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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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