BY SARAH COLLINS
A full century ago, Theda Bara became a sensation of silent cinema when she starred in the 1915 film A Fool There Was. Her portrayal of The Vampire, an otherwise unnamed woman who orchestrates the downfall of any man she chooses, drove a scandal-hungry audience wild for her titillating brand of perversity. She slithered, she seduced, and she shocked.
The popularity of A Fool There Was marked her beginning as a career-long icon of the femme fatale archetype, a career that would be almost completely erased due to studio film vault fires, were it not for but a few reels and a dearth of production stills. Unabashed, unapologetic and single-minded in the pursuit of her own desires, Bara's vamp is not the subject of scorn and scarlet lettering in the film; rather, she is triumphant at the conclusion, gliding away from the scene of corrupted domesticity to, presumably, her next exercise in destruction. She is an anti-heroine who breaks the era's dictates of onscreen morality and female virtue. From a critical perspective, her subversion of the marriage model serves as a view to human weakness in a way that utilizes the opposing side of the gender binary. Rather than manifesting in a portrayal of the fainting, hysteric feminine, weakness takes the form of a malleable, pliant masculinity that is easily twisted and trampled once the protective shell of a social institution has been penetrated and shattered.
Like the atypical conclusion of A Fool There Was, Bara's image was antithetical to modern sensibilities of female beauty. Reigning silent film actresses, to which audiences were accustomed, were dewy-eyed waifs who sought to charm with sentimentality and ingenuousness. Like these immaculate angels of the silver screen, Bara exhibited otherworldly qualities, but in an opposing sense. Rather than descending from the heavens as an image of fragile, luminous beauty, she might have crawled up from below the surface of the earth--her ghostly complexion bereft of any sort of innocent glow, the dark masses of hair cascading around her shoulders in a web of ensnaring sensuousness.
Bara's vamp is not a fallen woman, as literary language might have termed women of her creed. Rather, she is a rising woman, digging her way out of the living grave of expected domesticity and repressed female sexuality. The vamp is a materialization of the specter of female agency that haunts structures and institutions of the time through its absence.
In A Fool There Was, Bara's characterization as “The Vampire” set an intentionally biased precedent for public judgement of the character. A vampire is a monster to be abhorred and exorcised from pure, morally-upright societies. But monsters are manufactured, the products of mechanisms, societal or individual, that distort and disfigure materials into their final product. To condemn the product is to condemn the creator; to condemn the vampire is to condemn the world that made it. Bara's character rebels against the mechanisms that would create her and subsequently oppress her. She is a Byronic Other, an observer of human relations of which they do not partake, but actively work against.
The external indicator of Bara's Otherness manifests not just through her previously mentioned non-sylphic frame, but through her distinctive eyes. Hooded and deep-set, they brood and burn from the screen. They are hypnotic in their detachment, icing audiences with their blankness. Hers are the eyes of the introspector—they do not perform for the observer, but instead wall themselves against external discernment. Silent film relied heavily on expression within the eye and often focused on them in close-up shots; Bara's own, so singular in their appearance, could be completely blank and still compel.
In contrast with her fellow actresses, Theda Bara does not sparkle, wink and flutter a means of inviting the viewer. Rather, she watches from beneath half-closed lids, an enigma that cannot be divined. Interiority is sacred to the Other, especially the female Other, whose external performativity is so often the summation of her character and corresponding value. Bara's brooding, languorous vamp stands in opposition to the externalized vivacity valued in female performance both onscreen and off.
Bourgeois morality would dictate trite narratives of good over evil, women being virtuous and men being heroic. Oppositions to these structures are atypical, and Theda Bara made a career of portraying these opposing Others (Carmen, Cleopatra, Salome and Madame du Barry, to name just a few). She is the dark underside of performativity, the inverse of socially-shaped concepts of expressions of the feminine. This darkness speaks to the taste for iconoclasm that lives within the uncharted interiority of the alienated Other. As such, Bara's lost body of work detaches her from the modern world in the way that mythology apotheosizes. Her surviving image is boon to all who delight in that silent, shadowy reality where mystery only heightens appeal and unnamed things that lurk in the recesses of consciousness scratch gravel out of the concrete.