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The Reelist: Iron Ladies

In honor of Meryl Streep's star turn as Margaret Thatcher, aka The Iron Lady, we decided to celebrate other powerful women in cinema. Look out!

Meryl Streep as The Iron Lady


Now that we've had time to digest this year's list of Golden Globe nominees—and perhaps divine why My Week with Marilyn is in the comedy category—let's take a closer look at one of the Best Actress nods: Meryl Streep, in an uncanny depiction of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.


The film, which will be released on December 30, has only a few woman characters—unlike, say, the female-heavy casts of Bridesmaids and The Help—but even as the “lone woman in a sea of men,” Streep's Thatcher dominates, just as you'd expect from someone dubbed the Iron Lady. (That moniker came courtesy of the communist Soviet Union.)


While Thatcher doesn't literally kick ass like Lisbeth Salander (played by another Golden Globe nominee, Rooney Mara), the conservative leader had no qualms about crushing those who disagreed with her policies. And there were many, including British miners (she refused to surrender to union demands and closed nearly 100 mines), the British public (who rioted in response to her spending cuts, enacted during a time of high unemployment and a recession), and the IRA (the 1981 hunger strike was in protest of her anti-IRA policies). Then there was the Falklands War, in which Thatcher staunchly defended the remote, British-owned islands against Argentinean aggressors, forcing them to surrender in a matter of months.



As we watch Thatcher's life unfold on screen—rising from her humble beginnings as a grocer's daughter to become the first female prime minister, then her fall from grace and her battle with Alzheimer's­—a more nuanced portrait emerges. Thatcher is smart, proud, strong, definitely arrogant, yet like the best movie characters—real or fictional—flawed.


Here are five more powerful cinematic ladies we love.



Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in Cleopatra (1963)

Sure, Cleopatra uses her beauty to seduce a couple of bigwigs: first, Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison), and later, Mark Anthony (Richard Burton), in order to hold onto—and expand—her power as the Roman empire is being formed. She even has a child with the Roman general Caesar, just to secure her title as the ruler of Egypt. But if this epic film sounds like some ancient version of Gossip Girl or Teen Mom, you'd be missing out on La Liz's rather more complex portrait of the queen. In a New York Times review, then critic Bosley Crowther writes, "Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra is a woman of force and dignity, fired by a fierce ambition to conquer and rule the world ... In her is impressively compacted the arrogance and pride of an ancient queen."



Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth Tudor in Elizabeth (1998)

This 1998 film (skip the 2007 sequel, also starring Blanchett) depicts the young Elizabeth Tudor's ascension to the throne to become the Queen of England. She must fight enemies, including the French, while also doing battle in her own court, which is conspiring against her. There are alliances at which she turns up her nose: who needs a man—especially a French one—or an heir, to protect her country? In this version of the Virgin Queen's story, as the Times' Janet Maslin noted, "Elizabeth is presented as a glamorously stressed-out modern woman who must cope with a super-intense case of having it all." All except sex, that is.



Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich (2000)

It's the true-life story of a woman who starts an investigation into toxic dumping that results in the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit. Brockovich, an uneducated, twice-divorced mother—and the unabashed wearer of skimpy outfits—proves you don't need a law degree to win a case for the good guys. Armed with a working-class background and a push-up bra, the feisty, funny Brockovich doesn't give an inch, even when going up against a white-glove law firm. One of Roberts' smartest roles, it won her the Oscar for Best Actress in 2001.  



Penélope Cruz as Raimunda in Volver (2006)

Director Pedro Almodóvar loves to feature strong women in his films, and Cruz's Raimunda may be one of the strongest. In this family drama, Raimunda, a hardworking Madrid cleaning woman, discovers her alcoholic husband is lusting after her young daughter. When the daughter kills him in self-defense, Tiger Mom Raimunda takes over, hiding his corpse in a freezer in a neighboring abandoned restaurant, which she ultimately takes over. Meanwhile, in true mystical Almodóvar style, her sister is getting visitations from their long-dead mother, who has unfinished business to share with her daughters. Cruz's fiery, busty performance earned her an Academy Award nomination.



Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996)

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more coolly efficient sheriff, never mind that she's also a woman, and a hugely pregnant one at that. When a kidnapping goes awry, and a state trooper is killed, it's up to Brainerd, Minnesota's Marge Gunderson to solve the murders. McDormand's stoic yet sweet Gunderson is one of the Coen Brothers' best creations.





The Iron Lady opens Friday, December 30. Find tickets.


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