What Makes a Great Actor? Ladies First

There are two kinds of actors out there. A great one transforms into a new identity and the other plays one character great. In both categories,  audiences clap, colleagues praise, statues gather dust, and some are knighted as national treasures. I love both types, and both types draw admiration from me for different reasons.


The British put out the best actresses. Dame Judi Dench is one. Judi is an actor who plays one type of role better than anyone else on the planet, the royal snob. Maggie Smith is a close second and funnier. Not only does Judi Dench specialize in playing queens and the matriarch of whatever, she has bitchiness down to an art form. Her scowl is legendary. Still, did you notice a soft side in her role as “M” in Skyfall? Did you notice her eyes worry and her mouth twitch when affronted? If you look hard enough, her expressions reveal a vulnerable, human side. That hardness is a mask. She’s doing her job efficiently, and so you don’t mind the supercilious side because haven’t we all felt at times like we’re surrounded by fools?


Shakespeare in Love (1998). Scowl? Check. Ubiquitous eyes? Check. Powerful and manipulative? Check.


This is one of my favorite British films, Her Majesty Mrs. Brown (1997). Billy Connolly is charming and virile as the Scottish servant who dares to confront and befriend the grieving Queen Victoria. If you like the Downton Abbey series, you would appreciate the upstairs/downstairs element in the plot. Here’s other films where she plays the same haughty role: Pride and Prejudice (2005), Importance of Being Ernest (2002), Notes on a Scandal (2006), and she is my favorite Lady Macbeth from 1979….


“Out damn spot! out, I say!” (V.i)

There are only three movies I’ve seen Judi Dench play a role where she was soft and sweet. The first was an exquisite film called Ladies in Lavender (2005) with Maggie Smith. Set in WWII, two sisters on the Cornish coast rescue a handsome, young Polish violinist. It was a tender, beautiful film. Second, the recent The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012).  A relevant film for baby-boomers everywhere. With an outstanding cast and unusual plot, it was a satisfying movie experience. See it even if you aren’t a baby-boomer, for it’s an universal love story involving multiple generations.


The third time I’ve seen Judi soft and whimsical was in the most un-typical film I ever thought I’d see Judi Dench in. Did you see her as the spirit in The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)?


What a surprise! Good for her.

So Judi Dench for me is that actress who only has to do one thing great, and that’s her legacy. What about the other kind, the great actor? When I think of transforming performances, of actresses who can become different people–the more different the better, well, there are only a few who can do that . . . .

1. Meryl Streep. You knew that was coming, yes?


Best acting performance EVER. Sophie’s Choice (1982).

2. Kate Winslet.


Not because of Titanic, but because of The Reader (2008), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Revolutionary Road (2008).

3. Hillary Swank.

million dollar baby

MDB is a perfect film. It’s because of Hillary Swank. She is fearlessly transforming. Didn’t you believe she was a man in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)?

4. The last great actress living is Natalie Portman. From The Closer (2004) to V is for Vandetta (2005) to The Black Swan (2010), she is phenomenal. It is for Star Wars where she gained my respect!


She’s the only one in a cast of reputable actors who actually acted. Who can act in front of green screen? She did. Her joys, cries, and pain were believable. The men standing next to her were cardboard props or melodramatically unconvincing. (I blame Lucas.)

There are many, many actresses out there not on this brief list (sorry Cate Blanchett and Jody Foster) who have my respect, but if I had to pick only four great actresses, this is my list.

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Actor? Ladies First

Add yours

  1. Great write up! I’m not as big of a fan of Portman as many. I do think she’s getting better as an actress but she’s never blown me away. I’ve grown to really appreciate Naomi Watts. But I truly LOVE Helen Mirren and Juliette Binoche. There’s some great ladies in cinema, right!


        1. I’ve only seen her in Chocolat and thought she was wonderful. She has that sly smile and a lot of depth in that role. That film could have fallen flat easily if weren’t for acting.Hey! Judi Dench was in that one, too. I haven’t seen the other JB films. I will check out Certified Copy….



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