14 Absolutely Badass Actresses Of Old Hollywood

Lauren Bacall, one of the last great actresses of old Hollywood, passed away the other day at the age of 89. As a big fan of old films, this was such a sad loss! Lauren was more than just sultry looks and the most on point eyebrows of all time; she was an amazing actress who played rolls that were untraditional for most women in Hollywood at the time, she was naturally spunky and fought or what she believed in throughout her career. She basically gave the establishment the middle finger with a mysterious smile and a perfectly coiffed head of hair.

But Bacall wasn’t Hollywood’s only old school badass. There were some other women in the industry who were pushing boundaries and pissing people off. Essentially, they’re the sort of women we look up to here at Gurl. Want to know who I’m talking about? Check out this roundup of 14 ultra badass actresses of Old Hollywood and find out. Oh, and do yourself a favor and watch some of their movies, would you?

Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall was more than just good looks and Humphrey Bogart's right hand gal who stared in some of the most iconic movies of all time (watch The Big Sleep). She was also super progressive and stood up for what she believed in. For example, during the 1940s many actors were accused of supporting communism due to absolutely ridiculous reasons. There was even a committee in the United States senate called the "House of Un-American Activities" and all it did was try to accuse public figures of being communists for the most ridiculous, outrageous reasons. Well, Bacall called BS and openly protested against the organization, which was so incredibly risky and would have killed most people's careers. Did she care? Uh, no. Props.

Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American movie star. While she was often typecast as the stereotypical "Dragon Lady"--a mysterious, sometimes deceitful Asian woman--when her career began in the '20s, by the '30s she played roles that portrayed Chinese-Americans in a much more progressive, realistic light. Unfortunately, she faced some serious racist BS during her career. MGM didn't want her to play the part of a Chinese character in one of their major productions back in 1935 and gave the role to a not-at-all-Chinese-or-even-Asian German actress. Ridiculous, right? Anna agreed and gave the middle finger to Hollywood for a few years because of their racism. She still acted and performed in Europe before returning to the states, but she casually took some time to help fund the Chinese cause against Japan in WWII. Rad all around.

Audrey Hepburn

You know the face, you've probably seen Breakfast At Tiffany's or Roman Holiday but do you know that she spent most of her later years helping humanitarian organizations like UNICEF? No, she didn't just appear in some hokey commercial begging people to donate. She actually went to these regions and talked to the people living these experiences without being condescending about it or giving herself a pat on the back for braving such harsh realities. Unfortunately, that's a rarity for celebs these days.

Eartha Kitt

Eartha Kitt was a triple threat, known for her work as a singer, an actress and a dancer. She even played Cat Woman in the '60s Batman television series. Oh, and if you loved The Emperor's New Groove then you should probably know that she voiced Yzma. But Eartha's legacy isn't just in her mulitalented entertainment career. Nope, some of her most badass moments happened off screen and out of the recording studio. The most epic event of badassery happened in 1968 when she made anti-war statements at a White House luncheon. When President Lyndon B. Johnson's wife, Lady Bird, asked Eartha of her opinion on the Vietnam War, Eartha said, "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot." She added, " They feel they are going to raise sons—and I know what it's like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson—we raise children and send them to war." Lady Bird burst into tears and Eartha's career screeched to a halt, but hey, she's just being Eartha.

Bette Davis

Bette Davis changed the whole damn game. At a time when women were largely playing flowery, sympathetic roles, Bette didn't hesitate to play women who were despicable, heartless or downright snarky. She wanted roles that showed her off as more than just a glamorous woman; she wanted to get gritty. Also, by 1962 she was the first actress to have been nominated for 10 Academy Awards. And despite all of her accolades and fame, she has gone on the record as saying that she simply wants to be remembered as a "good worker." Sometimes there is nothing more badass than being humble.

Delores Del Rio

Delores was one of the first Latina actresses to become an international star. Born in Mexico, she stared in silent films throughout the '20s and was one of the few actors of the era to become successful in talkies as well. No, seriously, that was a big deal back in the day. When her Hollywood career began to decline, she went back to Mexico and became the most important figure in Mexico's golden age of cinema in the 40s. She was also incredibly politically active and even hung out with the iconic Frida Kahlo. If she hung out with Frida, you know she was bad.

Elizabeth Taylor

You might know her for her glamorous looks or the fact that she was married a billion times, but here's what's really awesome about Elizabeth aside from all that: Her fearless dedication to charity, particularly in AIDS research. She became the cofounder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research in 1985, at a time when awareness of the disease was new and surrounded by ignorance. She also donated $500,000 to an HIV/AIDS organization dedicated to helping HIV/AIDS survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo was one of the finest actresses of all time. If you haven't seen her in Ninotchka you need to change that right now. But what was really interesting about Greta was that she was a bit of the Hollywood loner. She didn't bother going to fancy Hollywood social functions and preferred to chill with her real besties. Also, she didn't do the whole signing autographs thing, nor did she ever who up to a little event thing called The Oscars. She really just did her own thing and collected art until she died.

Hedy Lamarr

Okay, this might be one of the coolest stories ever. Hedy Lamarr was a gorgeous actress who wasn't afraid to depict an orgasm on screen back in the '30s in a film called Ecstasy. Let's remember that even in 2014 depicting female pleasure makes people clutch their pearls. But anyway, this is going to blow you away: Hedy Lamarr was an inventor who, along with a man by the name of George Antheil, created an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping. Thats fancy talk for wireless communication. In other words, you have this woman to thank for your Wi-Fi and your Bluetooth devices. Thank her accordingly by checking out some of her films, would you?

Katharine Hepburn

The queen! Katharine Hepburn was like Hollywood's female anti-hero. She was a talented actress and absolutely gorgeous, but she refused to be tied down to Hollywood's BS. She rejected traditional glamour, opting for menswear styles before they were in vogue. She was also assertive and outspoken and refused to feel like a weirdo for never having an interest in children.

Marilyn Monroe

Okay, say what you want about Marilyn, but here's something about her that absolutely puts her in the badass book: She was aggressively anti-racist. Once she found out that a popular Hollywood night club wouldn't book her friend, jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, Marilyn told the club's manager that she would book a table in the front row every time Ella performed. She knew that this would rouse up a ton of publicity for the club and the manager changed his tune. The best part is that Marilyn actually kept her promise and did, in fact, sit at the front table every time Ella performed. Marilyn didn't just talk the anti-racist talk, she walked the anti-racist walk. I'm not giving her a cookie for being a decent human being, but she deserves some credit for truly not giving a damn about propriety and sticking to what she believed was right.

Marlene Dietrich

Marelene Dietrich is such an innovator. She was eccentric, androgynous and--to sound really old fashion--a real cut up. She screwed with Hollywood norms of sexuality, too--she was openly bisexual. Oh and for all of you style mavens out there who get questioning stares for your alternative wardrobe, check out what Marlene had to say about her personal style: "I dress for myself. Not for the image, not for the public, not for the fashion, not for men." Goals.

Rosalind Russell

Okay, here's what you need to do: Do yourself a favor and watch His Girl Friday. If you don't fall in love with Rosalind's role as a fast talking reporter who straight up acts circles around Cary Grant, then you might need to just keep watching until you do. But aside from her talent, she was also very honest and open about how limited Hollywood was in its roles for women. In 1963 she said, "Being typed as a lady is the greatest misfortune possible to a motion picture actress. It limits your characterizations, confines you to play feminine sops and menaces and the public never highly approves of either...I want to improve my career and professional life and...I am tired of being a clothes horse – a sort of hothouse orchid in a stand of wild flowers." In other words, eff you Hollywood and your BS typecasts. Also, like Katharine Hepburn, she rocked menswear inspired fashion like no other.

Ruby Dee

Ruby Dee was an absolute gem! She was an actress for decades, staring in films like 1961's Raisin In The Sun, 1989's Do The Right Thing and 2007's American Gangster with dozens of credits in-between. But it wasn't just her impressive screen presence that makes her amazing; she was also a huge civil rights activist. She participated in the March On Washington in 1963 and was buds with both MLK and Malcolm X. She was arrested during a protest in 1999 at the age of 77. Yeah...77. Bet your grandma ain't doin' that.

Which other old Hollywood actresses have a badass streak? Which is your favorite? Tell us in the comments!

You can follow the author, Ashley Reese, on Twitter or Instagram.


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  • Frank N. Blunt

    Great choices among many others.

  • Lola

    I’m so glad you decided to include actresses of color as well! Thanks so much for this list.

  • emersonushc13

    Any effort against Soviet Communism was better than the alternative.

  • Lee Ann Meleca

    I’m very surprised that Joan Crawford didn’t make the cut.

  • James Norrow

    You missed the biggest one of all – Mae West!!!!

  • Lee Dragon

    Ida Lupino! Actress, played some pretty gritty parts. Most of all, in an era when women were extremely limited as to the jobs they could do, she fought, scratched and bit to become a fine director. I have read she could also cuss you out and make you like it. Anolther lady who could scramble your brains was Carol Lombard. Mae West shook up Hollywood and the world with her suggestive films, which she wrote herself! She held her own in the only film she made with W.C. Fields, a real stinker. There should be a film on the Pioneer Women of Films, including Marie Dressler, another terrific actress not cut from the beautiful mold.

  • ronin

    Ha ha, “clutch their pearls” that is the best expression I have ever heard.

  • GumDropGirl

    They all have so much natural beauty.