Today’s woman in movies: Still up in the air, but with a twist

March 2
Sandra Bullock is up for best actress in the Academy Awards for her work in "Gravity." (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Sandra Bullock is up for best actress in the Academy Awards for her work in “Gravity.” (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Today a movie that takes a woman, sends her up in the air and has her confront a series of life-threatening situations is being celebrated.

No, it’s not the movie “Gravity,” starring Sandra Bullock, which is up for 10 Academy Awards when the Oscars are handed out Sunday night. Instead, it’s the 1914 serial “The Perils of Pauline,” starring Pearl White.

Fort Lee, N.J., where Pauline encountered so many dangers, is celebrating the silent movie with a hike to to the cliff that is widely thought to be the origination of the term “cliffhanger” and a showing of the film.

And what this day gives us is a chance to note how far women in film have come in a 100 years.

Pauline and Sandra Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, have some things in common: Both find themselves with their feet off the ground — Pauline in a hot air balloon and Ryan in a space station — with no apparent way to get back to terra firma. They both encounter fires that could potentially have them breathing their last. Both characters demonstrate an ability to devise solutions in the moment.

Pauline was not simply a victim of circumstances and men with ulterior financial motives. She embraced life. “I suppose I’ll marry Harry some day,” she says of her boyfriend, “but first I want to live a life full of excitement and adventure!” She figured she’d need a year for that.

Who can doubt that an astronaut such as Ryan would be the kind of person who is seizing the day. In her case, though, she was also using her job to dull the pain of losing a child.

When Pauline finds herself stranded alone in a hot air balloon over the New Jersey palisades, she comes up with a solution. She takes an anchor that is attached to a rope, throws it to the ground and in a real example of derring-do, climbs down the rope. For Ryan, the complications come at a faster pace, requiring even faster creation of solutions.

Ultimately, our heroines diverge. Pauline does rescue herself from the balloon, only to be spirited away by the bad guys to a house that they set afire. Tied up inside the burning building, Pauline can do nothing but squirm and wait for her boyfriend to arrive on the scene and carry her to safety.

There is no such moment for Ryan. Yes, when things seem to be at their worst and Ryan appears to be giving in to despair, Matt Kowalski (in the form of George Clooney) shows up as her apparent rescuer. Spoiler alert: But he cannot rescue her because he is a hallucination or a spirit from beyond and it’s up to Ryan to find her own way.

So the desire for excitement and adventure has always been there for women. The difference now is that the level of self-determination and responsibility has gone way up.

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