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Who is the best Oscar-winning lead actress of all time?

Greatest Oscar winners ever: who is the best lead actress of all time?
Greatest Oscar winners ever: who is the best lead actress of all time?

The Academy award for best actress confers a burdensome glamour on its recipient, in most cases a career-high but sometimes a career-end, a longed-for prize that nothing can top, making its winner a pampered jewel in a very male prestige display. Like almost everything about the Academy Awards, it rewards tragedy rather than comedy, and grandiloquence rather than subtlety, so there is something operatic in lining up a five-part fantasy league of the best actress winners. But these are some of the most glorious and intensely pleasurable performances it is possible to watch.

Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in Suspicion.
Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in Suspicion. Photograph: Courtesy Everett Collection/REX/Shutterstock

Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock’s Suspicion has the girlish, coltish beauty that co-existed with the almost spinsterly style of the schoolteacher, and a smidgen of undeceived worldliness. Fontaine could play a saucer-eyed naivety and clumsy vulnerability, which is often how Hitchcock would cast her, but she also had humour and wit. There is a comic canter in her initial exchanges with the unreliable Cary Grant, a tension not just with him but within herself as she battles to suppress her attraction to this impudent man. There is a great scene which she smartly concludes by rejecting him and snapping her bag shut: a cheekily Freudian image. She was the English-rose romantic and dramatic lead, very different from the more obvious glamour of her sister, Olivia De Havilland.

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.
Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. Photograph: Snap/Rex/Shutterstock

Superficially similar is Ingrid Bergman in George Cukor’s Gaslight, adapted from the stage play by Patrick Hamilton. Bergman plays Paula, a beautiful, shy woman who has been swept off her feet and married by the sinister, manipulative charmer played by Charles Boyer. He pursues an insidious campaign to drive his wife mad, undermining her confidence in her own judgment and sanity, so that she can be sectioned, and he can gain ownership of her handsome London townhouse and the fabulous family jewels which he is sure are somewhere in the property. The movie has a fierce new significance in the era of #TimesUp: “gaslighting” has become a metaphor for male attempts to undermine women’s experience and testimony. It is an edge-of-the-seat performance from Bergman: melodramatic, yes, a little, but also very real and convincing in its depiction of someone losing faith in herself.

Elizabeth Taylor in BUtterfield 8.
Elizabeth Taylor in BUtterfield 8. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

There is something vivid and shocking in the performance of Elizabeth Taylor in BUtterfield 8, playing the single girl about town whose gentlemen friends might leave her “presents” of cash on the nightstand – a world away from Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She plays a survivor of childhood abuse who is tormented by the thought that as a 13-year-old she “loved” the attentions of her abuser. The scene in which she reveals this is superb. Her eyes blaze with rage and self-hatred and we see her on the cusp of change, leaving behind the loveliness of her young womanhood and morphing into an older person’s wary hauteur, full of hard-won knowledge about the ways of the world.

Meryl Streep and Peter MacNicol in Sophie’s Choice.
Meryl Streep and Peter MacNicol in Sophie’s Choice. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Meryl Streep’s performance in Sophie’s Choice could facetiously be described as the most Oscar-winningest Oscar-winning performance in Academy Awards history. But watched again now, it is still sensational. Streep plays a Polish Catholic Holocaust survivor who finds herself in a Brooklyn rooming house after the war, in a dysfunctional relationship with a bipolar man, played by Kevin Kline. Here she entrances a young would-be writer living downstairs, played by Peter MacNicol, who senses the secrets and lies hidden inside the precarious life Sophie has tried to build for herself. Her strange, forced gaiety and victimised demeanour are brilliantly sketched out in the initial present-day sequences – and then, via a stunning closeup on her face as she narrates – we go back to Nazi-occupied Poland, and then, finally, further back, to the horrendous “choice” she was forced to make when she first arrived at the death camp. Streep’s switches from accented English to Polish and German are a technical triumph and her set piece scenes are masterly.

Frances McDormand in Fargo.
Frances McDormand in Fargo. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Polygram

She’s tough, she’s professional and yet she’s human and vulnerable: it’s the cheesiest possible combination for a female law enforcement officer in the movies, but nobody carried it off with more style, humanity and sympathy than Frances McDormand in the Coen brothers’ Fargo, a movie now enjoying a longform afterlife in TV. She is Marge Gunderson, a heavily pregnant cop who has to investigate a grotesquely incompetent series of violent crimes, while dealing with a difficult, failed-artist husband and an old boyfriend. She is hampered only by her pregnancy; the men she’s up against are hampered by their venality, stupidity and greed. McDormand has an unfakeable lightness of touch: she is utterly unique.

... for Sophie’s Choice. There is something so commanding in her address to the camera. “Mesmeric” is an awful cliche, and yet that is exactly what Streep is in this film. She is effectively playing a number of different Sophies: the prewar girl, terrified of her reactionary, antisemitic father; the young woman being herded into the camp; the fierce, self-hating survivor whose every ounce of energy is devoted to suppressing the memory of her “choice”; and then the postwar woman of mystery, who finds herself sharing her life with a damaged bully, who loves her in his own way. It is a great performance.

The people’s choice

Peter has had his say on the greatest Oscar-winning lead actress ever. Now it’s time to find out who you, the people, have crowned your champion. We gave readers the chance to select their favourite from Peter’s five nominees, and here’s who they have chosen as their winner:

Coming up next week ...

Peter will be announcing the winner in the best actor category and the result of the readers’ choice. Vote for your favourites below, and join us on Wednesday for the results.

This article titled "Who is the best Oscar-winning lead actress of all time?" was written by Peter Bradshaw, for on Wednesday 14 February 2018 01.00pm


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