Who Says Hollywood Blondes Are Dumb?

Is blonde a colour or an emotional and intellectual attribute? From Mary Pickford to Meryl Streep, David Thomson pays tribute to the smartest women in the movies.

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You don’t have to be married to many fair-haired women before you get the message – those women are as smart as hell. Their only lapse, it turns out, was in marrying you. But maybe they weren’t truly or merely blonde? Could it be that an early sign of cleverness in women is knowing when to be blonde and when not? Is blonde a colour or an emotional and intellectual attribute?

So “dumb blonde” was in our common vocabulary since…? Well, since when? Where did Lady Macbeth get her hair done? Was Juliet a blonde, Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, Eliza Doolittle, Cinderella? It doesn’t matter; we could cast the parts with Keira Knightley or Britney Spears. Was there ever a female character (apart from Goldilocks, Rapunzel or Thackeray’s Becky Sharp) who had to be blonde before Lorelei Lee, the heroine of Anita Loos’ novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, published in 1925?

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By today, Lorelei has become Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 film, directed by Howard Hawks, singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”, a principle that is still honoured. But I suspect the Marilyn, who was Sugar Kane in the 1959 Some Like It Hot, is our classic blonde (and the reason why Joyce Carol Oates entitled her Monroe novel Blonde). Sugar is dumb and sweet because she doesn’t get what is going on, and because that condition (innocence or vacancy?) is played for commercial effect. There she is on the “borrowed” yacht, offering all her striving smooch to give Shell Oil (Tony Curtis) a hard-on when she can’t see that he is just a scumbag fraud.

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Monroe never made a film in which the audience was so encouraged to laugh at her behind her back – and never had a back been in such bloom. So the film was content to assume that she was a great lay (as indicated by Sugar’s habit of falling out of her clothes as easily as water runs downhill) and serenely passive, obedient and slave-like. So do gentlemen prefer such blondes, or would they rather go to bed with, and spend their lives with, someone as dark and knowing as Louise Brooks, Mary Astor or Elizabeth Taylor? Can a stupid woman be a good lay? Or doesn’t every man require a woman smart enough that when she tells him he was wonderful, he believes it? Which leads us to another deep, dark question – what is a gentleman?

Let’s stick with blondes for the moment, and address a fascinating side issue: living in the US, I use “blond”, but in Britain the word is “blonde”. So this is a rare case (I can’t think of another) where a homonym covers, but distinguishes, the sexes. That’s a clue to the way the word is less interested in hue than who.

In movie history, Mary Pickford was blonde, though she was better known as “the girl with the curls”. I dare say she required a little assistance as she grew older because youthfulness was her identity on screen – for years she played roles much younger than her own age. But she was seldom stupid on screen and never off: indeed, she was known as a supreme businesswoman, and a case can be made that no actress in pictures ever made as much money. (Of course, that begs another question – is making a ton of money a reliable sign of intelligence?)

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But was Lillian Gish blonde, or was she one of those fair-headed women in whom the shift of light was essential to her appeal? Was she sandy, strawberry, brunette? Did she move in different tonal directions for different parts? Surely no one would call Gish a blonde, not simply with regard to accuracy, but because “blonde” seems to crush her spiritual liveliness. Yet Jean Harlow (who was born a rather ratty ash blonde – some said brownish) took the plunge in the early Thirties and made her hair a glowing and slightly inhuman colour. That’s how she played in Platinum Blonde and why she used a complicated set of dyes and ammonia that were not good to her health – Harlow died before she was 30.

But along the way she was known as the “blonde bombshell”, and was smart enough to cultivate that legend. On screen, Harlow was occasionally stupid (Marie Dressler puts her down in Dinner at Eight when Harlow fears the advance of automation, and Dressler looks her over and says she has nothing to worry about). But she was usually shrewd, tough and cynical, and lower class. There, in the brief trading in of raw energy for money, you see the underlying notion that “blondes” might be harlots, as well as Harlows.


Marlene Dietrich

There were other blondes of the Thirties famous for their hair. They were often close to prostitution in their narrative situations, yet far from dumb.

When Marlene Dietrich arrived in Hollywood from Germany to work for Josef von Sternberg (who had made her famous in The Blue Angel – and blue has so many meanings), he gloried in photographing her blonde hair. Their black-and-white films (MoroccoShanghai Express, The Devil is a Woman, among others) are masterpieces in lighting the composed mystery of the human face. 

Dietrich’s character is that of a goddess, far wiser than men, weary with their posturing games, but resigned to being an icon and a figure of fate. She can also be a metaphor for sexual abandon, as when she emerges from an ape costume in Blonde Venus, and shakes free the wildest hair she ever wore – it’s a shaggy blonde wig, an orgy of hair.

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I guess that Dietrich in life was essentially blonde, though there are photographs that suggest she went into hairdressing training when making a movie. Still, her blondeness was not simply visual or physical; it was a superior state of mind. Her films would have been drastically different if Dietrich had had dark hair – her being would have seemed unbearably cruel. Orson Welles saw that when he made Marlene dark as the fatalistic Tana in Touch of Evil.

As a young woman, Mary Ann West had light brown hair. It may have been “mousy”, but she would prove a man-eater. Once she found the nerve and the need to be “Mae”, so she acquired layered blonde waves and tumbling ringlets, a hairstyle as full of curves as her chaise longue body.

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The blondeness looked normal in her great films (I’m No Angel, Klondike Annie, My Little Chickadee), but if you follow her career and her image (she died in 1980, aged 87), the hair becomes like a high gloss paint job on a new car. Mae West is a part of our sexual potential, with her drawling treatment of attractive boys, but it’s possible that by her death the real woman was unrecognisable.

Blondeness for her had become reputation and a defiance of old age. It must have been a wig, and it was fun, so long as you didn’t have to get too close to it. Dumbness had nothing to do with her: she was a writer, a wit, a pioneer and a mocking lady to all gentlemen. She was rich, too, and living with a former wrestler, 30 years her junior, who said he had been put on Earth to look after Mae West.

What would Carole Lombard have said to Mae West? Did they live in the same age, and with the same reliance on peroxide? Lombard is my favourite blonde of that era, yet I admit that in My Man Godfrey, her Irene seems to be the daffy sister who is not safe out on her own, while her unkind sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) has hair as dark as night. Yes, Irene is “nicer”, as Godfrey recognises, but it’s hard to believe that any man awake doesn’t want both of them.

To behold those Bullock sisters is to recognise the perverse truth that whatever we have we want its opposite. Really, we’re the ones not safe out. Lombard’s hair had a shine to it; in black and white it looked like mercury or silver, the emulsion of film itself. You can trace it from Twentieth Century to To Be or Not to Be, and most of the time she was permitted to be a witty, even risqué woman, not just quick on the uptake but quicker in the take-away.

It’s in beholding Lombard that you realise the things Monroe lacked, and the ways Marilyn’s charm clung to her self-pity – which became as bright as radium in her hair at the end. Lombard never used self-pity except as a means of intrigue, and she never fluttered her hair in the way talk-show guests do now instead of talking.

Graham Greene once called her a “platinum blonde”, swathed in lamé – but her secret lay in the depth of her sleek hair: she was made of steel. Put that package together, and Lombard is – I think – our first example of an important sub-type, the cool blonde, someone who says well, of course I’m sensational, but don’t think you or I are ever going to lose our heads over that. Because I talk and think, so if you’re going to get along with this blonde, grow up.

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It was a disaster of war that Lombard died in 1942 in a plane crash in Nevada on her way back from selling war bonds. She was only 33. Her ongoing career might have done so much, not least for the blonde. For as war set in, the American sweetheart became a pin-up, a less testing companion than Lombard, and a blonde in colour. Yet blondeness was less subtle in Technicolor. All too often, it was a slice of butter or cheese on top of a willing smile. That’s not an unkind description of Betty Grable and Doris Day – cheerful, wholesome blondes, willing to show off their legs or their tonsils, the blonde next door.

There were others in the same scheme — Alice Faye, a singer but an actress, too; Veronica Lake, who was not quite as interesting as the peekaboo fall of her hair; and Virginia Mayo. In 1950-51 (watching Captain Horatio Hornblower or The Flame and the Arrow) I was boyishly smitten by Mayo, but still I couldn’t quite lose the thought that her hair looked like that because mayonnaise had been applied.

There was another bizarre blonde whose plaintive voice howled and quavered with intellectual insecurity. She was dumb and dumber. But then in a virtuoso scene in Adam’s Rib, Judy Holliday gave such a brilliant performance of stupidity that her co-star Katharine Hepburn sat back with the audience to enjoy the mastery.

Judy Tuvim had been turned down by Yale, so she became a telephonist with the Orson Welles company. She was blonde and gorgeous, and smart men flocked to her, fighting their way through the crowd of flakes. Holliday went 172 on the IQ scale (that’s “genius” level), and she won an Oscar as the pinched-voice gangster’s moll who comes to life in Born Yesterday. Yet, in her entire career, she never got to play a sophisticated woman. Those who knew her guessed that she had resisted that challenge as much as the business did.


Grace Kelly

Was it impossible to be a class act and blonde? Any such doubt was blown away by the essential cool blonde of the Fifties, Grace Kelly, who was closer to confectioner’s custard or crème brûlée. 

Kelly’s career would be briefer than Lombard’s, and she was blessed by the voyeurist adoration of Alfred Hitchcock. In Dial M for Murder (where she is on the dowdy side), but above all in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief (where she has class, money and a wardrobe supplied by Edith Head), she is among the sexiest ever. But so knowing. She had a naughty smile and a candid understanding of every double meaning Hitch put in her mouth. It is she who takes Cary Grant for a picnic above Monte Carlo, opens up the cold chicken and asks whether he’d prefer a leg or a breast. Of course, she knows if he’s awake he’ll want both. 

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Kelly got her Oscar playing a brunette shrew in The Country Girl (it’s awful), a film no one sees now while children can recite some of Rear Window by heart. But whatever smarts she had on screen faded away in her choosing to marry a tinpot European prince and abandon the love and lust of millions for a kind of palace prison. No one was more mortified than Hitchcock. He spent years trying to persuade her to make a comeback, but the protocols of Monaco insisted she stay proper and dull.

So it might have been Kelly in Vertigo instead of Kim Novak. Not that anyone can complain: that film is now the “best ever” and Novak’s insecurity (never Kelly’s strong suit) is very important in the dual role of Madeleine and Judy.

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But Vertigo is based on the superstition dear to Hitch that the cool blonde is the lady while the redhead is hot and from the streets. Novak is blonde to this day, though she retired a while ago and the moment in the film where she goes from redhead to blonde icon is full of the director’s pent-up lust and awe – he lived according to his name.

Was Kelly bright in all ways? She graduated high school, but failed to gain entrance at the respected Bennington College and so went into show business where she could hire agents to do her mathematics. On the other hand, there was an actress with an alleged IQ of 163 (I never tested her myself). She went to the University of Texas at Austin and UCLA and was widely hailed as being very smart.

But another of her numbers was 40 (not that I ever measured her bust myself) and so Jayne Mansfield became the notorious sex doll of the age. In her best work, she was virtually a cartoon character – Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Girl Can’t Help It – which caught the giggly male response to a babe that big. It’s something one can see in cartoon characters like Daisy Mae in L’il Abner, Blondie in Blondie and Dagwood, and even Betty Boop, who sounds blonde even though she was dark, with short, cropped hair.

The exploitation pained Mansfield, but she was never able to get better control of her career. She lacked Marilyn’s charm or gaiety, but both women are now treated as victims of their own blonde voluptuousness. Some say they longed to be taken seriously, to play in Chekhov or O’Neill, but they inhabited a world where 40 was often more impressive than 163 and they both lacked the resolve or the business intelligence of Kelly (or Elizabeth Taylor) in making their own decisions.

Monroe must have been in turmoil, but she had a gene that could not resist a camera or anyone wanting to take her picture, and at the end of her life she was plainly striving to maintain that white-blonde helmet. Ironically, in what now looks like her best acting job – Bus Stop – she veered back towards the gingery brown hair that she had been born with. She and Mansfield were both dead before the age of 40.

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In hindsight, it’s interesting to note the career of Eva Marie Saint, a graduate of Bowling Green State University, an Oscar-winner in On the Waterfront, an authentic blonde and perhaps the most attractive and provocative blonde of the late Fifties, when she played the mysteriously available woman who meets Cary Grant on the train in North by Northwest. Moreover, Ms Saint is still alive and in possession of what looks like a reasonably happy life (not that I’ve ever measured it).

The death of Marilyn Monroe started a collective guilt over the cliché of blondes. But that overlapped with the way, in the Sixties and Seventies, feminism welcomed a more natural and less cosmetic look in women and disapproved of the effort to live up to male fantasies. The new stars of that era had hair like regular women – Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Vanessa Redgrave, Anne Bancroft (sometimes a bright blonde in her youth), Diane Keaton, or think of Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris (as dark as her pubic hair).

Faye Dunaway was more groomed than those women and she was a gold digger Thirties blonde in Bonnie and Clyde, but often her hair shifted around, all the way to auburn for Network. On YouTube you can find a first television appearance of Dolly Parton, in 1967, very blonde and buxom, singing “Dumb Blonde”. As an image and a sentiment it seems not just antique now, but retrograde.


Catherine Deneuve

The most original blonde of the Sixties may have been Catherine Deneuve, an angel in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and the witchy Séverine in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967). That woman is a demure society wife most of the time, but then in the afternoons she works as a whore – I say works, but there is every hint in Deneuve’s clear-eyed wantonness that she would be debauched for free if it came to it.

Belle de Jour is the kind of film Hitchcock might have made because of its split female persona. In Marnie, just three years earlier, Hitch used his latest blonde (Tippi Hedren) to play a character who switches from blonde to brunette as she tries to reconcile her attractiveness and her frigidity. But Belle de Jour is a better film, and Deneuve’s beauty had an insolence or a blank depravity that was a new thing (although it was being developed in the haughty look of fashion photography).

Are there blondes today? Not so many, but the legend continues. In Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close’s unrestrained blonde hair is the signal of sexual recklessness, her possible madness and the danger she represents. She is too hot to touch. In To Die For, Nicole Kidman plays Suzanne as a cunning idiot, a puffball blonde, conniving at her own foolish career, as stupid as she is lovely. Kidman’s hair has ranged from red through blonde and brown over the years and her intelligence as an actress often begins in decisions she has made over her hair. But it’s hard to envisage her Virginia Woolf in The Hours as a blonde – how could a great writer and so pained a woman have such comic-book hair?

Reese Witherspoon took on the challenge of being Legally Blonde, as a smart young lawyer, Elle Woods, who exploits those spectators who misread her girly look. There is someone else, so famous, so successful and so easily missed as blonde that her casual attitude to her own hair is the measure of her worth.

Meryl Streep was a beauty when young, and in films like The Seduction of Joe Tynan and The Deer Hunter she was a regular desirable blonde but for the anguished intelligence in her face. The Sophie of Sophie’s Choice is bright with the horror of what she has had to do. But Streep has not traded on her looks or her sexiness in making a career. She has not seduced the public, as both Kidman and Julia Roberts have managed in their time (I’m happy to say). Instead, she has made it clear that she is an intelligent woman doing her best, who happens to have fair hair. Perhaps it has been her toughest role.  

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