The Best Actresses of Them All

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So who was the greatest actress of them all?  What do I think of the Best Actress category, the one I can now claim to know inside and out?  For me, it could really only be one woman: the greatest performance of all time belongs to Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.  In a category absolutely teeming with performances about performers, Gloria makes the ultimate statement about fame, acting, beauty and mortality.  The character blurs into the real life story of the silent film goddess–nominated for the first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1929–who almost (but not quite) vanished from the screen in the sound era, a pact that magnifies both while forever fusing them together.  As I’ve said before, no Best Actress nominee has ever been more inseparable from a single role.  Playing such a pure performer, from slapstick comedienne to melodramatic martyr, Gloria measures out each gesture with a deft control that always masks her character’s innermost thoughts.  My interpretation of her complex characterization forever eludes me: I’ve thought she was a frightening madwoman, a pitiful wreck, a savvy manipulator, a literal nightmare sprung from Joe’s desperate imagination.  And when Norma reaches out to grasp at that silent flickering image of Queen Kelly, it feels for a moment as though Norma really is the mythic original, the fleeting cinematic spirit from whom all the others spring forth.

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But she gets a run for her money from all sides.  Just like Gloria does, Katharine Hepburn, perhaps still my all-time favorite leading lady, climbs into the top tier of my pantheon by tackling her own aloof star text in a role (unlike Norma Desmond) written just for her: the proud and vibrant Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story.

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I have to mention Gena Rowlands for her crude, tormented, and achingly honest expression of Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence, a performance like almost nothing that came before it, and an inspiration to everyone from Tilda Swinton to Wong Kar-Wai.

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And as a perfect study in a still surface concealing vast depths, Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson in Brief Encounter also rates as one of the most masterful performances ever.

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And to round out a loose top five, my controversial pick (feel free to disagree with me once you’ve seen all the nominees), I have to go with Kate Winslet as Clementine Kruczynski in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a brilliantly written and miraculously realized free spirit.  This a character who has appeared countless times in nominated and unnominated performances before and since (if the manic pixie dream girl means anything to you, you’ll know what I’m talking about), but nowhere have I found an incarnation that seemed more lived-in or complete in her flaws, where her quirks have origins and where she seems to wrestle with the consequences of impulses even as they bubble up inside her.  It’s a performance that seems almost to dispel the myriad caricatures and constructs that surround her.

If there’s one thing that all five of these nominees have in common (other than the fact that, of course, none were winning roles), it would have to be their characters’ profound and painful awareness of the role in which they are cast.  For Norma Desmond, the knowledge of her decline is the structuring fear that animates her delusions, however conscious you think she is of the fact.  Laura and Mabel both strive against the desperation of their humdrum existences, while Tracy and Clementine rebel, in eloquent fashion, against the image of womanhood inscribed upon them.  They are all playing types, but both the characters and the actresses are smarter than that: they stir in their sleep, or awake to an exhilarating but terrifying world.

But of course the list goes on.  I couldn’t stop short of acknowledging the boldly individual, rightfully Oscar-winning performances by Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Anna Magnani in The Rose TattooFrances McDormand in FargoKatharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter, and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (a powerful image to conjure up in opposition to Clementine).  There are other famous performances that crown splendid careers, like Bette Davis in All About Eve and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, as well as startling one-off revelations like Kim Stanley in Seance on a Wet Afternoon.  I’ve loved performances that stretch the parameters of great acting to action hero (Sigourney Weaver in Aliens) and antic comedienne (Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild), and those that excel in time-honored Oscar bait roles like the musical biopic (Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It?) and the desperate housewife (Patricia Neal in The Subject Was Roses).  There are flawed but brilliant performances like Greta Garbo in Anna Christie or Jeanne Eagels in The Letter, and brilliant performances in flawed films, like Gena Rowlands in Gloria and Joanne Woodward in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.  And finally there is Meryl Streep’s entire gallery of vivid creations, from The Devil Wears Prada to A Cry in the Dark and The Bridges of Madison County.   And I could go on.

I could scoop into this fantastic pool and pull out any five to complete my Top Ten list.  Indeed, I finished off this undertaking with the aim of being that conclusive, as befits the idea of a quest.  But now that it has concluded, I feel an overwhelming compulsion to leave those slots unfixed.  It’s certainly arbitrary where to draw the circle (at 5 or 10 or 85 or 100), and I think I’ll enjoy the improvisation of crafting a new list every time.  I certainly plan to revisit the favorites I’ve encountered along the way, and perhaps even some of those that missed the mark for me, to see if I can continue to make discoveries after the frontier has been closed.  I definitely now know that completing the Best Actress category is a task that, like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, never completely ends, even after it has been completed: some of the films I watched long ago, even ones I liked, such as My Man Godfrey and The Little Foxes, are now in grave need of a re-viewing to refresh my memory, and I suppose this will always be the case.

It’s been a great trip, and one I wish I could do again in a heartbeat!  Up next, in coming days, I’ll glance over my lamentable progress in the other major categories and offer some speculation as to where I might venture next.  If you’re still with me after all this, I don’t need to tell you to stay tuned.  Talk to you soon!

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2 thoughts on “The Best Actresses of Them All

  1. Fritz says:

    It’s truly amazing that you have seen them all! Absolutely outstanding! And you certainly picked 5 outstanding performances!

  2. […] stardom in Norma Desmond, the twilit goddess of the silver screen. Played by Gloria Swanson in the greatest Best Actress performance of them all, Norma is a character who will forever elude me, challenging the line between performance and […]

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