Isabella (Izzy) Rael
12:00pm | Friday Section
October 12, 2018
Director Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is a seminal science-fiction horror film released with the tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The film encompasses the story of seven-member crew in the year 2122 and their survival aboard the ship Nostromo against a menacing, carnivorous, hermaphroditic Alien. At its core, however, Alien features feminist hero Ellen Ripley, a warrant officer and third member in command, who, according to Scott, was originally written to be a male character. In a period of immense American cultural upheaval characterized by new feminist waves in the 1970s to enact the Equal Rights Amendment among other pro-feminist endeavors, Alien depicts an explicit gender-role reversal of the heroine archetype through the portrayal of tough protagonist Ellen Ripley. Because of her own confident and self-assertive demeanor, actress Sigourney Weaver epitomizes the character of Ellen Ripley. Consequently, Weaver’s star type performance of Ripley challenges gender stereotypes in the sci-fi genre by dispelling the “final girl” trope, propelling Weaver herself into the Hollywood spotlight.
Sigourney Weaver has certain actress properties that are unfeminine, allowing her to effectively embody the masculine-focused characteristics of Ellen Ripley. Alien’s Ripley reveals an air of boldness solely based off of both the feminine and masculine physicalities of Weaver. Her face shape strikes the audience with its masculine shape: her rectangular face structure exhibits features of angular, squared-off jaws and a wider chin. Her light eyebrows and eyelashes, as well as her thin, long lips add to her mannish appearance, whereas most women tended to have these features in a more accentuated way––darker, more pronounced eyebrows and eyelashes, and plump lips. Moreover, her dark, curly, thick afro was vastly different from the put-together wavy female hairstyles of the seventies, further deviating Weaver from the typical feminine norm of the period. In an interview with The Irish Times, Weaver noted on the stunning nature of her height: “I’m six feet tall…, so when I was auditioning, I walked into a room and the men would sit down because no one would want to look short next to me." Even off-camera, Sigourney Weaver’s appearance gives off a confident and commanding presence, one that is integral to the creation of Ellen Ripley in Alien. In addition to her masculine-focused physical characteristics, Sigourney’s monotonous and deep voice also reinforces her unfeminine personality, juxtaposing the voice of the other female character Lambert who has a high-pitched and acute voice. Most significantly, however, Sigourney Weaver’s fitting personality for Ripley is reflected through her mythology and bold personality before accepting her role in Alien.
Before being cast in Alien, Weaver was an undiscovered actress who had only two very minor roles in previous films; most of her work at the time was in theatre. Appropriately, most would not have predicted that she would have been fit for the protagonist role in Ridley Scott’s science-fiction film. Sigourney’s audition for Ripley itself is indicative of how her personality was ideal for the role. According to Alien’s casting director Mary Goldberg, not only had Weaver shown up thirty minutes late to her audition after going to the wrong casting location, but she had also “sabotaged” it by giving a negative yet shrewd response to what she thought of the script and characters. Quite openly, Sigourney was snobbish and impolite given the fact that she was auditioning for this role; however, her uninhibited cockiness is what enticed Scott to cast her for Ripley. From the script, Ellen Ripley’s only real rich character moments of dialogue were her adamancy that quarantine rules be strictly followed, and her immediate assumption of command after captain Dallas’s death––both scenes requiring an authoritative and imperturbable player. Sigourney’s composure in addition to her wit and boldness made her fitting for these scenes specifically, as well as ideal for rounding out the thinly-sketched character of Ripley that Scott had written. The masculine personality and features of Weaver––her commanding presence, strong jaw, high cheekbones and broad shoulders––filled in the necessary characteristics of Ripley that Ridley Scott had left blank. Thus, Weaver’s role in Alien is a star turn performance and is reflective of her own personality, consequently making the film itself more involving and believable for the audience. Sigourney Weaver became Ellen Ripley, and Ellen Ripley became Sigourney Weaver. Moreover, Weaver’s creation of Ripley is achieved not only because of her physical features and personality but also through her talent on camera.
Even in a scene without dialogue, Sigourney Weaver employs small-scale gestures to embody Ripley’s level-headed yet tough character in the face of a life-or-death confrontation by the Alien. After all of her comrades have been murdered by the xenomorph, Ripley flees to the escape pod before self-destructing the Nostromo in attempt to kill the Alien inside of it. Despite Ripley’s strategy, the Alien makes it into the escape shuttle with Ripley and the crew’s cat, Jonesy. It is in this scene where Ripley’s frank toughness softens; she must keep all the composure she has left in order to save her life. The lone survivor’s subsequent course of actions is when Weaver’s talent shines––using soliloquy and gesture, Sigourney compellingly manifests the theme of fear. While in her suit, Ripley sits silently in the escape pod waiting for the Alien to approach her before abruptly opening the pod door to eject the monster. While the Alien’s removal itself is brief, the scene is elongated by Scott’s focus on Weaver’s careful performance. In contrast to her heavy and erratic breathing––out of panic––Ripley maintains her posture and sits up straight while waiting for the Alien, singing a song to herself and trembling the lyric, “You are my lucky star,” which was Weaver’s own idea to include in her performance. Her facial expressions are steady and calm––poker-faced, hiding the terror that lies underneath her veneer. Weaver exhibits Ripley’s intense fear while also displaying the protagonist’s unwavering valor through these simple gestures. This scene shows a divergence in Ripley’s personality from the rest of Alien: her fear sharply contrasts her usual phlegmatic demeanor presented in the majority of the film. Despite her distress, however, Ripley remains tough.
Here, Weaver’s performance likewise differs from the rest of her performance because of the scene’s attention to Ripley’s emotions and reactions; facets of the character that were seemingly inconsequential earlier in the film. Accordingly, Weaver’s performance in this scene is even more poignant. She bestows Ripley, who throughout most of Alien seemed exclusively stolid and thick-skinned, a sense of emotion and humanity where it did not seem to exist before. As an audience, it is in this scene that we are truly able to relate to Ripley and fully admire her grit. Most audience members would not have predicted that her character Ripley would be the sole survivor at the end of the film, particularly due to the fact that there were bigger stars in Alien such as Tom Skerrit playing Dallas, the captain of the Nostromo spaceship. In a time period when male heroes dominated cinema, Ellen Ripley stood out of the crowd as an unlikely and even deviant action hero. As a result, both “she” and Sigourney Weaver became enduring feminist icons for revolutionizing the “final girl” trope and what it means to be hero.
Ripley was an impactful character because she dispelled the “final girl” trope in cinema, firmly establishing her as a feminist model in the science fiction world and launching her player Sigourney Weaver into the Hollywood spotlight. In her book Men, Women and Chainsaws, feminist film critic Carol Clover coined the term “final girl” to describe horror films of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that often leave one woman––saved by virtue of their sexual purity or innocence–– alive to feebly confront and vanquish the killer. As a result, “final girls” are rendered overly respectable and prudish, allowing themselves to be spectacles of “the gaze”––the sexualization of women within cinema. The character of Ripley completely defies this trope. For one, Ripley is an unmistakable leader despite being ordered around by her male counterparts; she aggressively condones poor safety protocols that eventually jeopardize the crew’s lives and eventually assumes leadership once the captain dies. Throughout Alien, Ripley is grounded. In every situation, she rarely displays her fear and when she does, it is composed. For Ripley, fear is the motivation to conquer the Alien. Finally, Ellen Ripley is blatantly independent; she does not rely on men to make decisions or ensure her safety, or even more significantly, let men stop her from taking matters into her own hands. Sigourney Weaver imbued Ripley with her own wit and steely drive, making Weaver alike to Ripley as much as Ripley is to Weaver. Ripley is a dimensional and highly adept working woman, and Sigourney Weaver continues to be remembered for this feminist character.
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