Christine Blasey Ford would have made a great femme fatale. Ford, who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault in 2018, was depicted in the media as a sweet, innocent pixie who was naïve. She talked in a baby-girl voice.
Yet like Kathie Moffat in the classic movie “Out of the Past,” Ford was not what the public saw on TV. According to her high school yearbook and people who knew her, the “doctor” was an enthusiastic partier when she was younger, someone who also, according to an ex-boyfriend, gave lessons on how to foil a polygraph exam and ran up hundreds of dollars on a credit card that was not her own.
Here is how film historian Julie Grossman defines the femme fatale: “Ostensibly the villain, but also a model of female power, poise, and intelligence, the femme fatale embodies Hollywood’s contradictory attitudes toward ambitious women.” Femme fatales are usually the undoing of the poor men who encounter them. In her book The Femme Fatale, Grossman examines a century’s development of the archetype in movies and on TV. The book examines classic film noir femmes fatales like Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity,” as well as postmodern revisions in films including “Basic Instinct” and “Memento.”
A picture of Ford as a shrewd conniving actress and opposition researcher is more interesting, and far more accurate, than the ingénue created by the media.
Ford as femme fatale came to mind in the confluence of two current events: the publication of All the Dirty Secrets by Aggie Blum Thompson, and a series of film noir movies featured this month on the Criterion Channel. All the Dirty Secrets is a thriller inspired by the event in Washington in the fall of 2018. It dramatizes “Beach Week,” the annual summer exodus of D.C.’s private school kids to the Eastern Shore for seven days of drinking, sunning, and debauchery. One such week in 1994 ended tragically when Liza and her best friends Nikki, Shelby, and Whitney, all students at the elite Washington Prep, went to the shore and one of them, Nikki, drowned.
Now Liza has her own daughter, Zoe, who secretly slips off to Dewey Beach in Delaware for her own Beach Week celebration. Again, a girl drowns.
I hope I’m not giving too much away to reveal that the villains in All the Dirty Secrets are Washington Prep guys, just as they are in two other novels inspired by the Kavanaugh battle, The Smash-Up and Something Happened to Ally Greenleaf. In these books, men are mostly bad or stupid and the women are simultaneously clueless and helpless.
It’s a dour contrast to the tough, vivid and complex women in film noir. In film noir, the bad guys are often women. Think of Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity,” Kathie Moffat in “Out of the Past,” Gilda Mundson in “Gilda,” Brigid O’Shaughnessy in “The Maltese Falcon.” The 1960 noir “Gun Crazy” was originally titled “Deadly is the Femme Fatale.” These women are not the saints of modern #MeToo movies; they are brilliant, conniving, sarcastic and sometimes downright evil.
In other words, much more like real people.
All this month the Criterion Channel is offering a series, “Film Noir in Color.” Films include “Black Widow,” “Accused of Murder,” “A Kiss Before Dying” and “Party Girl.” The smart, sassy and independent women in these films more accurately reflect the girls I knew growing up in the 1980s. They could savagely dress you down—and in public—or simply detect you were looking at them a certain way and meet your gaze dead even and hit you with it: “I don’t think so.” We once had an ongoing battle with a sister school that included toilet-papering houses. We lost when one of the girls, along with two accomplices, uprooted a Metro bus sign and replanted it in my buddy’s front yard.
These black widows have been replaced by people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who howl at small provocations and don’t have the guile or the wit to get one over on their dumb male marks.
With her scrubbed digital past, baby girl voice, and vague story—including suppressed tales of a wild youth—and claims by an ex-boyfriend that she is a fraud and a liar, Christine Blasey Ford was a noir femme fatale come to life. Many of Ford’s supporters, and not only Central Casting villain and convicted felon Michael Avenatti, have stories that are right out of the pages of a James M. Cain crime novel. The Kavanaugh drama was a dirty, diabolical femme fatale hit job from the start, a “Body Heat” set in D.C.