Unsung Heroines, Part 2: More Queer Women Who Deserve Their Own Biopics


Back in July, we tested out our casting abilities with an article about famous lesbian and bisexual women who deserve to see their stories told on the big screen. While the life stories of some lesbian luminaries have already been captured on film, such as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Waiting For The Moon (1987), or are already in the works, like Joan Jett in The Runaways, there are still many tales to tell.

In our second installment in this series, we explore the lives of more lesbians who made a cultural impact, and some who are still making history.

Natalie Clifford Barney (1876 – 1972)

BIOPIC-WORTHY BECAUSE: The expatriate (she was born in Dayton, OH) novelist, playwright, feminist and pacifist Natalie Barney held court from her literary salon on the Left Bank of Paris for over sixty years, building a community for some of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

All the while, this unapologetic womanizer romanced some of the most sought-after beauties in Europe. Her liaisons inspired several novels, including one of the most famous lesbian novels of the last century, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. She was the original advocate for polyamory, and an early biography about Barney was entitled Portrait of a Seductress.

Simply put: Without Natalie Barney, there would be no Shane McCutcheon.

Natalie Clifford Barney

THE SUPPORTING CAST: A film about Barney’s life would provide a bevy of juicy roles for actresses. Barney’s conquests , included (but were not limited to) dancer and courtesan Liane de Pougy, poet Renée Vivien, painter Romaine Brooks, writer Colette, and Oscar Wilde‘s niece, Dolly Wilde. Literary nerds everywhere could also revel in the chance to see who might be cast in the roles of frequent salon visitors like T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Carlos Williams.

SHOULD STAR: If we were casting this movie ten years ago, the role would have belonged to Emma Thompson. Today, perennial lesbian favorite Kate Winslet is at the perfect age to play Barney in her social, artistic and amorous prime, and it’s safe to assume she would attack the role with her typical relish. Plus, it’s been 15 years since Heavenly Creatures, and she owes us a decent lesbian sex scene (preferably one that doesn’t end in bloodshed)!

Kate Winslet

Emily Blunt is a natural pick for Barney’s beloved de Pougy, both for her physical similarity to the woman and because she’s already proven she knows how to break a lesbian’s heart. (Need evidence? See her in My Summer of Love.)


Liane de Pougy and Emily Blunt

For the role of the tragically addiction-riddled poet and heiress Renée Vivien, we’d cast Kristen Stewart (Twilight, The Runaways), who has already perfected the faraway haunted gaze present in many of Vivien’s photographs and seems to have the necessary depth to play the difficult part.

Finally, how about Rachel Weisz as Barney’s long-term lover, painter Romaine Brooks? She already has the hat!

Romaine Brooks and Rachel Weisz

PLOT POINTS: It’s a moment built just for an opening scene in a movie: At the tender age of six, Barney meets fellow famous gay writer Oscar Wilde as he helps her elude an annoying pack of young boys. (Ever helpful to the family, Wilde later convinces Barney’s mother, Alice Pike Barney, to pursue art, for which she becomes famous in her own right.)

By the age of 12, Barney knows she’s a lesbian and doesn’t intend to hide it.

In Paris, 23-year old Barney spies the 30-year old de Pougy at at dance hall, and later shows up on her doorstep wearing a page costume, claiming to be sent by Sappho and intent on seducing the popular courtesan. She succeeds, and two years later their stormy affair is the subject of a scandalous book by de Pougy, Idylle Saphique, that is so popular it’s reprinted 69 times in its first year of publication.

That same year, 1899, Barney meets another great love, 22-year old poet and heiress Renée Vivien. Vivien had long been in love with a childhood friend, Violet Shillito, but lost interest in their unconsummated relationship when Barney entered the picture. A year later, the young Shillito died unexpectedly and Vivien’s guilt over abandoning her for Barney would be the depressive, addiction-ravaged poet’s eventual undoing.

Barney and Vivien split after only two years (Vivien didn’t share Barney’s enthusiasm for polyamory), though Barney temporarily won her back The two were long separated by the time Vivien died at the age of 32.

Other pivotal plot points would include Barney’s meetings with the women with whom she would have the most lasting relationship, socialite and bon vivant Dolly Wilde and painter Romaine Brooks. Of course, all of Barney’s affairs would take place against the backdrop of her (literary) celebrity-studded weekly salon meetings at 20, Rue Jacob in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

TAKE A POPCORN BREAK: During the five year period in which Barney and Vivien are “on” again, but Vivien begins to lose her battles with alcoholism and anorexia, and eventually attempts suicide. Though tragic movie scenes are usually Oscar bait, who of us really wants to see another lesbian self-destruct on film? Besides, can anyone do it better than Angelina Jolie already did in Gia?

SHOULD BE DIRECTED BY: Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation), who deftly directed another lush French period piece, Marie Antoinette, and is seasoned in telling the stories of impossible complicated love affairs.

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