Goddess: Power, Glamour, Rebellion is a winding path through cinematic histories and futures. ACMI’s new exhibition begins with a bright red doorway, emblazoned with the word “Goddess”, leading you through to a pink corridor, as you descend into the silvery holographic entry into the exhibition. It is here that you begin the U-shaped path, travelling through time and space to explore the stories of powerful women and gender non-conforming people in cinema and beyond.
The holographic halls contain the first part of the exhibition: speakers placed around the walls play a soundscape (created by Chiara Constanza) featuring samples from interviews, movies, and speeches sharing the calls of women asking to truly be heard. Moving into the next section, you are met with soft pinks, hot pinks, and sparkly pinks — it feels like there are notes of every kind of pink that you can imagine. Three costumes are positioned in the centre. These are from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Birds of Prey and a gown worn by Winnie Harlow. The tone is set for the exhibition. We are shown the connections between past and present. We see the ways that ideas repeat, change and develop over time.
Goddess showcases the stories of Dorothy Dandridge (and Halle Berry — who later portrayed her in a biopic), Meena Kumari (star of India’s first colour Cinemascope film Pakeezah), Cheryl Dunye (Black lesbian director of The Watermelon Woman), Anna May Wong (considered the first Asian American movie star), Marlene Dietrich, Pam Grier, Mae West, Anna Tschuchiya, Michelle Yeoh, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, among others.
The exhibition explores everything from the Hays Code, to dangerous women, to stunt performers and more with a variety of pathways in between. Each stage of the exhibit is filled with varied posters, magazines, photos, posters, books, design sketches and other mementos. Many of the stands are fitted with circular frames with projectors set behind them, playing clips from the relevant film or production. This creates a spotlight-like feeling, showcasing each story that is told.
A standout section features costumes from Geena Davis’ standout performance as Thelma in Thelma & Louise, and Carey Mulligan’s fascinating portrayal of Cassie in Promising Young Woman. These costumes are showcased side by side, putting these films in a shared continuum.
Passing through the exhibition, you notice the perspectives of these performers being platformed throughout. In a circular cinema room, snippets from interviews, speeches and other assorted videos of Jane Fonda to Audrey Hepburn to Michelle Yeoh to Lena Waither to Miranda Tapsell to Leah Purcell challenging expectations and calling for change. Sitting on the couch, you feel enveloped in the room, in the feeling. It’s oddly comforting.
As you head towards the exit, two sets of three screens play a compilation of famous goodbyes, jumping from intense to light, direct to symbolic. The stories play across the screens, spreading out.
I eventually left, comforted by the fact that my favourite bits have been saved on my lens — ACMI’s special card with an NFC tag that allows you to “collect” parts of the exhibit to view on their website when you get home. Thanks to this, I am able to revisit what I have seen. As I replay my experience to write this article, I’m reminded of a sense of a cyclical connection. Even as it repeats itself, I am drawn again to a view of the future. This is the path that Goddess leads you down. We must understand what has been accomplished in the past, in order to look forward.
Goddess is open at ACMI until October 1.