BreakingModern — Everyone knows Marilyn Monroe. Her iconic image is printed on millions of T-shirts. And posters of her hang from every girl’s first dorm room (unless she had a Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster instead, of course). You’ve also probably heard of some of the great female stars of the silver and golden eras of Hollywood: Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, Jayne Mansfield, Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Clara Bow and Sophia Loren, to name a few.
But some of the hottest sex symbols have slipped through the cracks of time, out of popular memory. These radical beauties deserve to be remembered — not just for how good they looked in a swimsuit, but also for their wild, beautiful, crazy lives and breathtaking performances on film. In honor of the late Anita Ekberg, arguably the most-vibrant of the under-sung heroines, here are seven women who were electric on camera and fascinating off-screen.
1. Pola Negri
The exotic Pola Negri brought shocking realism to silent movies, as well as unadulterated sexuality. In her movies her characters danced provocatively, wore revealing clothing and yes, even had sex — all before 1925. In real life, she was a heavily accented enigma, bedding the equally sexy Rudolph Valentino and — perhaps — comedy legend Charlie Chaplin. Her star lost some shine as the movie styles changed — when bright and bubbly flappers became sex symbols instead of overdramatic vamps. And her excessive dramatics at the early death of Valentino made some regard her as phony and ridiculous. But when you watch her in her early German films, she’s pure sex, full of orgasmic rapture as she dances, flirts or even feels fine silk fabric. She was the wild child incarnate, before the Roaring Twenties even began.
2. Joan Bennett
A blonde-haired ingénue in the beginning, a dark and supple noir goddess in her prime and a sophisticated matriarch as she aged, Joan Bennett wore many faces, and wore all of them well. She embodied wide-eyed adorableness as Amy in Little Women back in the ’30s, but as film noir became popular Bennett dyed her hair black and slinked about in bias cut dresses, murmuring life-destroying lies in her velvety voice. Her beauty never paled as she aged and she slipped into the somewhat limited role as the mother in movies such as Father of the Bride and TV shows such as Dark Shadows. She never ceased to be fascinating, though, and never ceased to look exquisitely put together. Bennett was certainly the only woman who made ordering a man to paint her toes spine-chillingly sexy.
3. Diana Dors
A blonde bombshell like Monroe, Dors never made it big in the states. But my, did she look pretty. She called herself “the only sex symbol Britain has produced since Lady Godiva” and had a few successful films, like The Last Page and I Married a Woman. But Dors never met with a smash hit, partially due to her manipulative husband. She became infamous for appearing semi-nude in a book of 3D pictures and became tabloid-famous for holding “adult parties.” Eventually she became a talented cabaret performer. Her life was never easy, but she had such a glowing and voluptuous presence that we were all lucky to have her.
4. Anna May Wong
In case you haven’t noticed, this list is looking a little white. The prohibitive racism of the time kept most women of color from even entering the movie business. One woman, though, didn’t succumb to the racial limitations of the era. A Chinese-American, Wong could never get the guy (she could be arrested for kissing her white costars), so she became the Tiger Woman, a femme fatale who leads helpless men to their doom. She starred alongside Douglas Fairbanks in the ’20s and Marlene Dietrich in the ’30s, and though she often played cunning, lower class women like slaves and prostitutes, she brought an uncanny sophistication to those parts, her deep resonating voice as intelligent and unwavering as her large, dark eyes.
5. Barbara Stanwyck
Okay, so you may have heard of Barbara Stanwyck. But many people have not — and that’s a shame. In her roles, Stanwyck represents the kind of woman you’d follow anywhere. Her deep voice, slow smiles and — more than anything — that glint of obvious intelligence behind every character she played made her the most scintillating, self-possessed heroine in everything from film noir to screwball comedies. In real life, she was a hard-boiled conservative with a taste for Ayn Rand, tough as nails and with a work ethic to shame anybody. She was a seductive go-getter, and what’s better than that?
6. Louise Brooks
Brooks is the main reason you had to buy a bobbed wig for your flapper costume. Her slick black coif inspired millions to lop off their long locks and leap into the modern age. But she never had it easy — after starring as a flapper in several American films, the headstrong actress decided she hated the Hollywood scene and fled to Europe to make more serious movies. She was blacklisted by Paramount in the U.S., but the transfer to Europe led to some of the most intriguing roles of her career, and cemented Brooks an undeniable place as one of the truly talented actresses of the 1920s.
7. Anita Ekberg
Ekberg, who passed away Jan. 11, was possibly the sexiest individual human to walk among us — or at least, she was the sexiest person to frolic in the Trevi Fountain wearing a strapless gown. She portrayed playful and often superhumanly sexy goddesses in Fellini movies like Boccaccio ’70 and La Dolce Vita, and mainly acted in Italian films despite her Swedish background. Though she never would hit it big in America like her fellow Fellini alum Sophia Loren, she brought an unapologetic whimsy to her busty seductresses. She wasn’t simmering and dramatic — she was winsome and effervescent, and that made her all the more powerful against the men who sought her.
In real life, Ekberg was outspoken, frank and cocky — she frequently said Fellini owed his success to her, not the other way around. She was a breath of fresh air and tended to play a little too fast and loose with the press. Unfortunately, the star lost much of her fortune by the time she was in her ’80s, and suffered from several illnesses before passing away this year. But that is not how she will be remembered — she will be remembered as a glowing, voluptuous on-screen presence, representing both overpowering sexual desire and unadulterated joy.
All Screenshots: Alison Maney