The job of a character actress is to add spice and flavor to a movie so that audiences won’t notice that they have eaten this same meal a thousand times before. They may be comic actresses, or British, or old, or they might look just look too normal. Otherwise they are too iconoclastic, too weird: rebels working within the system. They might be experts at playing a type. They might be masters of disguise. They are cast as the best friend, the boss, the secretary, the teacher, the sister, the nemesis, the mother, but they rarely are cast as the lead. When they do, most likely it is in an independent film. But, the good news is that their parts are the interesting parts.
Some, though, have broken through the barriers and become stars. If that is the case, they are not to be found here. Holly Hunter, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Toni Collette, Melissa McCarthy, and Cate Blanchett did not make the list.
And of course, there are so many more worthy contenders that did not make the cut. This is a list of 30 Greats, not “the 30 Greatest,” or “the Only 30 Great.” That said, my apologies to Agnes Moorehead, Octavia Spencer, Marcia Gay Harden, Rosie Perez, Linda Hunt, Eleanor Bron, Margaret Rutherford, Anna Magnani, Teri Garr, and, of course, Divine, for the lack of inclusion.
30. Joan Cusack
For 30 years, Joan Cusack has created a comic parade of high strung, manic or put-upon women such as the jilted bride in In & Out, the oblivious and isolated principal in School of Rock, and as a villain truly worthy of the Addams Family—all sugar, spice and homicide– in Addams Family Values. Her comic sensibilities have been honed to near perfection. Take as an example the way she talks on the phone while dousing her desk with gasoline in Grosse Point Blank. It’s expertly played and perfect for her, since she is great at playing tense women in extreme circumstances, and is so often cast as secretaries.
A unique aspect of her career is her tendency to appear in movies alongside her brother John. When they appear together there is a strange electricity that can only happen when one has known their co-star for literally their entire life.
29. Ruth Gordon
A playwright and stage actress who spent most of her career merely dabbling in Hollywood, including playing Mary Todd in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, before finally gaining fame in her twilight years playing a series of brash and eccentric old ladies.
She garnered her Oscar in 1968 for her gaudy and giddy Satanist ushering in the anti-Christ in Rosemary’s Baby. Her greatest fame came three years later when she played the unstoppable Dame Maude Chardin in Harold & Maude, cinema’s favorite manic pixie dream septuagenarian.
28. Mary Woronov
Woronov started out as one of Andy Warhol’s Superstars co-starring in his intimate epic Chelsea Girls. Released at the dawn of the Viet Nam War, Woronov’s character was named Hanoi Hannah. Thus began a long career of good offensive fun. She was a master of vehicular manslaughter in Death Race 2000. She blew up mice with Ramones music in Rock’n’Roll High School . She fed yuppies to other yuppies in Eating Raoul. She did all the wrong things right, and she did it with a devilish smirk on her face.
In recent years, this midnight movie queen has been sought out by directors like Rob Zombie and Ti West to lend a little bit of high class deviancy and cult credibility to their 70’s-retro horror films.
27. June Squibb
Jack Nicholson may be the biggest movie star in the world. You can tell by the combination of terror and admiration found in his co-star’s eyes. But you won’t see it in June Squibb’s. When she was cast to play his wife in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, she treats him not as a poorly disguised celebrity, but like a husband who has grown invisible with decades of familiarity. 11 years later, Payne rewarded her with a much larger part playing opposite another legendary actor-this time Bruce Dern- in Nebraska. Her Kate Grant is kind yet sarcastic, patient yet fierce, down home yet profane. Very very profane.
It only took Squibb fifty-some years working as a stage actress and movie bit player before she performed in Nebraska. It seems a proper reward for a lifetime of service, a reward as much for the audience as it is for her.
26. Cloris Leachman
Though she had been acting on stage and television for over two decades, Cloris Leachman had little film experience when she appeared as Ruth Popper in The Last Picture Show. This didn’t stop her from creating one of the most flawless character arcs ever put to film. Ruth is a childless middle aged house wife who embarks on a misguided love affair with a high school student, causing her to bloom and inevitably wilt before the audience’s eyes.
After collecting her best supporting actress Oscar, she decided to have some fun by playing the mysterious Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein, and has for the last forty years proven herself to be one of the finest comic actors in America.
25. Natasha Lyonne
Wild haired and raspy voiced, Natasha Lyonne is pretty young to be put on a list of the all-time greats (35 years old), but from an early age she seems to have steered her career away from glamour and towards the type of outsider who mocks the glamourous. She could do neurosis well enough by the age of 16 to narrate a Woody Allen film (Everyone Says I Love You). She was poor and pubescent among the rich in The Slums of Beverly Hills. She was the girl too smart to get mixed up with the adolescent hijinks of American Pie. The one time she played a girlie role was to subvert it in the campy lesbian comedy But I’m a Cheerleader.
After this promising start, Lyonne spent a number of years in the wilderness, before embarking on her career’s second act, playing an inmate in Orange Is the New Black. As with most prison movies and television shows, it is filled with actors who all have the potential of being in the next wave of great character actresses.
24. Amanda Plummer
Amanda Plummer quivers. In the parts she plays, at least. Her voice, her body, her eyes. It’s a strange thing to be typecast as, the quivering woman, but she’s a strange actress. This frailty has always been her strength since her debut in The World According to Garp. Later she played Robin Williams’ bashful love interest Lydia in The Fisher King, the shell-shocked electronics expert in Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and the madly in love stick-up artist in Pulp Fiction.
But, she can and will turn this frailty around quickly. In Pulp Fiction’s opening scene, there is initially nothing about her that seems dangerous, but once the robbery begins her tiny quivering voice becomes a banshee howl strong enough to make an entire coffee shop’s occupants (save one) quiver like a bunch of Amanda Plummer characters.
23. Kathryn Hahn
Kathryn Hahn elevates a scene merely by entering it, bringing a fearless energy to all of her performances. Ever since she stole a couple of scenes from Will Ferrell in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, she has been a comedy ringer playing small parts in a slew of Appatovian comedies (Step Brothers, Our Idiot Brother, Wanderlust, etc).
This does not mean that she’s above using her Yale education to do the occasional drama (Revolutionary Road). Last year, she showed she can do marathon roles as well as her usual short sprints when she finally received a starring role in the comic drama Afternoon Delight.
22. Greta Gerwig
There is a fun, obscure little horror movie called House of the Devil. It’s a pastiche of horror styles with a little Suspiria, a dash of Repulsion, and a whole lot of Halloween. Like those movies it revolves around a rigid virgin protagonist who floats through a creepy world isolated from most people. But then she walks… a blonde girl playing the best friend, and the movie explodes with life. It is Greta Gerwig, rolling her eyes, chomping on fries, slouching, smirking and not sitting like a lady. Though Gerwig is too young to remember the type of woman she is playing, she embodies the poise-free 20-year old of the Carter era.
Gerwig is the type of actress that flummoxes Hollywood. Luckily, she is not reliant on big time movie producers, tending to work in the indie/mumblecore scene. She’ll oftentimes co-write her own movies as she did for Noah Baumbach in Frances Ha playing the title character, a dancer stumbling towards wisdom. She is the perfect funny-sad woman for Baumbach’s funny-sad films.
21. Whoopi Goldberg
Whoopi Goldberg has been a television personality for so long it is easy to forget that she was once an actress, and a great actress at that. It’s not that people generally think of her as a bad actress. It is because Whoopi has such a huge personality that it is hard to believe that she can hide it behind a character.
It is true that many of her film performances are variations on the theme of Whoopi (wise, funny, no-nonsense, dominant) such as Sister Act, The Player and Soapdish. She even won an Oscar for playing a slightly more stressed out version of Whoopi (and for expertly acting opposite an empty space) in Ghost. Why should Goldberg play any other character when she has Whoopi down so well?
Because she can, that’s why. She started her career doing one-woman shows in which she portrayed a range of diverse characters. She contained multitudes that demanded to get out. All the proof needed of her range is the vast difference between the meek and downtrodden Celie Harris in The Color Purple and the dignified Merlie Evers in Ghosts of Mississippi. She is a wonderful combination of a character actress who plays a type, and a character actress who can get lost in the part.