The Greatest (Classic) Performances By an Actress

Bette Davis: One of the all time greatest actressesLast week, guest blogger Richard Finch presented his choices for The Greatest (Classic) Performances By an Actor. Here’s his follow-up piece examining his picks for the greatest leading ladies ever to hit the silver screen.

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
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 Heiress
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, Persona
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.

A nearly lifelong cinephile, R. D. Finch lives in rural Northern California. His favorite movies are the classics (roughly 1930-1980), both American and foreign. For more on Finch and his writing, visit The Movie Projector.