actors, movies, oscars

7 Best Performances by a Female

Last week I thought about male actors and their top performances in film. It’s time to consider the women. What’s the best performance by an actress EVER? In no particular order, here are my favorite seven:

Remember this one? Jodie Foster, 1988, Oscar-winning performance in The Accused. It was a hard film to watch, but Jodie’s wide range of emotions made her performance believable and beyond the norm.

Natalie Portman, The Black Swan (2010.  The facial and body language was intense. The dancing made her performance a notch higher, and no other actress could have pulled off the role better.

I love William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice. Here’s an interview with him and Meryl Streep and the making of the 1982 film. Streep’s multi-lingual accent and depth of emotions made her 1982 performance unparalleled.

She’s funny. She’s dramatic. She can act and belt out a song better than anyone, even Judy or Liza. Barbara Streisand, 1968, Funny Girl.

Kate Winslet, The Reader (2008) The accent, the bewilderment, the age progression. A no-nonsense woman sucked up into the times became a heinous character. Her self-taught literacy gave her grace. How did Kate do it?

There’s a little of Blanche DuBois in all women. Vivien Leigh’s best performance opposite the explosive Marlon Brando.

Million Dollar Baby, (2004), Hilary Swank played Maggie Fitzgerald with the heart and right hook to rise to heroic stature. No one could have played Maggie better than Hilary Swank.

It was tough narrowing it down to 7. So many I didn’t mention! It’s easy to fall for the beauty of the actress and her charms. But when I think of stellar performances, I believe they extend beyond the beauty of the star. She becomes the complex, even unlikable character. Or, they showcase other talents like singing or dancing or boxing or languages–it makes their acting a one-of-a-kind performance.

What is your favorite performance?

26 thoughts on “7 Best Performances by a Female”

      1. I’d never vote against my favorite Hepburn, but if I look at it honestly I’ll go with this lot:
        • Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice
        • Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker
        • Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry and/or Million Dollar Baby
        • Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard
        • Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream
        • Vivian Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire


      1. Cabaret is probably one of my favorite movies. Period. I have honestly never seen Funny Girl, so I can’t compare Streisand to Minelli. It’s possible the former is better.

        Nor have I seen Swank’s turn as a boxer. I mean to. I really do. But I haven’t.


  1. I’m probably missing some significant performers here, but my list would look something like this:
    Janet Gaynor (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans)
    Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard)
    Bibi Andersson (Persona)
    Jodie Foster (Silence of the Lambs)
    Julie Delpy (Before Sunset)
    Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive)
    Charlize Theron (Monster)

    Obviously to get on my list, you should try to make your film title has “sun” in it somewhere.


    1. LOL. I’ll add Pfeiffer down for Tequila Sunrise ;). I’m glad you mentioned Charlize Theron’s performance for Monster. A difficult personality to watch on the screen and it was impossible to believe the gorgeous Theron was anywhere in that character….Thrilled you mentioned a classic by F. W. Murnau. I haven’t seen this! Ugh!
      Great list, Dave, thanks


  2. I would have selected Streep’s performance in Out of Africa (1985). The movie departed considerably from Izak Dinesen’s book, which itself was pretty far removed from reality. Mary Lovell’s biography of Beryl Markham, “Straight On Till Morning” is a terrific eye opener on who was actually doing what with whom in Happy Valley at the time. (The character Felicity, played by Suzanna Hamilton in the movie, seems to represent Markham, who at various points was also having affairs with Bror Blixen, Denys Finch-Hatton and Prince Henry.) Anyway, Streep’s performance reading of A.E. Houseman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” brings down the house, for sure.


    1. Hi John, hhhmm. I loved Dinesen’s book so wonder what your comment meant? Far removed from reality because she was the plantation manager and her situation was unique? Too sensational? Out of Africa is high up there, for me, in rating Streep performances. Again, she is a master at the accent. I agree with your comment on her reading of Houseman’s poem. How is it I’ve missed the Beryl Markham biography? I’m ordering it today.


      1. I loved Dinesen’s book too! I only meant that as a memoir, it is understandably from her point of view. Markham’s story, as told by a fairly impartial Lovell, reveals another dimension. You are in for a treat with Lovell’s book! She wrote a couple of other biographies I’ve been meaning to read and I think you’ve prodded me into digging them up.


  3. Some performances that have stuck with me, just off the top of my head:

    Piper Laurie in The Hustler, Nicole Kidman in To Die For, Holly Hunter in The Piano, and Geraldine Page in A trip to Bountiful.
    Michelle Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence and The Fabulous Baker Boys, and for Meg Ryan I’d offer a largely unseen role: her really spellbinding performance in In the Cut.

    I must admit to having a crush on some of these actresses, and that may cloud my judgement. But love is part of the critical vocabulary, isn’t it?


    1. Hi Paul! I highly agree with Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence and Holly Hunter’s performance in The Pianois one of my favorites–so is Piper’s. I haven’t seen Geraldine Page….I need to rectify that! What a wonderful thought: Love is part of the critical vocabulary….Gosh, can I steal that? Yes, of course. They move you on the screen and lodge in your ribs somewhere. If that’s not power, to be affected by a vision on the screen, I don’t know what is! 🙂


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