April 18, 2011

22 The Greatest (Classic) Performances by an Actress

This week I'm posting the follow-up to last week's list of the greatest classic performances by an actor. This week it's the turn of the great actresses. As before, I limited myself to sound films made between 1930 and 1980 because that's what I know best. I also limited myself to one performance for each actress, and again it was often difficult to choose one performance for those who might reasonably have been cited for any of a number of films, actresses like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Liv Ullmann. On another day I might pick a different performance for some of these, but for now I'm willing to go with the ones I've chosen. The final list underscores the conclusion I drew last week about great film performances: in most cases, they're the result of the perfect conjunction of the actor, the role, and the setting.


Bette Davis, All About Eve
Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story
Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel
Sylvia Sydney, Street Scene
Greta Garbo, Camille
Irene Dunne, The Awful Truth
Carole Lombard, Nothing Sacred
Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind
Joan Fontaine, Rebecca
Margaret Sullavan, The Shop Around the Corner
Mary Astor, The Maltese Falcon
Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday
Claudette Colbert, The Palm Beach Story
Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity
Joan Bennett, Scarlet Street
Ingrid Bergman, Notorious
Olivia de Havilland, The Snake Pit
Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard
Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday
Judy Garland, A Star Is Born
Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve
Susan Hayward, I Want to Live!
Julie Harris, The Haunting
Elizabeth Taylor, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker
Jane Fonda, Klute
Liza Minnelli, Cabaret
Faye Dunaway, Chinatown
Sissy Spacek, Carrie
Diane Keaton, Annie Hall
Celia Johnson, Brief Encounter
Wendy Hiller, I Know Where I'm Going!
Deborah Kerr, The Innocents
Rita Tushingham, A Taste of Honey
Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion
Julie Christie, Darling
Vanessa Redgrave, Isadora
Glenda Jackson, Women in Love
Josette Day, La Belle et la Bête
Simone Signoret, Les Diaboliques
Maria Schell, Gervaise
Anouk Aimée, Lola
Jeanne Moreau, Jules and Jim
Sylvie, The Shameless Old Lady
Isabelle Adjani, The Story of Adèle H.
Setsuko Hara, Late Spring
Hideko Takamine, Twenty-Four Eyes
Anna Magnani, Open City
Giulietta Masina, The Nights of Cabiria
Sophia Loren, Two Women
Monica Vitti, L'Eclisse
Hanna Schygulla, The Marriage of Maria Braun
Harriet Andersson, Cries and Whispers
Bibi Andersson, Persona
Liv Ullmann, The Passion of Anna
Madhabi Mukherjee, Charulata
Margarita Terekhova, The Mirror

If anyone would like to suggest any additions or alternative performances or even submit your own list of the great performances, please leave a comment.


  1. I think the only choice for (American) actress I disagree with is Faye Dunaway. I love Chinatown as much as anyone, but feel that Dunaway is entirely too mannered in it. I'd go with either Bonnie & Clyde (anachronistic hairdo be damned) or Network.

    I'm a bit surprised that Jean Arthur, Shelley Winters and Claire Trevor aren't on your list.

  2. Looks like we have similar tastes with some of the choices. My list:


  3. C.K. thanks for your comment. Those performances by Dunaway are definitely the three to consider. (Your remark about the anachronistic hairdo was a hoot. It always cracks me up when actresses in period movies have contemporary hairdos, make-up, and wardrobes.) "Network" was my alternative choice. Other American actresses had close seconds that in some cases were really toss-ups--Viven Leigh in "A Streetcar Named Desire," Garbo in "Queen Christina," Stanwyck in "The Lady Eve," Lombard in "To Be or Not to Be," Bancroft in "The Graduate" for example. It's so hard to make choices like this, and in the end the reasons are often pretty arbitrary! I love Jean Arthur and nearly put her on for "The More the Merrier," but I had to draw the line somewhere. The list was for lead performances, and I prefer Shelley Winters and Claire Trevor in their supporting roles. I find their strong personalities better in smaller doses.

    MovieNut, I checked out both your lists. In the cases where you named the same actor but a different performance, the performance you named was in nearly all cases my other choice (for example, Jack Lemmon in "The Apartment" and Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca"). Thank you for leaving a comment.

  4. I'm so glad you included Wendy Hiller in "I Know Where I'm Going" as that is one of the greatest performances ever put on film.

    I can't argue with Deborah Kerr in "The Innocents" though I may substitute her performance in "The Sundowners", just because I want everyone in the world to see that movie.

    I've really enjoyed these lists, and appreciate the recommendations from the foreign films. My knowledge of such is sadly lacking and these lists are a good starting point for me.

  5. Kevin, thanks for commenting. I love "I Know Where I'm Going" (in fact, nearly all the Michael Powell films of the forties). I almost put Hiller on for "Pygmalion" but in the end went with "I Know" because I thought the character in that film was more wholly her own creation. It's such a great performance because she expresses so many moods, yet the character holds together marvelously. It's so much more than just a catalogue of moods. "The Sundowners" and Powell's "Black Narcissus" were the other two films I considered for Deborah Kerr. The choices from foreign films were in a way easier because I am acquainted with far fewer. Foreign language movies require more concentration on my part, so I tend to be much choosier with what I watch. I'm more or less a completist where classic American movies are concerned and will watch anything that promises to be reasonably entertaining!

  6. I must agree with the first writer and would love to see Jean Arthur in "The More the Merrier" on the list. I'm also a fan of Shirley Booth's "Come Back Little Sheba," Leslie Caron's "The L-Shaped Room" and Shirley MacLaine's "The Apartment."

  7. Filmboy, thanks for your thoughts. I'm not such a big fan of Shirley Booth in "Little Sheba" (too fluttery for my taste), but the others you named were definitely contenders and were just about the last to be eliminated in the final cut, along with Peggy Cummins in "Gun Crazy." I would have included more American actresses but wanted to leave room for foreign language performances. Leslie Caron gave those three iconic performances in musicals of the fifties, and she was wonderful in the non-musical "The L-Shaped Room." I have a particular fondness for both Jean Arthur and the young Shirley MacLaine, and the performances you name are for me their finest.

  8. I compiled my own list (posting tomorrow) before realizing you had gone ahead and done a follow-up to the actors list. And I had the same problem as you--not wanting to post dupes, but having trouble picking the "best" from actresses like Davis and Hepburn! I see we have some picks in common. Great minds think alike ... :)

    But where's Joan Crawford????


  9. Brandie, I just checked out your list at The ABCs and left a comment there. We did pick a lot of the same, although not always for the same performances. Some of our choices in common were the expected ones, but I was pleased that others were ones not always seen on lists of this kind. As for Joan Crawford, I'm not a real fan. I think her skills were fairly limited compared to women like Davis and Stanwyck. I don't much care for her early work (I did like her in "The Women," though) but thought she got better later. For me she hit her peak in the mid-forties with her three-in-a-row streak in "Mildred Pierce," "Humoresque" (my favorite performance of hers), and "Possessed."

  10. Happy Easter to you and yours R.D.!

    Well, I've already seen this presentation at WitD and I again applaud you for your exceeding film scholarship and excellent taste. These factors have contributed to a definitive-caliber round-up of the cinema's greatest performances by an actress in a leading role! Superlative blen of American and forgein made films and genre types. Suffice to say we are pretty much in complete agreement, though in some instances where I didn't actually name some of your choices, I am nodding my head in agreement.

  11. Thank you Sam, and a happy Easter to you and your family too. In focusing on classic film performances, I didn't have to be as restrictive as you, but it was still hard to limit myself to a reasonable number. This was great fun, and I thank you for inspiring me--and all the others who followed your lead--to do it.

    You'll be pleased to hear that Chris Cummins at Film FanFare has asked to reprint both of my lists at that site, so I'm sure your idea will continue to inspire people to think about the nature of great film acting and those performances that best exemplify it.

  12. R.D., I have never made a serious attempt to create lists of actors and actresses' performances. I don't disagree with any of your choices (a couple I haven't seen), and was really pleased to see Julie Harris in The Haunting and Deborah Kerr in the Innocents. Two marvelous performances. I also went to see your list of actors, very comprehensive. I think we have similar tastes.

    I'm going to have to step up and do my own lists. Not an easy task, is it?!

  13. That fabulous news indeed R.D. about Chris' Cummins's plans. Awesome!!!

  14. Becky, good luck with your lists if you decide to go ahead with them. For me the hardest part was narrowing the initial list down, finding the right balance between what I recognize as great and what I personally responded to strongly, and also trying to come up with lists that reflect the diversity of acting styles and personalities. I'm so pleased that you liked the inclusion of those performances by Julie Harris and Deborah Kerr--two wonderful actresses and two great, unsung performances in a genre that is often not taken seriously enough.

  15. R.D.

    A great list which will have many that will mirror my own that I hope to publish later this week or next. That's great about the FILM FAN FARE reprint.

  16. John, thanks for the compliment and I'll be looking for your list. I was hoping you'd be posting one.

  17. A wonderful list with so many that I would include on a list of my own. Very happy you included Wendy Hiller and Josette Day and Margaret Sullavan and Irene Dunne. I would have an impossible time trying to choose Bette Davis's best. With Faye Dunaway, for me, a toss-up between "Chinatown" and "Network." Two great roles - but the character in "Chinatown" is, I think, more complex and deeply disturbed (not to say the "Network" character is much less so).

  18. Eve, thank you so much for your comments. A number of performances that were on my preliminary list didn't make it to the final one, but the four actresses you name were never in doubt. As I've said many times, Bette Davis is my favorite screen actress of all time. For me "All About Eve" stands out among her performances. After that there are almost too many great ones to separate out. I think only Katharine Hepburn gave so many standout performances. Of course, it helped that they both had long careers and that in the studio days actors made so many movies in a year. I picked "Chinatown" over "Network" for the very reason you mention, that Dunaway's Evelyn Mulwray in "Chinatown" strikes me as the more complex character. It's a shame her career seems to have fizzled after such a relatively brief time.

  19. Some fantastic performances. I loved Margaret in The Shop Around The Corner. And Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity is captivating.

  20. Kid, thanks for leaving a comment. Two of my very favorite actresses and two of my very favorite female performances. It's too bad Sullavan isn't better known. There was nobody quite like her. I checked out your blog and was most impressed. Well-crafted writing is always a refreshing thing to find in the movie blog world.

  21. I think your list is awesome but lean on comedic performance. Missing for me is Rosalind Russell for Auntie Mame (but I see her on for FRIDAY) but what about Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce and Norma shearer for The Women? Finally Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.

  22. Shane, thank you! I made a special effort to get comedy performances on the list because I don't think this type of acting is given its due on lists of this kind. Your comment made me realize that this list of great performances by actresses seemed to have a higher proportion of comedy performances than the list for actors. I'm not sure why that is. I also realized that most of the comedy performances were from the 30s and 40s, and I think that's because those decades were the heyday of the comic film (for me, at any rate). I explained why Joan Crawford wasn't included in my reply to trueclassics. I'm also not a fan of Norma Shearer or Streisand. Like Crawford, their ability strikes me as limited, although I have seen some performances by Shearer I liked. I probably liked her best in her dual role in the silent "Lady of the Night."