The Oscar Quest: Strongest Best Actress Categories

Time for Best Actress.

Fortunately, the only real problem with Best Actress, most of the time, is the choices they make, and not the categories themselves. Of course, some years have really terrible categories (though even those have a clear cut winner). That’s only natural. A lot of people might consider most of these categories to be really weak, but actually — some of them are really strong. Really strong. Of course, the bad does outweigh the good here, but, when you take a look at the categories in this article — when they’re good, they’re really good.

Also, let me say once again — it’s not about where I ranked them. It’s about the fact that they belong on the list.

Here are what I consider to be the strongest Best Actress categories of all time.

10. 2008

  • Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
  • Angelina Jolie, Changeling
  • Melissa Leo, Frozen River
  • Meryl Streep, Doubt
  • Kate Winslet, The Reader

— To me, Hathaway and Streep were the best. Then you have a strong Kate, who was really overdue, and who was also very strong in Revolutionary Road this year. Then, Jolie actually gave a really terrific performance, even though most people would go, “Ehh…” when they think about that movie. But it’s actually a strong performance, and it’s made stronger when you know that Eastwood really only does one or two takes of any given scene. And then Leo is also really strong. So this category pretty much speaks for itself. It might not look like a really strong category at first glance, but it is.

9. 1969

  • Geneviève Bujold, Anne of the Thousand Days
  • Jane Fonda, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
  • Liza Minnelli, The Sterile Cuckoo
  • Jean Simmons, The Happy Ending
  • Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I really like this one. Bujold and Fonda are terrific. Smith is amazing. And Minnelli, I feel, gives a performance that rivals any and all of these, even though very few people have actually seen the film. And Simmons — to have that be the #5 in the category is really something.

8 . 1967

  • Anne Bancroft, The Graduate
  • Faye Dunaway, Bonnie and Clyde
  • Edith Evans, The Whisperers
  • Audrey Hepburn, Wait Until Dark
  • Katharine Hepburn, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

This pretty much speaks for itself, huh? The reason it’s not higher is because, historically, the Edith Evans nod is on the weak side. I know people really love that performance, but just looking at that category — it’s not that strong an entry. On the other hand — Anne Bancroft and Faye Dunaway’s performances are iconic. And Hepburn’s is also iconic in its own way. And then Audrey — she had that and a (much better) performance in Two for the Road this year. Those four easily put this category on this list, despite #5.

7. 1958

  • Susan Hayward, I Want to Live!
  • Deborah Kerr, Separate Tables
  • Shirley MacLaine, Some Came Running
  • Rosalind Russell, Auntie Mame
  • Elizabeth Taylor, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

I love this category and hate it at the same time. My hate mostly has to do with the outcome. Not that Hayward wasn’t deserving (she totally was), it’s just — I thought she should have won three years earlier, and her winning then would have freed up Elizabeth Taylor, Rosalind Russell or Deborah Kerr to win, the latter two of whom never won Oscars (and totally should have), and Taylor — if she won here, might not have beaten Shirley MacLaine (coincidentally the fifth nominee in this category) two years after this. It’s my own complicated logic.

That aside — this is a really strong category. Kerr, Russell, Taylor and Hayward are terrific. And MacLaine gives a star-making performance that’s actually really strong. Honestly, just looking at it, I’m slightly surprised I didn’t rank this higher. Though, when I see what I did for the other 6, I’ll probably understand.

Also, just want to point out — this started the day at #9. That’s how much this ground this has gained since I started “writing” the article (I ranked the categories a while back, and am now filling out the rest of the article).

5. 1965

  • Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music
  • Julie Christie, Darling
  • Samantha Eggar, The Collector
  • Elizabeth Hartman, A Patch of Blue
  • Simone Signoret, Ship of Fools

Take off Signoret and this is a perfect category. Andrews is iconic, Christie is beyond words, and Hartman and Eggar give jaw-dropping performances. Seriously. Watch those top four performances. You’ll see why I put this here.

5. 1974

  • Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
  • Diahann Carroll, Claudine
  • Faye Dunaway, Chinatown
  • Valerie Perrine, Lenny
  • Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence

Oh wow. This one is something else. Rowlands, Dunaway, Burstyn — all winners in any other year, pretty much. All #1s. Perrine is terrific, as is Carroll. The Carroll performance is the one that really makes this list. Most people would throw that one out and look at the rest. Don’t. It’s really good, and it has a lot of other factors that make it strong as well. This is a really good one.

5. 1948

  • Ingrid Bergman, Joan of Arc
  • Olivia de Havilland, The Snake Pit
  • Irene Dunne, I Remember Mama
  • Barbara Stanwyck, Sorry, Wrong Number
  • Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda

Dunne, Wyman and de Havilland — all #1s. Seriously. Bergman is in an iconic role, and acquits herself admirably. And Stanwyck — not the strongest performance in the world, but not weak either. This one is so high simply because of how much I love those first three.

4. 1956

  • Carroll Baker, Baby Doll
  • Ingrid Bergman, Anastasia
  • Katharine Hepburn, The Rainmaker
  • Nancy Kelly, The Bad Seed
  • Deborah Kerr, The King and I

Baker and Hepburn. Those are the cornerstones of this list. Kerr and Bergman are iconic roles. Kelly is really strong, even though McCormack is the real star of that film. But Baker and Hepburn — watching those two (and the Hepburn one might be out of my love for the film, but still…) is what led me to put this here.

3. 1950

  • Anne Baxter, All About Eve
  • Bette Davis, All About Eve
  • Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
  • Eleanor Parker, Caged
  • Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard

Swanson, Baxter and Davis are so iconic that it had to be put here. And then Holliday is so good. And Parker — for that to be a #5 — that’s a #3 or 4 most years. Easy choice. Easy top 3.

2. 1953

  • Leslie Caron, Lili
  • Ava Gardner, Mogambo
  • Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday
  • Deborah Kerr, From Here to Eternity
  • Maggie McNamara, The Moon is Blue

Hepburn and Kerr are iconic. McNamara is so goddamn likable. Gardner is Gardner. And honestly, I’m biased. I love Lili so, so much. I understand most people wouldn’t consider this to be where I put it, but I don’t give a fuck. My list, my rules. I love this category.

1.  1954

  • Dorothy Dandridge, Carmen Jones
  • Judy Garland, A Star is Born
  • Audrey Hepburn, Sabrina
  • Grace Kelly, The Country Girl
  • Jane Wyman, Magnificent Obsession

Easily. The first two aside (Garland and Hepburn) — look at the others. Do I even have to say anything? No other category deserves to be #1.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

11. 1961

  • Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • Piper Laurie, The Hustler
  • Sophia Loren, Two Women
  • Geraldine Page, Summer and Smoke
  • Natalie Wood, Splendor in the Grass

I like #12 more, but Hepburn is iconic, and Wood and Laurie are so good. Plus Loren won, and other consider this to be a stronger performance than I do. So I forgive the Page one because of the strength of the first three. That’s why I put this here. I still like #12 more, though.

12. 1939

  • Bette Davis, Dark Victory
  • Irene Dunne, Love Affair
  • Greta Garbo, Ninotchka
  • Greer Garson, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
  • Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind

Honestly, Vivien Leigh alone for me was enough to put this close to the top ten. But Garbo is iconic here, Love Affair is an iconic story, Garson is so goddamn likable (even though she’s really a supporting role in the film) and Davis gives the Bette Davis special. I like it. But really, Scarlett O’Hara alone bumps this automatically to the top 15.

13. 1983

  • Jane Alexander, Testament
  • Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
  • Meryl Streep, Silkwood
  • Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  • Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment

The key is Jane Alexander. The other four, we know. But she really helps out this category a lot. Without her, this might not have been this high.

14. 1963

  • Leslie Caron, The L-Shaped Room
  • Shirley MacLaine, Irma la Douce
  • Patricia Neal, Hud
  • Rachel Roberts, This Sporting Life
  • Natalie Wood, Love with the Proper Stranger

I love this one. Caron, Wood, MacLaine. They’re terrific. Roberts is strong, and Neal — well, she won. I don’t think she deserved it, but she won. Still a strong one, regardless.

15. 1937

  • Irene Dunne, The Awful Truth
  • Greta Garbo, Camille
  • Janet Gaynor, A Star is Born
  • Luise Rainer, The Good Earth
  • Barbara Stanwyck, Stella Dallas

Dunne is terrific, Gaynor is in an iconic role (the first person to pull it off), Rainer is also playing an iconic character, Stanwyck is solid and Garbo — well, it’s a famous literary character. And she’s an iconic actress. That’s something.


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