20 Favorite Actress Performances

I was having a hard time settling on 20 favorite actresses, a good deal moreso than with the men. Hard to say why, but I think it might have something to do with longevity – leading men in Hollywood have a better shot at multi-decade careers in the spotlight, in “A” productions; that is and was the sexist truth of it. The John Waynes and Sean Connerys and Harrison Fords of the world are more common than the Katherine Hepburns.

I realized that many of the actresses I was throwing around as possible favorites didn’t neccessarily have such deep resumes. I decided to try another tack, and instead list 20 favorite female performances. This was much more fun. Perhaps not easier, but more fun. So here are 20 favorite performances. The only real rule was no repeats, only one slot per actress. I notice there’s more than a few one-hit wonders that made it. As with the men, presented in no particular order:

Helen Mirren, The Queen
In purely Oscar terms (eeeugh), she’d been building to this sort of “we’re not worthy” industry genuflection for some time. That’s meant to be figurative of course, but Daniel Day-Lewis thought it was literal – he actually went down on his knees to receive his Academy Award from her. It’s quite a career trajectory for Helen. Her early c.v. is littered with wantons and fallen women (she was in Caligula, for criminy sakes). At some point, the floodgates of classy and powerful parts started bursting open for her. For no good reason at all, I trace that to the mid-80s, playing Russians in the reasonably high-profile 2010 and White Nights.

Now she is the officially trademarked Queen of England. If you need a Q of E portrayed, from any period in the history of Old Blighty, you are required by custom and good manners to call Helen Mirren first. Luckily, and I imagine it hardly needs to be said, the performance here is great. I accept her fully as the old snoot.

Madeline Kahn, Blazing Saddles

I went back and forth between Lili Von Shtupp and Eunice Burns in What’s Up Doc? – if it wasn’t for my one per actress rule, both performances would be listed here. “Willkommen. Bienvenue. Welcome. C’mon in.”

Barbara Steele, Black Sunday

There’s something of the Grand Gesture to Barbara Steele in her Italian horror movies, especially in this iconic part. There’s barely contained histrionics that put me in mind of silent cinema. Maybe because she reminds me of Louise Brooks, an emigrant to the continent making her name in a strange land. And the wild, huge eyes, nothing subtle about those.

Joan Fontaine, Rebecca

We have a dog in our family. A little bichon. Now we love our dog, really we do, but he often strikes me as looking needy, neurotic, pathetic. I have not-so-secret daydreams of giving him a swift kick for no reason, just because of those neurotic looks. I’d never do it, mind you, but it’s one of my two little nods to fantasy sadism. The other is watching Joan Fontaine getting belittled over and over by everyone in Rebecca, especially of course by Mrs. Danvers. Joan Fontaine, as er…whatever her name is: the cinema’s great Neurotic Bichon.

Holly Hunter, Broadcast News

Big Boss Man: “It must be nice to believe you always know better – to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.”
Jane Craig: “No. It’s awful.”

Ann Savage, Detour

The character of Vera is just a big old bowlful of mean, and Ann Savage wallows in it.

Faye Dunaway, Mommie Dearest


Moira Shearer, The Red Shoes

The fact that she can actually dance helps a lot. Being a novice actor herself somehow squares nicely with portraying a ballet newcomer moving among a group of old pros who are constantly sizing her up and trying to manage her. Moira was living out Victoria Page’s ups and downs just by agreeing to play her in the first place. One also wonders if she wasn’t partially cast for her hair – this is one of the ultimate Technicolor productions, and that is some technicolor-friendly hair on her.

Kathleen Byron, Black Narcissus

This is really it for her, isn’t it? Yes, she also was the leading lady of The Small Back Room and was quite good/different in it, but Sister Ruth is her calling card. Ms Byron should have been a bigger star, I think – even within Michael Powell’s universe, whom she did three films for (that I can think of – the two mentioned above plus a memorable cameo as an adminstrative angel in A Matter of Live and Death). I think she would’ve done a better job than Jennifer Jones in Gone to Earth, and would have given Wendy Hiller a run for her money in I Know Where I’m Going.

But that’s all make-believe. What we’ve got is Sister Ruth, and she is unforgettably unstable, murderous, repressed, depressed. There’s a bit where she zips up a staircase in shadows like a scuttling bug – plain crazy, that Sister Ruth.

Katherine Hepburn, The Lion In Winter

I’ve watched this a lot and hope to do so many more times.

Vera Clouzot, Diabolique

The director’s wife – if it’s nepotism, it certainly worked this time. She only did two other films, both supporting parts also for Henri-Georges. Clearly it wasn’t for lack of talent.

Marilyn Monroe, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

It’s a great comic character, that particular strain of dumb/not so dumb blonde Monroe invented, and this is the purest distillation.

Gloria Holden, Dracula’s Daughter

Holden was active throughout the 30s and 40s, but I don’t think I’m too far out on a limb to suggest that this is what she’s remembered for. This is to me the most watchable of the Universal Dracula films, moreso than the Lugosi original, and it’s down to this performance. While Dad Dracula evoked the foreigner to be suspicious of, Daughter seems like she’s come from an entirely different planet. She suggests otherness and a lack of belonging; the film ends up being readable as about alienation as much as anything else. Not very horrific, but haunting.

Tatyana Samojlova, The Cranes Are Flying

This is all the evidence I have to go on, but she seems immensely talented. Her character is set up to be mostly a victim, but she’s too hard and willing to be mean right back for that to stick. A full-blooded performance.

Marlene Dietrich, Morocco

Entertainer, fashion-forward challenger of morals, fearless quester for true love, French Foreign Legion groupie – all in one movie. I just wonder if there’s anyone else who could have pulled this off.

Lee Remick, Anatomy Of A Murder

There’s an awful lot of trollops and ne’er-do-wells on this list aren’t there? I hope that says more about the movie business than me, but possibly not.

Miss Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce

Changing light bulbs, baking pies…for most actresses, this is not the raw material Oscars are made from. Of course, most actresses are not Shining Stars In The Cinema Firmament!

Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra

I’m not going to suggest that Cleopata isn’t boring. A lot of it is. But Liz does spend a lot of time offscreen, you know. Things perk up when she comes back around. I like a lot of Liz performances – her good ones, her bad ones, her laughably risible ones. Most of all I like it when she’s playing some version of herself, and there’s no way to get around the history of the film and the Taylor/Burton drama. The fact that it’s easy to imagine the similarities in the everyday life of Cleo and a Hollywood megastar helps as well.

Bette Davis, The Little Foxes

Betty looks like a French aristocrat in drag who better hope the Scarlet Pimpernel hops along any minute. It’s a tart, bitchy story with a tart, bitchy character played by the actress who sold tart and bitchy in lovely little scented pink pouches, crushing all competition in the tart and bitchy business. Bette Davis + Regina Giddens = match made in heaven!

Peggy Cummins, Gun Crazy

Trick shot artist Annie Laurie Starr is about as Fatale as the Femmes ever got. Cummins makes palpable the sense that this is as much a romance about loving danger and fatalism as much as a romance between two people. Although crime films were and are popular, I suspect some audience members in 1950 might have sensed they weren’t escaping into entertainment – there’s anarchy and desperation in the world.

The near-misses are a long, long list, including performances from Agnes Moorehead, Talia Shire, Setsuko Hara, Scarlett Johansson, Anna Karina, Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Miller, Maria Casares, Audrey Tautou, Kate Winslet and on and on blah blah blah.









2 Responses to “20 Favorite Actress Performances”

  1. Ryan says:

    Re: Helen Mirren and your comment: “For no good reason at all, I trace that to the mid-80s, playing Russians in the reasonably high-profile 2010 and White Nights.” Perhaps it’s an amazing coincidence but she is from a Russian family. I quote her IMDB biography: “Her grandfather Piotr Vasilievich Mironoff was a Tsarist (White Russian) aristocrat who was in London negotiating an arms deal for the World War I when the 1917 Russian Revolution stranded him there. His wife and son (Helen’s father) joined him in London.” At least we can be assured the accent was correct!

  2. Darrell says:

    Well at least he was a White Russian. You don’t get to be a Dame if you’ve got pinkos in your closet.

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