In one of many Oscar traditions, I will be doing a best of the best Oscar list. Sure, winning an Oscar is one of the best career highlights for any actor in Hollywood. However, it’s better if you win for your a very deserving performance. While the likes of Jodie Foster (The Accused), Elizabeth Taylor (Butterfield 8), Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love), Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball), Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), and Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) always get the flack for most controversial wins, we will focus on those who tailored some of the most inspiring performances that actually deserved to win the coveted gold statuette. Here are 20 of them:
20. NATALIE PORTMAN, “Black Swan” (2010)
Role: Nina Sayers, a confused ballerina on her way to a major break
Competition: Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)
Portman, in probably her flashiest role to date, managed to deliver both the physical and mental demands necessary to master the role of Nina. In the movie, not only does she master ballet for every other scene, and while most people question whether it was actually her doing all the dancing in the film, it is nonetheless unquestionable that her best scenes in the film (including the overexposed yet very effective He picked me, mommy! scene) are the most memorable ones.
19. JOANNE WOODWARD, “Three Faces of Eve” (1957)
Role: Eve White, Eve Black, and Jane, a woman suffering from a multiple personality disorder
Competition: Deborah Kerr (Heaven Knows, Mr. Alison), Anna Magnani (Wild is the Wind), Elizabeth Taylor (Raintree Country), Lana Turner (Peyton Place)
Sounds such a very baity role made for award hogging? Yeah, that one is not new. However, for what its worth, Woodward sold the hell out of all her scenes in the movie. The shifting of her persona for the three personalities is so complicated, yet she makes it look so natural. That alone makes her win one of the best in this category.
18. INGRID BERGMAN, “Anastasia” (1956)
Role: Anna Koreff/Anastasia, the questioned Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna
Competition: Caroll Baker (Baby Doll), Katharine Hepburn (The Rainmaker), Nancy Kelly (The Bad Seed), Deborah Kerr (The King & I)
Bergman is probably one of the best actresses to grace the screen, and her performance as the chosen lady to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia is a clear testament of this. In Anastasia, it was never clear if Bergman is actually Anastasia, and while some hints here and there were given that she actually is, Bergman’s performance not only convinced the characters in the movie, but the moviegoers as well.
17. HELEN MIRREN, “The Queen” (2006)
Role: royal monarchy Queen Elizabeth II
Competition: Penelope Cruz (Volver), Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal), Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada), Kate Winslet (Little Children)
Probably one of the most rewarded performances in film history, it was an easy stroll for the Dame on her road to the Oscar. However, she was up against a fantabulous group of co-nominees which all gave superb, if not iconic, performances as well. What made Mirren very deserving of the Oscar though was that she made Queen Elizabeth II human, and with that comes a very natural approach to all her scenes in the movie.
16. HOLLY HUNTER, “The Piano” (1993)
Role: Ada McGrath, mute pianist living in the mid-19th century
Competition: Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to Do With It), Stockard Chaning (Six Degrees of Separation), Emma Thompson (The Remains of the Day), Debra Winger (Shadowlands)
Always contested as one of the closest Oscar fights in this category, Hunter was probably helped over by the fact that she was double nommed that year. Nevertheless, I believe that it was her performance as Ada McGrath that won over the voters. it just goes to show that even acting at it’s most quiet still gets rewarded with Oscars.
15. DIANE KEATON, “Annie Hall” (1977)
Role: Annie Hall, quirky ex girlfriend of main character Alvy Singer
Competition: Anne Bancroft (The Turning Point), Jane Fonda (Julia), Shirley Maclaine (The Turning Point), Marsha Mason (The Goodbye Girl)
The thing I love the most about Keaton’s victory is that it was her best performance to date. She was very natural and fit to the role of Annie Hall, and she complimented Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer perfectly. Sure while Reds, Manhattan, Marvin’s Room, and even Something’s Gotta Give showed her flair for acting, Annie Hall was its prime predecessor.
14. JODIE FOSTER, “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
Role: Clarice Sterling, FBI trainee assigned to the case of Hannibal Lecter
Competition: Geena Davis (Thelma and Louise), Laura Dern (Rambling Rose), Bette Midler (For the Boys), Susan Sarandon (Thelma and Louise)
While peope can question Anthony Hopkins’ 14 minute portrayal of Hannibal Lecter as a Lead performance, there is no doubt that Jodie Foster deserves the Oscar for her fierce portrayal of Clarice Sterling. Foster made the viewers feel as if we were on a journey with her; it’s as if we were actually beside her during the whole movie. She was tough when the scenes need to, and she was vulnerable during the moments that require that. Oscar worthy in my eyes.
13. JANE FONDA, “Klute” (1971)
Role: Bree Daniels, prostitute slash accomplice to a detective in solving a case
Competition: Julie Christie (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), Glenda Jackson (Sunday Bloody Sunday), Vanessa Redgrave (Mary, Queen of Scotts), Janet Suzman (Nicholas and Alexandra)
It’s such a head scratcher why Jane Fonda stopped doing quality movies (Remember Monster in Law?) when she gave layered performance one after the other such as this one of Bree Daniels. Political beliefs aside, it is truly magnificent how much attached Fonda was with the role of Bree, and this (together with her another win for Coming Home) goes to show that Fonda has the chops to match the rich material she is capable of delivering.
12. JANET GAYNOR, “Sunrise” (1928)
Role: Indre, the wife
Competition: Louise Dresser (A Ship Comes In), Gloria Swanson (Sadie Thompson)
The very first recipient of the Oscar in this category is also one of the best winners ever. Granted she was also recognized for two other performances that year, it was her role as the wife in Sunrise that showed her captivating flair for acting. Seems like she was a good omen in this category after all.
11. SISSY SPACEK, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980)
Role: Loretta Lynn, country icon
Competition: Ellen Burstyn (Resurrection), Goldie Hawn (Private Benjamin), Mary Tyler Moore (Ordinary People), Gena Rowlands (Gloria)
Before starring in biopics have become the easy route on your way to the Oscar (coughSandraBullockReeseWitherspooncough), there was a time when portraying real people is as special as it can get especially when you Sissy Spacek’s Oscar winning performance as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter. As music icon Lynn, it was clear that Spacek wasn’t in for lone imitation but more of a characterization. It is clear injustice why Spacek has only one Oscar on her mantle.
10. SIMONE SIGNORET, “Room at the Top” (1959)
Role: Alice Aisgill, an unhappy married old woman who’s bored with her life
Competition: Doris Day (Pillow Talk), Audrey Hepburn (The Nun’s Story), Katharine Hepburn (Suddenly Last Summer), Elizabeth Taylor (Suddenly Last Summer)
It was somehow a surprise back then how French actress Simone Signoret won the Oscar over close competitor and still then unrewarded Elizabeth Taylor. However, it will only take one viewing of Room at the Top to understand why. To give a gritty treatment to the character of Alice Aisgill and made you see the vulnerability of the character perfectly why she won that year. It won’t also hurt that she swept the Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Cannes for this performance.
09. KATHARINE HEPBURN, “The Lion in Winter” (1968)
Role: Eleanor of Aquitaine, estranged wife of King Henry II
Competition: tied with Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl), Patricia Neal (The Subject Was Roses), Vanessa Redgrave (Isadora), Joanne Woodward (Rachel, Rachel)
The Academy’s most rewarded actress is also the biggest victor in this category with all four of her trophies are in this category. My favorite, though, is her third win for The Lion in Winter as Eleanor of Aquitaine. Such fierceness yet also restraint at some parts with equally wonderful and snubbed Peter O’Toole. It sucks though that she has to share it with Barbra Streisand who was great but obviously inferior to Hepburn’s performance.
08. MAGGIE SMITH, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969)
Role: Jean Brodie, a committed teacher in an all girls school
Competition: Genevieve Bujold (Anne of a Thousand Days), Jane Fonda (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), Liza Minnelli (The Sterile Cuckoo), Jean Simmons (The Happy Ending)
Before she took on teaching duties at Hogwarts, Professor McGonagall was Jean Brodie first, and her role as a committed teacher in an all girls is one of the best portrayed films about an instructor. This is mostly due to Smith’s remarkable performance that is so relatable and charismatic that even non-students will fight to have a slot in her class.
07. ELIZABETH TAYLOR, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966)
Role: Martha, a hard-drinking wife who’s waiting for a visitor
Competition: Anouk Aimee (A Man and a Woman), Ida Kaminska (The Shop on the Main Street), Lynn Redgrave (Georgy Girl), Vanessa Redgrave (Morgan!)
We all know the history of Taylor’s first Oscar. It was given to her out of pity because of her personal problems during that time. However, it won’t take too long of a time and deliver a performance actually worthy of an Oscar, and it was her Martha who was sassy and unstoppable in Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf that will actually do the trick.
06. MARION COTILLARD “La Vie En Rose” (2007)
Role: Edith Piaf, French singing superstar
Competition: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age), Julie Christie (Away From Her), Laura Linney (The Savages), Ellen Page (Juno)
This was a case of the little one that could. Who said that non-English performances are at a disadvantage when it comes to Oscar? Sure they just happen as rare as a blue moon, but they won’t pass the chance to reward the really deserving ones. take the case of Marion Cotillard in 2007. As French singer Edith Piaf, it wasn’t Cotillard’s singing voice used in the movie, but the emotions she showed is clearly Marion authentic.
05. MERYL STREEP, “Sophie’s Choice” (1982)
Role: Sophie Zawistowski, a mother subjected in making a life change decision
Competition: Julie Andrews (Victor/Victoria), Jessica Lange (Frances), Sissy Spacek (Missing), Debra Winger (An Officer and a Gentleman)
Always regarded as one of the best pieces of acting showcases in the history of film, Academy’s favorite actress, Meryl Streep’s Sophie Zawistowski ineded lives up to its title. The “choice” scene, as much as it was repetitive and over shown, never lost any ounce of magic in it. This performance raised the pedestal that all the other succeeding film performances tries to reach, but only a few have matched it since then. Streep was still at her finest and that short piece of moment is definitely worthy of an Oscar.
04. HILARY SWANK, “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999)
Role: Brandon Teena, a confused young woman who is in a complicated relationship with another woman
Competition: Annette Bening (American Beauty), Janet McTeer (Tumbleweeds), Julianne Moore ( The End of the Affair), Meryl Streep (One True Thing)
Swank was in her first lead role back then, and it was for a very controversial role as Brandon Teena, a woman playing a man. The movie was a bit overlong, but that was one thing you can never describe about Swank’s performance. It was affectionate, poignant, and definitely effective. When she cries, you cries. When she’s hurt, you’re hurt. And when Swank won the Oscar, you’re happy because it was such a very inspired win.
03. VIVIEN LEIGH, “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)
Role: Blanche Dubois, delusional pretentious Southern belle
Competition: Katharine Hepburn (The African Queen), Eleanor Parker (The Detective Story), Shelley Winters (A Place in the Sun), Jane Wyman (The Blue Veil)
Vivien Leigh is a very effective actress that even starring in large epic films doesn’t limit her as an actress (see: Gone with the Wind). While her Scralett O’Hara is pretty much iconic already, I still prefer her Blanche Dubois performance because not only did it stand out from the group ensemble, it was also a layered and sweetheart performance that showcases Leigh’s greatest assets as an actress.
02. CHARLIZE THERON, “Monster” (2003)
Role: Aileen Wuornos, killing prostitute
Competition: Keisha Castle Hughes (Whale Rider), Diane Keaton (Something’s Gotta Give), Samantha Morton (In America), Naomi Watts (21 Grams)
One of the most heartbreaking performances of the past decade, it was indeed a surprise how Theron nailed the physical requirements to portray Aileen Wuornos. But more than that, she aced the emotional scenes with so much depth and honesty that it’s hard not to get carried away with it. The role of Aileen Wuornos has a tendency to receive a histrionic approach to it, but Charlize manages to maintain balance in between what needs to be done and what needs not to be done in order to act this role. For that plus a lot of other things, she is oh so deserving of that Best Actress Oscar in 2003.
01. OLIVIA DEHAVILLAND, “The Heiress” (1949)
Role: Catherine Sloper, rich woman trying to find her true love
Competition: Jeanne Crain (Pinky), Susan Hayward (My Foolish Heart), Deborah Kerr (Edward, My Son), Loretta Young (Come to the Stable)
And the queen of them all, is none other than screen legend Olivia de Havilland in her performance as Catherine Sloper. In The Heiress, the role was already given a nice twist to it by playing the rich woman card instantly. de Havilland was on fire with her performance in this one, and if there’s one word to describe it, I;m opted to go with flawless. Watch the last ten minutes of the film, and you’ll see acting at its finest.
That’s it. How about you? What are your choices? Did you agree with this list? Who would you have removed from the list? And also, can you name the six actresses in the cover photo? 🙂