A Woman’s Secret (Nicholas Ray, 1949) sounds as though it will be a film with women in strong feature roles. But it isn’t, sadly. Although it features two very strong female characters, and the plot is rolled into motion by them, the remainder of the plot is almost entirely controlled by men. The detectives, the lawyers, the lovers, and the bogus “justice” system that overrides most common sense in lots of films of the past era–and is the major reason why I, against popular opinion, just can’t like Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938). Basically, there are no shocks in this movie. The “secret” is not really a surprise at all, just an excuse to resolve “conflict” and set up the woman for marriage. The beautiful women fall in love with unattractive men and in the end, neither Maureen O’Hara nor Gloria Grahame end up with success or posterity.
In spite of some fantastic lines, this all makes A Woman’s Secret a pretty ordinary film. And the key song, with the line “he takes me to paradise,” not actually all that romantic. And it doesn’t do much for strong women either. There used to be (and still are, but not as many) a lot of great, important roles for women in film, yet I suppose there always were (and definitely still are) pieces of fluff that were required only to keep the bank account going. It is sad, that the amazing women of Hollywood had to make terrible films such as A Woman’s Secret. And that today, a talented woman like Reese Witherspoon can become a strong role model in Legally Blonde (2001), and win an Oscar for Walk the Line (2005), but have her credibility and skill mocked by insulting sequels and bland romcoms.
One of the strongest female actors , with a large number of strong female roles, was Joan Crawford. Take another Nicholas Ray film, Johnny Guitar (1954), which is just amazing. And the film, only a year after A Woman’s Secret, that Ray made with his new wife Gloria Grahame, In A Lonely Place, which is one of Ray’s best and one that explores the scary parts of a relationship between a man and a woman in love. In the Classical Hollywood period, there were more great roles for women than there are now. Today, you can find them, but more often than not they come from outside the mainstream. Has mass sensibility changed? Does no one care about a strong woman anymore? Perhaps “mainstream” women just prefer to dream that someone will come along and fall in love with them, without needing to do a darn thing about it except look nice. As we can see from more recent non-Hollywood films, such as this one, it is far more empowering for a woman to take control. Passivity is for lazies.