Cinema has trained us to expect death-defying feats from men, but women – not so much. This isn’t just sexist; it ignores the leading role women have played from the beginning of cinema. By the dawn of the 20th century, industralisation had not only given us the silver screen, but freedom of movement through trains, cars and bicycles. For women, it was an era of dynamism and mobility that they seized, demanding agency and autonomy as the suffrage movement began to campaign for the right to vote. One of the places women pushed boundaries and shed expectations were movies, which wasn’t a male-dominated industry (yet). Women have done daredevil stunts from the silent era onwards, establishing a cinematic tradition that stretches from slapstick comedians to contemporary action heroes. These are five actors who not only did their own stunts, but shattered notions of female fragility.
Slapstick comedies weren’t just side-splitting, they were physically demanding and more than a little dangerous. Audiences today probably picture Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, but before these men there was Mabel Normand. Born in Staten Island in 1892, Mabel was a “natural born athlete” who was “independent-minded, courageous and… a bit reckless”(1) according to her biographers. Though she modelled for illustrator Charles Gibson, who famously sketched the ‘feminine ideal’ of the era, Mabel’s career started in DW Griffith’s Her Awakening (1911). The performance caught the eye of future lover and creative collaborator Mack Sennet, who cast her in early films as a bathing beauty.
But Mabel wasn’t interested in being anyone’s feminine ideal, quickly proving her prowess for physical storytelling and stunts in silent slapstick comedies. Throughout her 100-film career, she rode horses, raced cars, fell from bikes, slid down bannisters and sailed in hot air balloons, helping redefine the modern woman by showing that the ‘weaker sex’ was just as daring as any man. For women who saw these physical feats, there was a new way to view their bodies and themselves. She was also just as dynamic behind the scenes, producing, writing and directing films, as well as running her own studio. She even stopped a young Charlie Chaplin from being fired from Keystone Studios, before going on to mentor him in the early days of his career, proving that women have been saving men since the beginning of cinema.
Halfway across the world from Hollywood, another trailblazer was making her mark in the burgeoning Bollywood industry. Though born Mary Evans in Perth, Western Australia, this glamorous whip-cracking star lit up Indian cinema screens as Fearless Nadia. After arriving in then-Bombay, where her father was stationed during WWI, Mary spent her days watching movies and dreaming of being in the popular stunt pictures. That dream took shape at the Zarko Circus. While learning tumbling and trapeze, she met an Armenia fortune teller who assured her success if she changed her name to one beginning with N.
But Nadia wasn’t Fearless (officially) until she met the founders of Wadia Movietone, a studio that specialised in action-adventure films. After captivating Indian audiences with her blue-eyed exoticness in early cameos, she convinced the founders to let her do stunts, claiming, “I can do anything once”(2). It was an understatement – in over thirty-six films she tamed lions, leaped from trains, swung from chandeliers and carried men, literally and figuratively – her breakout Hunterwali (1935) made Wadia Movietone one of Bollywood’s biggest studios and Nadia an icon. As a masked crusader fighting injustice with the crack of a whip, Hunterwali further endeared Nadia to audiences during a time when colonial British rule was being challenged – here was an Indian princess, played by a white woman, who gives up her status and privilege to fight for the people.
“The baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town” blasted her way into cinematic history when Pam Grier played the titular Black vigilante in 1973’s Coffy. While other Blaxploitation films were led by men (Shaft, Superfly), Coffy was a nurse avenging her sister’s drug addiction through strength, sensuality and a shotgun. Though Blaxploitation films were denounced by some civil rights groups for perpetuating stereotypes and explicit content, early examples like Coffy addressed the era’s racial injustice and police brutality while reflecting the Black power and women’s movements.
Before Blaxploitation films, Black characters rarely lived to see the final frame in movies. Coffy not only lives, she’s immortalised as the first female action hero in Hollywood. But being an action star had its costs and stunt performers definitely weren’t in Coffy’s budget. Grier broke her ankle on set and wore a cast painted to look like a boot, causing her to limp throughout the film. Luckily, she was primed for the physicality since childhood: her grandfather taught her to hunt, shoot and drive growing up. But it was the women in Grier’s family who gave her strength; Coffy was based on her mom and another iconic character, Foxy Brown, her aunt, both whom she described as strong yet feminine – characteristics she brought to her roles.
I loved the fact that these women I was playing were forceful but without giving up their femininity or their sexuality.”
While filming Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s (2000) high-flying martial arts and gravity-defying stunts, Michelle Yeoh tore her anterior cruciate ligament. The on-set injury certainly wasn’t the first (or last) for the Malaysian superstar, who was forced to abandon ballet as a teen due to injury. Those years of training weren’t lost though. Sixteen years before her stunt work helped Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon win an Oscar, she debuted on screen in The Owl vs Bombo (1984). Yeoh played a damsel in distress, but she watched the director closely, realising that martial arts were just choreography – like dance.
Yeoh convinced the male filmmakers around her to let her do stunt work in Hong Kong action films. By the time she made Police Story 3: Supercop (1992) she was riding motorbikes onto moving trains in a now legendary stunt. Her co-star, Jackie Chan complained about Yeoh taking so many risks because he’d have to one-up her. “Jackie Chan thought women belonged in the kitchen – until I kicked his butt” she later said (4). Since then, Yeoh has saved James Bond, captained a starship in Star Trek, mentored Marvel heroes and played the matriarch in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), not just battling men on screen and behind the scenes, but also fighting for greater Asian representation in cinema. Not bad for someone who’d never studied martial arts and still does her own stunts to this day.
The action sequences in Atomic Blonde (2017) were inspired by Hong Kong action films. You can see the influence of the ‘found-object choreography’ in the bare-knuckled apartment scene where Charlize Theron’s spy Lorraine Broughton balletically takes out enemies with a hose. Theron’s background as a dancer helped prepare for fight scenes likened to “the musical numbers of Hollywood’s golden age”, which mix “action mastery” with “slapstick ingenuity” (5). Aside from Atomic Blonde, Theron has definitely proved her high-octane chops: battling Wild Boys on the War Rig in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and single-handedly decimating a SWAT team in The Old Guard (2018). It’s a far cry from the girlfriends, wives and supermodels the South African superstar played earlier in her career.
A key moment in Theron’s evolution from bombshell to badass was shedding the expectations her beauty invited. Her Oscar-winning transformation into a serial killer for Monster (2003) saw the actor ditch her glamorous demeanor to channel an inner strength, desperation and rage. Director Patti Jenkins said, “I could see right through that beauty, and I knew she was strong. I sensed a very powerful woman.”(6) Theron would have to be when it came to performing all her stunts in Atomic Blonde (and the countless injuries she sustained). During a career-period when Hollywood prefers women to play love interests and mothers, Theron continues to empower women, both as an actress and a producer.
What to watch
- The Extra Girl (1923)
- Stunt Queen (1947)
- Coffy (1973)
- Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000)
- Atomic Blonde (2017)
This article appears in Goddess: Fierce Women on Film. Grab your copy today.
- Laura Slobin, writer, E! Mysteries & Scandals, ‘Mabel Normand’, E! Entertainment Television, 18 October 1999, 3:32 to 3:49
- DESIblitz, ’Fearless Nadia ~ Bollywood's Hunterwali Stunt Woman’, YouTube, 24 May, 2014
- Richard L. Eldredge, ‘Legendary actress Pam Grier hits Atlanta with a double dose of “Foxy” today’, Atlanta Magazine,16 June, 2010
- Ryan Gilbey, ‘Michelle Yeoh: “Jackie Chan thought women belonged in the kitchen – until I kicked his butt”’, The Guardian, 2 September, 2021
- Jason Bailey, ‘The Pleasure of Watching Charlize Theron Throw a Punch’, New York Times, 23 July, 2020
- Charles McGrath, ‘Strong enough to play the heavy’, New York Times, 28 October, 2011