In 1979, Ridley Scott pulled off one of the great action-film twists with Alien. Amid a cast of established names and familiar character actors, with an obvious hero standing front and centre in the shape of Tom Skerritt, Scott shifted the focus to minor character Ellen Ripley and the unknown actress who played her. Sigourney Weaver wasn’t completely untried – she’d studied drama at Yale, and appeared in Annie Hall – but in her first lead role she not only established herself as a star, she also changed the face of science fiction and action cinema forever.
Ellen Ripley was, of course, a breakthrough role. As Warrant Officer Ripley, Weaver is intelligent and capable, but she’s also a working woman who doesn’t grab guns and start shooting at the first sign of trouble. She’s a thinker, not obviously destined to defeat any acid-blooded predators that she might encounter. Ripley was relatable, just a slightly taller, better-looking version of any of us, and that made her triumph all the more satisfying. In 1986, James Cameron’s Aliens took Ripley from survivor to general in the fightback. By Alien 3 she was the grizzled, embittered veteran, before Alien: Resurrection gave her a piece of the beast within her soul. Yet however much action she provided, it always felt like Ripley, because Weaver was always there to give her that same sense of competence, reticence, and sometimes desperation when the odds really became overwhelming.
As the ’80s dawned, Weaver pushed herself in new directions, and her career blossomed. She gave a fine dramatic turn in 1982’s The Year Of Living Dangerously, before 1984’s Ghostbusters showed that she could do comedy alongside the funniest men in the world. By the end of the decade, she scored two Oscar nominations in the same year: for Best Actress as Dian Fossey in Gorillas In The Mist, and Best Supporting Actress as the magnificently hissable Katharine Parker in Working Girl. Perhaps she split her own vote, but winning wasn’t necessary. She was firmly on the A-list, and able to do whatever took her fancy. She played a queen for Ridley Scott in 1492: Conquest Of Paradise, and the First Lady in the comedy Dave. She was a torture victim in Death And The Maiden, a housewife in The Ice Storm, and a spaceship crew member in the sublime comedy, Galaxy Quest.
There were cameos riffing on her Alien experience (as the ship’s computer in Wall-E, and the director in Cabin In The Woods), before Weaver took another major sci-fi role in Cameron’s Avatar. Despite a few small plot hurdles, like death, she’ll be back for all the planned sequels. Of course she will. If you had the chance to cast the queen of science-fiction cinema and the most iconic action heroine of the late 20th century, why wouldn’t you? The last decade or so have seen other women follow Weaver’s path and challenge the boys’ club dominating action film-making, but she remains a trailblazer, proof that women can be everyman heroes too.
Picturehouse Culture Shock presents the 40th anniversary rerelease of Alien on 1 March
Three To Watch
Weaver’s breakthrough film sees her inch into the spotlight as her fellow crew members fall to the alien menace. She’s a real female lead, who isn’t sexualised, because she’s too busy figuring out what she’s up against, and surviving it – just like her male counterparts. She’s quietly revolutionary.
Working Girl 1988
Corporate boss Katharine is the sort of smiling psychopath who makes office life a nightmare. She has such unshakeable self-confidence that she expects the world to bend to her will – and it usually does, until she steals an idea from the wrong woman. She’s also charming, ruthless, and one of the great cinema villains.
A Monster Calls 2016
This is a supporting role as the grandmother to young Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who’s dealing with his mum’s terminal illness. Look out for the scene when Weaver’s unflappable matriarch unleashes the same violent grief that haunts her grandson, shocking them both and showing him he’s not alone in his loss.