Monday, January 22, 2007


Top 10 Best Best Actress winners

Where the race for the worst best actress performance eventually became a blowout for Helen Hunt and there was a huge dropoff after No. 2 finisher Gwyneth Paltrow, the best best actress results were constantly changing with the rankings changing right through to the final ballot received before the deadline. Also, two multiple Oscar-winning actresses share the distinction of landing in both the Top 10 of the worst and the best lists.

10. Jane Fonda (Klute) (44 points)

The fight for the 10th spot was a real struggle, bouncing back and forth between Bree, Jean Brodie and Loretta Lynn with seemingly every new ballot received, but Bree's street smarts edged out the stubborn teacher and the country superstar in the end. "Oscar voters love to honor beautiful women for playing prostitutes, which may be the Academy's attempt to encourage other beautiful women to enter the Oldest Profession," Daniel Fienberg wrote. "Of all the Oscar-winning portrayals of hookers, though, this is the best." Others are similarly amazed by how well Fonda's work holds up. "The intelligence and subtlety of this performance still amaze me," Charles Barrett wrote. "Tough as nails, no-b.s., and it still holds up," John Farmer added. "She’s been a Hollywood starlet, a new wave sex kitten, a political activist, a feminist icon, a fitness guru, a rich man’s queen and consort, and throughout it all, a lightning rod for controversy. But we should not lose sight of the fact that Jane Fonda is also an actress of rare and distinctive talents, with a genuine feel for the manner in which intellect and emotionalism can often exist at odds with one another. To these eyes, she was never better than as Bree Daniel, a woman whose tough-cookie exterior and you-can-all-go-to-hell attitude mask the fragile soul of a wounded, frightened child," Josh R wrote. "It’s a brave, unflinching performance that reveals something new upon each additional viewing." Nathaniel R still finds himself amazed that the Academy even picked her: "I still reel backwards at the thought that a performance this brave, in your face and incisive of a character this crude and unlikeable could ever win a major prize. The '70s were so cool that even the Oscars wised up. albeit briefly." In addition to her praise for Fonda, Campaspe has a question about the Internet Movie Database: "Screen acting at its most truthful. An amazing demonstration of disappearing into a character, all the more so when you consider that the movie is good but not great. It's a standard prostitute-in-peril yarn, with a problematic plot that reveals the killer in mid-film and leaves the wheels spinning afterward. But the Siren was astonished at the layers of personality Fonda brought to the character of Bree. This should have been the screen hooker to give all the others the hook. (Aside: does IMDb really have to link to external 'reviews that are just rants about 'Commie Fonda'?)"

9. Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) (46 points)

The first of two multiple Oscar-winning actresses to land on both the best and worst lists, voters seemed to have coalesced around the idea that Hepburn's Eleanor of Aquitaine was her most deserved Academy Award. (Third time's the charm I suppose). "Scary and poisonous, Hepburn makes a spurned, bitter woman into a grand, raging force of nature. Brings a depth of feeling often missing from her serious roles," Joshua Flower wrote. "Filmed less than a year after Spencer Tracy's death, she lets the ragged edges out and meshes her royalty and the character's in a stunningly theatrical performance. Her chemistry with Peter O'Toole is wonderful; I can't ever watch their last dungeon scene without getting moved," Tina added.

8. Holly Hunter (The Piano) (49 points)

"Has an actress ever been so passionate and so rapturous without saying an onscreen word?" Odienator asks. "The exact opposite of Marlee Matlin, who would have been #6 on my worst list." Tim Connelly wrote, "I find myself stunned by her performance each time I see this film." Charles Barrett finds himself similarly amazed by Hunter's work: "To be so powerful and mesmerizing without words is an amazing feat." As for those who dismiss Hunter's work as a "stunt," Josh R has an answer: "To me, 'stunt' acting can be defined by the extent to which an actor relies on some kind of visual or aural gimmick, whether it be extreme physical or vocal transformation, or pitch-perfect simulation of some kind of handicap, in order to give an effective performance. In most cases, if you take away the stunt, what you’re left with isn’t very much. This is most definitely not the case with Holly Hunter’s Ada McGrath. If you were to subtract the fact that the character doesn’t speak from the equation, you’d still be left with a masterful delineation of flinty resolve and intrepid sexual inquisitiveness. The forthright sexuality that Hunter is allowed to express is remarkable for its lack of sentimentality; this is a woman bound and determined to chart her own course, without compromise or apology, and her silence speaks volumes."

7. Olivia de Havilland (The Heiress) (55 points)

"A muted performance of such passionate longing that it just breaks your heart," That Little Round-Headed Boy wrote. Catherine Sloper has a lot of fans. Speaking as someone fortunate enough to see Cherry Jones' Tony-winning interpretation of Catherine before I ever saw Olivia's, I have to say that de Havilland held up pretty damn well, even if she didn't make my final five. "I'm not sure if I put her here cause I love the movie so much or not — but she was terrific in the part," B. Lee wrote. Dennis Cozzalio expounded further: "A beautiful, painful reflection of the savagery of betrayal and humiliation. De Havilland finds reserves of intelligence and sensitivity in this role that others might also have discovered, but she uses her own history, particularly the reverberations of her character from Gone With the Wind, to inform those feelings with her own warmth — she’s peculiar and not just a little pathetic, but she’s never a mouse we want to see trampled, or one who deserves it." Jenni feels that de Havilland has been somewhat undervalued overall: "An actress often remembered for her role as Errol Flynn's co-star, it's amazing to me that she isn't honored more often as one of our great female screen actors; this performance is genius." Perhaps M.A. Peel pays her the highest compliment: "I think Henry James would be impressed."

6. Frances McDormand (Fargo) (64 points)

I love McDormand in Fargo, even if I'm one of the film's few detractors and think hers is really a supporting role, but I'll let the fans sing her praises. "McDormand's so warm, so idiosyncratic, that Marge never comes across as a kooky scold; she makes the woman's carved-from-marble personality traits seem an outgrowth of Marge's worldview rather than a grab-bag of eccentricities," Matt Zoller Seitz wrote. "The character's decency seems to have been made rather than inherited; that makes Marge's final condemnation of Peter Stormare's murderous felon less a moral-of-the-story monologue than a vindication of the bedrock bourgeois values that modern Hollywood treats as slave chains. 'There's more to life than a little money, you know,' Marge says. 'Don't you know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it.' For Marge, goodness is freedom." Marge leaves Tripp Burton somewhat speechless: "What can you say except that she is exciting, hilarious and heartbreaking all at the same time." Nomi added, "One of the great great minimalist performances on screen." Tim Connelly thinks she is "the most oddball heroine of the past 30 years, played perfectly." Odienator included her in his Top 5, though he agrees with me on the brevity of her role: "She has less screen time than most of the other characters in the film, but the character she creates is permanently etched in a corner of my mind, you betcha. I love characters who are smarter than they appear, and her scene in the car at the end is nothing short of a masterpiece."

5. Diane Keaton (Annie Hall) (65 points)

They say Oscar doesn't like comedy, but in the case of Annie Hall and Diane Keaton they did and many voters agreed. "My top pick in your last survey couldn't have succeeded without her stupendous presence and performance," Brian Darr wrote. "Well, la-de-da, la-de-da," David Gaffen wrote. "Comedy is not effortless. In many ways it's more difficult than drama. She makes it seem effortless." John Farmer sees Keaton's influence in many romantic comedy roles that have come in the 30 years since Annie first appeared. "The greatest of the modern romantic comedies, and there hasn't been an actress in one of them for the past 30 years that doesn't owe a debt to Keaton," Farmer wrote. Keaton's apparent effortlessness still holds Tripp Burton in awe: "Some may argue it is a supporting performance, but no one can argue it isn’t simply the greatest comedic performance of all time. Making it look so easy it hurts, Keaton is another who brings complete heart to her film, and is the perfect foil to Woody Allen's best work."

4. Elizabeth Taylor (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) (72 points)

The second multiple Oscar winner to make both Top 10 list even managed to make it to the Top 5 of both lists. While much derision has been heaped on Taylor's win for Butterfield 8, more praised her Martha than disliked it. "An incredibly brave, mesmerizing performance, which more than makes up for her undeserved Oscar for Butterfield 8," Al Weisel wrote. Odienator praises Liz for making up for Oscar's mistake six years earlier, but has a question as well: "Her atonement for Butterfield 8 gave us a fat Liz, and gave Joan Rivers a career. Were she and Burton were really acting?" Charles Barrett finds Martha "the one truly great performance she gave, I feel, but it is truly great." Daniel Fienberg has reservations, but not enough to keep this performance off his Top 5 list: "I don't always like broad theatricality and shrieking, but for some reason this performance has an emotional core for me, even if Taylor is shouting to the back row at all times." For Nathaniel R, it always is reassuring to see "stars" prove they have acting chops as well: "It's eternally satisfying when one of the greatest of all movie stars delivers one of the greatest performances."

3. Vivien Leigh (A Streetcar Named Desire) (75 points)

Leigh came close to taking the top two spots on the best list — pretty impressive for someone who was only ever nominated twice and won both times. “It seems almost unfair to give both top spots to the same actress, but there’s no way around it; Leigh’s Blanche DuBois is a performance of such power and grace that it commands nothing less than a response of awestruck reverence," Josh R wrote. "A harrowing study in human frailty and incipient madness, Leigh’s performance is, at times, almost unbearable to watch; the viewer can’t help but want to reach out and save Blanche — mostly from herself." Charles Barrett said, "Scarlett is also a great movie star performance, but the haunted desperation she brings to Blanche is unforgettable." Nathaniel R is grateful that Leigh's performance has been preserved for the ages: "Hundreds and hundreds of women have played Blanche DuBois. I'm glad it's her spin on the classic role that's frozen for all time on celluloid." Others are just glad that Leigh's work was there to provide a crucial counterpoint to Marlon Brando's indelible Stanley. "Grotesque and campy, she's the perfect counterpoint to Brando's wild boar naturalism," Joshua Flower wrote. That Little Round-Headed Boy added, "In Streetcar, Leigh holds her own against perhaps the towering male performance in all of American movie history, and conveys a sense of sad, haunting delicate madness at the same time."

2. Meryl Streep (Sophie's Choice) (84 points)

The most-acclaimed actress of the modern era, the most nominated actress of all time (about to increase that record Tuesday in all likelihood) landed in the second spot with the only Oscar she has received for best actress. "I don't really like this movie," That Little Round-Headed Boy wrote, "but you just can't ignore the technical skills and passion and haunted beauty she brings to this role. And her face on that train platform." Daniel Fienberg said, "If you're grading on 'Degree of Difficulty,' this performance is impossible to top." In a career filled with many, many great roles, Sophie remains Streep's crowning achievement for Al Weisel: "Say what you will about the mechanics of Streep's acting, she is heartbreaking in this, her best role and one of the great performances of all time."

1. Vivien Leigh (Gone With the Wind) (114 points)

"Vivien Leigh was not the obvious choice to play Scarlett O’Hara — indeed, her casting prompted a certain amount of head-scratching at the time. But when the film debuted, it was clear to audiences and critics alike that no other choice could have been possible, as Leigh delivered what is quite simply the best and most important performance in the history of motion pictures. Even now, the breadth and complexity of the characterization is astounding. The measure of her greatness lies in the fact that she shows us Scarlett O’Hara, warts and all, without soft-pedaling the more repellent aspects of the character and yet, you can’t help admiring her, rooting for her, desiring her. Like Rhett Butler, we know how just impossible she is, but any attempt at resistance is an exercise in futility. Frankly, my dear, we can’t help but give a damn."
Josh R

"I know she ends up on many cinephile's 'worst' list — except for Matt's, which will forever endear him to me. Leigh gives life to the character of Scarlett O'Hara in a way that goes beyond 'good acting.' She BECOMES Scarlett O'Hara. I think it's thrilling."
M.A. Peel

“I'm not a particularly big fan of this soap opera, but Leigh's Scarlett may be the best performance by an actress in the history of movies. The woman knew how to pick her roles, and I might have put her as #2 for Streetcar if it were a longer list, but with only five slots, she gets one spot, at the top.”
John Farmer

"For sheer magnitude if nothing else; a four hour movie and she's in nearly every scene (and of course she's fantastic in every one)."

"In Gone With The Wind, she is so damn irritating and so damn beautiful and so damn unforgettable. Fiddle-dee-dee, indeed."
That Little Round-Headed Boy

"The opposite of naturalism, Leigh's performance as Scarlett O'Hara is more like a stage performance writ huge. Everything is italicized, sometimes boldfaced. (When she exclaims, 'Well, fiddle-dee-dee!' it's a knowing celebration of her own supreme entitlement — she's daddy's girl, and daddy is the South.) Leigh's not just humping one note on a piano, though. Scarlett's girlish brio in the first quarter gives way to shock and desperation as Atlanta burns; then, in the film's underappreciated, much subtler second half, it hardens into masklike resolve. Leigh keeps the stubbornness but loses the vanity; the character grows up without losing her youthful fire. Leigh's performance is just right for this still-seductive, forever problematic antebellum fantasy. It's life-sized, yet iconic."
Matt Zoller Seitz

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Congratulations on another impeccably produced, extremely thorough presentation. I enjoyed the insights of your participants - particularly the comments made by Matt Zoller Seitz, Ivan G. Shreve and Campaspe. Your voters have good taste, too - I'm happy that 4 of my 5 best picks made the top ten.
Though I didn't vote for any of the ladies in the top ten, I must say it's a nice list. The impressive thing about Vivien Leigh is that she didn't make many films: how many more Awards would have got had Larry allowed her to work more in movies?
Hmmm, I didn't do very well with the Best Best Actresses, but it is hard to argue with this list. My quibbles: Holly Hunter--a mannered performance, to my mind. Taylor is pretty good in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but she was too young for the part. And as brilliant as Streep was, particularly in the sequences in Poland, I still think people would rather watch Mildred Pierce, if they are honest. :D
Ed, congratulations on putting this together. I was happy to see Vivien Leigh do better than I thought she would.
I did better with my Worst list, but I'm delighted to see the Vivien Leigh love. I too thought she'd do worse than she did so color me surprised.

This is the first time I've participated in anything like this, and it was a blast. Great job Ed and thank you!
As an acting coach, I have to be heretical: Meryl Streep is the single most overrated actress in the history of film. It's not to say she isn't a good performer, but she lacks subtlety and nuance. She fairly announces, "Alright, everyone, I'm going to act now." SOPHIE'S CHOICE does rank as one of her best performances, with KRAMER VS KRAMER as another. But, Jessica Lange's scorching performance in FRANCES is unforgettable for anyone who saw it, which wasn't many. Miss Streep should watch it and see what truly great acting looks like.
You know what they say -- those who can't do, teach. Anyone who thinks Lange is a better actress than Streep is utterly clueless.
Ah, the arrogance of ignorance! Pulling out the old bromide about incapable teachers aside, you must have been so offended to the soul to see St. Meryl criticized, that you attacked Ms. Lange's impressive body of work to strike back, even though I did not make the evaluation of one being better than the other.

Your pique notwithstanding, Ms. Lange's portrayal of Frances Farmer is great movie acting (and one of two roles for which she was nominated in 1983).

Ms. Streep continues to become more of a self-caricature as the years go by. Sad for one who started with such promise. The fact that the uninformed were so impressed with her ability with dialects that they deified her doesn't make her worth the praise to everyone. Those with informed eyes can sometimes see past the hype to the real accomplishment, or lack thereof. While I don't suggest that Ms. Streep's work is without merit, she is, nonetheless, truly overrated and will probably remain so.

As someone with so evident a lack of knowledge on the subject, I wouldn't expect you to agree.
Great list! This is just like the things you find at

It is a great place for YOU to find and create lists about anything and everything.
Great list, especially like inclusion of Jane Fonda in Klute... I am not a JF fan and she has been bad in several movies, but she is terrific in Klute and deserved to win.
The more I see Vivien Leigh in both Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire the greater I think she is. I love Meryl Streep and do think she is the best, but I totally agree with the comment about Jessica Lange, especially in Frances. Jessica is my favorite actress of all. There is a rawness, a total unpredictability about her that is exciting and dangerous. I never feel like anything is planned with her-yes she has been in bad movies and has made bad choices, but she is brave and very real. Then again, I think this list is only for performances that won Oscars, and she was only nominated in Frances.
Craig T.
I totally agree with this! And I'm glad that Vivien Leigh is here! After all, she's been recognize as one of the Top Ten Greatest Acting Performances of All Time along with other great actors and actress! Anyway, thank you for making this list, you never fail to amaze me! Keep it up!
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