Strong female character is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in woke film crit, and it’s probable that the arbiter of this particular criteria should maybe be someone other than weak male film critic — but here we are. Watching a movie as fantastic as Johnny Guitar, it’s hard not to wonder if the phrase is in fact more often applied to female characters who basically act like male characters, resorting easily to physical and verbal violence. The leads in Captain Marvel and Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow are handy in a fight, sure, but they also lack flaws, for the most part, and therefore lack real complexity. Holding those characters up as the gold standard for strong females in film has always rung hollow.
The fact that all of those modern action films are directed by men is not inconsequential (and is its own problem), but then again so is Johnny Guitar, helmed by the great Nicholas Ray, which still manages to feature a lead character who — in addition to being handy in a fight — has complex relationships with the men and women around her, has self-doubt in tandem with self-confidence, has flaws and imperfections and weaknesses, all of which paradoxically contribute to the strength of this character. This character is Vienna (Joan Crawford), a saloonkeeper on the outskirts of an Arizona cattle town, a brash and opinionated woman frequently at odds with the town’s cattlemen. The arrival of the mysterious Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) complicates Vienna’s already-contentious relationship with the other townsfolk, particularly her sworn enemy Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge).
Vienna drinks, turns cards, packs heat and expects the same slice of the frontier that any man seeks in the New West. Johnny Guitar features a lot of dialogue, with several extensively-talky scenes set in and around the saloon, but Vienna in particular seems to have a knack for argument. And yet she’s often proven wrong, or proven to be an outright liar or hypocrite, and in this we see that Vienna’s pride sometimes gets the better of her. These explicit flaws are the types of character traits we recognize in ourselves, regardless of gender, and they’re the kinds of traits mostly absent in those aforementioned strong female characters. If your main character is only ever strong, never revealing any of the human flaws that we all have in reality, then not only is your main character not strong — they’re not even a character.
Hollywood has plenty of gender-related problems to answer for, but the Western genre in particular is one that seems to pride itself on being mostly reserved for men. If the nexus of the genre concerns the manly pioneer making his way westward for a piece of the American dream, then Johnny Guitar might be one of the earliest high-profile attempts to subvert that. I knew little about the film before watching it for the first time last year, and so I expected a tale of Hayden’s character as some sort of guitar-playing desperado. Not only is Johnny Guitar not the hero of this story, but multiple female characters — prominently Vienna, but also McCambridge’s frantic and histrionic Emma Small — outshine him in the movie bearing his name. So when the film premiered in 1954 it was entirely misunderstood, with one New York Times critic (male) lamenting Crawford’s character as “sexless” in a review that today reads as if it were an op. ed. not for NYT but for The Onion.
The behind-the-scenes drama is interesting in its own right, and probably contributed to the absolutely electric chemistry between Crawford, McCambridge and Hayden onscreen. Crawford was purportedly a heavy drinker at the time, in the midst of an affair with the director Nicholas Ray, and at odds with McCambridge for having once dated her husband years before. To say production was chaotic would be an understatement. “There is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford,” Hayden said in an interview after the film’s release. “And I like money.” McCambridge is on record calling Crawford a “rotten-egg lady”, while Crawford herself said of McCambridge, “I have four children — I do not need a fifth.” The camera, as the saying goes, sees all, and the three-way tension between the actors is palpable throughout Johnny Guitar.
The faked guitar playing leaves something to be desired, but aside from that Johnny Guitar is the rare Western to improve with age rather than become dated by an idealistic masculinity. With a fantastic supporting cast (including Ernest Borgnine, Royal Dano and John Carradine) behind her, Joan Crawford blazes across the screen as Vienna with more relish than any male contemporary you might name. More importantly, the character she brings to life is allowed to be depicted as inescapably human, full of flaws and contradictions and hopes and dreams of somewhat dubious nature, and through that she becomes the epitome of real strength.