In almost every realm of life — politics, business, sports, etc. — the products of the feminist movement are evident, even if the gains are not always as large as we have hoped.

On the small and big screen, however, female roles appear to have regressed rather than progressed. While this point is certainly debatable, two recent commemorations help make the case for the good ol’ days.

The first season of "Maude," Norman Lear’s feminist follow-up to "All in the Family," has recently been released on DVD. Played by Bea Arthur, Maude (who had a brief appearance as Edith Bunker’s liberal cousin on "All in the Family") was, in the words of Frank DeCaro of the New York Times, "an eardrum-shattering, upper-middle-class liberal from Tuckahoe, N.Y., who popped tranquilizers, drank martinis and changed husbands as often as she changed her signature maxi-vests."

The series began in 1972, but nothing has compared to it since — and it’s hard to imagine it even making it out of the brainstorming process at a network today. It handled such taboo subjects as "racism, infidelity, sexual equality, divorce, menstruation, malpractice and, most notoriously, abortion, when Maude found herself pregnant at 47."

It’s that last issue that showed "Maude" at its most topical, most provocative and most complex, notes DeCaro: "That two-part episode, titled ‘Maude’s Dilemma,’ came in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision. It was sensitively written by Susan Harris, who went on to create ‘The Golden Girls.’ The subject was as controversial then as it would probably be now, but it shows how smart ‘Maude’ and television could be."

The most ground-breaking aspect of the show, however, wasn’t its choice of subject matter. It was in its presentation of a confident and complicated woman, willing to confront (to a fault) any obstacle in her way.

DeCaro concludes: "Maude Findlay has often been called the anti-Archie Bunker, but she was a lot more like him than she would have ever wanted to believe. He was a blue-collar bigot as lovable as he was infuriating. She was an upscale bleeding-heart matron as misguided as she was well intentioned."

From another era, the late Barbara Stanwyck also refused to conform to any Hollywood stereotype. Honoring her 100th birthday, a short retrospective of a dozen of her movies takes place at the BAMcinématek at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (April 25-May 6).

Rewatching the two films that make up the opening night double bill — "Baby Face" and "Ladies They Talk About" — Terrence Rafferty of the New York Times sees the full impact of Stanwyck’s signature style:

The movies aren’t masterpieces, but they’re fun to watch because in both of them Ms. Stanwyck plays a woman men just can’t seem to get a fix on: is she a good girl or a bad girl, or what? They’re trying so hard to figure her out you can practically see their heads spinning; they look dazed, off-balance, stupid with indecision. That’s the Stanwyck effect at its purest […]

The tantalizing thing about Ms. Stanwyck is that she so rarely seems deliberately tantalizing, and yet you still can’t quite account for her, can’t say for sure who she is, or even predict with any confidence what she’ll do next.

While certain actresses in certain roles in the present-day have given the layered, smoldering performances that Arthur and Stanwyck pulled off effortlessly in the past, very few opportunities appear available for women to construct an entire body of work that embraces such instability, fire and intelligence.

Christine

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