The 20 Best Female Movie Performances of All Time

Cinema is full of great and compelling acting, and it is a substantial part of filmmaking. Wonderful actresses created characters with complex inner worlds full of contradictions and unique ways of behaving. Great actresses also find a way to match the tone that a specific film demands.

Here is a personal list of the greatest female performances of all time. What great performance do you think is missing and should appear in the list?


20. Dora van der Goren in Pauline & Paulette

In this Belgian film directed by Lieven Debrauwer, we see one of the most unique relationships among sisters in film history, one in which a “girl of 66 years old” named Pauline goes from the house of one of her sisters to the other, and neither of them wants to take care of her.

This character played by Dora van der Goren has a medical condition that involves a constant naïve behavior toward the world, and childish ways of expressing love and unconformity. The love that Pauline feels for her sister Paulette, and the consciousness of rejection, is wonderfully portrayed by the experienced van der Goren.


19. Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai

This masterpiece of noir cinema by Orson Welles gave Rita Hayworth the opportunity to play one of the most interesting and ambiguous femme fatales in film history. Hayworth created a character who constantly deceives and pretends to have honest intentions, while only she knew her true intentions.

The ambiguity of Elsa Bannister is built through the profound hate she feels toward her husband and the desire she pretends to have towards Michael O’Hara (Welles’ character). This goes even further to display Elsa in profound despair and desperation.


18. Natalie Portman in Black Swan

Black Swan (2010)

With “Black Swan” and the intensive process that it involved for the creation of the main character, Natalie Portman won her Oscar for Best Actress. The film is about a troubled ballet dancer with psychological struggles due to the tension of keeping the main part in the ballet theatre where she performs.

Portman faced the challenge of creating a character with an extremely dark side interacting with a naïve and weaker side. She wonderfully portrayed the derangement of the main character as the character she must play in the opera takes over her persona, building up to destructive behavior.


17. Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer

Kramer vs. Kramer

“Kramer vs. Kramer” gave Meryl Streep the opportunity to play a woman who faces the struggle of leaving her son and his husband after she had built her life around them. Streep’s character is facing an extremely hard decision, and after she comes back, the situation is again very difficult for her, as it involves mixed feeling of loving her son and also wanting to make the best decision for him.

In this film, two great characters were created by two great actors; Streep working with Dustin Hoffman gave cinema a film with some of the most memorable scenes; in it we see complex characters with inner worlds of affection and conflict interacting with each other.


16. Cate Blanchett in Carol

A unique development in a relationship between a younger woman and a more mature women is portrayed in this film by Todd Haynes. Cate Blanchett plays Carol Aird, a woman disenchanted with her life, and who finds a meaningful connection with a young woman named Therese, played by Rooney Mara. Blanchett gives an outstanding performance, slowly revealing the attraction her character feels for Therese, and creating a meaningful bond.

The character built by Blanchett is also one of great containment and subtlety, and thus Blanchett must convey her feelings through sometimes extremely subtle gestures that show her quality as an actress.


15. Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

a what ever happened to baby jane davis crawford

In 1962, a wonderful and unimaginable collaboration was released. Two of the greatest Hollywood Golden Age stars, who had been adversaries, co-starred in a film: “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” starring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. In this film, Davis delivers a mature and disturbing work as a drunk and troubled old woman who lives in the shadows of the past.

The character of Davis has a turbulent relationship with her sister (played by Crawford) and is constantly deranged as she starts acting as her younger self, and at the same time she becomes more and more dangerous and threatening.


14. Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love


The platonic relationship between two neighbors who discover that they are being cheated with each other’s partners is a film with two of the greatest roles in film history, one of which was played by Maggie Cheung. The relationship that Cheung’s character develops with Tony Leung’s one is one of glances and suggestive words.

The challenge is to build a strong bond of desire without touching, creating suggestive glances that convey both a connection and a prohibition, relying heavily on montage but also on Cheung. The film also gave Cheung the opportunity to create a character troubled by the pain of being cheated by her husband as she falls in love with a new man.


13. Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Jacques Demy’s cinema is composed of films that are on a different acting register from the rest of the film. Apart from being musicals, his films are profoundly melodramatic, and this led him to collaborate with talented actresses like Catherine Deneuve.

In “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” Deneuve plays a character who becomes more and more complex as the film goes on. Starting as an infatuated and naive young girl, Deneuve’s character develops into a disenchanted and mature woman who has experienced love as an ambiguous feeling that is both painful and joyful. This film is technically masterful as a singer and actress with a wide emotional range is displayed at its highest.


12. Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel

The Blue Angel

It was with Josef von Sternberg’s film “The Blue Angel” that Marlene Dietrich became the attention center of the entire world. She made other films with more mature roles and with a more mature conception of cinema, but this film is the one that started the myth of Marlene Dietrich.

She surprised the world with her natural sensuality and the way in which she interacted with the other characters. The seduction that was needed from the character became a signature for Dietrich and shaped her outstanding career.


11. Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca

Casablanca (1942)

The memorable character of Ilsa Lund that appears in “Casablanca,” as the former lover of a troubled man named Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart), is one of the most memorable performances by Ingrid Bergman.

In this film, the unforgettable star creates a character who stars in two love stories and faces a moment in which these two stories come to a critical situation. Ilsa is completely devoted to one man and must face the resentment of a former lover for whom she stills cares deeply. The mixed feeling also interacts with the pride and character of Ilsa, which Bergman wonderfully portrays, delivering unforgettable and moving scenes throughout the film.