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.
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)
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)
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
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