The Academy loves leading ladies who defy tradition, refuse to play it safe -- and end up finding themselves

By Ty Burr
Updated February 23, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

There aren’t many surefire ways to get nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but with Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts nailed a role that almost always works: a woman whose horizons suddenly expand to take in the world. The ingredients are straightforward: Take a pre-feminist naïf — it helps if she’s way down the economic ladder — then have her slowly wise up to political/corporate corruption as well as to her own power to change things for the better. Such parts are the cherry on the sundae for an actress and they’re intensely satisfying for audiences, too. We get to watch a character bloom before our eyes, then pull the rug out from under all those men who have underestimated her.

Roberts is but the latest performer to carry this transformation to the edge of the Academy winners’ circle, but it’s interesting to note that the archetype’s primarily a postwar phenomenon. Sure, Katharine Hepburn may have been nominated for portraying a political columnist in 1942’s Woman of the Year, but even she ended up cooking breakfast for on-screen husband Spencer Tracy.

The war, however, brought women into the workplace and thrust both genders into a massively disruptive global crisis. The turning point for women’s roles — and an Oscar success that caught even its leading lady by surprise — was 1947’s The Farmer’s Daughter, a comedy that laid down the genre crossbeams that remain in place to this day. Katrin Holstrom (Loretta Young) is the dewy-eyed, steel-spined daughter of Swedish immigrants who goes to work as a maid in the house of a Midwestern congressman (Joseph Cotten); she ends up running for national office herself. The film is structured as a distaff Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (and, no surprise, Katie wins the election and gets her man), but Daughter still crackles with the then-novel pleasure of letting a ladylike woman speak her political mind.

The Oscar smart money that year, however, was on Rosalind Russell for her heavy lifting in the portentous Eugene O’Neill drama Mourning Becomes Electra. Variety even named Russell the winner in a straw poll. Young came in last, and was so sure she was going home statueless that she told her family not to bother attending the ceremonies. That certainty lasted up until the second that presenter Olivia de Havilland opened the envelope. Rosalind Russell rose to her feet — and was instead forced to lead the applause for her friend.

An even more delicious portrayal of a woman unleashed — and another Oscar upset — came via 1950’s Born Yesterday. Judy Holliday was intensely funny and oddly sexy as bimbo Billie Dawn, hanging on the arm of corrupt junk kingpin Broderick Crawford until she gets a crash course in the American way from hunky reporter William Holden. Now it looks like one of the great star-making roles in movie history, but back then Holliday had to fight to get recast in the role that had made her a Broadway star. Columbia chief Harry Cohn, who spent a then-record $1 million for the film rights, had no plans to feature ”that fat Jewish broad” in his new property, but with some ace public relations help from her Adam’s Rib costar Katharine Hepburn, Holliday won her campaign.