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The 10 Best Female Movie Performances of All Time

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

5. Anna Karina in “My Life to Live” (1962)

Anna Karina is probably the most iconic actress from the Nouvelle Vague. Appearing in many films directed by Jean-Luc Godard, in 1962 she starred in “My Life to Live” (a.k.a. “Vivre sa Vie”) and delivered one of the best performances in cinema history.

In this episodic movie divided into 12 parts, we follow the story of a woman who lives in Paris and starts to slowly become a prostitute. With many iconic scenes, “My Life to Live” is carried brilliantly by Karina, who is able to provide subtle nuances and fill the screen with a sad and oblivious atmosphere, while bringing to life Nana as a very philosophical and powerful character.

“My Life to Live” is without a doubt one of the movies that show how great of an actress Karina is and her performance in this film should definitely be considered among the best in history.

Other notable performances by the actress:

– Alphaville (1965); directed by Jean-Luc Godard
– Pierrot le Fou (1965); directed by Jean-Luc Godard


4. Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind” (1939)


Vivien Leigh won two Oscars for two of the most iconic roles in the history of film: Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” (1939) and Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951). Both performances could easily be in an article like this, but today we’re talking about the first one.

Directed by Victor Fleming, “Gone with the Wind” is an adaptation of the novel from 1936 written by Margaret Mitchell. The movie follows the story of the complicated relationship between a man and a woman during the American Civil War.

Leigh’s portrait of such a complex character as Scarlett O’Hara is definitely one of the most impressive performances in cinema history. From scenes taken over by silence to impactful moments where she is able to completely take the screen to herself, Leigh’s performance in “Gone with the Wind” should definitely be considered among the best in cinema history.

Other notable performances by the actress:

– Waterloo Bridge (1940); directed by Mervyn LeRoy
– A Streetcar Named Desire (1951); directed by Elia Kazan


3. Giulietta Masina in “The Nights of Cabiria” (1957)

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

Giulietta Masina is truly one the best and most acclaimed actresses in history and many of her performances could be on this list. But the chosen one was her performance as Maria in “The Nights of Cabiria.”

The movie follows the story of a prostitute who is trying to find true love through the streets of Rome but only finds sorrow. She is left to drown by her boyfriend after being robbed by him, but still tries to find happiness in this cruel world.

Masina’s performance is so subtle and full of silences that it is really astonishing to watch her work. Beyond being a great film with amazing directing by Federico Fellini, the best thing about “The Nights of Cabiria” is without a doubt Masina being marvelous once again on the silver screen.

For the extraordinary performance as a woman in pursuit of joy, Masina definitely deserves to be remembered among not only the best performances in the history of film, but always among the best actresses of all time.

Other notable performances by the actress:

– La Strada (1954); directed by Federico Fellini
– Juliet of the Spirits (1965); directed by Federico Fellini


2. Maria Falconetti in “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)

The Passion of Joan of Arc

In this film, everything is transmitted by Maria Falconetti’s expressions in order to tell one of the most famous stories in history. This film follows the story of the martyr Jeanne D’Arc from the beginning of her trial to her death. It is not rare to see this performance being considered the best in film history, or at least to be considered very near the top spot. And it is just fair.

In this silent film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Falconetti is able to deliver a powerful performance in complete silence. With looks, tears and expressions that are truly beyond words to transmit the feelings of faith and fear. And her performance becomes even more powerful due to the choice of Dreyer to film her most of the time in close-ups.

There really aren’t words to describe how astonishing Falconetti’s performance is in this movie, but her portrait of Joan of Arc definitely deserves a place among the best performances in the history of film.


1. Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974)

A Woman Under the Influence

Is Gena Rowlands as Mabel in “A Woman Under the Influence” the best female performance of all time? If not, it is surely one of the best.

Directed by John Cassavetes and starring Rowlands as a mentally unstable woman who sees her life falling apart because of her mental health, “A Woman Under the Influence” has definitely one of the most powerful performances in the history of film.

Rowlands is so astonishing in the leading role that the audience is able to feel perfectly how her life is breaking down alongside her mental health. This film can surely be considered an acting lesson by one of the best actresses in history.

“A Woman Under the Influence” is a masterpiece directed by Cassavetes and has a perfect performance by Rowlands. Definitely one of the best female performances in the history of cinema.

Other notable performances by the actress:

– Faces (1968); directed by John Cassavetes
– Opening Night (1977); directed by John Cassavetes

Honorable Mentions:

– Janet Gaynor in “7th Heaven” (1927), “Sunrise” (1927) and “Street Angel” (1928)
– Kim Novak in “Vertigo” (1958)
– Liv Ullmann in “Persona” (1966)
– Naomi Watts in “Mulholland Drive” (2001)
– Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour” (2012)

Author bio: Vítor Guima is a filmmaker, writer and musician from São Paulo, Brazil. Every day he watches a movie, reads a few pages from a book, listens to an album and freaks out with the feeling of not having enough time to see everything. You can follow him on Instagram on @ovitorguima.



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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
      The Piano
      Ugetsu Monogatary
      Poetry 2010 Korean
      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 !