Ethel Barrymore as Mrs. Warren in THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946)
Have you ever seen an Ethel Barrymore performance on film you disliked? Me neither. She blows you away with her performances, quite literally. In THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, she plays a woman in peril who takes control of the situation. In MOONRISE she has only six minutes of screen time. But somehow she steals it from the other actors who have worked hard during the other 84 minutes. I like how she won the battle against ageism in Hollywood. She was appearing in starring roles into advanced age, and the year before she died, she was the lead in her final film.
Luise Rainer as O-Lan in THE GOOD EARTH (1937)
Luise Rainer has the uncanny ability to layer multiple styles within the same role. She usually does drama, comedy, music and action in the course of the same film. She has a technique where she combines the work of other writers and directors and superimposes it on to her current performance. So you get a very extra-filmic experience with her, which imbues her work as a Chinese peasant woman in THE GOOD EARTH. She’s a very deliberate actress and nothing is left to chance.
Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA (1940)
Dame Judith brings a level of precision to her performances. There are no false moments with her. She seems to think ugliness and dementedness are more interesting to the audience than beauty and normalcy. She’s probably right. She sees character roles as starring roles. While REBECCA contains her most widely regarded performance, she’s just as good as a hideous southern matriarch in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.
Ingrid Bergman as Karla Zachannassian in THE VISIT (1964)
Ingrid Bergman had ambition. She was already a star in her native Sweden, when she mastered the English language and came to Hollywood. Then, she mastered Italian and went to Rome to make films there. She was an independent spirit who had more control over her performances than many of her contemporaries. Probably, to her, acting was a science, and she perfected and patented her own special formula. She has a showy role as a treacherous diva in THE VISIT, where she shows up in a remote town, determined to bring Anthony Quinn to his knees. I think he’s still begging for mercy as I write this.
Julie Harris as Frankie Addams in THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING (1952)
Julie Harris reminds me of Ingrid Bergman. I think she’s another scientific actress. She looks at all the elements, then boils it down to see what works and what doesn’t work. Even when she has a role or piece of action or dialogue that doesn’t exactly work, she uses it in such a way that brings a greater truth to the situation. I love how she puts her unique stamp on roles, regardless of genre. She never serves the plot. She uses the plot to gain insights about character and make us relate to her and what her character is going through. This technique is very evident in THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING. It seems like Julie Harris is bringing something from her own life into the role, but after re-examination, it’s probably Julie Harris taking something from the role and applying it to her real life.
Marie Dressler as Min Divot in MIN AND BILL (1930)
Marie Dressler is basically a character actress who fooled everyone into thinking she was lead star material, and she was given some great roles. Like the one in MIN AND BILL, which netted her an Oscar as Best Actress. You have to be darn good to win this type of award and become the country’s biggest box office attraction when you look like you’ve just been hit by a truck. Marie’s ability to mix pathos and comedy, sometimes within the same line of dialogue, is what makes it work. We’ll never see another star like her again. And that’s a shame.
Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie in THE LETTER (1940)
Bette Davis is good when she feels safe and when she has a good director and a good piece of material. She sort of presents caricatures of women, like Regina Hubbard in THE LITTLE FOXES and Charlotte Vale in NOW VOYAGER. But within her performances are very strong decisions about the character and the character’s motivation. She also brings an ironic sympathy to parts where she is supposed to be hardened, like the killer she is playing in the remake of THE LETTER. We might dislike the woman she is appearing as on screen, but we never dislike Bette the actress.
Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine in THE LION IN WINTER (1968)
Kate Hepburn hides in all her roles. She takes a line, puts some sass into it, and glibly thinks she has you fooled. And she has herself fooled half the time, then her real nature takes over, and we get this dynamic imprint of a troubled personality bursting with goodness. This happens in Kate’s films all the way through her career. She never really outgrew her childlike persona. Even when she’s playing a matriarchal royal figure in something like THE LION IN WINTER.
Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)
Jean Hagen burst on to the Hollywood scene in the late 1940s. She seemed to waste no time building a resume of strong supporting roles. She could be a dependable girl Friday or a ditzy moll. She worked on many high-profile projects with top-name directors. She also was not afraid to take risks. She quit TV’s ‘Make Room for Daddy’ to rededicate herself to stage and film roles. It was not career suicide as some may’ve expected, but rather, it led to a resurgence for her in the late 50s and early 60s. Her most lauded performance, as phony Lina Lamont in MGM’s SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, is the real deal.
Joan Crawford as Myra Hudson in SUDDEN FEAR (1952)
Joan Crawford was one of the screen’s most versatile, durable stars. Maybe her success can be attributed to her real-life ambition, but I think it’s an indicator of her talent. She specialized in risky parts that other actresses were afraid to take. She didn’t mind alienating the audience by playing against type and shattering everyone’s expectations of her. She was bold. Speaking of bold, the performance she gives in SUDDEN FEAR without question one of her most brilliant. There’s an incredible sequence where she realizes her husband is a murderer and plans to make her his next victim. It’s a master class in on-screen emotion, and she uses all the tricks she learned during the early part of her career in silent films.
Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper in THE HEIRESS (1949)
Her performance in William Wyler’s adaptation of THE HEIRESS is one for the ages.
Claudette Colbert as Agnes Newton Keith in THREE CAME HOME (1950)
Claudette Colbert made a significant impact on the Hollywood film industry. She played one of the early versions of Cleopatra. Then, she became known for a series of screwball comedies she made with notable directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Mitchell Leisen. Most of these films were huge hits, and Claudette was one of the highest paid actresses of her day. In the 1940s and 1950s, she transitioned into war films and other social message dramas. She renders a moving performance as a woman separated from her husband during the war in SINCE YOU WENT AWAY. And an even more involving performance in THREE CAME HOME, where she is again separated from her husband, this time on foreign soil.
Barbara Stanwyck as Jessica Drummond in MY REPUTATION (1946)
Barbara Stanwyck never gave a bad performance. What I like about her is that she worked across many genres and she understood the trends of the business. Also, when we watch her work on screen we see the real-life Ruby, before she became movie star Barbara: a girl who survived the abuses of foster homes and is making the world see how tough she is. She breaks my heart every time. In MY REPUTATION, which was the actress’s favorite, she has a great scene where she tells off a snooty society woman at a New Year’s party. It shows what Stanwyck does so well in her best roles. I wanted to stand up and applaud her when that scene finished playing.
May Whitty as Mrs. Hughes in MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945)
Dame May Whitty was sweet and dangerous. In NIGHT MUST FALL she played a lovable elderly woman who fell prey to psychopathic Robert Montgomery. But in MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, she was the villain, torturing poor Nina Foch. You never know if you’re watching good or evil, until you’re about half-way into one of her pictures. She takes you on a journey with her roles.
Joanne Woodward as Mary in A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY (1966)
Joanne Woodward turned in a lot of good performances during her long career as a leading lady. Any number of them could be spotlighted. I especially admire her portrayal of a troubled upper-class wife in Merchant-Ivory’s MR. AND MRS. BRIDGE. But I think her skill as an actress is on full display in a Technicolor western she made in the mid-60s. When her character joins a high-stakes card game, things change and true colors start to emerge. She’s playing a trickster, and it’s fascinating the way she accomplishes the character’s transition on screen.
Yvonne De Carlo as Lorena Dumont in FRONTIER GAL (1945)
I wanted to include Yvonne De Carlo in this discussion because I don’t think she gets her proper due. Universal put her in a bunch of Technicolor westerns at the beginning of her career. And FRONTIER GAL is one of the earliest and best. It doesn’t surprise me to learn she married a stuntman, because she’s very courageous and performs all her own stunts on horseback in this film. She really loved taking risks on camera, and makes it seem easy. Not only is she better than her male costars in the outdoor sequences, but she does those glamorous musical numbers during the saloon scenes. She wasn’t dubbed. So no stunt doubles, no dubbing. She’s one of the screen’s most authentic performers. And she can do romance and comedy with ease. She deserves a greater appreciation of her many talents. She was a real star.
Jean Simmons as Charlotte Bronn in HOME BEFORE DARK (1958)
Jean Simmons is similar to Katharine Hepburn in that she is unable to totally submerge her little girl persona in her roles. And in fact, it makes her performances more interesting. As a lost woman finding herself again in HOME BEFORE DARK, she’s fragile yet hopeful. You start to believe she had just been released from a mental institution. I think Simmons understood women who had experienced breakdowns, maybe having experienced some of this off-screen.
Jean Harlow as Lola Burns in BOMBSHELL (1933)
Jean Harlow does what nobody else has ever done, and it’s an easy trick when you think about it. She takes a passage of dialogue, and pumps it into one long run-on sentence, spitting it out in one breathless take. Then she pivots, looks at her costar and gets ready for the next rapid-fire delivery. At the same time, she uses her mind to absorb the plight of the character and exaggerates it for comic effect. She must’ve had attention deficit disorder, way before it was ever diagnosed in people. She’s extremely energetic, sexy, funny and strong in BOMBSHELL.
Ida Lupino as Marion Castle in THE BIG KNIFE (1955)
Ida Lupino was fantastic in so many classic films. The films she directed are just as interesting to study. She has a brilliant final scene in the independent drama THE BIG KNIFE. In fact it’s such an amazing moment that it overshadows everything else that came before. I still don’t know how she did it. Some actresses are transparent in their technique, but Ida Lupino hides her technique extremely well. As if how to act should remain a well-kept secret.
Kim Stanley as Myra Savage in SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (1964)
I saved the best for last. I really don’t think the work Kim Stanley does by SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON has been topped, or can be topped, by anyone else. All her scenes are memorable in this picture. When I watch her on screen I can’t help but feel she put many hours into each scene. She’s extremely thorough. Because she has it so worked out “down here,” she is able to take the character “up there” or even further “down there.” In some instances, she is up and down at the same time. Is she layering goodness over evil, or is she layering evil over goodness? I think she’s doing both in this film, and to have someone who’s brain is so perfectly compartmentalized to do this when creating a character– well that’s a genius. She’s given the best performance of all time on celluloid.
Jane Wyman as Belinda MacDonald in JOHNNY BELINDA (1948)
Emma Thompson as Margaret Schelegel in HOWARDS END (1992)
Judy Holliday as Gladys Glover in IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU (1954)
Better than BORN YESTERDAY…?
Margaret Sullavan as Klara Novak in THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940)
She received male in the form of Jimmy Stewart.
Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan in THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962)
If you sit down to have dinner with this woman, you’d better have acceptable table manners.
Eleanor Parker as Baroness Elsa von Schraeder in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)
Cicely Tyson as Rebecca in SOUNDER (1972)
A performance you remember for years after seeing the movie.
Diahann Carroll as Elzora in EVE’S BAYOU (1997)
Nobody holds a candle to Diahann Carroll. She’s perfectly stylish and haunting as a fortune telling witch in EVE’S BAYOU. She should have had an Oscar nomination.
Doris Day as the title character in CALAMITY JANE (1953)
Doris Day causes quite a stir in this one. Comedy, romance, western action and music…it has everything. And when Doris sings the Oscar-winning tune ‘Secret Love,’ it is sublime.
Tantoo Cardinal as Black Shawl in DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)
A beautiful performance that conveys the strength and quiet dignity of the Lakota Sioux.