Prepare for battle, readers! No, it’s not the Xenomorphs this time. However, on this, the eight day of October, there is only one way to celebrate the 72nd anniversary of the birth of Sigourney Weaver: with a level of combat cool that would do Ellen Ripley proud. Now, let’s get ready to fight for our lives — and for a fresh slice of birthday cake.
Born in New York City on October 8, 1949, Weaver was part of a family deeply rooted in showbusiness. Her mother, Elizabeth Inglis, was an English actress while her father, Pat Weaver, was a TV executive who was president of NBC from 1953 to 1955 and creator of The Today Show. Even Weaver’s uncle, Winstead “Doodles” Weaver, was a comedian and contributor to MAD Magazine. While she was christened Susan Alexandra Weaver, she began using the name Sigourney at age 14, taking it from a minor character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Weaver initially attended college at Stanford to study journalism, but the overly dry honors courses dissuaded her, and sent her back to her first love: acting. Having been involved in numerous theatrical productions in her early schooling, she grew up self conscious about her height, allegedly shooting up to just over 5’10” by the time she was eleven. However, during her time at Stanford she was extensively involved with theater, working as part of a Bay Area group called the “Palo Alto Company.” While she referred to the troupe’s productions and antics as “outrageous” later on, she was also said to have avoided Standford’s drama department because it was too “stuffy” and “square.”
Opinions like these are telling, as later in life, Weaver went on to make a name for herself in the role that would define her career and change what the world knew about the place of women in horror, women in science fiction, and women in film overall: Ellen Ripley, from the Alien franchise. Ripley, warrant officer of the commercial space ship Nostromo, made a profound impact in the world of film as a female character that, for the most part, carried the traits and psychological make up that would be expected of a male protagonist. Rather than playing the part as that of a female protagonist or a feminine character, Weaver simply played the part of the protagonist with little notion of gender specifics in her performance. She was, to be blunt, a strong female character without focusing on her femaleness to make her unique or special. Ellen Ripley was strong, capable, determined, and resourceful.
While the role of Ripley went on to establish Weaver as an actress with a talent for portraying strong and actionable characters, it also changed the way stories could be told in very unique genres of film. Women were more than simple foils for distress or cannon fodder in horror, and far more than window dressing in science fiction. Weaver, who continued to portray Ripley in the subsequent Alien films like Aliens, Aliens 3, and Aliens: Resurrection, set a new standard for action heroes as a whole with Ripley’s nuanced portrayal of motherhood and leadership, both separately and as a unified facet of the character. It was also thanks to Weaver’s performances and those of her castmates that Alien was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2002 as a film that was “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
Weaver has been a lasting presence in films of many varieties since — dramas like Gorillas In The Mist, comedies like Heartbreakers and You Again to name a few — but thanks to Ripley, Sigourney Weaver has had very strong, genre-specific ties to sci fi and horror ever since. In addition to the Aliens franchise, Weaver is a fixture of the beloved sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest, played a lead role in the James Cameron epic Avatar, and most recently was a primary antagonist in the Marvel series The Defenders. She has also remained a staple of the horror genre with films like Copycat, The Village, and The Cabin In The Woods.
Over the course of over forty years, Sigourney Weaver has been a steady, reliable, and incredibly important presence in the art of filmmaking, whether she was in front of the camera or behind it, producing. She remains an important figure in the history of women in film, and continues to tell stories that both enrich and entertain while breaking barriers and stereoptypes without a care in the world.
So happy birthday, Sigourney, and enjoy that slice of birthday cake — facehugger free. We promise.
Liz Carlie, the Mad Woman with a Box, a regular book reviewer for SCIFI.radio and a regular guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. She has been in and around science fiction fandom for years, and works with the American Red Cross on blood drives at science fiction conventions all over Southern California.