culture, In My Opinion, movies

Best Performances In Film By A Leading Lady

Early this morning on a walk, I started thinking about the best performances by an actress of all time. My first choice was Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz because it is the singular performance seen more times by me than any other. But let’s face it, Dorothy had that whining, shrill voice that made it hard to listen to, so while it’s one of my favorite films, did she give one of the best performances by a leading lady?

There are hundreds of solid acting performances. But I’ve noticed the BEST performances incorporate that something extra. I am wowed by the performance of an actress who does more than say her lines. For example, in one performance, she might sing (Sorry, Judy, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is magnificent, isn’t it?) or dance, play an instrument or speak a foreign language. She might embody the innocence of youth and exude the wisdom of old age in one performance. She might portray multiple personalities or switch genders. Maybe she captured the essence of a historical figure superbly. It takes a great script to allow her to impress on multiple levels. Sometimes, her personality comes forward with few words. Always, you don’t see the actress, you see the character.  Inspired by blogger ALEX RAPHAEL and his game of guessing by image, do you recognize the film and actress?

This list is subjective and in no particular order. 


ONE. Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria (1957)    What a spitball of moods and vivacity.

TWO. Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (2013)   The best of her best which is saying a lot.

THREE. Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (2007)   Totally convincing.

FOUR. Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944)    Her descent into madness was convincing.

FIVE. Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter (1968)  A queen with multiplicity.

SIX. Natalie Portman in The Black Swan (2010) Who else could have danced that?

SEVEN. Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby (2004) Who else could have fought/acted like that?

EIGHT. Holly Hunter in The Piano (1993) Without a word she was a fierce, complex character.

NINE. Liza Minnelli Cabaret (1972) Act, sing, dance. Exuberance defined.

TEN. Kate Winslet in The Reader (2008) beauty, ugly, cold. She did it.

ELEVEN. Meryl Streep in Sophies Choice (1982) The languages and sensitivity. A ghost.

TWELVE.  Salma Hayek in Frida Kahlo (2002) Passionate and complex. A total transformation.


Who is your BEST PERFORMANCE by a LEADING LADY? (not supporting. That’s coming….) 


54 thoughts on “Best Performances In Film By A Leading Lady”

  1. I’m a mug! I started to note down all the answers, (I got them all, except the name of the actress in ‘Nights Of Cabiria’)
    then I scrolled down to the last photo, only to find you had listed them…

    OK, my choice.
    1) Maria Heiskanen, in ‘Everlasting Moments’
    Runner up. Cate Blanchett, in ‘Elizabeth’.
    2nd Runner up. Liza Minnelli, in ‘Cabaret’.
    I could go on all night. So, I just might.
    Anna Magnani, in ‘Rome, Open City’.
    Jane Fonda, in ‘Klute’.
    Salma Hayek, in ‘Frida’.
    Kristen Scott Thomas, in ‘I’ve Loved You So Long’.
    And so on…
    Best wishes, Pete.


    1. Great choices, Pete! You’ve listed a couple I have not seen. I feel embarrassed I have not seen Klute or KST in I’ve Loved You So Long’. I really admire her. Of course, I too, could have add many more. The usuals like Vivien Leigh in Streetcar or Bette in ‘All About Eve’. I wanted to add CB in Elizabeth and I wanted to add Streep in ‘French Lt.’s Woman’. I thought of Stanwyck in
      Double Indemnity and and and…. I’m sure there’s a lot more performances I could have mentioned. I thank you for yours!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pete made a great call with Jane Fonda in “Klute” – sometimes understated works for the tone of the film and she does it perfectly. My wife and I watched “Julie & Julia” AGAIN last night, and as much as “Julie” is annoying and self-centered, Meryl Street as “Julia” is a masterclass in character – she’s funny, effusive, open, honest and filled with pure joy – so when you get a heartbreaking moment it’s done with simplicity – she’s such an amazing performer. One other: Faye Dunaway in “Network” is phenomenal because she “goes to 11” and then shows vulnerability – just a couple to toss out there


    1. Hi John. I haven’t seen Klute! Sigh. I must watch it if you and Pete feel obliged to mention her. Julie & Julia was surprisingly refreshing and unique. No wonder you two have seen it a number of times. Meryl was great in the role.


  3. Hi Cindy! Love your list, particularly Ingrid Bergman and Meryl Streep. I would have included Bette Davis in “All About Eve”.


    1. Yep, that’s a common choice among the list-makers. I love that role, too. It was so hard picking 10! I decided to pick ones that had a strong effect on me. I really loved Bette in that role.


  4. Being as Shirley temple was supposed to do ‘Wizard’, do you think Garland surpassed her?
    Very few could compare to Hepburn’s control of the scene, no matter what movie she was in!! One heck of a lady!!


    1. Hiya GP! I think Judy absolutely was the best choice. I watched it (again) with my granddaughter last week who is four — she loved it! I focused on the film with older eyes and it’s still delightful. Judy embraced the naivete of youth with teary wide eyes convincingly. Her singing “Over the Rainbow” makes me cry every time I hear it. Yes, to Ms. K. I loved her as the Queen next to Harris.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great topic Cindy. Your choices were excellent. I would say;
    Bette Davis in All About Eve
    Charlize Theron in Monster
    Sigourney Weaver in Aliens
    Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose
    Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth
    Meryl Streep in just about any film she appears in
    Julianne Moore in The Hours
    Kathy Bates in Misery
    Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves
    And there are so many more. Loved reading this celebration of fantastic ladies.


          1. Thanks, V. I wish I had more time to write more articles. Work and writing the novel and family gobble up my time. I love blogging and hearing from everyone. I enjoy reading your posts, too.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. Great list, Cindy. Some are way too gritty, like Sophie’s Choice, for me to really enjoy. Ingrid Bergman was really a great acting job. She excelled in every movie she was in. My favorite of hers is NOTORIOUS.


  7. WOW!! Except for ‘Nights of Cabiria’, I managed to guess them all!!
    I personally love Ingrid Bergman’s performance in Gaslight, from this list, the most!! Especially as Bergman is such a bold character, to depict such a subjective role, was uniquely brilliant.
    But I love the whole list Cindy. Marion Cotillard ‘is’ Piaf, in La Vie en Rose, Natalie Portman was brilliant in The Black Swan, Holly Hunter; fierce, complex, as you’ve mentioned. Kate Winslet’s best role came in The Reader
    Meryl Streep, Oh she’s Hollywood’s modern day goddess of talent, great in anything she does. And Salma Hayek did justice to Frida Kahlo!!!
    I was slightly disappointed not seeing Audrey Hepburn, though!!! Hee!! Hee!! 😀


    1. HI Nuwansen. I was thinking about adding Audrey but it was thought trying to widdle it down to a dozen. I left out Bette Davis, Emily Watson, Naomi Watts, Keira Knightley, Emily Blunt, Helen Mirren, Viola Davis–all personal favorites of mine.


      1. I know!! I was just kiddin’ No matter how great an actress Audrey Hepburn was, there are some actresses who’ve done way better, than her!! It’s difficult to add all the great performances in a blog post, you’ll need to fill up a book!!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome Tony, Yes! I couldn’t agree with you more. Do you have a favorite performance? Her spot in history where she had that vaudeville background and transitioned into Hollywood pictures is a favorite. What a multi-talented woman.


  8. Such a great list. I agree with Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine at number 2. Her performance there was simply unforgettable and she delivered something very special. For me, Meryl Streep almost always gives the performances which I consider “great”, for example, in Out of Africa, but my (favourite!) best performance by a leading lady has to be that of Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (perfect casting and performance).


  9. Hey Cindy, I’ve been pondering this question a lot myself lately. Because I’m doing a performances feature on my blog, I’ve been very conscious that I haven’t included a female yet. It’s not that I don’t appreciate many actresses work, I think it’s just that I don’t identify with them as much as I do a male – for obvious reasons. That aside, it’s been on my mind and I’ve come to the conclusion on what is the best female performance for me. I think it’s Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. She’s absolutely outstanding and manages to play so many different aspects to character(s). Her work is simply stunning!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mark! I love your Polished Performances series. It’s unique and interesting and you generally remind me of a classic I haven’t seen for ages and want to give it a revisit. I think broadening your choices to include females is a great idea and I couldn’t agree with you more than with your choice of Naomi Watts– God, I love her as an actress! She’s awesome in everything.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Cate Blanchett is amazing. She gives Streep a run for her money, and I feel like the seams never show. She becomes the character. I’m speaking generally about all of the performances I’ve ever seen. I feel like Meryl Streep is also enormously gifted, but she has a tendency to go over the top if the material allows her the opportunity. Sometimes this works for her and sometimes it doesn’t. At least she’s always in the moment. Ingrid Bergman wins my vote for favorite classic actress. She’s brilliant in “Notorious” and says more in a look than most actresses say during lengthy monologue. “Autumn Sonata” is also a terrific Bergman performance. Catherine Keener is underrated and can give extremely nuanced performances. She’s best when allowed to be subtle. I’m missing a lot of people. — Here’s an anecdote about Judy Garland: When I was five, I told my mother that I was going to marry her. She replied that she had died years before I was even born and I cried the rest of the day.


    1. You and I have a lot in common! Ingrid is my all-time favorite, and I agree regarding Cate. In fact, I’d rather watch her than Meryl. Nice sound out for Catherine Keener. BJM, 40 YOV-and all the other small roles–she’s a beautiful actress. She seems relaxed and approachable. What a horribly funny anecdote! Considerng the relationship she had with her daughter, I’m not surprised.

      Liked by 1 person

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