Film

100 Essential Female Film Performances

PopMatters concludes our 100 Best Female Film Performances feature with extremely insightful, generous anecdotes from Liv Ullmann about three of the performances on this list, one of her personal choices, and a once-in-a-lifetime addendum by the glorious Bergman super trouper Bibi Andersson herself.

Edited by Matt Mazur and Produced by Sarah Zupko

What are the most important components, ultimately, that should merit consideration when constructing a comprehensive list celebrating distinctive achievements? Particularly in such a subjective area as acting?

More importantly, how could such a list become realized without a thousand people taking me to task over its contents?

First, there would have to be the abolishment of the term “best” anywhere on this project. I am not giving a lecture on what classic film actresses’ piece de resistance must be preserved for history’s sake (though there are some of those on the list). The Essentials are comprised of 100 films and 101 performances (there is one tie) and each performer listed will appear only once. Otherwise, it would be a just another Matt Mazur list consisting mainly of women from Sweden, Jessica Lange, and Gena Rowlands. So, while, in many ways, this list does assess the caliber of the performance, and the skill of the performer, it in no way should be interpreted as a competition, as each woman on the list teaches the viewer a priceless lesson on the art of character acting. Each is a singular, thrilling achievement.

Second, I wanted to avoid the usual clichés, the performances that people expect to be on a list of “most important” female film performances -- but several of those requisite turns actually are so good that they absolutely warrant a blip on every film lover’s radar. This list, then, can also function as a gentle reminder that there are some films and performances that should not be ignored (hint! hint!), no matter how well-known or popular.

So, while the overwhelming critical consensus might dictate that the buxom figure of Bette Davis’ Margot Channing be affixed to the mast of the “Best Actress” ship for her untouchable work in All About Eve, she is included here, instead, for a claws-out tour-de-force that merits more attention: Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes. My intention in a case such as that one is not to be a contrarian, but to highlight some of the excellent work that too often slips through the cracks; work that is equally important in understanding the role of women in film history. So while Vivien Leigh makes the list for her iconic Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (and what list of unforgettable female characters can exist without Leigh’s inclusion?), it isn’t out of obligation, its because she deserves to be there for a performance that is so well-put together, it holds up nearly seventy years later.

And, lastly, as much as the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes might like to recognize and reward an old-school star turn like Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, and as enjoyable as she might have been in that film, to me, the marriage of a star’s personality and off-screen persona with the character they are playing has very little to do with possessing the ability to act. Julia is lovely, but Brockovich isn’t, for me, a great acting performance by any stretch of the imagination, but an enjoyable one with a big star doing what she does best: exuding oodles of charisma.

Of course, personality and charm are big parts of what acting is, but for me, that simply isn’t enough. Therefore, you will find very few of the big, notorious Hollywood “star” turns on the list. Sure, if I were counting down “100 Most Iconic Female Acting Performances”, Audrey Hepburn for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and even Kate Winslet for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind might score high points, but in favor of looking past the usual suspects, Hepburn misses the list altogether (you may go ahead and hate me now, if you wish, because I don’t really enjoy any of her work as an actress, though I think she was an interesting personality), while Winslet, a great star and a great actress, makes it for what I think is a more subversive display of talent, in a smaller, edgy film which happens to be directed by one of our greatest working female film directors. And no, Titanic was not directed by a woman.

Joining me to gab about these amazing women are a few good friends, who also happen to be voting members of The International Cinephile Society. A group of film lovers, journalists, columnists, bloggers, film students, and other professionals, from all over the globe, the group presently boasts members from five continents and participants in this challenge checked in from Australia and London, amongst other locales. The ICS has voted annually on their own awards of merit in film since 2003 and they know a thing or two about female acting. For further proof simply check out some of their inspired choices female acting winners over the years: Sook-Yin Lee for Short Bus? Daring. Last year their female acting awards went to Annamaria Marinca (for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) and Samantha Morton (Control). Discriminating. Their 2008 awards will be presented in February. Their commentary will appear with initials (“SB”, “TD”, “KL”, “PY” – “MM” is just me!) to protect their anonymity.

This list, inhabited by indelible characters created by the best in the industry, past and present, has been a long time in the making, and as indecisive as most people who know me know I can be about lists, I feel like I can firmly stand behind these choices. Inevitably, though, there will be accidental omissions or last minute additions with any “comprehensive” listing like this one, and there will likely also be major uproar over who was left off and why. To that I would say that my compilation of 100 Essential Female Acting Performances is definitely an alternative opinion as to who merits consideration, but it can also function as a reference to guide fans of women in film to new, possibly overlooked or unexpected places. It can be used as a checklist, or simply to keep an essential dialogue happening.

I started writing because I love watching women act. It fascinates me. The choices listed below, every single performance, has had an impact on me as a writer, and as a fan of the art of acting. These are women whose performances shaped the very core of the craft, and who all brought something inherently unique to their characterizations, be they Oscar-winning cultural phenomenons or the most low-budget of the indie darlings. Each should be viewed with respect and excitement.

And if I left someone you think is essential off, tell me!

Without further ado, I bring you 100 Essential Female Film Performances!

-- Matt Mazur

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