At Thistle’s Christmas party, we did not simply cook for 16 hours, we determined to make a list of the great film actresses of sound cinema history. Clearly, any compilation of this kind is clearly a subjective one, and anyone reading this may very well disagree with our results. Everyone has the right to their own opinion, but please understand that if you disagree with our findings, you are, simply, wrong.
We began by compiling a list of all the actresses we have found to be exceptional over our combined 80 years of watching film. This was our Magna Carta, our Rosetta Stone.
We began by compiling our list, then, at random, over a delightful steak dinner to which Thistle treated me–crab cake, roasted beet salad, medium rare filet mignon drenched in béarnaise for me and Kobe style flank steak smothered in mushrooms for Thistle, supplemented by a jumbo baked potato with all the accoutrements–we reduced our long list to a short one. Thistle informed me that this was the way of the “fantasy football league”, a concept as distant to me as the pole of Antarctica. Winnowing our shortlist to a final ten was not without moment to either of us: Thistle and I both had to make our Sophie’s choice; I relinquished Julie Andrews, he surrendered Cher. At long last, over the new year, we agreed upon the pinnacle of ladies, and thus, I present them. As I have a blog, and Thistle does not, the comments are mine, and mine alone. Each actress is listed alphabetically: upon reaching this zenith, their laurels are equal.
At the beginning of her career, Ms Davis was described as a “little brown wren.” No descriptive could have been less accurate, as this powerhouse performer proved. A two-time Academy Award winner, for Dangerous (though everyone agreed it was a consolation prize for her loss in Of Human Bondage) and Jezebel (her audition for the part of Scarlett O’Hara), Bette proved herself both heartbreaking in films like Dark Victory and Now, Voyager–potboilers she made classy and classic–and horrifying in the likes of The Little Foxes and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Ever one to buck the system, Bette Davis will forever be remembered for two characters: Margo Channing in All About Eve (possibly the wittiest and most erudite screenplay ever written) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (the greatest grande dame Guignol film of them all.)
Had Judy Garland never made a film after The Wizard of Oz, she would still be known today. However, she continued on to film such classics as Meet Me in St Louis, The Harvey Girls, and The Pirate, before filming a remake of A Star is Born. This film, and in particular, its restoration showed Ms Garland’s range: Born in a Trunk may be the best extended musical number in history. Such films as The Clock, Presenting Lily Mars, and Judgment at Nuremberg prove that Judy was more than just a singer. While Judy’s life was cut tragically short by drug addiction–one whose genesis began with her own mother and Louis B Mayer–her death, in part, instigated the Stonewall riots: the beginning of gay liberation. Judy Garland will always be remembered for her performances of two of the most popular songs of all time: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and Over the Rainbow.
Kate is the most accoladed actress in cinema history, winning an unrivalled 4 Academy awards for best actress. Curiously, she waited over 40 years between her first and her second, and was deemed box office poison during much of the 30s, achieving a renaissance financed by Howard Hughes in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story. Ms Hepburn was equally adept at both comedy and drama, always adding a touch of class to both. She had marvelous partnerships with Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy, spawning such films as Bringing up Baby, Holiday, Adam’s Rib, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Kate indirectly received a fifth Oscar when Cate Blanchett won best supporting actress for her portrayal of Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator.
It may be considered odd that an actress primarily known for her stagework might be considered in this list, but Vivien Leigh was the cinematic embodiment of what are arguably the two greatest roles of the twentieth century, and she won Academy Awards for both. Ms Leigh was given the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind at the end of a nationwide search for an actress to play the role, and she also embodied the negative image of Scarlett’s will to survive in Tennessee William’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Streetcar Named Desire. Ms Leigh also shone in such films as Waterloo Bridge, Sidewalks of London, and Ship of Fools. She was one half of the “romance of the century” engaging in an affair and marriage with Laurence Olivier. Vivien Leigh suffered from bipolarism and tuberculosis, drowning in her sleep in 1967.
Maggie Smith has become the quintessential member of the British upper crust in such films as A Room With a View, Richard III, Tea With Mussolini, and Gosford Park, not to mention her impeccable and multi-award winning performance as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham in television’s popular serial Downton Abbey. Curious to consider that she has won her two Academy Awards for the bohemian fascist in the eponymous …Jean Brodie and as an alcoholic actress in Neil Simon’s California Suite. She has another opportunity this year, but will be forever known to the current generation as JK Rowling’s Professor Minerva McGonigall in the Harry Potter series… BOOM!
Meryl Streep has been nominated for more Academy Awards than any other actress, and has won 3, 2 for best actress, and 1 for supporting. She is equally at home in both comedy (Mamma Mia!) and tragedy (Sophie’s Choice.) She has played such historical figures as Karen Silkwood, Karen Blixen, and Margaret Thatcher. I believe that I paraphrase Anthony Lane when I state that she’s never met an accent she was afraid to tackle. She is as sacred to us in America as all the cows in India. Whatever else she may have done, I am personally grateful to her for making the world fall in love again with the immortal Julia Child.
Ms Thompson’s origins were in Cambridge sketch comedy with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. She gained notoriety in her then husband Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean endeavours, before taking a memorable role in James Lapine’s Impromptu: “stupid, stupid rain.” The Merchant-Ivory film Howard’s End brought her her first of 2 Academy Awards (this one for best actress, her other for best adapted screenplay in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility.) Emma Thompson’s roles have ranged from the sympathetic (in Love Actually)to the amnesia (in Dead Again) to the historic (the eponymous Carrington) to the frigid (Lady Marchmain in the rather bad except for Emma Thompson movie version of Brideshead Revisited) to the domestic (in Remains of the Day) to the bizarre (Sibyl Trelawney in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.)
I cannot tell you why Kathleen Turner has never received an Oscar. Why her performances in Prizzi’s Honour, Body Heat, The Accidental Tourist, or Peggy Sue Got Married didn’t earn her that elusive gold statue are a mystery to me. She is marvelous in such commercial enterprises as Romancing the Stone or War of the Roses. Her sexpot image extends from Body Heat (even gay men lusted after her) to Who Framed Roger Rabbit (even gay men lusted after her.) But for me, Beverly Sutfin in Serial Mom holds a special place in my heart. The film presupposes America’s obsession with false celebrity and satirizes the role of the mother in society. It’s amazingly astute and it’s also incredibly funny: I need only hear “Pussywillows, Dotty..” to bring both a shiver to my spine and a chuckle to my lips.
Ms Wiest and Woody Allen have been very good to each other over the years. Not only has he earned her two Oscars, for Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway, but she’s also played memorable roles in Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days, and September. I first saw her in Footloose, where she reminded me of Olivia DeHavilland, and, more than anything, I adore her in Edward Scissorhands, where she is the heart and soul of the film.
Kate Winslet is the youngest of our selection, but has already done amazing work. From her breakthrough performance in Beautiful Creatures (the film that vomited Peter Jackson upon the world) to the sensitive sister of Sense and Sensibility to her blockbuster role in Titanic, to her Oscar winning role in The Reader, Ms Winslet has shown us that she is willing to be raw; from her self-satirization in tv’s Extras to her pultrifying performance in Revolutionary Road, few actresses have shown her fearlessness. One can only look forward to what she brings to us in the years to come!
Even writing this post, I wonder to myself, wherefore Faye Dunaway, whyfore Annette Bening? Or Audrey Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, or Julia Roberts? But Thistle and I thought long and hard upon our decisions, and sweat and bled over them. We stand by them, and to quote one of our actress’ award winning characters, our ladies are the “creme de la creme!”