The 20 Best Female Movie Performances of All Time

10. Nicole Kidman in Dogville

DogvillePhoto Credit: Rolf Konow

In this film by Lars von Trier, Nicole Kidman plays a woman who arrives in a troubled town in which she develops dark and abusive relationships. She must remain hidden and thus ask for help of the villagers, who go from a contained discomfort to an explicit abuse in exchange of their help.

Kidman plays a character who is conscious of the way in which she is slowly being turned into an object, but she passes through this process silently. A moving and devastating film, with a memorable part by Kidman.


9. Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story

In this great classic of Hollywood’s Golden Age, there are many wonderful parts; both Cary Grant and James Stewart appear in the film, but it is Katharine Hepburn’s character who leads the story. “The Philadelphia Story” is a portrait of the lack of satisfaction of a sophisticated life full of luxuries, and the childish behavior from Hepburn’s character.

Through the film she has bitter interactions with her former husband, her fiancé, and other men interested in her, experiencing a process of self-knowledge in which she leaves behind her childish behavior and her concern for material things, delivering the memorable line, “I feel like a human.”


8. Bibi Andersson in Persona

Bibi Andersson as Alma in Persona

“Persona” is one of the densest films in Bergman’s filmography; it displays the relationship between two women, one of whom has decided to remain completely silent, and the other, a nurse played by Bibi Andersson, tries to make her talk.

The character played by Andersson has a very complex relationship with the other woman, played by Liv Ullmann, and as she is the only one talking, she slowly reveals herself to her. In the process of revealing herself, Andersson must show how her character develops mixed feelings of attraction and hatred toward the silent woman. By the end of the film, the line between the characters has melted, involving an even deeper work of character creation.


7. Liv Ullmann in Cries and Whispers

Cries and Whispers

“Cries and Whispers” is one of the best films in the world of painful relationships and existential dreads that Ingmar Bergman created. It displays the interaction between distanced sisters, one of which is dying. Liv Ullman plays one of the sisters and creates a deeply troubled character, full of resentment but also with some kind of affection toward her sisters.

This film is known for being one of the greatest character studies in film history, possibly thanks to the talent with which Ullman was able to create fictional human beings who could interact organically with the other characters and their surroundings.


6. Setsuko Hara in Tokyo Story

Tokyo Story (1953)

In this masterpiece by Yasujirō Ozu, Setsuko Hara plays another one of the characters named Noriko; the tone is consistent with the rest of the film by Ozu, in which the characters contain their sorrows being smiles and share meaningful silences.

Hara gives face to a young widow who takes care of her sick husband while they visit Tokyo; in her interaction, she shows kindness to them while she tries to hide the solitude in which she lives. Hara’s performance is a beautiful landmark for a unique way of portraying a character, a contained but extremely meaningful way, as the cinema of Ozu itself.


5. Juliette Binoche in Blue


In this masterpiece by Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, co-written with his long time collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, one of the greatest transformation arches was created with a character name Julie, played by the great Juliette Binoche. The transformation involves constant sorrow due to the loss of her family, which implies a constant presence of the past.

Through the film, Julie frees herself from the influence of the past, building a new life. Binoche perfectly portrayed the struggle to move after a tragic loss, and the process of building a new self after a loss of such magnitude; the sadness and inner struggle of Julie are portrayed with a subtle and yet expressive acting technique.


4. Isabelle Huppert in La Pianiste

Isabelle Huppert (La pianiste)

This film by Michael Haneke displays a complex relation full of ambiguity, violence, and desire between a piano teacher and her student. The relationship of the piano teacher with her sexuality and the way it develops through her relationship with the student needed an actress with the maturity and experience of Isabelle Huppert.

There are several scenes in the film in which Huppert’s character has sexual intercourse with the student, but with a very specific behavior; in the scenes, there is not only desire but also a constant containment. Huppert created a character that at the same time that reveals a sexual desire that conveys a complex inner world and conflict with this desire, creating unique dynamics with Benoît Magimel’s character.


3. Giulietta Masina in The Nights of Cabiria

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

Collaborating with her husband Federico Fellini, Giulietta Masina gave life to some of the most compelling characters in film history. In this film, Masina plays a young woman named Cabira who faces constant cruelty and disappointment from the people she meets.

The register and tone that Fellini wanted for the film required an actress such as Masina with a high expressive range who could show the profound despair in which Cabiria is downed. The ending of the film also shows Masina’s range; it is an episode of music and dance in which Cabiria goes from despair to a kind of brief and quiet happiness.


2. Isabelle Adjani in Possession


This French horror film is one of the most disturbing films in the genre, and thus in the history of cinema, and a great deal of the profound way in which the movie is terrifying and also great is Isabelle Adjani.

In the film, Adjani plays a possessed women who starts acting mysteriously when her husband arrives; the strange and mysterious behavior slowly goes to the extreme of scenes where she is completely deranged. The violence and pain that Adjani is able to convey with her own boy is a virtuosic and completely terrifying job.


1. Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Legendary actress Gena Rowlands gave one of the greatest performances of her life in this film by John Cassavetes that explores the darkest aspects of relationships. Mabel Longhetti is a woman (played by Rowlands) who faces hardships to adapt herself to socially acceptable conducts, while she deals with constant abuse from her husband.

Through the film, Rowlands portrays Mabel as more and more unstable; she displays her deep sorrow through the pain and anger with which she interacts with others. In this film, Rowlands gave a memorable role to portray a dark facet of human condition.