There was a prompt on Twitter to name the greatest female performances in film history. I have favorites that always come to mind and then I need Google to help my tattered memory remember the other ones I loved. I’m sure if I thought about it longer and/or dove deeper into Google, I could find more great ones I’m forgetting, and obviously, regardless, this is not an exhaustive list. I’m just going with three that came to mind off-hand, plus two I remembered from Googling, along with two honorable mentions. I also think it’s neat that three of my picks are adaptations of an existing work. There is something to be said for powerfully bringing a character to life on the big screen (and I say three instead of four because I haven’t actually read the play Fences is based upon). The Elizabeth Taylor pick is an unshakable #1, but otherwise, this is in no particular order.
Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Forget gender designation, this is a top 10 all-time film performance. And what’s crazy about it, is that if you told me instead you preferred Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as Taylor’s defining film, I wouldn’t take umbrage with that! That is how great Taylor is as an actress. Nonetheless, what I love about her performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is how much of a titan of a woman she seems in the film, and how much she conveys merely with her mannerisms and facials. If you want an example of what “classic” Hollywood was like (sort of the second phase of classic Hollywood, as it were), you can’t go wrong starting here first.
Kate Winslet, The Reader
If there is an Elizabeth Taylor analog for the modern era, she is Kate Winslet, and almost in an opposite way: Some of Winslet’s best work, like my pick here, are more subtle and quiet rather than roaring and pronounced. And much like Taylor, I also could have gone with a different film for her because I thought of Revolutionary Road, which incidentally, is more a Taylor-esque performance opposite Leonardo DiCaprio. What I like about her role in The Reader, however, is how she makes you sympathize with her character despite … looks around … everything. Poignant is perhaps an overused word, but her performance is nothing short of it in the film.
Toni Collette, Hereditary
I’m so happy to have a horror film on this list, although arguably there are two, albeit this one is far more “conventional” horror than Misery. Collette’s acting out of grief is one of the most unforgettable performances I’ve ever seen. In fact, when I think about this film, I think about her and her performance before I think of the (no spoilers here!) other thing that happened. If you said it was the greatest performance in a horror movie, I’m not sure I would disagree. There’s strong competition with Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Sissy Spacek in Carrie, and Anthony Hopkins and Jodi Foster in Silence of the Lambs, but I could see the argument for Collette. If you don’t believe me, go watch this film.
Kathy Bates, Misery
Talk about bringing a character to life who lived on the page and was brought to life so horribly and scarily by Stephen King. Bates somehow leveled up, and maybe even surpassed what was characterized by King in the book. She is that good in Misery as the psychotic super fan before fan culture was really a thing people talked about. She is almost more scary in the quieter moments than her snapping moments, primarily because she carries the weight of “waiting” for the snapping moment to come, i.e., the tense walking-on-eggshells atmosphere. That is a reflection of a masterful performance by Bates.
Viola Davis, Fences
I get goosebumps even thinking about this performance from Viola Davis. If you’re going to stand toe-to-toe with Denzel Washington, you have to bring it, and Viola Davis damn sure brought it. Her passion and her ferocity in dealing with the reciprocating ferocity of an erratic husband is a sight to behold. Again, I’m getting goosebumps as I remember the film in my head. I think of the visage of Davis mouth agape, yelling with spittle and tears all about. Watch it for one of the singularly great monologues this century, “I’ve been standing with you.”
Honorable Mentions: Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer; and Natalie Portman, Black Swan.
What are your favorite performances?