The 30 Greatest Actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age

11. Greta Garbo


Like fellow Swedish actress, Ingrid Bergman, Garbo caught the attention of a Hollywood mogul thanks to her film work in her native country. She became a MGM star during the Silent Era, when Flesh and the Devil made her an international sensation.

Her first talkie was 1930’s Anna Christie, followed by Romance, both earning her the Academy’s attention. By 1932, Garbo was so popular she had a say on her assigned projects, something extremely rare for actors in the Old Hollywood days. However, the all-star Grand Hotel was impossible to pass and Garbo played one of her most famous characters, the dancer Grusinskaya who “wants to be alone”.

As the courtesan, Marguerite, in 1936’s Camille, Garbo was again Oscar nominated, but only three years later, Lubitsch’s Ninotchka would turn out to be her last grand role. The publicity shy star retired at only 35, she would never marry nor have children, still, through her short, but nonetheless impactful career, Garbo would attain immortality.


12. Judy Garland

The Wizard of Oz

Since her vaudeville days, Garland’s vocals were her most important asset. When the actress, who was born Frances Ethel Gumm, went the Hollywood way, she was barely 13 years old. After the initial difficulty Metro boss, Louis B Mayer, had to find her suitable roles, she was cast in a series of carefree musicals with Mickey Rooney, including Babes in Arms and a handful of the famed Andy Hardy films.

She ended up making over 20 films for MGM, most distinctively the revered The Wizard of Oz. Garland was awarded with a Juvenile Academy Award and nominated for Best Actress for what is considered her finest performance, in the 1954 remake of a Star is Born. Unfortunately, she led a difficult private life, with four divorces, self-esteem troubles and a barbiturates addiction that ultimately led to her premature death at only 47 years old, in 1969.


13. Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow

The original ‘Blonde Bombshell’ ran away from her Kansas City home at 16. She eloped with businessman Charles McGrew and the young couple moved to LA. Although the marriage did not last, Harlow soon found work as an actress.

Following her big break in Howard Hughes’ war film Hell’s Angels (1930), ‘Baby’, as she was nicknamed, soon became one of Metro’s top players. She worked with the likes of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy frequently, and some of her best remembered performances are comedic ones, such as in Dinner at Eight, Platinum Blonde, Libeled Lady and Bombshell.

At the height of her fame, while shooting Saratoga, Harlow began to feel ill. As a teenager she had had a case of scarlet fever, which might have led to the kidney disease she now battled. On June 7, 1937, the actress who was only 26, succumbed to a cerebral edema brought on by uremia.

The film had to be finished using a double and subsequently opened to record-breaking attendance numbers. Notwithstanding her short career, Harlow became a Hollywood symbol, having inspired many with her charisma and talent, among them, Marilyn Monroe, who called the platinum blonde her idol.


14. Olivia de Havilland

The Heiress (1949)

The older de Havilland sister was born in Japan to British parents, in 1916. The couple divorced and the girls’ poor health led mother Lilian to move them to the warmer climate of California. There, Max Reinhardt spotted a teenage Olivia in a school play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fascinated by her talent, the director asked her to play in his stage adaption and again in Warner Brother’s version of the Shakespearean play.

Olivia found great success at Warner, particularly beside Errol Flynn, with whom she shared the screen eight times, including the swashbuckler classics The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood. In 1939, the actress played what would become her most recognizable role, that of Melanie Wilkes of the legendary epic Gone With the Wind.

Although she was Oscar nominated that year and again for her work in Hold Back the Dawn, she lost both times, the latter ironically to her own sister. Olivia did end up winning two Academy Awards for her remarkable dramatic performances in To Each his Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949). The 99-year-old actress moved to Paris in 1960, where she still resides.


15. Susan Hayward

Susan Hayward

Brooklyn red-head Susan Hayward first worked as a fashion model before deciding to pursue acting. In 1937, she moved to the West Coast in hopes of getting the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. She failed, but after struggling for a few years, by the 1940’s she was already working in prestige productions such as Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind, with John Wayne.

Hayward’s career blossomed in the Post-War years. Her dramatic skills were praised in films like Smash-Up, The Story of a Woman; With a Song in My Heart; I’ll Cry Tomorrow and, evidently, in her most celebrated part, the prostitute sentenced to death, Barbara Graham, from I Want to Live!, for which she won her sole Oscar.

Sadly, Hayward died in 1975 of brain cancer at only 57. It’s often been speculated that the actress developed the condition from having come in contact with radioactivity, while shooting The Conqueror near St. George, Utah, where the government conducted nuclear tests. Many members of the cast, including John Wayne also died from the disease.


16. Rita Hayworth

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

“Every man I have ever known has fallen in love with Gilda and awakened with me”. As one can suspect from this quote, ‘The Love Goddess’ of the screen was in reality a self-proclaimed shy and sensitive woman. Margarita Carmen Cansino was born in 1918 to a couple of professional dancers, Rita’s mother wanted her to be an actress and her father hoped she would follow in his footsteps and become a dancer. Needless to say, no one was disappointed.

Hayworth was one of the most alluring stars from the 1940’s. She appeared in over 60 films, among them the quintessential Noir Gilda and the musicals Cover Girl and You Were Never Lovelier, in which she danced, respectively, alongside Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

In her personal life Hayworth was married twice, first to director Orson Welles and then to Prince Aly Khan, having become the first movie star-turned-princess, years before Grace Kelly. Rita died in 1987 from complications of Alzheimer’s; becoming the first major star to reveal her diagnosis, she contributed to public awareness of the disease and also helped to secure research funding.


17. Audrey Hepburn

Roman Holiday

Although best remembered by her fashion icon status and as the prostitute Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there was a lot more to Audrey Hepburn than the public may think. The Belgium-born actress helped the Dutch resistance during WWII and is widely regarded as one of the most devoted humanitarians in Hollywood History.

Her first protagonist role, in William Wyler’s Roman Holiday, made her the first actress to win an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for the same film. Hepburn then went on to star in a variety of parts, she proved herself competent in comedies, such as Charade and Love in the Afternoon, in dramas like Wait Until Dark and The Children’s Hour, musicals, dancing beside Fred Astaire in Funny Face, and even Westerns like The Unforgiven.

As time went on, she traded the Hollywood spotlight for poverty-stricken African districts, having become a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. Hepburn died from appendiceal cancer in Switzerland at 63 years-old.


18. Katharine Hepburn

bringing up baby

Katharine Hepburn holds the record for most Oscar wins in all acting categories; she was elected the most important female star of American Film and has often been called The First Lady of Cinema. Her independent and strong personality was the result of a progressive background; her mother was an active feminist and her father a doctor, who helped to build public awareness about venereal disease.

Hepburn caught the acting bug while attending Bryn Mawr College, the following years she worked on Broadway and soon saw herself a movie star, winning her first Best Actress Oscar for Morning Glory (1933). She had many memorable parts in the 1930’s like in Bringing Up Baby, Holiday and Stage Door, but her popularity died down and she was labeled “box-office poison”.

Hepburn’s triumphant comeback was in The Philadelphia Story, which marked the fourth and last time she shared the screen with Cary Grant. In the 1940’s, she became romantically involved with Spencer Tracy, with whom she would co-star 9 times, including Woman of the Year and Adam’s Rib.

She continued to work steadily throughout the rest of her career, and her other three Oscars were awarded for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter and On Golden Pond. In 2003, Hepburn died at 96 years old of natural causes.


19. Grace Kelly


Defying her conservative family, Kelly embarked on an acting career in the 1950’s when she was barely out of her teens. She found work on the NY stage and on TV, having playing in dozens of live broadcasts, before landing a lead role in 1953’s Mogambo, alongside Clark Gable.

Kelly had a short but impactful career on Film, being cited among the favorite actresses of Alfred Hitchcock, for whom she worked in Rear Window, Dial M For Murder and To Catch a Thief. She was awarded with an Oscar for her unglamorous turn in The Country Girl, beating favorite nominee Judy Garland for her work in A Star is Born.

Her last movie was 1956’s High Society with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The actress retired from the screen at 26 to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco; they had 3 children. In 1982, Kelly died at 52 in a car crash when she lost control of the vehicle after suffering a stroke.


20. Vivien Leigh

vivien leigh

Despite having been born to British parents in India, Leigh found acclaim playing two ‘southern belles’, first Scarlett O’Hara in the legendary Gone with the Wind and then Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. The two films ended up earning her Academy Awards as Best Actress.

The iconic beauty had a long and fruitful stage career. With second husband, renowned actor Laurence Olivier, Leigh starred in countless plays and 3 films: the British productions Fire Over England, 21 Days Together and That Hamilton Woman.

In Hollywood, the opportunities to showcase her talent were fewer, but two roles are note-worthy, first as the ballerina Myra from the war-time romance Waterloo Bridge and second as the flirtatious middle-aged divorcee from Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools, which turned out to be her last screen appearance. Leigh struggled most of her adult life with bipolar disorder and tuberculosis, the latter ended up taking her life in 1967, when she was just 53 years old.