Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Oscar Week: Top 10 Best Actress Winners

It really says something of my personal movie tastes that every single performance below was played an actress conveying a female at their most desperate. Or, at the very least, at their most unwilling. As in, unwilling to bow down and take it. Whether they were fighting the law, themselves, or would-be sexual abusers, the performances below represent my favorite Best Actress Oscar wins. Tomorrow, I’ll rank the fellas.

10. Natalie Portman – Black Swan (2010)
as Nina Sayers
Since first seeing and subsequently falling in love with Darren Aronofksy’s Black Swan, I’ve always assumed the final lines of the film were of Nina gently boasting that it was perfect. “Perfect, it was perfect.” But in the years since, I’ve noticed other people have heard it as I, as in, “Perfect, I was perfect.”

Blu-Ray subtitles indicate that Portman is in fact saying “It,” but hell, whether I or It, I certainly couldn’t have said it better myself.

9. Jodie Foster – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
as Clarice Starling
I originally had Foster’s remarkable (and remarkably fearless) work in The Accused on this list, but mostly because I think more attention needs to be paid to that film in general. Don’t get me wrong, Foster is fierce as all hell in The Accused, but nothing tops her Clarice Starling. Quid pro quo, doctor.

8. Kathy Bates – Misery (1990)
as Annie Wilkes
Much of attention around Bates’ terrifying incarnation of Annie Wilkes has to do with a block of wood, a few soon-to-be-wrecked ankles, and a very large sledgehammer. But goddamn is there more. For me, Annie is best conveyed in the subtle shift. From so overjoyed to so restlessly vindictive. When does Annie go wrong, and why? Why, God, why.

7. Hilary Swank – Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Brandon Teena
Similarly to Foster’s work in The Accused, I was initially tempted to highlight Swank’s work in Million Dollar Baby here, but that’s because I’m emotionally connected to that film in ways I am not to Boy’s Don’t Cry. But based solely on the performance, Swank has been (and probably never will be) better than her Teena Brandon. Or would she prefer Brandon Teena? Damn, we’ll never know.

6. Charlize Theron – Monster (2003)
as Alieen Wuornos
If possible, look past the miraculous physical transformation – the gained weight, the disgusting make up, the grungy hair, the stained teeth – and focus on the heart of the thing. What Theron physically did in Monster is astounding, but the emotion – the angst and rage and false justification – that’s all within Theron herself. Aesthetics can be appreciated, but ignored rather quickly. Emotional bite comes from within.

5. Louise Fletcher – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
as Nurse Mildred Ratched
I don’t talk about her enough, but Fletcher’s work as Nurse Ratched is one of my favorite film performances of all time. And, likewise to other roles on this list, I watch Fletcher’s work in this film, and I keep asking myself Why? Why is Ratched the way she is? What motivates and drives her? In college, I took a film course in which the class examined the actual language of cinema. When we got around to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, we realized that silence really can be deafening. It isn’t what Ratched says, it’s what she does.

4. Faye Dunaway – Network (1976)
as Diana Christensen
Arguably more so than any female character on this list, I am utterly terrified of Diana Christensen. She’s the kind of woman who will do anything to get ahead – screw her boss, lie, cheat, manipulate, kill – anything to get the ratings. Want to know why Diana frightens me above the others? Because Diana actually exists. Sure, female serial killers, FBI agents and musicians exist as well, but Diana could be working right next to you, ready to crush you out and take your place. Men and women alike: beware.

3. Vivien Leigh – A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
as Blanche DuBois
Is there a film character more desperate and self-loathing and emotionally blinded than Blanche DuBois? But who, by the end, you find yourself completely longing for? The first time I saw Kazan’s Streetcar, I honestly didn’t care for Blanche too much. I had no idea what was going to happen, but figured she deserved whatever was coming to her. Jesus Christ, how wrong could I be?

2. Marion Cotillard – La Vie en Rose (2007)
as Édith Piaf
Like many people, I didn’t have the slightest clue who Marion Cotillard was before the 2007 Oscar nominations were announced. And that was fine. She was going to lose the Oscar to Julie Christie and, presumable, fade back into French film obscurity, occasionally popping up in an American film every few years. The night before the Oscar broadcast that year, I watched La Vie en Rose on a whim. Jump cut to today, and Cotillard is my favorite living actress. So, yeah, she kind of changes the game in La Vie en Rose. Just a tad.

1. Elizabeth Taylor – Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
as Martha
There’s nothing but pent-up angst in Martha. It’s what fuels her every move, motivates her every drink, increases her ever utterance of rage. She’s a vile beast of a woman who’ll stop at nothing to have her opinion be heard. But that’s just surface. Sure, Martha is a repugnant force of nature, but she’s also a person. A person with a heart, and a soul, and, dare I say, with a little depth. That’s what makes Taylor’s work in this film so entrancing. You spend nearly two hours disgusted by this woman, and the final minutes of the film understanding her. A remarkably subtle transformation from a woman who, in real life, was known for anything but.

And my 10 favorite Best Supporting Actress winners
10. Marisa Tomei (as Mona Lisa Vito) – My Cousin Vinny
9. Sandy Dennis (as Honey) – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
8. Kim Basinger (as Lynn Bracken) – L.A. Confidential
7. Kim Hunter (as Stella Kowalski) – A Streetcar Named Desire
6. Anna Paquin (as Flora McGrath) – The Piano
5. Dianne Wiest (as Holly) – Hannah and Her Sisters
4. Ruth Gordon (as Minnie Castevet) – Rosemary’s Baby
3. Marcia Gay Harden (as Lee Krasner) – Pollock
2. Meryl Streep (as Joanna Kramer) – Kramer vs. Kramer
1. Mo’Nique (as Mary Lee Johnston) – Precious

More Oscar Posts from And So it Begins...


  1. Damn... that is a good list.

    My top 5 Best Actress Winners:

    1. Frances McDormand-Fargo
    2. Charlize Theron-Monster
    3. Marion Cotillard-La Vie En Rose
    4. Jane Fonda-Coming Home
    5. Natalie Portman-Black Swan

    Top 5 Best Supporting Actress Winners:

    1. Ruth Gordon-Rosemary's Baby
    2. Marisa Tomei-My Cousin Vinnie
    3. Juliette Binoche-The English Patient
    4. Dianne Weist-Hannah & Her Sisters
    5. Mo'Nique-Precious

    1. Thanks man.

      McDormand was this close to making my list. Really love that performance.

      Again, love how similar both of our lists are. Was always very close to listing Binoche in my Top 10.

  2. Hard to argue with any of these choices. I might spar with you on the order here or toss out a few suggestions to consider (Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress, for example), but no complaints.

    When I think of star-making performances, Marion Cotillard's performance in La Vie en Rose is my absolute first nod. It is endlessly captivating, nuanced, and completely perfect.

    Damn, now I want to watch it again.

    1. Olivia de Havilland is perfect in The Heiress. That's a great choice right there.

      I love that you love Cotillard's work in Rose. It rocks and socks me to the core. Star-making indeed.

  3. Damn fine Picks !! I am yet to see your Marion or Theron's work, though I have heard nothing but praise for either of the performances.

    Glad to see Liz Taylor topping this list. She is my Mabel, you see. I believe this was the first Liz Taylor performance I saw and my mind was officially blown. Curiously, I didn't really hate her or anybody else in that movie for that matter. Maybe I was too much in a shock by the awesomeness of those performances to think rationally. I swear, I do not know if I was breathing for those two hours.

    1. Thanks man. Oohh, see La Vie en Rose and Monster soon if you can. Not easy movies, but fantastic performances nonetheless.

      I love your Mabel/Taylor comparison, and I completely understand what you're talking about. The first time I saw Virginia Woolf, I'm not sure I breathed either. My jaw was dropped. One of my favorite performances of all time. The Academy got it right, right there.

  4. Haven't seen most, sadly. But about Black Swan... I've always assumed she said " I was perfect " because the subs in the theatre said so. Now that I listened to it again I'm not sure at all, but either way, I'm not the best to assess this, since I'm portuguese.

    1. I never knew you were Portuguese! Good stuff.

      It's funny, I believe most of the people I've encountered who think she's saying "I," do not consider English their first language, so who knows. But like I said, either way, Portman killed it in that movie.

  5. Man, A Streetcar Named Desire becomes even more hard to watch if you know what Leigh's life was like after that film. It's still a great performance though.

    I also approve the hell out of Taylor topping your list. (Though I keep thinking that role was responsible for starting the now annoying trend of glamorous actresses getting ugly in order to get an Oscar.) But again, great performance without a doubt.

    I really need to re-watch Network sometime soon. I barely remember the viciousness of both Dunaway and the whole film.

    Anyway, my list would include the likes of Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter), Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight) and Bette Davis (Jezebel).

    1. I feel like a lot of the best actors of that time broke down and went on to live really tortured lives. Leigh, Clift, Taylor, Hudson - I'm sure you know a lot more than me. It just goes on and on. Damn shame.

      I agree that Taylor's Virginia Woolf performance started that exact trend. Sometimes it works, mostly it does not. But that's the way it goes, I suppose.

      Love your three picks as well. Bergman's Gaslight made the first cut of my list. Great work there.

  6. I've only seen half of those performances. Taylor, Portman, Fletcher, and Foster really deserved their Oscars. Fletcher to me is the weirdest case of fantastic acting. She does not need a big emotional scene to get her point across. Silence is indeed deafening.
    Nonetheless, it is Leigh who is my favorite from this list. I think hers is the best acting performance of all time. No contest.

    1. Had no idea you loved Leigh's DuBois so much, that is awesome man, a perfect performance indeed.

      Also really cool that we share the same sentiments for Fletcher's work in that film. She's just so cold.

  7. Hey I've seen 9 of these!
    Couldn't agree more. Cotillard and Leigh are in my top 10 of all time, and gosh I looooove Foster. I actually prefer Theron's performance in Young Adult to Monster, but still, great win.

    I love Weist's performance in Bullets Over Broadway more. "No, no, don't speak. Don't speak. Please don't speak." So funny.

    1. Nine - that's awesome!

      Theron is definitely tops in Young Adult. Still bummed she didn't get a nom for that.

      Wiest is a perfect, bitchy starlet in Bullets. I really love both of those performances.

  8. Man, you weren't kidding about our lists. Seriously, my top 7 picks are on here. Needless to say: LOVE these. Bates and Fletcher are interesting choices. I really need to rewatch Cuckoo's Nest.

    1. Told ya man. When I saw your list, it was as if I wrote it myself. Pretty good stuff.

      I actually need to rewatch Cuckoo's Nest as well. Been too long.

  9. Love your picks- Hilary Swank in Boys don't cry is probably one of my favorite performances ever- the talent is fantastic. I recently saw One flew over the cuckoo's nest and Silence of the lambs, so I also love Nurse Ratched and Clarice. And you know nothing can beat A streetcar named desire...

    1. Thanks! Swank is remarkable in that film. Really killed it.

      Nothing can be Streetcar. Indeed.

  10. Oh, superb choices. Great to see Theron here - for me it's extremely rare craft she displayed here because in spite of her physical transformation it's the way she played the character that prevailed. She made me feel for this horrible person.

    Portman's win was remarkable and it will always be one of my favorites because it's as much her win as Aronofsky's - had he not supported her and guided her so well there is no way she would be able to push herself and her acting to such amazing limits.

    Faye Dunaway in Network! I think it's one of the most influential female performances. I don't think we would get work as intense as that of Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton" or Vera Farmiga in "Nothing but the Truth" without her performance.

    1. Thanks! It is remarkable how Theron made you empathize with Wuornos. Certainly no easy feat.

      Yep, I think Aronofsky is as much to thank for Portman's win as anything else. He pushed her, and it worked.

      Dunaway's Diana Christensen definitely paved way for some daring female roles. Oh god, I fucking LOVE Farmiga in Nothing but the Truth.

  11. Solid, unconventional list. You really make me want to check out Liz as Martha again, that's for sure. Been some time since I've seen it.

    I would, though, as another comment suggested above, argue for Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress. That's my #1, Oscar win or not.

    1. Thanks dude. Cannot recommend Virginia Woolf enough. So remarkable for so many different reasons.

      Now YOU are making me want to check out The Heiress again.

  12. Excellent list. Hilary Swank's performance was so powerful in Boys Don't Cry -- devastating movie. And I do love Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. She just nailed that role.

    1. Thanks! Boys Don't Cry is devastating. Not a film I'm ever really interested in revisiting, you know?

      Glad you like the list :)

  13. Good stuff Alex. I definitely agree with a number of your choices - particularly Elizabeth Taylor, Kathy Bates, Hilary Swank and Jodie Foster.

    Others I would have considered for a top 10 slot - probably in place of Theron and/or Dunaway...

    ...Frances McDormand (Fargo), Ellen Burstyn (Alice...), or Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday).

    1. Thanks Dan. McDormand was 11th here. Really hated to not include her. I just LOVE Marge. Also a big fan of Burstyn's Alice and Hepburn's Princess Ann. Great picks.

    2. Perhaps my choice for Audrey Hepburn would be massaging my penchant for nostalgia more than anything but actress that radiates in every performance.

    3. Hell yeah, no argument from me. My favorite Hepburn performance is still Wait Until Dark. You?

  14. Fantastic list! Kathy Bates and Elizabeth Taylor's performances are definitely in my all time favourite performances by a woman.

    1. Thanks man! So glad you're a fan of their performances. Just perfect stuff.

  15. Great list, as always, man. When I read "Cotillard is my favorite living actress", it made me appreciate you even more. You know how I feel about her and her performance in "La vie en rose", again the best female performance of all time. Her incomparable talent puts her in a league of her own and this is the most deserved Oscar win ever for a female actor. Marion Cotillard is the best actress of all time. She tops Katharine Hepburn, she tops Meryl Streep, she tops any woman who ever attempted to become actress. She is blessed to have a talent that seems almost non-human. She is a real acting legend. Can't wait for "The immigrant", "Two days, one night" and obviously "Macbeth".

    1. YES! I'm so excited for those three films as well. Cotillard just has it. That's the easiest way to describe her - she has it. She was born to be a goddess of cinema, and a goddess she is. I love all of her work.

  16. Fantastic list, and it's a welcome surprise to see so many recent performances on your list! Here's my personal ones for both Best Actress & Best Supporting Actress.

    Best Actress-
    1. Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind
    2. Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire
    3. Elizabeth Taylor, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
    4. Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
    5. Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
    6. Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress
    7. Louise Fletcher, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
    8. Faye Dunaway, Network
    9. Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs
    10. Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry

    I just want to say something about Leigh in Streetcar, and it's that the chemistry she has with Brando is electric. Not just that, but seeing their two different acting styles perfectly clashing together, and the feeling that it shouldn't work, but oh boy, does it ever!

    Best Supporting Actress-
    1. Mo'Nique, Precious
    2. Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker
    3. Sandy Dennis, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
    4. Linda Hunt, The Year of Living Dangerously
    5. Dianne Wiest, Hannah and Her Sisters
    6. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
    7. Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath
    8. Ruth Gordon, Rosemary's Baby
    9. Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot
    10. Anna Paquin, The Piano

    1. LOVE these lists. So cool that we have so many in common. And I adore that Leigh takes your top two spots for actress. She’s as good as it gets.

      Couldn’t agree more about her chemistry from Brando – that is so very special stuff right there. Filmmaking at its finest.