Summer Movies: Best Female Action Heroes

Hit Girl i i

hide captionChloe Moretz as Hit Girl, a foul-mouthed female super hero in Kick-Ass.

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Hit Girl

Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl, a foul-mouthed female super hero in Kick-Ass.

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From Foxy Brown to Hit Girl, leading ladies kick butt on the big screen. Talk of the Nation movie buff Murray Horwitz returns to the Summer Movie Festival, with his picks for best female action heroes.

Horwitz reaches way back to consider all kinds of female action heroes, from Annie Oakley to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

Dorothy, really?

Sure, Horwitz tells NPR's Neal Conan. She "goes through a quest of physical fortitude, she reaches her goal by the accomplishment of various feats, she has to navigate a treacherous road, she evades violent, airborne primates, and she defeats a powerful sorceress through the use of force."

Ellen Ripley in Aliens, played by Sigourney Weaver, is "probably the most comprehensive, most complete female action hero." Not only does she have to confront alien forces, she has to confront herself. "She's a real person" who's not all dolled up, and Weaver earned an Academy Award nomination for that performance.

Tell us: In the wild west, outer space or on the streets, who's your favorite?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now the triumphant return of the TALK OF THE NATION's Summer Movie Festival. And this year, we begin with a grain of "Salt." As Angelina Jolie prepares to kick butt, we celebrate the female action hero from the sweet-talking, think "Charlie's Angels," to the tough-as-nails Sarah Connor, quick with a plasma rifle, samurai sword or a six-shooter and, of course, deadlier than the male.

If you'd like to nominate a distaff dynamo, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation, too, on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And, of course, no summer movie series is complete without Murray Horwitz, our favorite film buff, who joins us here in Studio 3A. Murray, good to see you.

MURRAY HORWITZ: Good to see you, Neal. Happy summer.

CONAN: Happy summer to you. And, well, the female action hero, when did it start? I mean, this is - is this a feminist...

HORWITZ: Well, I think it's a human thing.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

HORWITZ: ...and it's been - although there probably is maybe a - I don't know if this is sexist or non-sexist - but it's very true that men...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HORWITZ: ...as well as, if not more than women, love to see women who, in the fanboy term - you should forgive me - kick ass. I mean, they, you know, they love to see that. But it's not...

CONAN: The fact that their clothing is either tight or non-existent much of the time probably has nothing to do with that.

HORWITZ: Although - it has changed. That's absolutely true. There is a kind of feminist vibe behind this, because in the last couple of decades, few decades, it's changed to where they are - the female action heroes aren't necessarily sex objects and don't show cleavage. I mean, there are certain - we'll get to this in a moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: There are certain - there's one character in particular, who has kind of primacy of place here. But it's from the earliest days almost of cinema. There was the damsel in distress.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HORWITZ: You know, you can...

CONAN: "Perils of Pauline."

HORWITZ: ...literally hanging on a cliff, you know? But...

CONAN: I think of her tied to the railroad. But - so...

HORWITZ: That's true too.

CONAN: ...but that's okay.

HORWITZ: But sometimes they would do things to bring about their own safety or to defeat their nemesis. Then in slapstick comedy, you know one of my favorite of all time, Mabel Normand. I mean, Mabel Normand, particularly with Fatty Arbuckle, I mean, she would deliver the good zetz, the good clop when she had to. And so that's a kind of action hero. Even in the mid-years though, there are any number of Belle Starrs and Calamity Janes...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HORWITZ: ...and Annie Oakleys. There's actually a movie that - called "Montana Belle." And I'm just trying to think, right off hand, who did it. I'll find it later. Anyway, she - it's an Allan Dwan film. Jane Russell. Thank you. It's Jane Russell who is Calamity Jane, in which she really does a lot of horse riding and, you know...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HORWITZ: ...gun shooting and that sort of thing. And then up into the '50s and '60s and '70s, the blaxploitation films, you know. Who could forget "Foxy Brown?"

CONAN: We had a clip from "Foxy Brown" just a moment ago. Who could forget that? And indeed. But - so it isn't one genre. You mentioned westerns. Obviously, there's a lot of science fiction heroes.

HORWITZ: Lot of science fiction. And interesting that you mentioned feminism, because in science fiction and fantasy somehow, some of the -there's a certain liberation and the lid goes off or the limits go off some of the sexual roles. And sci-fi is done rather well by women in terms of making them action heroes.

CONAN: Because in the future, roles are - it's not unusual to see...

HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: ...a woman starship pilot.

HORWITZ: Right. Exactly. So - or, you know, all bets can be off in sci-fi or in the future. The other thing is women detectives. You know, Kathleen Turner as V.I. Warshawski.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HORWITZ: I mean, there's all kinds of - and there are a lot of films out, right now, or in the last, say, 12 months, Neal, that have -animated films. You know, there's Jessie the Cowgirl in "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2." There's one coming up later this year, one of the "Resident Evil" pictures. And, you know, Zoe Saldana in "Avatar"...

CONAN: Sure.

HORWITZ: ...was an action hero or - we don't say heroine anymore, do we?

CONAN: Nobody says heroine, no, no. They confuse it with the drug.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: But the - then there's also my nomination for contemporary one, for this year's one, is "Alice in Wonderland," who - and this is an example of how things change.

CONAN: Sure.

HORWITZ: In all the storytelling of "Alice in Wonderland," from Lewis Carroll on, she's, you know, kind of wandering through...

CONAN: And she fell down the rabbit hole.

HORWITZ: ...she fell down the rabbit - she's passive and she's going through all these things.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HORWITZ: But in this version, she has to become - the whole thing hinges on her embracing the role of being an action hero. She - I don't want to ruin the film for anybody, but she does participate in the climax.

CONAN: It's been out for a while now, Murray.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I think when it's out on DVD, you can give away the ending.

HORWITZ: Well, let me ask you this: If I told you that there were a -there was a protagonist who goes through a quest of physical fortitude, she reaches her goal by the accomplishment of various feats - she has to navigate a treacherous road, she evades violent airborne primates and she defeats a powerful sorceress through the use of force - you would say that's an action hero, right?

CONAN: I would say we're off to see the wizard.

HORWITZ: That's right. That's Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale on the "Wizard of Oz." She's a kind of action hero.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Your nominee for best female action hero: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Toni(ph) is on the line from Baton Rouge.

TONI (Caller): Hi, Neal. It's an honor to talk with you. I've listened to you since I was a little girl.

CONAN: Oh, I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: It's the thing to say, Toni. You know...

CONAN: Well, thank you for making me feel old there, Toni.

HORWITZ: Right, right. My grandmother had all your records, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

TONI: I'm sorry.

CONAN: That's all right. It's kind of you to say.

TONI: My nomination would be Ripley from the "Alien" quadrilogy films. I think she was one of the earliest kick-ass females.

CONAN: Indeed, after - half a century after she battled space creatures in "Alien," Ellen Ripley comes back at it in "Aliens" back in 1986, where she's sent to the planet as an adviser after the company loses contact with a team of Space Marines. In here, well, she's protecting Newt from the queen alien.

(Soundbite of movie, "Aliens")

(Soundbite of machine sounds, stomping)

Ms. SIGOURNEY WEAVER (Actor): (as Ellen Ripley) Get away from her, you bitch.

(Soundbite of roaring)

CONAN: Sigourney Weaver got an Academy Award nomination, I think, for that line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: Actually, that line's the least of it. What's great about this - and then when I said somebody has pride of place, it is Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. I mean, this is probably the most comprehensive, most complete female action hero, in the second of those films, in "Aliens." And that's where she - by the way, she doesn't show cleavage. I mean, she doesn't - and she's not all dolled up in any way.

CONAN: No. It's all work clothes. Yeah.

HORWITZ: That's exactly right. And she's fully realized she has to confront herself and things in her...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HORWITZ: ...as well as alien forces outside. And she's a real person. She's believable. She's bang on it. And she's the most comprehensively, well-turned character among the female action heroes.

CONAN: And in the (unintelligible), a couple of well-turned ankles. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And Toni, thank you so much for the call.

HORWITZ: She plays a parody of herself, too.

TONI: Thank you so much, Neal. It's a pleasure to talk with you.

CONAN: Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

Here's an email from Anna: Linda Hamilton in "Terminator" is definitely my favorite female action hero. I will never forget the image of her driving south in her Jeep at the end of the movie, a woman aware of her sole responsibility to save the human race, unbowed by the work and horror ahead. A close second, Sigourney Weaver in "Alien" and "Aliens." But those are some tough broads, she mentions. Though you'd have to think that Sarah Connor, the character, is even more of a force in "Terminator 2."

HORWITZ: Right. It's "Terminator 2" where she really, you know, does -takes action and really shows herself to be, really, a plot turner in somebody on whom you have to rely to get stuff done.

CONAN: Now here, in this scene, she rails at the doctor whose work eventually causes Judgment Day, a global war against humanity.

(Soundbite of movie, "Terminator 2")

Ms. LINDA HAMILTON (Actor): (as Sarah Connor) Men like you built the hydrogen bomb. Men like you thought it up. You think you're so creative. You don't know what it's like to really create something, to create a life, to feel it growing inside you. All you know how to create is death and destruction.

Mr. EDWARD FURLONG (Actor): (as John Connor) Mom. Mom!

CONAN: Well, yes, she is going off the edge there, don't you think?

HORWITZ: And she doesn't just scream and hide as she does kind of in the first movie. I mean, she actually, you know, she collects guns and she uses them.

CONAN: Well, she is also, again, in the common parlance, ripped. She is really in shape.

HORWITZ: She's ripped. She's - yeah. She's really in great shape, and you don't want to mess with her.

CONAN: Don't want to mess with her. Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Kevin, Kevin with us from Philadelphia.

KEVIN: Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

KEVIN: I'm about to nominee Beatrix Kiddo, aka the Bride, from "Kill Bill."

CONAN: Oh, absolutely. Uma Thurman out for revenge in "Kill Bill 1 and 2." In this particular scene, she - well, she's obviously trying to find - track down the five people who tried to kill her. And then here she battles O-Ren, which is - who's, of course, played by Lucy Liu.

(Soundbite of movie, "Kill Bill 1")

Ms. LUCY LIU (Actor): (as O-Ren) You didn't think it was going to be that easy, did you?

Ms. UMA THURMAN (Actor): (as Beatrix Kiddo) You know, for a second there, yeah. I kind of did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Lucy Liu, of course, doesn't lose her head, just loses the top of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: It's true. And isn't there's something with an eyeball - I don't want to think about it.

CONAN: Anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEVIN: That one scene is awesome.

HORWITZ: It is. And she is one of the great - you know, again, sort of kick-ass heroes - I've got to stop saying heroine.

CONAN: You got to stop saying heroine.

HORWITZ: And she gets a kind of - what I want to say? There's - if there's an award, there a couple of we have to mention. Uma Thurman maybe one of them. But for somebody who really plays the female action hero a lot, there is a name many won't recognize, but they would probably recognize the figure of Milla Jovovich. And she's done a lot of these characters, including the aforementioned "Resident Evil: Afterlife" that's coming out this summer. But also Halle Berry. I mean, Halle Berry's been a Bond girl, and Halle Berry's been Storm in "X-Men."

CONAN: Yes.

HORWITZ: And she's - and by the way, when it comes to the Bond girls, I'm going to need help from the listeners, because I can't remember which one of them are just kind of stand and pose and which ones of them are real action heroes.

CONAN: All right. Kevin, thanks very much for the call.

HORWITZ: I was going to say, I'm barely aware of the Bond girls, but I decided not to.

CONAN: But - let's not go there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is Ron, Ron with us from Manchester in New Hampshire.

RON (Caller): Hi, guys. It's Carrie Fisher, you know, Princess Leia. She's a, you know, a general. She kills Jabba the Hutt. The moment they bust her out in "Star Wars," she grabbed the guns out of their hands and...

CONAN: Starting in the second one, she really picked up the plasma rifle and dealt death.

RON: I mean, she was a leader through all three films.

CONAN: Absolutely. I'm going to agree with you.

HORWITZ: It's absolutely true. And there's a point here that I want to make about female action heroes. They, you know, the cliche is, oh, women are soft or women are more emotional. You don't want a woman with her hand on the trigger, because, you know, the - and in - one of the things that these movies show us is, in general, the female action heroes really earn their emotional moment. There's that part in "Empire Strikes Back" where Han Solo is frozen and...

RON: Oh, yeah, my God...

HORWITZ: Princess Leia just looses it and she does this futile attempt to free him. And - but she does - she earns that right to do it, because she's so cool, calm and collected.

CONAN: And the vamp scene, of course, is all a rouse to get her close so she could free him and do in Jabba.

HORWITZ: It's true.

CONAN: So anyway, Ron, thanks very much for the call.

RON: Thank you.

HORWITZ: We also, as always, when discussing "Star Wars," we have to say if that's true, we have to give the archetype, which is "The Hidden Fortress" by Akira Kurosawa, where the princess is also an action hero.

CONAN: Murray Horwitz, our summer movie festival buff. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And here's some email. Brandon in Raleigh, North Carolina: I just wanted to share my favorite female action hero, Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is a Japanese character in the "Ghost in the Shell" anime and manga stories, a cyborg employed as the squad leader of Public Security Section 9, a fictional division of the real Japanese National Public Safety Commission. I love the depth and intrigue of her story, but being anchored by the strong female character makes it unique in the action genre...

HORWITZ: And this is the - do you say "Ghost in the Shell"?

CONAN: He did.

HORWITZ: That's the one he said? Yes. And also in "Cowboy Bebop," there's a character, Faye Valentine. Anime is one of the genres where these women show up a lot. They're also in Hong Kong films, and in kung fu films, there are a lot of female action figures - or action heroes. I didn't mean to say it. I didn't mean to say it.

CONAN: Poseable and...

HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: The - here's an email from Kevin, and he nominates the best: Hit Girl from "Kick-Ass." This is a movie that was out earlier this year. Here's a scene - Nicholas Cage playing Big Daddy, Hit Girl's dad - is teaching Hit Girl, played by Chloe Moretz how to withstand being shot in the chest at close range while wearing a bullet-proof vest.

(Soundbite of movie, "Kickass")

Mr. NICHOLAS CAGE (Actor): (as Big Daddy) You're going to be fine, baby doll.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. CAGE: (as Big Daddy) How was that? Not so bad. Kind of fun, huh? Now you know how it feels. You won't be scared when some junkie pulls a Glock.

Ms. CHLOE MORETZ (Actor): (as Hit Girl) I wouldn't have been scared, anyway.

Mr. CAGE: (as Big Daddy) That's my girl. All right. Up you get, come on. Two more rounds and then home.

Ms. MORETZ: (as Hit Girl) Again?

Mr. CAGE: (as Big Daddy) Uh-huh.

Ms. MORETZ: (as Hit Girl) Look, only if we can go by the bowling alley on the way back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: That's great. I love the dialogue.

CONAN: That's good dialogue.

Let's get another caller in - Jane, Jane with us from St. Louis.

JANE (Caller): Hi. I wanted to nominate Lisbeth Salander, an up-and-coming movie star.

CONAN: Absolutely. That's the character's name.

JANE: Yeah.

CONAN: She's in "The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo," and the second one - I just finished it, and I've forgotten the name.

JANE: "The Girl Who Played with Fire."

CONAN: And then the third one is the "Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest."

JANE: Yes. I just finished reading all three, and she is completely victimized. There's a reason why the book was originally called "The Men Who Hate Women," or something like that. And throughout it, she just grows stronger and stronger and, you know, she earns her emotional time, like you said earlier.

CONAN: She's an avenger and...

HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: ...also really, really smart.

HORWITZ: Which was...

JANE: Oh, my God, incredibly smart.

HORWITZ: Which reminds me, there is a film in preparation of "The Avengers." And we look forward to seeing a female...

CONAN: Another? Uma Thurman was in the last one.

HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: Oh, yeah, right, of course. Right. Jane, thanks very much for the call.

JANE: Thank you.

CONAN: And Murray, we have to ask you, who is your favorite female action hero?

HORWITZ: All right. You found me out. I mean, I went round and round. Of course, Ripley is number one. But everybody has sort of secret dirt and things that they know they shouldn't like. One of my favorite - maybe my favorite terrible film of all time is "Conan the Destroyer" from 1984. Do you know that? Isn't that a great movie?

CONAN: How can I skip that movie?

HORWITZ: You can't. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wilt Chamberlain and Grace Jones as Zula.

CONAN: Yes.

HORWITZ: And never has a character shown more pleasure in killing somebody than Grace Jones. And I really recommend it. It's to be hoped you won't be in your right mind when you actually watch it, but it's great fun.

CONAN: Well, I'm going to get to nominate one - Elastigirl, or Mrs. Incredible and her daughter, Violet Parr. In this scene early in the movie, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl meet for one of the first times.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Incredibles")

Unidentified Man: Hey, look.

Mr. CRAIG T. NELSON (Actor): (as Mr. Incredible) Elastigirl.

Ms. HOLLY HUNTER (Actor): (as Elastigirl) Mr. Incredible.

Mr. NELSON: (as Mr. Incredible) No, it's all right. I've got it.

Ms. HUNTER: (as Elastigirl) Sure, you've got him. I took him out for you.

Mr. NELSON: (as Mr. Incredible) Sure, you took them out. His attention was on me.

Ms. HUNTER: (as Elastigirl) A fact I exploited to do my job.

Mr. NELSON: (as Mr. Incredible) My job.

Ms. HUNTER: (as Elastigirl) A simple thank you will suffice.

Mr. NELSON: (as Mr. Incredible) Thanks, but I don't need any help.

Ms. HUNTER: (as Elastigirl) Whatever happened to ladies first?

Mr. NELSON: (as Mr. Incredible) Well, whatever happened to equal treatment?

Unidentified Man: Hey, look, wait, the lady got me first.

Ms. HUNTER: (as Elastigirl) Well, we could share, you know?

Mr. NELSON: (as Mr. Incredible) I work alone.

Ms. HUNTER: (as Elastigirl) Well, I think you need to be more flexible.

Mr. NELSON: (as Mr. Incredible) Are you doing anything later?

Ms. HUNTER: (as Elastigirl) I have a previous engagement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: It's - and I love the fact that it's Holly Hunter as a super hero.

CONAN: As a super hero - incredible, yes. Absolutely incredible. Murray, as always, thanks very much.

HORWITZ: Thank you, Neal. What a pleasure.

CONAN: Murray Horwitz is TALK OF THE NATION's favorite film buff, joined us here in Studio 3A. Joined us here in Studio 3A. Join us for the second installment of our summer movie festival next week - same time, same station. The topic: greatest pep talks on film.

HORWITZ: Win one of the Gipper. Once more into the breach, dear friends.

CONAN: Email your nominee now: talk@npr.org. Join us then. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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