Much like yesterday’s list, the first role listed here is my absolute favorite. The nine that follow are presented chronologically. I hope you enjoy. Thanks so much for reading!
Mabel is a woman unhinged. An adulterous wife and inattentive mother, Mabel is often plagued by sudden, extended bouts of manic-depressive behavior. But why? What causes her to pick up random men, neglect her children, and harm herself and pretty much everyone around her? That question of why is something that writer/director John Cassavetes (who was also married to Rowlands at the time) never bothers to answer. Instead, he seeks to explore.
When we witness one of Mabel’s many attacks, we’re in it for the long haul. There’s no cutting away from the fury, no fade to black as a means of sugar coating the horror, A Woman Under the Influence is real life, and Rowlands’ performance is as fearless as anything I’ve ever seen an actor attempt.
Initially, Cassavetes wanted the material to act as a play, but Rowlands said that would be impossible. There was no way any living actress could “get there” night after night. Instead, she offered to go all in if she could play the character on film. “All in” doesn’t even begin to sum this achievement up.
Harriet Andersson – Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
I could quite literally pick any performance Harriet Andersson delivered for Ingmar Bergman, and they would all be worthy of making this list. Knowing this, it must be said that no female Bergman character captivates me more than Andersson’s Karin.
A helpless schizophrenic who does the best she can to pretend that her disease doesn’t completely own her, Karin is a lost soul attempting to find solace in one of three men. Whether it’s her patience-tested husband, her strict father, or her impressionable brother, no one in Karin’s life can save her from who she is. Karin’s never ending mania culminates in a scene of such dynamic power, that words simply cannot do it justice. It’s an actress completely giving herself to the material, which, in the case of most Bergman-scripted projects, rarely produces less-than-stellar results.
Bette Davis – Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
As Jane Hudson
Yesterday’s list proved that I have an affinity for watching desperate characters at their most depraved, a notion today’s list only helps confirm. Bette Davis’ role as Jane Hudson is acting at its most macabre. A shrill beast of a woman wrapped so tightly in jealously, vindictiveness and regret, that we can’t help but be mesmerized by her. And, at the same time, we beg for a moment in which we can turn away.
That’s the power of Davis’ work here: repulsion coupled seamlessly with humility. It should be noted that her over the top work is only accentuated by Joan Crawford’s understated (and no less brilliant) work in the film. Davis was the diva of divas, and the fact that she momentarily suspended her superficiality for this performance is something I respect (and am drawn to) wholeheartedly.
Bibi Andersson – Persona (1966)
This is tricky. Really, I could list Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson’s collective work in Persona as one performance, and essentially get away with it. They are two different characters, but, in many ways, they are really one. So, in splitting them up, I find that I am entranced slightly more by Andersson’s rambling nurse than Ullmann’s mute actress.
It isn’t necessarily that Alma talks to Ullmann’s Elisabet, more than at her. As their time together wears on, Alma falls victim (if that’s the best word for it) to Elisabet’s intoxicating silence. In one unforgettable sequence, Alma goes as far as to explain in vivid, graphic detail a chance sexual encounter she once had with two boys on a beach. Andersson’s nonchalant delivery of this famed monologue is as enchanting as it is disturbing.
But later, once Alma finds a near-mocking journal entry by Elisabet, Alma’s comfort in their friendship turns to immediate angst. The result is haunting, transformative, and utterly breathtaking.
Elizabeth Taylor – Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
What a revolting force Taylor’s Martha is. Her plentiful words are laced with sheer venom (when directed toward her husband), obvious flirtation (when directed toward the young Nick), and condescending deceit (when directed toward Nick’s wife, Honey). In short, everything Martha says and does is to essentially fuck with whomever she’s speaking to.
Mike Nichols’ epic film isn’t an easy one to stomach. It’s more than two hours of domestic battles. The arguments peak, descend, rest, and then climb all over again. It truly is a roller coaster of verbal emotion. To say Taylor nails it is to belittle her monumental performance. This is one hell of a thrilling, bumpy ride.
Catherine Deneuve – Belle de Jour (1967)
Séverine can’t have sex. Or, more specifically, she can’t bring herself to share any sort of physical intimacy with her doctor husband. Why? I’m not sure. They’re obviously in love with one another, and her constant daydreams of sexual ravishment make it clear that she’s ready to ball, but, alas, she goes untouched.
That is until she finds herself at the unforced mercy of an upscale brothel, where she quickly turns into the most popular girl on the market.
Now, because this is a Catherine Deneuve performance, understatement is key. When I first saw the film, I had no idea how I felt about Séverine while the movie was in play. Afterwards, I realized that her subtle yet quick transformation is one of the most captivating I’ve ever seen unfold. I haven’t managed to get Séverine out of my head since.
Liv Ullmann – Face to Face (1976)
As Dr. Jenny Isaksson
There must be an Ullmann, and like the other notable Bergman women on this list, damn near any Ullmann performance would be suitable here. But goddamn if Dr. Jenny Isaksson’s slow breakdown isn’t as haunting a performance as I’ve ever seen.
Why does Jenny find herself so far removed from reality? What in her past has caused her to irreversibly lose it? These are questions that are asked by the viewer once it's over, mind you, because during, the brilliance is in the downfall.
Bergman was obsessed with the human face. Watch any of his best films, and he often let the faces do the talking. And with eyes like Ullmann’s, who needs dialogue to tell a story? Never has the facial ascetics of Liv Ullmann been put to better use.
Juliette Binoche – Blue (1993)
After surviving the car accident that killed her husband and daughter, Julie slowly descends into an all-consuming emptiness. And really, who better than Juliette Binoche to play a character of such hollow emotion?
Midway through this movie, Julie finds a family of mice coming to life in her apartment. As the mother mouse nurses her babies to life, Julie stares with perfect blankness. She’s staring at life. And we suspect she doesn’t approve. Scenes later, her aversion is made clear when she elects to do something about it. Binoche’s face in that moment alone warrants her inclusion here. What an entrancing vacant shell she is.
Naomi Watts – 21 Grams (2003)
As Cristina Peck
There’s this thing that happens to Naomi Watts’ voice. It only happens when she’s screaming. But if you listen closely, when Watts is angry (and I mean… angry), her voice will crack and shriek at the same time. It’s as if her tiny diaphragm can’t take the yelling and it shuts down for half a second. The minute I first heard this sensation in 21 Grams, I knew I was in the midst of one of our finest living actresses.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been completely taken with Watts since her dual role in Mulholland Dr. (which, it must be said, was this close to being included here), but it is Cristina’s anguish that devastates me most. A recovering addict who relapses hard after her family is killed, Cristina’s unforgiving collapse is something that shakes me to no end. I want to hug her and tell her it’s going to be okay. But I’m sure she’d know that was a lie.
Oh, and that scream. Listen for it when Sean Penn tells her whose heart he has. THAT is power.
Marion Cotillard – La Vie en rose (2007)
As Édith Piaf
The biopic is a tricky beast. I’m no fan of actors playing a real person simply to garner a few dozen awards. But, hell, if it’s good, then it’s good, and believe you me, there’s a reason Marion Cotillard’s role as Édith Piaf is the only real life character on this list.
I hadn’t the slightest clue who Marion Cotillard was. When the 2007 Oscar nominations were announced, I assumed the unknown French actress (unknown in America, that is) didn’t stand the slightest chance against Julie Christie’s work in Away From Her. But as buzz steadily grew, I finally watched La Vie en rose and was fucking destroyed throughout. You can say makeup had some involvement here, but that’s just on the outside. What Cotillard did with Piaf in this movie is based completely on internalized emotion. Cosmetics ain’t the half of it, folks.
Put another way: when presenting a BAFTA award the year he won for There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis felt it appropriate to publicly call Cotillard’s work in this film some of the very finest acting he has ever seen. If that’s not saying something, then I certainly don’t know what is.
Rosario Dawson – Descent (2007)
Perhaps the most unknown performance on this list is Rosario Dawson’s haunting work as Maya in Talia Lugacy’s criminally ignored emotional thriller, Descent.
After being victim to a very long, very excruciating, very horrific rape (committed by the guy she’s dating), Maya slowly spirals out of control, having clearly let her victimization all but ruin her.
Descent is a difficult film to discuss for a number of reasons. It certainly isn’t an easy movie to take (it more than earns its NC-17 rating), but I’m also afraid that if I spoil Maya’s full arc, then the movie won’t be nearly as intriguing. Let me put it this way: the majority of the roles on this list are occupied by actresses playing characters who fall down. Some pick themselves back up, others remain defeated. Many of the nine names above represent some of the very finest actresses that have ever lived, and I have not the slightest hesitation in adding Dawson to the same company as those esteemed few. I promise you, Maya’s face will never leave your mind.