My favourite best actress winners (that I’ve seen)

Well, this is a topic that has been on my mind for quite a while, and I really had to express my thoughts here. I was just thinking about all the movies that I’ve watched, and all the performances that I’ve seen (more actresses, admittedly) and I just felt this need to compile my favourites together. That being said, I’m going to focus specifically on best actress winners for this post, because including other favourite nominees (Glenn Close) and even non-nominated performances is too much of a headache.

All of the performances below are 5 stars performances for me, so much so that it is impossible to judge how one is better than another. At the end of the day, this “ranking” is based on a very subjective factor – my own personal love and preferences. It’s just impossible to say how Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice is better or worse than, say, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, and I refuse to say one is better than another just because one is a devastating dramatic performance while the other is a comedic performance. So it’s really just a feeling of how much I love one more than another, and frankly it is my ranking and I am supposed to be subjective :p.

So without further ado…

*Disclaimer: Screenshots are not by me, I found them on Google images*

10) Patricia Neal as Alma Brown in Hud

Honestly, the only fault with this performance is that it is more of a supporting one, but does that diminish the strength of her performance? No! I consider this performance subtle acting at its finest. Mind you, she doesn’t have a single crying or breakdown scene, and yet you can feel the complex emotions burning off this woman, despite her limited screen time (in terms of screen time, she’s one of the shortest best actress winner). I will never forget her conversations with Paul Newman’s Hud, especially when she was talking about her lousy ex-husband – simply amazing. She describes her past in such a matter of fact, humorous and cynical way but yet you can see the sadness, disappointment, fear and distrust of men (“No thanks. I’ve done my time with one cold-blooded bastard, I’m not looking for another”). Not to mention her obvious attraction towards Hud and her intense chemistry with Newman. You could see that she was drawn to him, but she was too afraid to make it happen due to her past experience, and that she was at the same time too proud to admit it. Patricia Neal had a terrible life before and after this win, and somehow I feel that she managed to channel some of her pain and misery into this part. It’s realistic, natural, saddening and human. The briefness of the part makes it even more effective, leaving you to wonder what is going to happen to this woman after she boards the bus.

9) Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in Cabaret

I consider Cabaret a masterpiece, and one of the finest musical adaptations ever made (even more than Chicago). And a large part of it has to do with Minnelli’s amazing performance as Sally Bowles. She’s like a darker, musical version of Holly Golightly. She’s carefree, bohemian and yet there’s a lot of sadness and pain in this character. And that singing – fantastic. Each song is sung in such a way that it tells you the tiny bits and pieces of Sally’s story and personality, and Minnelli does a magnificent job in doing so. She could have made it a “Look! Liza Minnelli can sing!” performance but instead she brilliantly portrays every layer of the character through her acting and singing. The final abortion scene is devastating work, and has always stayed with me (“one of my whims?”). No wonder people say that this is the role that allowed her to step out of her mother’s shadows.

8) Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Even though I’ve watched this movie three times, I’ve never cared about it as much as the whole world does. It’s a highly respectable, very well-directed and well-written film, but there’s something about it that I just can’t connect to. Well, except for one aspect. Deglam roles have always been declared as pure Oscar baiting, but when it’s done with pure brutal honesty, it’s like fireworks. Fabulous Elizabeth Taylor is certainly an unlikely choice for this role, but she shed all the glamour that is typically associated with her and attacked the part with this no holds barred approach, making an indelible performance out of it. Martha is vulgar, crude, crass and anything that is associated with coarseness. However, while she could be making me laugh with her coarse mockery and rude bickering with George, she is at the end of the day a sad human being, full of pain and sorrows herself, and this can be seen every time her “child” is discussed. Her monologues always burns through the screen with sadness, and she is easily my favourite out of the already very talented cast.

7) Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose

Unlike most people, I don’t fall head over heels in love with “technical” performances, where the performer builds up the mannerisms, accents and all external things about the character aka I don’t find myself going crazy over Daniel Day-Lewis’ performances like most do. It’s not that I think they are bad; on the contrary, they are extremely impressive and incredible when done right, and yes it is super difficult to handle – one wrong step and it seems like pure parody. It’s just my own preference for quiet, soulful performances that overshadows my love for these performances, but I have the highest amount of respect for the dedication these actors bring to the screen, especially when they fully portray the emotional aspects of the characters as well (and are not just doing it for pure Oscar baiting). And this brings me to Marion Cotillard’s performance as Edith Piaf. Marion also adopts a no holds barred approach, theatrical approach to this character and yet it all seems so natural. To play this role subtly would be weird, since Piaf was a very vocal and expressive person who does not suppress her thoughts and emotions. Simply put, I was blown away by her work, even though I’m not a fan of the film. Every tiny detail, from Piaf’s love life, to her love for music, to her struggle with addiction and her difficult diva behavior is portrayed immaculately on the screen. Cotillard had a huge character arc to cover – from Piaf’s rise to fame, to her later struggles with illnesses and addiction – and she does it to perfection, maintaining a truthfulness to her character (it could have felt like many different characters) while building up the external detail. Amazing work.

6) Charlize Theron as Alieen Wuornos in Monster

Another “technical” performance done right. I daresay that Charlize Theron is an underrated actress, and her performance in Young Adult would easily have been my vote for best actress in 2011 (she wasn’t even nominated). Her loud and forceful acting style may be a turn-off to some, but when it’s done right it’s mind blowing. I know this sounds crazy, but she in a way reminds me of Faye Dunaway, another brilliant one whose career didn’t really go anywhere after her Oscar win. Some may dislike their “overacting” but to me, it makes their performance unique and distinctly their own, instead of the usual “perfectly delivered” roles. I just love it. Beneath the makeup, the weird posture and walking, Charlize went into the mind of this frightening woman and portrayed a side of her that no one could have seen – the human side. Yes, the woman is psycho monster but she’s also a lonely, pitiful and pathetic human being. Theron could make me feel sorry for this character when she’s being insulted during a job interview, or when she’s forced to kill an innocent man. That devastating “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” seriously gives me the chills. And who can forget the tender moment she shared with Selby in the skating rink…brilliant.

5) Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter

I’ve discussed this performance in great detail here so I’m going to keep this one brief. Out of the three “real life person” performances, I love Spacek’s the most. It’s the least technical, showy and mannered, but it’s the one I connect to the most.  I know I have said this before, but Sissy Spacek has always been one of my favourite actresses – she is proficient on the technical level, and superb in finding the human side of her characters, even in weird ones like Carrie White. And she does her best work here as well.

4) Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind

Coming from an era where actors do not even attempt to understand their characters and cover up their inabilities to emote with mannerisms such as “bulging eyes” and “waving their hands all over the place”, there’s really a reason why Vivien Leigh’s performance as this manipulative Southern Belle is considered groundbreaking then and now. Just do a google search of “greatest best actress winners” and you’ll see how widely remembered this performance is till today. Although the entire internet community, critics and bloggers call this the greatest female performance of all time, I’m clearly less enthusiastic since she is my number 4 (most people have both her works at top 2). That being said, I have the highest respect for Vivien Leigh’s work here. She may be a theatrical actress but there’s something else to her performance – she’s not fake. She doesn’t cover up her work with empty, meaningless gestures and mannerisms. You can see in her eyes (look at the photo I’ve used, come on) how perfectly she understands and approaches the character, justifying every “exaggerated” gesture and line reading. So what if she is theatrical? As Scarlett would say, “Fiddle dee dee!” Scarlett O’Hara was one fake, manipulative woman who will go all out to put on a melodramatic show of “acting coy and cute” to get what she wants (and people still act like that in real life, just look around your workplace/school). We don’t realise it, but it’s really because of Leigh’s performance that we understand the character so well. She shows how Scarlett has changed, becoming independent, hardened and greedy, while still maintaining her inner spoilt and bitchy self. Her complex relationships with Rhett Butler and even Melanie Hamiltion (Friends? Enemies? Frenemies?) are all also perfectly realized by Leigh. Such a complex and layered characterization is unique for its day, and I would say it still is. She doesn’t make Scarlett the ideal, romantic movie heroine you root for – she goes all out to show you her strengths and weaknesses, like her tenacity combined with her selfishness, her manipulative nature combined with her loyalty to those she cares for. And yet, it is this unselfish, daring portrayal that makes her performance the most universally loved one of all time.

3) Meryl Streep as Sophie Zawistowska in Sophie’s Choice

I contemplated long and hard about this one, and wondered whether I really loved the performance or I am including it for the sake of it. Besides Vivien Leigh’s 2 performances, another performance that is guaranteed to appear on those “greatest best actress winners” list is Meryl Streep’s performance here. Having rewatched Sophie’s Choice, I have to say yes, I love it. When I was young, I used to think that Meryl Streep is the greatest actress of all time. However, as I started to expose myself to different acting styles of different performers, I can really understand where the criticism is coming from. In some of her lesser works (not saying which now), you can sense how every mannerism, every gesture, every accent and every tear drop is a result of careful rehearsal and deliberation, and the emotional intensity just doesn’t match up. That being said, even if I try to resist the performances and accents of this extremely talented woman, I just can’t. To some, Meryl’s performances are very external, but I always feel that the mannerisms and accents are her way of being truthful to the character. Like she herself said, “How could I play that part and talk like me?” She tries to identify the character’s inner voice and emotions through the mannerisms, and for the most part she succeeds. The prime example would be her performance here. Most people are impressed by Meryl’s accent and tears, but it is the subtle, burning pain in her eyes as she recounts her past that always gets to me. And the choice scene – if that doesn’t affect you even in the slightest, I don’t know what will. It’s not the accent that I’m impressed by – it’s Meryl’s devastation in this part.

2) Diane Keaton as Annie Hall in Annie Hall

What!? Scandal!!!! Outrage!!! But yes, your eyes are not kidding you, but this is my number 2. Diane Keaton has always been a favourite actress of mine (I will discuss her further in my next performance of the week post), and her performance here as Annie Hall is widely considered as iconic and one of the most deserving winners ever. Well, I don’t think people generally put it as the second most deserving ever in their own lists, but it is certainly considered a very deserved win in general. But what is it that makes us love her so much? She doesn’t carry an epic like Vivien Leigh. She doesn’t do an accent like Meryl Streep. She doesn’t have huge dramatic monologues and crying scenes like most of the other nominees do. She doesn’t wear a ton of makeup on her face. I can’t explain it, but it would be pretentious of me to say that I don’t love her performance this much because she doesn’t do those things I’ve stated. For me, this is possibly the best fit of a performer and a role that I’ve seen, maybe other than my number 1 and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Diane’s entire performance is coming from her heart, and frankly, it doesn’t even feel like she is acting at all. The role, after all, was written for her to play. Some say that she didn’t deserve it because the role was too easy and she was playing herself. Well, other than the fact that I feel the only similarities between Annie and Diane are their eccentricities and insecurities, who freaking cares? Ok, let’s turn it around the other way then. You want to see the role being “acted”? Try imagining Meryl Streep, the chameleon in this part. Do you still think the part is easy now? Can you imagine Meryl saying “la-di-da”? Sure, I know that Meryl will definitely be able to pull off a calculated, perfectly timed and perfectly pitched “la di da” that is charming and funny, but she wouldn’t be able to do what Diane did – make it look easy and effortless. In other words, Diane didn’t even have to act as Annie Hall, she BECAME Annie Hall. To take it one step further, she WAS Annie Hall. Also, while you can say that she was “playing herself”, she actually doesn’t commit the typical mistakes by such performances. Although she identified herself in this role, she didn’t lazily coast on her personality, managing to give some emotional investment in the part and even depicting Annie’s changes and development into a more independent woman without any big “revelations” or Oscary scenes. Diane admitted that she doesn’t say La Di Da in real life, and yet she still pulled it off so naturally and believably. The role only “looked” easy because Diane MADE it so. A lesser actress would have overdone the mannerisms and eccentric tics of the character. So what if Diane thought her performance was effortless and easy? It worked, because it wasn’t even acting anymore (somehow I feel that I don’t have to explain so much if it is a dramatic performance). We are looking at her performance, not her acting style after all. Ok, I know I’m super hyper and annoyingly defensive about this one, but I just get giddy with excitement when I discuss this work.

1) Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire

Somehow I don’t remember this scene from the movie, but the image captures it all.

This shouldn’t be a surprise at all, as I think this could be my fourth post mentioning this. Yes, people seem to love Scarlett slightly more, but for me it is really this one that stands out. Vivien Leigh was performing this role from a very personal place – she suffered from mental illness herself, and you can really feel it in her work here. Her performance seems to combine everything from the previous 9 performances that I’ve mentioned. Theatrical, “over acted”, yet natural. Funny, yet devastating. Smart, yet lost. And on and on and on…there is a lot to be said when you can out act Brando (well to me she did), whose performance is said to have changed acting. I could go on forever about how amazing her performance is, but at the end of the day you still have to watch it and see for yourself. Thus, for me my number one is, well, like what the boys who called out to her on Saturday nights, “Blanche…Blanche…”

And there you go, my list of ten favourite best actress winners of all time. Frankly, ten is simply not enough and I don’t know why I forced myself to narrow it down. I don’t think my list is THAT controversial, maybe except for Diane Keaton’s position and Patricia Neal, whom people usually love but not as much as I do. I admit that I’m just in this mood where I suddenly love her performance though, so she (and Liza Minnelli) is quite shakey. I always think of whether I should replace her with some others. The rest are solid though. Anyway, here are some of the other performances that I love equally, even though I failed to mention them. Like I said, ten is NOT ENOUGH.

1) Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion In Winter
2) Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels in Klute
3) Holly Hunter as Ada McGrath in The Piano

Haven’t seen quite a few too, like Hilary Swank’s Boys Don’t Cry and Ellen Burstyn’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

Well, that’s it. This list really exhausted me. I’ll probably do a Best Actor one after this



    1. Thanks! Yes, to be honest the ranking is a bit of a headache (and pointless) because it’s impossible to justify how one performance is better than another and I’m really using my heart for this one. I also have yet to watch Geraldine Page’s trip to bountiful, which is supposedly fantastic.

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