A close cousin to the Femme Fatale, the Tragic Vixen isn’t motivated by the murderous pursuit of money, but travails after doomed love. Vixen’s, because they use their sexual prowess to attract their love interest, but tragic in that they rarely get what they’re hoping to achieve, often leaving themselves completely screwed, abandoned, or outright dead.
The Tragic Vixen shouldn’t be confused with the scorned woman turned psycho killer, like Evlyn (Jessica Walter in “Play Misty for Me”) or Alex Forest (Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction”). The Tragic Vixen may want revenge, but it doesn’t come in the form of murder, it comes in the form of psychological warfare.
Self-esteem and the Tragic Vixen simply don’t mix. They’re alcoholics, drug addicts, suicidal, and sexually deviant. But most of all they’re dreamers. They romanticize they’re eventual doom. They’re on a collision course with an ugly fate and they know it, even embrace it at times, gladly trading death with a shot at love, even if for a single night.
So here’s Grumpy Guy’s Cinematic Tragic Vixens Hall of Fame
Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie)
THE HUSTLER (1961)
Dir. Robert Rossen
Starring: Paul Newman – Piper Laurie – George C. Scott – Jackie Gleason
“Perverted, twisted, crippled” That’s a harsh way for a girl to think of herself, but that’s exactly what Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie) writes on a mirror after had having sex with Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) the villain of “The Hustler”. On one hand, Sarah is simply doing what Sarah does, getting drunk and getting laid. But her betrayal of her man Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) can also be described as a sacrifice. If she can take Bert down with her, then she can save Eddie, the man she loves, from becoming like Bert, an empty, corrupt, vessel — or become like her, as Bert so mercilessly puts it:
…you’re a wreck on a railroad track. You’re a horse that finished last.
Despite the great pool being shot, the skill, the gamesmanship, “The Hustler” is really about Sarah, as Fast Eddie makes clear to Bert in the films final showdown.
We really stuck the knife in her, didn’t we, Bert?
If it didn’t happen in Louisville, it’d happened someplace else. If it didn’t happen now, it’d happen six months from now. That’s the kinda dame she was.
And we twisted it, didn’t we, Bert?
Laurie’s performance is incredibly touching. Her Sarah aspires towards the arts, but has no real talent. She’s smart, but she drinks and has been partially disabled by polio. She goes to school, has her own place. She’s independent, but in constant danger of falling into a very dangerous and dark place. It’s a very thin line that separates Sarah from the safe, domestic ritual of the independent working woman, from the hustlers, pushers and pimps. She always only one drink away from them.
Sarah’s “sacrifice” forces Eddie to look in the mirror, just as she had to, and make a choice. He’s either going to continue to be the prostitute to Bert’s pimp, or he’s going to become a free human being, and in the process, set Sarah free as well.
Martha (Elizabeth Taylor)
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)
Dir. Mike Nichols
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor – Richard Burton – George Segal – Sandy Dennis
Call her vulgar, call her a lush, call her a tramp, but don’t call Martha a victim. Step into Martha’s world and she owns your ass. The only person that can challenge her in any way is her seemingly squeamish husband George (Richard Burton). Martha and George are caught in a purgatory battle of psychological and emotional abuse so destructive it has the potential to kill.
So how is it that Martha (a 34 year old Elizabeth Taylor) a woman on her last legs, a smoker, an alcoholic, a cheater, a liar, overly plump, foul mouthed – can come off as one of the sexiest characters to grace the American screen? To be frank, I think it’s her body. Elizabeth Taylor knew how to use her body to great effect. Like Marilyn Monroe, she was beautiful, but she had a body that would not quit. Elizabeth Taylor understood Martha. They’re both at the age when things are starting to expand and hang a little. The lines are getting darker. Things are a bit frayed around the edges. And yet. There’s still a hell of a lot of mileage left on that engine.
Like Mrs. Robinson, Martha is angry and resentful at the hand life has dealt her, and she is bent on revenge. But unlike Mrs. Robinson, her chance at transformation has passed, she is stuck with George, the “cluck”, and can only make the best of it. This is done by ridicule and humiliation, sometimes at his expense, sometimes at hers, but nobody ever wins this grotesque, psychological war.
Martha is a force of nature. The mother earth. She will not be denied. It is a performance that I would never have thought Taylor capable of from watching her previous films. But it was “Taylor” made.
Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine)
THE APARTMENT (1960)
Dir. Billy Wilder
Starring: Jack Lemmon – Shirley MacLaine – Fred MacMurray
A close cousin to Piper Laurie’s “Sarah Packard” character in “The Hustler”, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) suffers from a serious bout of low self-esteem, which makes her an easy target of the player, the hustler, or the pimp. In this case, Mr. Sheldrake played to perfection by Fred MacMurray.
As cute as Shirley MacLaine is as Ms. Kublik, she’s one severely screwed up character. She’s got daddy issues, dating a married man twice her age, that plays her like a ho, handing her a one hundred dollar bill for a Christmas present after he fucks her. She tries to kill herself over the guy, in a desperate attempt for his attention. And her affair with Mr. Sheldrake doesn’t appear to be her first, as suggested by her brother in-law, who finds her hiding out with Baxter after her suicide attempt.
It’s none of my business what you do, Fran — you’re over twenty- one — but your sister happens to think you’re a lady.
People are often fooled by this classic. The performances and overall atmosphere can be construed as lighthearted, but “The Apartment” is a dark film. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) lends his apartment out for a place his superiors at the office can take their mistresses to. In return they move Baxter to the top of their promotion list. It’s all working out great until Baxter finds out that the woman he’s in love with, Fran Kubelik, an elevator girl, is having an affair with the boss Mr. Sheldrake, and they’re using Baxter’s apartment for their affair.
What we’re talking about here are pimps and hos in the corporate world. In that analogy we know what category Billy Wilder has put Fran Kubelik in. What Baxter slowly begins to realize is that he’s something of a Madam running a brothel, and as sick as the idea of Ms. Kublick screwing Mr. Sheldrake makes him, it’s really his participation in their twisted ritual that’s fucking him up.
But none of that matters, because Shirley MacLaine as Ms. Kubelik is too fucking adorable not to try to rescue from mean Mr. Sheldrake. Even if it’s her own god damn stupidity that got her in that fucked up situation to begin with.
Mrs. Robinson (Ann Bancroft)
THE GRADUATE (1967)
Dir. Mike Nichols
Starring: Dustin Hoffman – Ann Bancroft – Katherine Ross
Mrs. Robinson has a lot in common with Martha from “Woolf”. Heading into middle age, Mrs. Robinson’s seems bent on revenge. For what and at whom is somewhat of a mystery.
Mrs. Robinson’s (Ann Bancroft) famous seduction of Ben (Dustin Hoffman) is a marvel to behold. Like a cat with a mouse, she toys with Ben, easily manipulating him, fucking him with her mind before they ever get into bed. Like a dominatrix, she tests his will, demanding that he come up to her bedroom, and when he does, completely exposes herself to him, knowing full well that his virgin curiosity will eventually get the better of him.
Ben seems to be a target of Mrs. Robinson from the beginning, seemingly for a sexual conquest, but later as a tool for transformation. Mrs. Robinson isn’t out to destroy Ben’s life, but to sabotage her own, going to that place where there is no returning to, where the only way she can survive is to start over somehow. What better way than to psychologically kill yourself and your entire family in the process, to be reborn from the burned ashes.
What’s amazing about Bancroft’s performance is that I never really saw her play anything like it again. As a matter fact, everything else I’ve seen her in has been very hammy. Maybe because she married Mel Brooks. But here, the sadness, the anger, the regret, are all just underneath the surface of a, humorous, frightening, seductive dance.
Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert)
THE PIANO TEACHER (2001)
Dir. Michael Haneke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert – Annie Girardot – Benoît Magimel
At the point the viewer catches Erika Kohut in her life, she hasn’t become a serial killer yet, but she’s seems well on her way. This is one of the most intense character studies ever depicted on film. Grim, haunting, frightening, and yes, sexy, is Isabelle Hubbert, the aging piano teacher, who does not distinguish between physical torture and love.
She’s gone beyond the Sarah Packard’s, the Martha’s and the Mrs. Robinson’s of the cinematic world. Erika is a psychotic, with a black hole in her so massive, no amount of sex, perversions, or mutilations, that she seems to practice at every opportunity, can heal it. Where does her sociopathic behavior materialize from? It could be from her strange relationship with her demanding mother, who Erika shares a bed with, or perhaps some unknown abuse as a child.
Hubbert’s performance is remarkable. Her Erika is constantly searching for an emotional fix, like a junkie, unable to reach that same high they got the first time. Her methods in obtaining that fix are perverse, embarrassing and dangerous and always fascinating. The last shot is unforgettable, the pain on Hubbert’s face, self inflicted and earned, captures the intensity of the entire film and character in one agonizing moment. A mere 24 frames expressing a lifetime of anguish.
Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda)
Dir. Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Jane Fonda – Donald Sutherland – Roy Scheider
Fonda won an Oscar for her portrayal of Bree Daniels, a prostitute that’s targeted by a serial killer. But I don’t think Fonda’s performance has aged that well, but some of it isn’t her fault, and comes from the script itself.
Is it the shakedown hon? You picked a loser, I just don’t have it.
Who talks like that, even for New York ’71? What’s interesting is the parallel universe that the film explores when it comes to acting/modeling and prostitution. Bree is often humiliated while auditioning for an acting role or modeling gig. But when it comes to playing the part of prostitute, she’s got it down as she shares with her analyst:
I arrive at their hotel or their apartment… and they’re usually nervous, which is fine, because I’m not. I know what I’m doing. For an hour…I’m the best actress in the world.
It was only in the TV transcript that I found some of the dialogue between Bree and her analyst, it wasn’t in the original script, which leads me to believe that in order to make Bree a stronger character, the extra scenes with the analyst were added or improvised. But it doesn’t change the fact that Bree is basically a damsel in distress, like Fran Kubelik in “The Apartment”, with the knight in shining armor, Klute (Donald Sutherland) attempting to rescue her from the forces of evil.
Bree languishes between the world of the Femme Fatale and the Tragic Vixen. She makes money off her sexuality, but doesn’t seem to be looking for the big score. At the same time she entertains men, she doesn’t have one of her own, nor seems to need one or want one, despite the fact that one wants her. Her thing is heroin not men, her dream is acting, and at the end of the film Bree gives the impression that despite Klute’s knight in shining armor routine, little in her world is going to change.
Theresa Dunn (Diane Keaton)
LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977)
Dir. Richard Brooks
Starring: Diane Keaton – Richard Gere – Tuesday Weld – Tom Berenger
It’s been too long since I’ve seen this one to review Keaton’s performance, and it doesn’t appear to be available on DVD, but I’m including it anyway on the suggestion of a friend. What I remember is being completely depressed at the ending. This character may not fit the Tragic Vixen prototype, but by what I remember and what I can read on the Interwebs, she comes damn close.
Some analysis by Kathryn Schleich from her book “Hollywood and Catholic Women: Virgins, Whores, Mothers, and Other Images” describes Theresa as a woman who:
“– refuses to be dominated by the patriarchal present in both society and Roman Catholic church — Theresa fights back, wanting responsibility for her own autonomous life.”
“Throughout the film, each of the men in Theresa’s life try to dominate her. And when that fails, their hostility towards women breaks through.”
One of these men in the film is her father, who when he finds out Theresa has refused to marry the man he thinks she should marry, becomes violently hostile. Theresa has a revengeful streak, mostly towards her father, who she re-imagines in the men she picks up, quickly discarding them, humiliating them in the process, while remaining in complete control.
Theresa has a little Sarah Packard, Mrs. Robinson, Ms. Kubelik, Martha and Bree Daniels running through her blood. Like Ms. Kubelik, she appears to be the girl next door, but isn’t. Like Mrs. Robinson, she’s attempting a transformation, but like Martha is unable to complete it. Like Bree Daniels the transformation is attempted through many sexual partners, but like Sarah Packard, her journey leads to a tragic end.
I’m sure there are plenty other examples, but these are the ones that stick out in my mind when it comes to the Tragic Vixen.