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The 10 Best Female Movie Performances of All Time

24 November 2017 | Features, Other Lists | by Vitor Guima

This article is here to explore and talk about some of the best female performances in the history of film.

As always, many things interfere in the choice of the performances in an article like this one. But as usual, the main ones are memory and personal preferences. If you think any other female performance should be on this list, please leave it in the comments section below.

So here are the 10 best female performances of all time.

 

10. Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” (1942)

In one of the most iconic films of all time, Ingrid Bergman delivers one of the best performances in cinema history.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, “Casablanca” follows the story of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a man who runs a nightclub in Morocco during World War II, and his cafe is a place where refugees try to obtain letters that will help them escape to the United States. One day, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), Rick’s former lover, and her husband appear at his club, and he will have a very difficult decision to make.

Ilsa Lund is just one of the many iconic roles Bergman played in her life. But still, this is probably the most iconic of all. From every line, as simple as they might appear to be, Bergman is able to make them as meaningful as possible and to make them as beautiful as they are hurtful at some moments.

That makes her performance as Ilsa Lund definitely one of the best of all time.

Other notable performances by the actress:

– Notorious (1946); directed by Alfred Hitchcock
– Europe ’51 (1952); directed by Roberto Rossellini

 

9. Bette Davis in “All About Eve” (1950)

all-about-eve-1950

This film, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, is undoubtedly a Hollywood classic.

Following the story of Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis) who becomes friends with Eve (Anne Baxter), a woman who approaches her with not the best of intentions, “All About Eve” is one of the most iconic stories about the backstages of showbiz.

In this film, Davis is just superb – even more superb than she was in films like “Jezebel” (1938), “Now, Voyager” (1942) or “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), performances that could easily be in this article.

Her nuances while portraying this aging star are so powerful that in some moments of the film, no words are needed. Just the way Margo looks at Eve during the award ceremony where the film starts and ends shows how brilliant of an actress Davis was and how her performance as Margo Channing should definitely be on this list.

Other notable performances by the actress:

– Jezebel (1938); directed by William Wyler
– Now, Voyager (1942); directed by Irving Rapper
– What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962); directed by Robert Aldrich

 

8. Isabelle Huppert in “The Piano Teacher” (2001)

the-piano-teacher

Isabelle Huppert is just brilliant. From the beginning of her career in the 70s to delivering the amazing performances in recent years in movies such as “Louder than Bombs” (2015), “Things to Come” (2016), “Elle” (2016) and “Happy End” (2017), there seems to be nothing she can’t do.

In 2001 she starred in the film “The Piano Teacher,” for which she won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival of that year, and that is still the best performance of her career.

In the film, we follow the story of pianist Erika Kohut (Huppert), a woman who lives with her mother and is reaching middle age. She is severe with her students and one day she meets Walter, a student who auditions for her class and becomes attracted to her. From that moment on, the two will develop a complex and dangerous relationship.

The refinement of Huppert’s performance on this film is something simply breathtaking. How she is able to transmit the complex feelings of her character so amazingly well is something that definitely makes her deserve a place on an article like this.

That makes Isabelle Huppert as Erika Kohut in “The Piano Teacher” number eight on our list.

Other notable performances by the actress:

– Story of Women (1988); directed by Claude Chabrol
– La Cérémonie (1995); directed by Claude Chabrol
– Elle (2016); directed by Paul Verhoeven

 

7. Juliette Binoche in “Blue” (1993)

three-colors-blue

The start to one of the best movie trilogies of all time has also one of the best performances in history.

“Blue” (1993) is the beginning of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors Trilogy” and follows the story of a woman that has to find meaning in her life after the death of her child and her husband.

Juliette Binoche is one of the greatest actresses of all time, and in this film she is simply outstanding by being able to absorb and transfer all of the blue atmosphere of this film.

The sadness and the search for hope while trying to overcome grief are things so unique in Binoche’s performance that her performance as Julie Vignon on “Blue” definitely deserves a place among the best in the history of film.

Other notable performances by the actress:

– Code Unknown (2000); directed by Michael Haneke
– Certified Copy (2010); directed by Abba Kiarostami

 

6. Katharine Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter” (1968)

The Lion in Winter

Katharine Hepburn should always be remembered as one of the best actresses of all time.

Being the only actress in history to win four Oscars for Best Actress in a Leading Role, including for “The Lion in Winter,” Hepburn is definitely a legend.

Directed by Anthony Harvey and based on the play by James Goldman, “The Lion in Winter” follows the story of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole), who, during Christmas time in 1183, is about to announce his successor to the throne. But many conspiracies will make this choice more complex than it seemed at first, especially because his wife, Queen Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn), has plans that are different from his.

Although it’s not a movie as great as the performances in it, “The Lion in Winter” is almost entirely based on dialogue and has such amazing moments especially in the scenes between Hepburn and O’Toole.

Every line Queen Eleanor says shows how powerful she is and show the energy of Hepburn’s performance. From taking advantage of the feeling Eleanor has of being left behind, there is absolutely nothing Hepburn is unable to bring to the screen in her performance. Scene after we scene we become more and more sure that we are without a doubt watching one of the best actresses in history.

An article about the best female performances in the history of film could not be complete without Katharine Hepburn.

Other notable performances by the actress:

– The Philadelphia Story (1940); directed by George Cukor
– Woman of the Year (1942); directed by George Stevens
– Suddenly, Last Summer (1960); directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
– On Golden Pond (1981); directed by Ethel Thayer

 

 

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  • Mortimer

    Big YES to Gena Rowlands and Giulietta Masina !
    I’ll add:
    Gloria Swanson – Sunset Boulevard
    Jeanne Moreau – Jules and Jim
    Ingrid Thulin – Cries and Whispers
    Meryl Streep – Sophie’s Choice
    Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

    • AmazingAmy

      Every Ingmar Bergman female performances !!!
      Who Afraid of Virginia Wolf
      Mullholland Drive
      Breaking The Waves
      Fargo
      The Piano
      Ugetsu Monogatary
      Poetry 2010 Korean
      Monster
      Sunset Boulevard
      Star Is Born
      Far From Heaven
      Sophie Choice

  • Ricardo Correia

    Bergman being here for Casablanca is ridicolous

    • Mortimer

      ‘Casablanca’ is her most iconic for sure but she had better performances in ‘Gaslight’, ‘Notorious’ and ‘Autumn Sonata’. And in Rossellini trilogy also.
      Never liked her in ‘Anastasia’, she was terribly miscast there in my opinion. But it was “Academy friendly” and there you go…

  • jeyaganesh rajamanickam

    Frances McDormand in Fargo!

  • Zwei

    Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann in ‘Autumn Sonata’ (1978)

  • Ricardo Correia

    Bergman being here for Casablanca is ridicolous, so is Hepburn
    Jeanne Moreau, cinema’s greatest actress should be here, with preference to One Day You Will Understand.
    Charlize Theron omission for Monster is unforgivable, also Irene Jacob (The Double Life Of Veronique) and Simone Signoret for Room At The Top (the best performance of the 50s), and the list should include at least another performance from the silent era (Garbo deserves to be in the list for her work)

  • Alain

    Kathy Burke in ‘Nil By Mouth’.

  • Vincenzo Politi

    Isabelle Adjani for Possession (and, actually, many many others).

  • Mayur Kashyap

    Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion.
    Carmen Maura in What Have I Done To Deserve This? and Volver.

  • Abeetz

    Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia

  • Abeetz

    Amy Adams…The Master

  • Pieter Van Esbroeck

    Merryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice should really be on this list.

  • nobody

    Julianne Moore – Magnolia

  • Guillermo Esposito

    Gloria Swanson, in Sunset Blvd. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Kosta Jovanovic

    So glad to see Gena Rowlands here

  • Adam

    Charlize Theron – Monster

  • Le Blanc

    What? No Jessica Alba or Megan Fox? :-p

  • Adrian

    Here are a few of my favorites:

    Mery Streep – Bridges Of Madison County
    Cate Blanchett – Heaven
    Emily Watson – The Boxer (or whatever)
    Frances McDormand – Fargo
    Jodie Foster – The Accused
    Anne Bancroft – The Graduate
    Dianne Keaton – Annie Hall

  • Ben Friedman

    Here are some I’d add

    Faye Dunaway – Bonnie and Clyde
    Diane Keaton – Annie Hall
    Vivien Leigh – Streetcar Named Desire
    Mia Farrow – Rosemary’s Baby
    Ruth Gordon – Rosemary’s Baby
    Frances McDormand – Fargo
    Jodie Foster – Silence of the Lambs
    Louise Fletcher – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
    Cate Blanchett – The Aviator
    Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
    Shelley Duvall – The Shining
    Essie Davis – The Babadook
    Shelley Winters – A Patch of Blue
    Viola Davis – Fences

  • Miroslav Maric

    Emily Watson – Breaking the waves !!!

  • Tom Hoša

    Charlize Theron – Monster
    Lisa Bonet – Angel Heart
    Joan Allen – Nixon

  • Emiliano Aguilar

    Gloria Swanson – sunset blvd.
    Marion Cotillard – La vie en rose
    Meryl Streep – The bridges of Madison County
    Ellen Burstyn – Requiem for a dream
    Greta Garbo – Ninotchka
    Setsuko Hara – Late spring; Tokyo monogatari
    Anne Bancroft – The miracle worker

  • Abe Moses

    Isabelle Adjani in Possession

  • Krishnanjan Pramanik

    Setsuko Hara – Tokyo Story
    Sally Hawkins – Happy Go Lucky
    Imelda Staunton – Vera Drake
    Tilda Swinton – Snowpiercer
    Madhabi Mukherjee – The Big City
    Irene Jacob – The Double life of Veronique

    ….and so many more……..:/

  • Bobby Calloway

    Underrated pick – Emily Blunt in Sunshine Cleaning. Subtle but so brilliant.

  • Ted Wolf

    Fantastic list. I don’t happen to agree 100% but all of them are easily in the top 50 of all time

  • Camilo

    Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice are criminal omissions

  • Alen Tudja

    Liv Ullman in Cries and Whispers and Persona.

  • Special_One

    A list of best female movie performances without Marion Cotillard? Blasphemy!

  • Dave

    All fine performances, but with Hepburn I’d have to go with Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Mary Tyrone was a tourtured soul and it was a real stretch for Hepburn. Also I’d pick Streetcar over GWTW for Leigh for the same reason. GWTW is so campy and melodramatic and so is Leigh which all kind of works somehow, but she had to dig deep for Blanche in. Streetcar

  • Walkabout

    Emily Watson – Breaking the Waves

  • Zane Snow

    Sigourney Weaver, alien

  • Jiian Cruz Francisco

    Oksana Akinshina in Lilya 4-Ever (2002)
    Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria Full of Grace (2004)

  • brothernamederised

    A few more that would’ve been worthy of inclusion (narrowing it down to just 10 is so challenging anyway):

    – Agata Kulesza, Ida
    – Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog
    – Amy Adams, American Hustle
    – Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia
    – Inma Cuesta, The Bride
    – Susan Fleetwood, The Sacrifice
    – Adriana Barraza, Babel
    – Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
    – Isabelle Adjani, Possession
    – Kristin Scott-Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long

  • Heber

    Charlize Theron in Monster !