1. Joan Crawford – Mildred Pierce (1945)
The iconicism of women in Hollywood starts with the glamour and overwhelming power of greats such as Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Mary Pickford, and ever charismatic Joan Crawford. Despite Crawford’s prominence in Hollywood, she didn’t win until 1946 for Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce. There is no doubt who deserved the award on the night, despite being nominated against fellow icons Greer Garson and Ingrid Bergman, and in doing so Joan Crawford cemented her legacy as a Hollywood powerhouse.
A pattern that forms in the history of Best Actress is the performance itself carrying the film, but Mildred Pierce as a film can contend with the very best of classic Hollywood in quality and the fact Joan Crawford is one of the most memorable parts speaks volumes about her performance. She sheds her image of powerhouse to capture the vulnerability of the melodrama perfectly, however still harbouring the mystique and sexiness of the Film-Noir side too. This is a film of two genres, and Joan Crawford plays both sides perfectly.
2. Julianne Moore – Still Alice (2014)
When you look at the nominees for the 2015 Academy Awards pretty much any of the performances could of won, but at the time critics and audiences alike had already come to the conclusion that Julianne Moore would easily win the award for the lead role as Alice in Still Alice. For good reason as well, the performance was so demanding for any woman attempting it and quite frankly it couldn’t of been performed by a more wholesome and well rounded actress like Julianne Moore. The award was well overdue, and it went to what is her best performance in an already storied career.
First and foremost Alice’s subtle and heartbreaking decent into dementia is played down to a tee, never being overworked and never played over the top, Julianne Moore captures the sadness, confusion and genuine fear that the role requires. Despite all of the emotional range on offer however, Moore keeps within the subtle borders of the films writing and little by little shows off the true power of her performance, for every great scene in the film it’s completely heightened by the entire cast, consistently proving why she is the best actress of her generation.
3. Elizabeth Taylor – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Elizabeth Taylor needs no introduction, she is an actress that helped shape the landscape of Hollywood through the 50s being nominated and winning a number of oscars in the process, and it’s for her second win (the first being Butterfield 8 ) in Mike Nichols performance driven film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The film itself has the feel and tone of a play, and with that allowing the actors to show their range through the form of monologues, all of which Elizabeth Taylor executes to perfection.
The performance isn’t all about the monologuing however, Taylor’s performance is chocked full with bitterness, hatred and most importantly vulnerability. Despite being a film of 4 main actors, the focus remains heavy on the dynamic between Taylor and Burton’s ageing couple, as the then real life couple use their chemistry to shift the on screen power from monologue to monologue, making each others performances just that bit better. Whether or not you believe this to be Elizabeth Taylor’s greatest performance is up for debate, but there is no doubting the presence she has on screen, and the layers she gives the character in the process.
Vivien Leigh – A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
While Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? merely resembles a play, A Streetcar Named Desire is an adaption of the much loved play of the same name. The film is mostly renowned for Marlon Brando’s iconic look and performance, but what drives this film is an absolutely impeccable performance from Vivien Leigh, who won her second Academy Award (the first being Gone With the Wind ) for playing Blanch DuBois, an unhinged woman who clashes heads with Brando’s Stanley Kowalski.
While it can never be understated just how good Marlon Brando is, it’s Vivien Leigh that plays her character with such distinction and disturbance that deserves most of the praise. Despite Leigh’s approach to a woman on the cusp of insanity maybe being a little outdated in today’s world of grounded acting, Leigh still brings so much counteracting panache and depth to her performance that really overlooks anything. It is easy to compare Brando and Leigh, but what makes both performances so great, as well as Kim Hunter’s, is there ability to compliment each other and essentially raise the quality of both.
5. Charlize Theron – Monster (2003)
While Monster isn’t a bad film, it is still among many that are lifted in quality by their central performance, and what a performance it is. While you can argue that Naomi Watts could of won for her performance in 21 Grams (2003), or even Samantha Morton for In America (2002), in retrospect Charlize Theron’s completely out of the blue performance was so shocking and acclaimed that there is no doubt who should of won. Even in the following years the performance is still held with such praise, being considered one of the best performances of the 21st Century.
Theron’s performance almost transcends a ‘performance’, and becomes a complete transformation. While the physical change is what stands out at first, Theron’s ability to shed the character of any likability but also bring a lot soul to the emotional scenes is so important. It’s played to absolute perfection and while Theron has provided so many great performances since, none standout, or are played with such conviction, as her role in Monster.
6. Natalie Portman – Black Swan (2010)
Darren Aronofsky is a director of a specific vision, and a lot of his films require the right performance to really sell the message he’s trying to send. Mickey Rourke did it wonderfully in The Wrestler (2008) but it was Natalie Portman who became the only person to win an acting award for an Aronofsky film with Black Swan. Despite being nominated against four other performances that were equally exceptional (Michelle Williams in particular), Portman’s win still stands as one of the most deserving in recent years.
Black Swan is fantastically paced, showing the descent into madness and obsession, and is equally matched by Portman’s performance. It’s the descent that really lets Portman prove herself, as the scenes get harder and harder it becomes apparent just how comfortable Portman is playing in the uncomfortable world Aronofsky has painted, and when the film ends and lets you come up for air, it’s that magnificent performance that resonates with you for such a long time.
7. Frances McDormand – Fargo (1996)
Frances McDormand could of made this list twice, her performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) is an unforgivingly rough approach to tenderness and loss. But it’s her performance as the deadpan Marge Gunderson, in the Coen’s now iconic film Fargo, that deserves a place on this list.
Much like Darren Aronofsky the Coen Brothers are directors with such a distinct style and tone that it’s imperative they surround themselves with actors who can exact their particular brand of storytelling. George Clooney as an idiot is always fun to see, Javier Bardem as a cold-blooded killer and Jeff Bridges as The Dude, these are all examples of great performances in Coen Brother films, but Frances McDormand’s performance in Fargo is probably the best example of that. The performance plays as deadpan, but McDormand is showing so much more range here, all while nailing the over-the-top accent of Minnesota. The most important thing though, and why this performance makes the list, is that along with the deadpan humour, McDormand captures everything the Coen Brothers want to exist in their film, and makes her character not just a product of the film, but a pure embodiment of everything Fargo is trying to be.