Listing About: Great Female Performances of Classic Film.

Last week, inspired by blogger R.D. Finch over at The Movie Projector, I posted a list of what I feel are the 30 greatest male performances of the silver screen. Today, the ladies get their due.

These types of lists are very hard to compile. Inevitably, with a limited number of slots, someone great gets left out. And because I choose not to list duplicates when doing posts like these, it becomes even more difficult to look at actresses like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn (both of whom had a veritable smörgåsbord of fantastic performances in their long careers) and narrow it down to a single choice for each actress. As before, it just comes down to opinion: which one did I, personally, like better?

Like its companion post, this list is in no particular order other than how the actress and role occurred to me.

Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Bette Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950)
Barbara Stanwyck as Jean Harrington in The Lady Eve (1941)
Jean Arthur as Nora Shelley in The Talk of the Town (1942)
Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund in Casablanca (1942)

Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot (1959)
Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday (1940)
Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939)
Marlene Dietrich as Erika von Schultow in A Foreign Affair (1948)
Audrey Hepburn as Princess Anya in Roman Holiday (1953)

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs.  de Winter in Rebecca (1940)
Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday (1950)
Margaret Sullavan as Klara Novak in The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Ginger Rogers as Polly Parrish in Bachelor Mother (1939)
Claudette Colbert as Gerry Jeffers in The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper in The Heiress (1949)
Patricia Neal as Marcia Jeffries in A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik in The Apartment

Rita Hayworth as the title character in Gilda (1946)
Teresa Wright as young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Sophia Loren as Cesira in Two Women (1960)
Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Grace Kelly as Lisa Fremont in Rear Window (1954)

Greta Garbo as the title character in Ninotchka (1939)
Judy Garland as Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Joan Crawford as the title character in Mildred Pierce (1945)
Myrna Loy as Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934)
Norma Shearer as Jerry Martin in The Divorcee (1930)

And again, I conclude this post with the question: if you were to compile your own list of great female performances, who would make the cut?

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11 thoughts on “Listing About: Great Female Performances of Classic Film.

    • We really did! It’s not surprising–some of these performances are so indelible, you can’t help but admire them above all others.

  1. You’re really thorough, so it’s hard to know what to add! How about…

    Simone Simon in Cat People
    Linda Darnell in Unfaithfully Yours
    Joan Greenwood in anything
    Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember and The Innocents
    Davis and Crawford (again) in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

    Fun exercise!

    • Love, love, love Baby Jane! Davis is so gleefully evil. I can’t believe I left off Kerr–although I must admit I really liked her best in From Here to Eternity.

  2. Brandie, a great list! There’s not a performance on here I don’t like. Of the actresses who were on my own list but for a different performance, the ones you name were all good alternatives and in most cases my own alternative choice. The only real surprise for me was Marlene Dietrich for “A Foreign Affair.” (But both she and Jean Arthur are delightful in that movie.) I was also pleased to see the list evenly divided between dramatic and comic performances, as the latter are so often neglected in listings of this kind.

  3. Brandie, I returned to see if any more comments had been left and noticed the new design. I like it. I always find it easier to read dark print on a light background than the reverse.

    • Thanks, R.D.! I adore A Foreign Affair (an extension of my borderline unhealthy obsession with Billy Wilder, I think), and think Marlene was wonderful in it. Although I did like her almost equally in Blonde Venus, too … it was a tough choice, to say the least, like quite a few of these.

      And thanks for the compliment re: the new design–it just felt like time for a change, and I’m glad it’s getting a good reception.

  4. Another great list! I’d definitely choose Vivien Leigh in GWTW and also A Streetcar Named Desire, Kathleen Byron in Black Narcissus, Simone Signoret in Diabolique, Jean Harlow in Red Dust, Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria…

    • Thanks, Kendra! I really like your additions, too (except Masina … I haven’t seen Nights of Cabiria yet, so I can’t comment on that one). I hated leaving Harlow off my final list–I initially had her listed for Libeled Lady, but ended up cutting her for someone else. The perils of limiting yourself to only 30 performances!

  5. Great list! I think I pretty much agree with your entire list and, like Kendra, I’d have to add Jean Harlow in Red Dust (my favorite movie of hers) and it’d be so hard for me to choose one Katharine Hepburn movie. She’s just so damn good in all of them; I’d have to say I probably would’ve chosen Bringing Up Baby just because it’s my favorite comedy as well as my favorite Hepburn and Grant film. I’d also have to say Vivien Leigh in That Hamilton Woman as that was the first Vivien Leigh film I saw of hers and thought her completely mesmerizing.

    This is completely biased as I adore her, but I would add Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel. The scene where she looks at her grandfather and says, “I’m going home to my mother. She loves me. Even if my clothes are old and ugly.” That scene breaks my heart into a million pieces no matter how many times I’ve watched it!

    • Thanks, Amanda! Hepburn was perhaps the most difficult one to narrow down for this list–like you, I adore Bringing Up Baby (and The African Queen, and Adam’s Rib, and The Lion in Winter, and her turn as Jo in Little Women, and Stage Door … well, you get the idea). But I had to go with Philadelphia Story–she embodies Tracy Lord like no one else ever could (sorry, Grace Kelly). The scene where she stands between Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and drawls, “Oh, we’re going to talk about me, are we? Goody,” is simply a master class in how to deliver a line.

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