Ranking the Best Actresses

I did Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress yesterday — it’s time for Best Actor and Best Actress today. (Best Actor will go up in a little while.)

As always, when I post these lists, I like to remind people of what’s really important:

  • The rankings are irrelevant. They’re just personal preference. The goal here is to help you discover more movies.
  • Don’t get hung up on the numbers, focus on the fact that it’s about getting people to see more movies. (And if you want to criticize, I require that you’ve seen at least 50 of the performances, otherwise you’ll be completely ignored. And, also, if you want to criticize, remember that you will die one day, and that you are taking precious time from the amount that was given to you in order to complain about a random list in a small corner of the internet that nobody cares about. Priorities.)

Now, the big problem with Best Actress is that it’s the category with the highest rate of ‘Actor over performance.’ More times than in any other category are Best Actress awards given to actresses whose “time” it is. Look at the last decade. More than half of those are Oscars given to the actor and not the performance.

That aside, it’s actually not too difficult a category to rank. There are clear great decisions and clear terrible decisions. There are performances that are objectively great, and there are some that are sentimental favorites. Still, it seems pretty straightforward.Also, there are 84 winners here, out of 83 categories, because of a tie.

So here are my rankings of the Best Actress winners:

TIER 1: The Best of the Best:

1. Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind

2. Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice

3. Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire

4. Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

5. Janet Gaynor, Sunrise/Seventh Heaven/Street Angel

6. Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda

7. Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose

8. Julie Christie, Darling

9. Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress

10. Louise Fletcher, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

TIER 2: Really Solid Performances:

11. Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker

12. Natalie Portman, Black Swan

13. Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve

14. Charlize Theron, Monster

15. Jodie Foster, The Accused

16. Faye Dunaway, Network

17. Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs

18. Grace Kelly, The Country Girl

19. Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday

20. Sally Field, Norma Rae

21. Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

22. Shirley Maclaine, Terms of Endearment

23. Frances McDormand, Fargo

24. Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins

25. Kathy Bates, Misery

26. Helen Hayes, The Sin of Madelon Claudet

27. Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl

28. Jane Fonda, Klute

29. Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter

30. Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own

TIER 3: More Solid Performances/Sentimental Favorites:

31. Elizabeth Taylor, BUtterfield 8

32. Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night

33. Katharine Hepburn, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

34. Liza Minnelli, Cabaret

35. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond

36. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

37. Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God

38. Ginger Rogers, Kitty Foyle

39. Joan Fontaine, Suspicion

40. Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday

TIER 4: Solid Performances All Around (But Not My Favorites):

41. Katharine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter

42. Susan Hayward, I Want to Live!

43. Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight

44. Holly Hunter, The Piano

45. Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets

46. Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

47. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

48. Cher, Moonstruck

49. Anna Magnani, The Rose Tattoo

50. Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver

51. Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby

52. Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce

53. Diane Keaton, Annie Hall

54. Jane Fonda, Coming Home

55. Jessica Lange, Blue Sky

56. Shirley Booth, Come Back, Little Sheba

57. Kate Winslet, The Reader

58. Jennifer Jones, The Song of Bernadette

59. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love

60. Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy

TIER 5: Performances That are Good/Enjoyable, But….Mehh:

61. Sophia Loren, Two Women

62. Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry

63. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

64. Luise Rainer, The Great Ziegfeld

65. Helen Mirren, The Queen

66. Emma Thompson, Howards End

67. Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking

68. Patricia Neal, Hud

69. Luise Rainer, The Good Earth

70. Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich

71. Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line

72. Bette Davis, Jezebel

73. Norma Shearer, The Divorcee

74. Sally Field, Places in the Heart

75. Katharine Hepburn, Morning Glory

76. Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball

78. Simone Signoret, Room at the Top

TIER 5: The Worst of the Worst:

77. Nicole Kidman, The Hours

79. Ingrid Bergman, Anastasia

80. Glenda Jackson, A Touch of Class

81. Bette Davis, Dangerous

82. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful

83. Loretta Young, The Farmer’s Daughter

84. Mary Pickford, Coquette

85. Marie Dressler, Min and Bill

86. Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

87. Glenda Jackson, Women in Love

Also check out:

Ranking the Best Pictures

Ranking the Best Actors

Ranking the Best Supporting Actors

Ranking the Best Supporting Actresses

Ranking the Best Directors


One response

  1. Andrew

    There is a clear lot of things wrong with this list. Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line” higher on the list than Susan Sarandon and Emma Thompson. Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry” is only at 61, when realistically its one of the best wins in the category. Swank literally emboddied Brandon Teena and was so emotionally convincing in her role, compared to that of Gwyneth Paltrow, how is somehow higher on this list, when she actually poured more emotion in her actual speech than she did her role. Helen Hunt, whose role is near forgettable in “As Good As It Gets”, is higher than Holly Hunter whose exquisite performance in “The Piano” was extraordinarily good considering she did not speak one word in the film and by the end of the film I felt I knew her character inside out. Ask yourself this question – do you think Helen Hunt would convince you without speaking? I do not know how Jennifer Lawrence can be considered a sentimental choice when she’s only 22. Surely the Academy would think there was many more chances to reward her? If there was a sentimental choice this year it could of been Emmanuelle Riva, who let’s be honest is unlikely to receive another nomination for her work. How on Earth Elizabeth Taylor has surpassed all of the other nominations if have wrote in my lengthy views is beyond me, especially she herself stated that she did not deserve her award for “BUtterfield 8”, however I must say I am pleased with about 30-onwards, particularly you putting Jodie Foster in “The Accused” high because I always feel that it’s not given enough credit. The ones I felt were really deserving: Streep (“The Iron Lady” – an appaling film but an amazing performance), Portman, Winslet, Cotillard, Roberts (a lot of people say Burstyn should have won her year – but I prefer Roberts), Swank (“Boys Don’t Cry”), McDormand, Hunter, Foster (both times), Bates, Streep (“Sophie’s Choice” – of course), Field (“Norma Rae”), Fonda (“Klute”), Smith, Hepburn (“The Lion in Winter”), de Havilland (“The Heiress”), Leigh (both times), Theron, Bancroft, Fletcher.

    April 16, 2013 at 11:37 am

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