lonesome Dove (1989)

Diane Lane took the well-worn prostitute role and weaved a heartfelt performance of a woman far classier than her job provided. Her scenes with Robert Duvall are humorous, warm, and poignant… you can see these characters in another time and another place would have been an ideal couple.

 

Jane Russell

Role: Rio McDonald in The Outlaw (1943)

Russell’s acting is always tops, though I’m not a fan of this unfortunate Howard Hughes film (includes a head-scratching plotline with Doc Holliday liking Billy the Kid even though the young outlaw stole his horse). But there’s no doubting its cinematic importance, because Russell’s ground-breaking scenes while sporting a bra to its fullest potential made the censors of the day cry foul. A box office hit was made and a legend was born.

 

Raquel Welch

Assorted Roles

Raquel Welch starred in three Westerns that I discussed in here. My top pick is the underrated 100 Rifles where she plays one bad-ass revolutionary with dutiful support from Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds.

 

 

Molly Parker

Role: Alma Garrett in Deadwood (2004-2006)

Alma is a cultured socialite, stranded in a lawless town in South Dakota after her new husband is murdered over a supposedly worthless mine. Instead of tucking tail and running, she decides to stay on and brave the hostile territory. Ms. Parker gives a commanding and versatile performance in this modern classic. 

 

Barbara Stanwyck

Role: Victoria Barkley in The Big Valley (1965-1969)

Barbara Stanwyck was one of the few women to head a TV Western's cast. And she pulled out all the stops becoming Victoria Barkley, the matron of the rich clan from The Big Valley. Sometimes, her acting went a bit over the top for my tastes, but there’s no doubting her strong matriarchal performance was a reason for the show's success, and this at a time Westerns were on their way out on the small screen.

 

So there you have it, my picks for strong performances by women in Westerns. Who are some of your favorites?


Edward A. Grainger, aka David Cranmer, is the author of the Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles series and recently edited BEAT to a PULP: Trails of the Wild.

Read all posts by Edward A. Granger for Criminal Element.

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41 comments
Brian Greene
1. BrianGreene
Great list, David. I also really like Millie Perkins's performance in Monte Hellman's The Shooting. I was happy to see Claudia Cardinale on your list - love her in Once Upon a Time in the West.
2. sandra seamans
I love Jean Arthur in a movie called Arizona and she's very good in Shane. Great actress no matter what she's in.

Claire Treavor is wonderful in Stage Coach.

And Geradine Page in Hondo.
Edward A. Grainger
3. EdwardAGrainger
Yes to Millie Perkins, Brian. Superb actress most notable for The Diary of Anne Frank. I believe this is the second time we've talked about The Shooting and I need to watch it again soon.
Sandra, Jean Arthur is a favorite and shame on me for forgetting Geraldine Page in Hondo. I need a top thirty!
4. Fred Blosser
Ultra-hot Nieves Navarro, aka Susan Scott, had memorable bad-girl roles in the spaghetti westerns. Most notable of these, as "The Widow" in Sergio Sollima's THE BIG GUNDOWN, who goes to bed with fugitive Cuchillo (Tomas Milan), then has her hired hands beat him up for her sadistic pleasure.

Maureen O'Hara, in every role she played opposite John Wayne.

Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane in deMille's THE PLAINSMAN.

Joanne Dru as Tess and Colleen Gray as Fen in RED RIVER.

Ina Balin as Pilar in THE COMANCHEROS.
5. nigel
On High Noon, Grace Kelly's also a pretty strong woman when the layers are peeled. Gary Coopeer was a lucky guy.
Edward A. Grainger
6. EdwardAGrainger
Fred, Agree with you on Nieves Navarro who had several memorable roles. If the name isn't instantly recognizble to Western fans, a Google image search will have them going, "damn right!"
Nigel, I knew someone would correct me for picking on Princess Grace. :)
7. Alec Cizak
Great list. I'd add Linda Darnell in My Darling Clementine and Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo (and if I had time, I'd probably think of a few more, like Capucine in North to Alaska).
Edward A. Grainger
8. EdwardAGrainger
Linda Darnell is a hands down favorite in just about any film and I would have to agree with Angie and Capucine. Its been awhile since I saw North to Alaska and I've added it to my watchlist on Amazon Prime. Thanks, Alec.
9. Steve Hockensmith
Great picks once again! And folks have added several other worthy choices. (I would have brought up Jean Arthur and Angie Dickinson if someone else hadn't.) In fact, I can only think of one oversight. You gave props to Molly Parker in Deadwood but didn't mention Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane. I thought Weigert was amazing -- partially because it was so hard to watch her half the time. Her Calamity Jane was such a flawed, pathetic person you couldn't help but root for her even when it was clear she'd never pull herself together. Paula Malcomson (as the prostitute Trixie) and Kim Dickens (as the gambler/madam Joanie Stubbs) were also terrific on Deadwood. Ahh, that show. I still want to kick David Milch's ass for blowing his chance at another season.

By coincidence, I just watched The Spoilers for the first time. I have to admit that I didn't really care for it. It's fun but a little too '40s frothy for me. (I like '40s froth just fine in comedies and dramas but I prefer my Westerns to have a little more grit.) Dietrich was fine, of course, but the real revelation to me was Randolph Scott. I've gotten so used to watching him in his older, stoic, leather-faced stage I forgot how charming (or in this case oily) he could be when he was younger.

But wait! I was just about to sign off when I thought of two more names it would be remiss not to mention when talking about strong women in Westerns: Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar. That movie's pretty frothy, too, but in a kooky, pseudo-Freudian way that certainly makes a strong impression.
Edward A. Grainger
10. EdwardAGrainger
Steve, The entire female cast of Deadwood would be on my expanded Top 50 list and I hope to everything holy that after Olyphant is done with Justified they go back and film an ending to his earlier series. It would be a damn shame to leave, arguably, the finest Western show ever unfinished.

Yes, I would have to agree that The Spoilers was major '40s froth but the chemistry between the three leads works for me. I also prefer my Westerns with more grit but give a pass to flicks like this and Rancho Notorious. It must be Marlene.
11. Victor
Nice list. Even though her role was brief, I would add
Madeleine Taylor Holmes as Grannie Hawkins in The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Edward A. Grainger
12. EdwardAGrainger
Holmes had a very memorable turn in Josey Wales. Thanks, Victor.
13. Alec Cizak
North to Alaska is one of those movie that never gets old. It's similar to Rio Bravo and The Searchers in that the director did such a wonderful job of creating atmosphere that it's not so much like watching the same movie over and over again, it's like going to a familiar place again and again.

Your article and the comments here suggest to me that more needs to be written about women in westerns. The genre has always been accused of being male-centric, but it seems obvious that isn't the case. As with all human stories, the story of the west is just as, if not more, informed by women as by men.
Edward A. Grainger
14. EdwardAGrainger
".. the story of the west is just as, if not more, informed by women as by men." Well said, Alec. And we have only scratched the surface of the Old West if we turn the spotlight to various minorities that made up a majority of the full story.
Terrie Farley Moran
15. Terrie
I'm with you on Katy Jurado and Julie Christie. I'm with Fred on Maureen O'Hara. I'd add Lauren Bacall in the Shootist.
16. Jim Guthrie
David, I thought ALL the movies listed were great, but my personal favorites were True Grit; Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, & Deadwood.
Scott Adlerberg
17. ScottAdlerberg
A couple of favorites:

Barbara Stanwyck in Anthony Mann's THE FURIES and Sam Fuller's FORTY GUNS. Fierce in both!
Edward A. Grainger
18. EdwardAGrainger
Terrie, Maureen, like Russell, was always a joy to watch. Even in supporting roles she left a deep impression. My top pick would be her opposite the Duke in The Quiet Man.
Jim, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (Tombstone is another) is a film I watch at least once a year and still find just as entertaining.
Scott, Barbara Stanwyck was quite the tailblazer and for such a lengthy period of time. And not just supporting roles but her name first and formost in great flicks like Forty Guns. And that reminds me its time for some more Fuller viewing.
Cullen Gallagher
19. Cullen Gallagher
I love silent movies, and two of my favorite female Western protagonists are Texas Guinan in THE GUN WOMAN, and Lillian Gish in THE WIND. Girls with guns, that's how I like 'em. Lillian also does a great turn in John Huston's western, THE UNFORGIVEN, which is an adaptation of an Alan LeMay novel (same author as THE SEARCHERS).

I also recently saw THOMASINE & BUSHROD (1974) for the first time, and Vonetta McGee is superb! The movie is sort of a Blaxploitation take on BONNIE AND CLYDE, directed by Gordon Parks Jr.
Cullen Gallagher
20. Cullen Gallagher
And for something more modern, Suzy Amis in THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO (1993).
Edward A. Grainger
21. EdwardAGrainger
Cullen, Interesting I don’t think to watch Western silent films but am quick to enjoy comedies by Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. So thank you for a few titles that are new to me. And I liked Suzy Amis in Last Stand at Saber River so I just added The Ballad of Little Jo to my current watchlist. Oh, and, yes, Gish was brilliant in Huston’s film.
22. Mates
Barbara Stanwyck & Aamnda Blake still at the Top with me. Great memories, many I had forgotten over the years.
Edward A. Grainger
23. EdwardAGrainger
Mates, My earliest memories of watching TV is with dad and all those Gunsmoke episdes. Yeah, Blake (and Stanwyck) are still huge influences.
24. randal120
Randy Johnson here,

I had a comment that seems to have disappeared. Let me try again.

Dine list. Most I've seen. Only Deadwood Has been missed.
Edward A. Grainger
25. EdwardAGrainger
Randy, You owe it to yourself to watch Deadwood. A very well-done series that I'm about to watch through again for the third time.
26. CHAD BEHARRIELL
An interesting list and good of you to put forward this conversation. I teach a college-level Western genre course, and write about the genre at http://westernsreboot.com/ , and my students learn about that very interesting Western, Johnny Guitar (1954).

Cited by many as the first feminist Western, Joan Crawford in the role of the saloon-owning Vienna presents a very strong female, to the degree that it confuses the men around her. Directed by Nicholas Ray, the film basically flips the gender roles of older Westerns....the men become supporting characters to two female leads who will meet in a shoot-out at the end!

All the best with your writing,
Chad
Edward A. Grainger
27. EdwardAGrainger
Chad, In the history of Westerns Johnny Guitar has staked a unique claim all by itself. And Steve Hockensmith, in the comments above, still has me chuckling when he said, "That movie's pretty frothy, too, but in a kooky, pseudo-Freudian way." It's definitely a fascinating milestone to watch and I probably should have added it to my list because as you said it is widely regarded as "the first feminist Western."
And thank you for the kind words on my article and best of luck with your Western genre course. Wish I had that opportunity when I was going to school.
Wanda
28. wanda.wolfe
And then there was Marilyn Monroe in River of No Return.
david hartzog
29. dlhartzog
Great list. I would cite Veronica Lake in Ramrod, Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns and The Violent Men, Anne Baxter in Yellow Sky, and Sarita in Vera Cruz.
Jake Hinkson
30. JakeHinkson
I'd have to add Jane Darwell in THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, Joan Hackett in WILL PENNY, Linda Hunt in SILVERADO, and Barbara Bel Geddes in BLOOD ON THE MOON.
Edward A. Grainger
31. EdwardAGrainger
Wanda, Can’t forget Marilyn. MM’s name is above the title with Robert Mitchum.
dlhartzog, Ramrod is one of the finest noir westerns and heavily influenced my own writing. And Veronica Lake is a big reason for its success.
Jake, Darwell scares the hell out of me in The Ox-Bow Incident and I’m overwhelmingly touched by her heartfelt role in The Grapes of Wrath. Incredible actress.
32. Ron Scheer
Great list and excellent add-ons to it in the comments. Katy Jurado and Diane Lane are favorites. Lane appeared years later as Molly in the Bill Pullman remake of THE VIRGINIAN. For your consideration, I'd suggest Ruby Dee in BUCK AND THE PREACHER.
33. arel 1
I'd have to add pretty much the whole female cast of Westward the Women (1951). These gals, even Denise Darcel, looked like real women rather than Hollywood starlets with eyelashes and bazooms out to here; they went through the sort of things women on wagon trains went through in real life; and they proved themselves just as durable as the men, if not more so. Incidentally, Denise Darcel got away with calling Robert Taylor a few things in French that the 1950s censors would never have let pass in English!
Edward A. Grainger
34. EdwardAGrainger
Ron,It has been a long time since I’ve seen the excellent Buck and the Preacher and a very BIG yes to Ruby Dee. But I somehow missed the remake of The Virginian. Was that a cable show? I’ll have to check.
arel 1, I have a confession. I’ve never seen Westward the Women. And I’m a huge fan of director William A. Wellman’s Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty. If its on Amazon Prime I will add to my watchlist. That's great trivia about Denise Darcel! I checked her bio on Wikipedia and she seems to have had quite a lively career, first starting out as a cabaret singer in Paris, before coming to the US.
35. arel 1
If you can, take a look at the behind-the-scenes promo Challenge the Wilderness; it's on the DVD copy I recently bought. The cast and crew had it fairly rough on the location shoot, too! And another trivia bit about Westward the Women: there are 5 languages used in the film--English, French, Italian, Japanese, and the Native American language used by the obligatory Indians (I'm not sure which tribe).
36. Sheila Grimes
Great list ... my forever favorite is Amanda Blake ... if I ever had a hero, it'd be her!
Edward A. Grainger
37. EdwardAGrainger
arel 1, I will search out Challenge the Wilderness
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0176598/. It looks like it was made at the same time as the film and just as interesting. Fun to read some of the goofs during fiming, it seems no film escapes scrutiny.

Sheila, I'm sure she's an influence on quite a few fans. Ms. Blake was such a visible weekly entity for so many years. Interesting trivia via Wikipedia: She (Blake) had been known for bringing her pet lion Kemo onto the Gunsmoke set.
38. Nik Morton
... and Angelina Jolie and female cast in True Women (I've got the book still to read) - a TV series sliced up for DVD release; worthy.
Edward A. Grainger
39. EdwardAGrainger
Nik, True Women entirely escaped my attention and I enjoy the acting of both Dana Delany and Angelina Jolie. Added to my watchlist.
40. Ron Scheer
David, THE VIRGINIAN (2000) was a made-for-TV movie (TNT) with Pullman, Lane, John Savage as Steve, and Dennis Weaver as the villain.
Edward A. Grainger
41. EdwardAGrainger
And I should have guessed it was a TNT production, Ron.
Made-for-TV movies (especially from TNT) have been the go to place for quality Westerns over the past two decades.
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