The best female acting performances of all time

by bd74 | created - 09 Apr 2013 | updated - 05 Feb 2016 | Public

In no particular order, the greatest performances by actresses in leading roles.

1. Vanessa Redgrave

Actress | Atonement

On January 30, 1937, renowned theatre actor Michael Redgrave was performing in a production of Hamlet in London. During the curtain call, the show's lead, Laurence Olivier, announced to the audience: "tonight a great actress was born". This was in reference to his co-star's newborn daughter, ...

Isadora

2. Glenn Close

Actress | Fatal Attraction

Six time Academy Award-nominated actress Glenn Close was born and raised in Greenwich, Connecticut. She is the daughter of Bettine (Moore) and William Taliaferro Close (William Close), a prominent doctor. Both of her parents were from upper-class northeastern families.

Glenn was often seen on ...

Dangerous Liaisons; Fatal Attraction

3. Meryl Streep

Actress | Out of Africa

Considered by many critics to be the greatest living actress, Meryl Streep has been nominated for the Academy Award an astonishing 21 times, and has won it three times. Meryl was born Mary Louise Streep in 1949 in Summit, New Jersey, to Mary Wolf (Wilkinson), a commercial artist, and Harry William ...

Sophie's Choice

4. Hilary Swank

Actress | Boys Don't Cry

Hilary was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, to Judith Kay (Clough), a secretary, and Stephen Michael Swank, who served in the National Guard and was also a traveling salesman. Her maternal grandmother, Frances Martha Dominguez, was of Mexican descent, and her other roots include German, English, and ...

Boys Don't Cry

5. Emily Watson

Actress | Breaking the Waves

Emily Watson was born and raised in London, the daughter of Katharine (Venables), an English teacher, and Richard Watson, an architect. After a self-described sheltered upbringing, Watson attended university for three years in Bristol, studying English literature. She applied to drama school and ...

Breaking the Waves; Hilary and Jackie

6. Deborah Kerr

Actress | The King and I

Deborah Kerr was born on 30 September 1921 in Helensburgh, Scotland, the daughter of Captain Arthur Kerr-Trimmer. She was educated at Northumberland House, Clifton, Bristol. She first performed at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London. She subsequently performed with the Oxford Repertory ...

The Innocents

7. Cate Blanchett

Actress | Carol

Cate Blanchett was born on May 14, 1969 in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, to June (Gamble), an Australian teacher and property developer, and Robert DeWitt Blanchett, Jr., an American advertising executive, originally from Texas. She has an older brother and a younger sister. When she was ten ...

Elizabeth

8. Jane Fonda

Actress | Klute

Born in New York City to legendary screen star Henry Fonda and New York socialite Frances Seymour Brokaw, Jane Seymour Fonda was destined early to an uncommon and influential life in the limelight. Although she initially showed little inclination to follow her father's trade, she was prompted by ...

Klute

9. Bette Davis

Actress | All About Eve

Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts, to Ruth Augusta (Favor) and Harlow Morrell Davis, a patent attorney. Her parents divorced when she was 10. She and her sister were raised by their mother. Her early interest was dance. To Bette, dancers led a glamorous life, but...

All About Eve; Now, Voyager; The Little Foxes; The Letter

10. Linda Fiorentino

Actress | Men in Black

Linda Fiorentino born March 9, 1958 or 1960 is an American actress. She has starred in the films Vision Quest (1985), Gotcha! (1985), After Hours (1985), Jade (1995), Men in Black (1997) and Dogma (1999). For her performance in The Last Seduction (1994), she won the New York Film Critics Circle ...

The Last Seduction

11. Gloria Swanson

Actress | Sunset Blvd.

Gloria Swanson went to public schools in Chicago; Key West, Florida; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her film debut was as an extra in The Fable of Elvira and Farina and the Meal Ticket (1915). From the following year on, she had leading roles in pictures for Keystone, then a year with Triangle, and, in...

Sunset Blvd.

12. Julie Christie

Actress | Doctor Zhivago

Julie Christie, the British movie legend whom Al Pacino called "the most poetic of all actresses", was born in Chukua, Assam, India, on April 14, 1941, the daughter of a tea planter, Frank St. John Christie, and his wife, Rosemary (Ramsden), who was a painter. Her family was of English, and some ...

Darling

13. Marion Cotillard

Actress | La môme

Academy Award-winning actress Marion Cotillard was born on September 30, 1975 in Paris. Cotillard is the daughter of Jean-Claude Cotillard, an actor, playwright and director, and Niseema Theillaud, an actress and drama teacher. Her father's family is Breton.

Raised in Orléans, France, she made her ...

La Vie en Rose

14. Elizabeth Taylor

Actress | Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was considered one of the last, if not the last, major star to have come out of the old Hollywood studio system. She was known internationally for her beauty, especially for her violet eyes, with which she captured audiences early on in her youth and kept the world hooked ...

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Suddenly, Last Summer

15. Vivien Leigh

Actress | A Streetcar Named Desire

If a film were made of the life of Vivien Leigh, it would open in India just before World War I, where a successful British businessman could live like a prince. In the mountains above Calcutta, a little princess is born. Because of the outbreak of World War I, she is six years old the first time ...

Gone with the Wind

16. Ingrid Bergman

Actress | Notorious

Ingrid Bergman was one of the greatest actresses from Hollywood's lamented Golden Era. Her natural and unpretentious beauty and her immense acting talent made her one of the most celebrated figures in the history of American cinema. Bergman is also one of the most Oscar-awarded actresses, tied with ...

Autumn Sonata

17. Liv Ullmann

Actress | Ansikte mot ansikte

Liv Ullmann's father was a Norwegian engineer who used to work abroad, so as a child she lived in Tokyo, Canada, New York and Oslo. In the mid-'50s she made her stage debut and in 1957 made her film debut. She really became successful, however, when she began to work for Swedish director Ingmar ...

Autumn Sonata; The New Land

18. Carol Kane

Actress | The Princess Bride

American stage, screen and television actress, and comedian Carol Kane (b. Carolyn Laurie Kane, June 18, 1952, in Cleveland, Ohio), was born to Elaine Joy (née Fetterman), a jazz singer and pianist, and Michael Myron Kane, an architect. Her family is Jewish (from Russia, Poland, and Austria). Due ...

Hester Street

19. Isabelle Adjani

Actress | Possession

Isabelle Yasmine Adjani was born in Gennevilliers, Hauts-de-Seine, a suburb of Paris, to Emma Augusta "Gusti" (Schweinberger) and Mohammed Adjani. Her father was a Kabyle Algerian, from Iferhounène, and her mother was a Bavarian German. She grew up speaking German fluently. After winning a school ...

The Story of Adele H

20. Geneviève Bujold

Actress | Dead Ringers

Genevieve Bujold spent her first twelve school years in Montreal's oppressive Hochelaga Convent, where opportunities for self-expression were limited to making welcoming speeches for visiting clerics. As a child she felt 'as if I were in a long dark tunnel trying to convince myself that if I could ...

Anne of the Thousand Days

21. Kim Stanley

Actress | Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Kim Stanley's movie roles were few and far between; she is perhaps best known for her stellar performances on stage, including successes on Broadway. But when she did step in front of the camera, nothing short of memorable resulted. Her repertoire in movies and on stage covered such diversity from ...

Seance on a Wet Afternoon

22. Fernanda Montenegro

Actress | Central do Brasil

Arlette Pinheiro Esteves da Silva was born on 16th October 1929 in Rio de Janeiro. She adopted the name "Fernanda" because she thought it sounded good. "Montenegro" came after her family doctor.

In late 40s she was translating and adapting famous theater plays to radio. She begun her artistic life ...

Central Station

23. Sandrine Bonnaire

Actress | Sans toit ni loi

Sandrine Bonnaire was born on May 31, 1967 in Gannat, Allier, France. She is an actress and director, known for Vagabond (1985), À nos amours (1983) and La Cérémonie (1995). She was previously married to Guillaume Laurant.

Vagabond

24. Sissy Spacek

Actress | In the Bedroom

As a kid, Sissy Spacek climbed trees, rode horses, swam, and played in the woods. She was born Mary Elizabeth Spacek on December 25, 1949, in Quitman, Texas, to Virginia Frances (Spilman) and Edwin Arnold Spacek, Sr., a county agricultural agent. Her father's family was of Czech and German origin.

...

Coal Miner's Daughter

25. Anne Bancroft

Actress | The Graduate

Anne Bancroft was born on September 17, 1931 in the Bronx, the daughter of Michael Italiano (1905-2001), a dress pattern maker, and Mildred DiNapoli (1908-2010), a telephone operator. She made her cinema debut in Don't Bother to Knock (1952) in 1952 and over the next five years appeared in a lot of...

The Pumpkin Eater

26. Judy Davis

Actress | The Dressmaker

Judy Davis was born April 23, 1955 in Perth, Western Australia. She was educated at Loreto Convent and the Western Institute of Technology, and graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 1977. She came to prominence as Sybylla Melvyn in the film adaptation of Miles Franklin's ...

My Brilliant Career; Impromptu

27. Olivia Colman

Actress | Tyrannosaur

Olivia Colman was born on January 30, 1974 in Norwich, Norfolk, England as Sarah Caroline Olivia Colman. She is an actress, known for Tyrannosaur (2011), The Lobster (2015) and Hot Fuzz (2007). She has been married to Ed Sinclair since August 2001. They have three children.

Tyrannosaur

28. Kerry Fox

Actress | Shallow Grave

Kerry Fox was born on July 30, 1966 in Wellington, New Zealand. She is an actress and writer, known for Shallow Grave (1994), An Angel at My Table (1990) and Bright Star (2009). She is married to Alexander Linklater. They have two children.

An Angel at My Table

29. Sally Field

Actress | Forrest Gump

Sally Margaret Field was born in 1946 in Pasadena, California, to actress Margaret Field (née Morlan) and salesman Richard Dryden Field. Her parents divorced in 1950 and her mother then married stuntman Jock Mahoney, and they had a daughter, Princess O'Mahoney. She also has a brother, Richard Field...

Norma Rae

30. Giulietta Masina

Actress | Le notti di Cabiria

Born in San Giorgio di Piano, Giulietta Masina spent part of her teenage years living with a widowed aunt in Rome, where she cultivated a passion for the theater and studied for a degree in Philosophy. She began her career on the radio with the program "Terzoglio" (1942), about the adventures of ...

Nights of Cabiria

31. Julianne Moore

Actress | The Hours

Julianne Moore was born Julie Anne Smith in Fort Bragg, North Carolina on December 3, 1960, the daughter of Anne (Love), a social worker, and Peter Moore Smith, a paratrooper, colonel, and later military judge. Her mother moved to the U.S. in 1951, from Greenock, Scotland. Her father, from ...

Far from Heaven

32. Diane Keaton

Actress | Annie Hall

Diane was a California native who studied Drama at Santa Ana College before dropping out to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. After appearing in summer stock for several months, she got her first major stage role in the Broadway rock musical "Hair". As understudy to the lead, she ...

Reds

33. Krystyna Janda

Actress | Przesluchanie

Krystyna Janda was born on December 18, 1952 in Starachowice, Swietokrzyskie, Poland. She is an actress and director, known for Przesluchanie (1982), Pestka (1995) and Rewers (2009). She was previously married to Edward Klosinski and Andrzej Seweryn.

Interrogation

34. Glenda Jackson

Actress | Women in Love

Few in modern British history have come as far or achieved as much from humble beginnings as Glenda Jackson has. From acclaimed actress to respected MP (Member of Parliament), she is known for her high intelligence and meticulous approach to her work. She was born to a working-class household in ...

Mary, Queen of Scots

35. Katharine Hepburn

Actress | The Lion in Winter

Born May 12, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut, she was the daughter of a doctor and a suffragette, both of whom always encouraged her to speak her mind, develop it fully, and exercise her body to its full potential. An athletic tomboy as a child, she was also very close to her brother, Tom, and was ...

Suddenly, Last Summer

36. Shirley Booth

Actress | Come Back, Little Sheba

Character actress Shirley Booth could play everything in all facets of show business, whether it was a smart-mouthed cashier on radio's "Duffy's Tavern", the sassy maid on TV's Hazel (1961) or the pathetic woman in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952). For those who only know her through her sitcom, it ...

Come Back, Little Sheba

37. Juliette Binoche

Actress | The English Patient

Juliette Binoche was born in Paris, France, to Monique Yvette Stalens, a director, teacher, and actress, and Jean-Marie Binoche, a sculptor, director, and actor. Her mother was born in Czestochowa, Poland, of French, Walloon Belgian, and Polish descent, while her father is French. Juliette was only...

Three Colors: Blue

38. Norma Shearer

Actress | The Divorcee

She won a beauty contest at age fourteen. In 1920 her mother, Edith Shearer, took Norma and her sister Athole Shearer (Mrs. Howard Hawks) to New York. Ziegfeld rejected her for his "Follies," but she got work as an extra in several movies. She spent much money on eye doctor's services trying to ...

The Divorcee