What do Coco Chanel, Queen Victoria and aviatrix Amelia Earhart have in common? All are women, made headlines and smashed barriers, becoming feminist icons in the process. They are also all being given the big screen treatment this year in big Oscar bait movies. Coco Avant Chanel is in theatres, The Young Victoria comes out in December and this weekend Hilary Swank plays Earhart in Amelia.
None are strangers to posthumous celebrity; Victoria has been portrayed on screen almost 100 times by everyone ranging from Glenda Jackson to Michael Palin, but Earhart, a pioneering female pilot who disappeared over the Pacific during a circumnavigational flight of the globe attempt in 1937, has enjoyed a particularly good pop culture run of late. She’s been featured in Apple Computer’s Think Different ads, Buck 65 rapped about her in Blood of a Young Wolf and last year Amy Adams made her flesh and blood in Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian.
Academy Award winner Swank’s take on the character is the eighth time Earhart has been immortalized on screen, not counting Jane Lynch’s portrayal of her in The Aviator which ended up on the cutting room floor, but she isn’t the first Oscar winner to play the fly queen.
In Flight for Freedom honorary Oscar holder Rosalind Russell played Tonie Carter, a character based on Earhart. The film and Russell’s flamboyant performance popularized the unsubstantiated notion that Earhart’s disappearance was a result of clandestine work for the U.S. Navy.
That theory was furthered by a TV movie (subsequently released as a theatrical feature) called Amelia Earhart: The Final Flight. Starring Oscar winner Diane Keaton, the movie suggested the doomed flight was financed by the navy in exchange for her reports of suspicious Japanese activity in the South Pacific.
In Close Encounters of the Third Kind Steven Spielberg suggested another reason for her disappearance—alien abduction! In the film‘s climax Earhart exits the Mothership alongside a hundred alien abduction survivors. Spielberg said this was a tribute to Earhart and others who have mysteriously vanished at sea.
Whether or not Earhart would have approved of any of these portrayals we’ll never know, but at least Swank says she tried to be respectful of Earhart’s legacy. “Any time that you play a character who was alive… you want to tell the story in a way that they would be proud of.”
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