Late last week, Nick Davis, friend of Antagony & Ecstasy, accomplished something quite extraordinary, completing a years-long effort to watch every one of the 408 performances nominated for the Best Actress Oscar since that award was created in 1928. In honor of his achievement, and for the love of great actresses everywhere, may I present my picks for-
The Ten Best Female Performances in Cinema History
10. Juliette Binoche, “Julie de Courcy née Vignon”, Three Colors: Blue
The challenge: symbolically play the whole of Europe, thrashing about for identity both in unification and as a collection of independent, self-identified beings. Oh, and offer the most tender, heart-rending depiction of a woman surviving the death of her husband and child and finding the strength to create a new life free of the past yet put to film. A great actress whose face is a perfect tabula rasa in any case, Binoche magnificently peels off layer after layer, revealing so much about Julie’s inner self yet still, at the ending, leaving a woman who is essentially unknowable – as we all are essentially unknowable – a woman who is different things to different people, but ultimately it only matters that she is all things to herself. The film ends with a montage of all the people who have been irrevocably affected by knowing this person; it might well have included a shot of a mirror.
9. Barbara Stanwyck, “Jean Harrington”, The Lady Eve
The challenge: craft a character who begins as the model of all cynicism, a con artist who knows that she’s the only one who sees Henry Fonda’s addled rich boy as the bland idiot that he is; then credibly show how it’s precisely because she sees through him that she falls deeply and truly in love with him. Then create a perfect vision of the pain of losing love, and especially the moment that pain crystallises into anger. Then create a daft heiress invented by that woman as the instrument of her revenge. And just to make things harder, do it all while offering up the most impeccable comic timing in one of the most bruisingly well-paced films of all time. That Stanwyck makes every inch of this look like a cakewalk is just further proof that she might well be the most gifted and versatile actress of her generation.
8. Ingrid Thulin, “Märta Lundberg”, Winter Light
The challenge: offer a beating human heart to one of the cruelest films in Ingmar Bergman’s canon. Though really a supporting role to Gunnar Björnstrand’s Lutheran pastor with a crisis of faith, Thulin is a ray of hope in a dead world, a sign that life and love and vitality can somehow survive in any condition, even as she is an atheist in a world where God’s death throes are obvious for anyone to see; and she does this without ever sacrificing Marta’s reality as an individual woman who has her own needs and doubts. Her best moment is also the film’s earth-shattering centerpiece: a six-minute shot, in which the actress stares right into the camera and speaks the text of a letter laying out all of the spiritual torments underpinning the rest of the film, depriving both Björnstrand and the viewer of any hint of comfort or absolution. It is a moment that could have killed the movie, but the brutal force of Thulin’s performance instead makes it one of the most exhilarating moments of pure cinema in Bergman’s career.
7. Vivien Leigh, “Scarlett O’Hara”, Gone with the Wind
The challenge: embody the most famous literary figure of the day, a spoiled princess with delusions of invulnerability. Coming from absolutely nowhere to establish herself as one of the finest performers of the 1940s, Leigh’s amazing coming out party finds her plumbing every depth of Scarlett’s boundless wickedness, and still finding room left over to fully express all the reasons why despite it all, she’s still a noble, tragic figure. Her strength and her selfishness coalesce into one, and no matter how awful she may act, we can never imagine hating her; this is all Leigh, and it makes for one of the most deservedly iconic figures in cinema.
6. Celia Johnson, “Laura Jesson”, Brief Encounter
The challenge: create a housewife who comes to realise that she’s incredibly bored, and that whatever she’s been feeling with her husband for so many years, it’s nothing like the deep, overpowering love that strikes her quite by accident one day on a train platform; and do it in a way that without every overtly asking for the audience’s sympathy, it breaks the audience’s heart into a million fragments. Johnson dominates the film, appearing in every scene but one, though she seems to be such a quiet figure that you might not notice; and there’s something about her tired eyes, and the uncertain set of her mouth, that has a cumulative effect like a keg of dynamite. Playing a woman feeling strong emotions for what we suspect might be the very first time, Johnson never once has to aim for the back row to bowl us over with the operatic intensity of her longing, and her resignation.
5. Rosalind Russell, “Hildy Johnson”, His Girl Friday
The challenge: keep up. Howard Hawks’s masterpiece is perhaps the fastest-paced movie ever filmed, a comedy with the energy of a machine gun battery. And nobody, not even Cary Grant in the best performance of his own career, can match Russell, whose lacerating, now-angry, now-prideful, now-loving, now-panicked depiction of the ultimate modern woman who won’t let any man stand between her and the job she knows that she can do better than anybody, is almost certainly the most breathtaking comic work ever done onscreen.
4. Giulietta Masina, “Gelsomina”, La strada
The challenge: play the tragic clown archetype with as much humanity as it ever has been and ever will be played, and do it in a predominately silent role. Truth be told, I could have just as easily gone with Masina’s other great collaboration with her husband, Federico Fellini, Nights of Cabiria: in both cases she is called upon to express nearly every emotion an actor can possibly draw upon. But as magnificent as she is in that film, it’s the fact she must do so much more of it using only her supernaturally elastic face that gives her Gelsomina the edge: that, and the fact that she finds so much fresh and original to do with the musty, melodramatic role of the woman falsely accused by a jealous husband. The suffering wife routine never seemed so beautiful or true as it does here.
3. Gena Rowlands, “Mabel Longhetti,” A Woman Under the Influence
The challenge: find what is human and true about a woman written to be deliberately inscrutable. John Cassavetes made a career out of trusting that his actors would be able to flesh out the ideas which he could not make explicit without destroying the integrity of his scenarios, and his greatest collaborator was his wife, whose work here ought to have redefined the possibilities of cinema acting, if only there was anyone who could match her level of intensity and commitment to exploring every inch of a woman who was mad, and will be mad again; though the question of whether her madness is dangerous or liberating is something that even the actress dares not answer, though without her potency and magnetism, it wouldn’t be worth asking in the first place.
2. Liv Ullmann, “Marianne”, Scenes from a Marriage
The challenge: play the most effortlessly-realised version of one of the hoariest character types imaginable, a wronged woman who finds untapped reservoirs of strength. Of all Ingmar Bergman’s regulars, Ullmann was always the most attuned to the exact needs of his scripts, and this was readily the best role he ever gave to her: the female half of a monumental five-hour study of marriage and love, in which she gets to match wits with an almost as glorious Erland Josephson while flying through pages-long monologues that dig deep into the recesses of the human soul at its most vulnerable and its most powerful. At her best – and she is at her best almost constantly here – Ullmann gives the kind of electrifying performance where you must constantly remind yourself to breathe, and blink.
1. Maria Falconetti, “Jeanne”, The Passion of Joan of Arc
It’s criminally lazy to end my list with this, a performance that has come to be the closest that we’ve got a unanimous choice for the best film acting of all time. But consensus has to be right some of the time, and this is the time: Falconetti’s Jeanne is an unfathomable combination of pure religious ecstasy and mortal terror, the certainty of faith running headlong into the certainty of pain and death. With Carl Theodor Dreyer’s unforgiving close-ups offering her no quarter, the actress – who never appeared in another film – radiates off the screen with an intensity that you almost can’t bear to look at. Which is why I’m ending with a challenge not for the actress, but the viewer: watch this film, and then spend your life without being haunted by the infinity behind Falconetti’s eyes. Hint: it cannot be done.