Women Film Pioneers | Performing Arts

These biographies of Candida Royalle and Anna May Wong explore 20th-century feminism, the film industry, sex, race, and gender.

Kamensky, Jane. Candida Royalle and the Sexual Revolution: A History from Below. Norton. Mar. 2024. 512p. ISBN 9781324002086. $35. BIOG

Behind the pornography nom de plume Candida Royalle was Candice Vadala (1950–2015). Working extensively with Vadala’s diaries, historian Kamensky (A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley) sets the porn actress and producer’s life and career in parallel with the wider events of ’60s and ’70s counterculture, second-wave feminism, the anti-pornography crusade, and the changing landscape of pornography itself. Born in post–World War II New York, Vadala survived familial abuse and substance-use disorder. In the 1970s, social and political upheavals spurred a young Vadala to head for California, where she began working as an pornography performer—and eventually as Candida. By the 1980s, she had moved from acting to creating pornographic films and established Femme Productions, which she launched to make erotic movies that would appeal to women and align with her feminist ideals; she always tried to reconcile her values with her career, Kamensky argues. This in-depth biography makes a good argument that Vadala is an unsung history maker. VERDICT For readers interested in works about feminism and sex in the late 20th century or in biographies of historically overlooked women.—Kathleen McCallister

Salisbury, Katie Gee. Not Your China Doll: The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong. Dutton. Mar. 2024. 480p. ISBN 9780593183984. $32. BIOG

This compelling account of Anna May Wong’s (1905–61) life and career as a film star is hard to put down. From her early appearance in Douglas Fairbanks’s silent classic The Thief of Bagdad to King of Chinatown, and on to her final film Portrait in Black—plus her work in other media—Wong demonstrated considerable and versatile talent. Nevertheless, she consistently faced racism inherent in the industry and the country. Debut author Salisbury gives readers a thoughtful, in-depth portrait of Wong both as an individual and as a celebrity who tried to balance her traditional Chinese heritage and upbringing with her life as a modern American woman and actress. Details about her life at home and abroad and the critical turning points that drove her personal and career choices are especially intriguing. Salisbury is a skilled storyteller, seamlessly interweaving historical context, behind-the-scenes Hollywood anecdotes, and forthright takes on the social milieu of the time. An engaging preface, prologue, and bibliography and well-chosen photos complement the absorbing narrative. VERDICT A thoroughly researched and superbly written study of a remarkable woman. An important addition to film history and cultural studies collections.—Carol J. Binkowski

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