The Ten: Best Actresses of All Time “Relay Race”

If there’s an area of film that is a bit overlooked on my blog, it is acting. I’m generally of the opinion that if I’m really noticing the acting, something has gone terribly wrong. A lot of the most celebrated performances in history are those that really annoy me because they are so present and actorly. But that doesn’t mean I don’t cherish those actors who disappear into great films and make them possible. As such, I’m thankful to those involved in this effort.

In case someone has missed what this is all about, I’ll quote the rules:

“I’ve created a list of what I think are the best actresses of all time. At the end of the post I, just like in a real relay race, hand over the baton to another blogger who will write his own post. This blogger will have to remove one actress (that is an obligation) and add his/her own choice and describe why he/she did this. At the end the blogger chooses another blogger to do the same. The idea is to make this a long race, so that enough bloggers get a chance to remove and add an actress. We will end up with a list (not ranked in order) which represents a common agreement of the best actresses. It will also mean that those who follow this relay race will get to know new blogs as well!”

Now, being the Gonzo film writer that I am, upon being handed a list of the ten greatest actresses, as decided by someone else, my first thought is that half of them are rubbish. Alas, the rules don’t allow me to make a whole scale changes to the list so I had to be a bit more creative in deciding how to pick the one I would remove and which I would add. As an assist in this matter, I turned to Criticker, a site where you can rate films out of 100 and then it provides averages. This is flawed in that it doesn’t adjust based on how prominent a role a given actor has in the film, a cameo is weighted the same as a lead, but it seemed a reasonable place to start.

 The previous entries:

The actresses (handed to me, in order of my criticker average)

Frances McDormand (77.13% over 15 films)

Julie Delpy (75.6% over 10 films)

Kate Winslet (74.38% over 16 films)

Julianne Moore (72.81% over 16 films)

Meryl Streep (72.7% over 20 films)

Liv Ullmann (72.67% over 3 films)

Cate Blanchett (69.73% over 22 films)

Tilda Swinton (64.27% over 15 films)

Katharine Hepburn (62.8% over 5 films)

Barbara Stanwyck (60.5% over 2 films) 

My considerations

Okay, so of the 12 actresses so far included in this process, the first two cuts were of my second and fourth highest rated. Further, they were replaced by my 8th and 12th highest rated. Not cool guys, you are blowing this whole thing. Okay, to be honest, if I was thinking of my top ten, neither Marilyn Monroe or Natalie Portman would be first to mind, though clearly I like them well enough. And the new additions, Ullmann and Stanwyck, simply haven’t been in many films I’ve watched so I can’t have a strong opinion of them. Because of this and that they are the newer additions, I’m gonna give them a pardon when it comes to my own cut.

I was a bit shocked that Frances McDormand was my highest rated. She’s more character actress than lead so she can get lost but she’s consistently strong in very good movies. Julie Delpy was less of a surprise since I absolutely adore her in Before Sunrise/Sunset, recently rated my forth favorite performance of all-time. Of those on the list, she’s actually the only one that I would expect to have a shot at a list I was creating from scratch.

So, given her placement as the lowest ranked of the actresses I haven’t already declared safe, Katherine Hepburn would be the natural one to eliminate. For starters, she is my second favorite Hepburn. I adore Audrey, who would have a very good shot at my own top ten. Second, she kind of made her name in screwball, fast-talking comedy, which I generally hate. But I’ve only seen five films, which doesn’t seem enough to have a strong view, plus Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is really great. With her eliminated, it really comes down to Tilda Swinton or Cate Blanchett.

Curiously, these are two actresses who I don’t exactly confuse, but I put them in a very similar camp. They both have a sort of austere screen presence, what with the high cheekbones and somehow frequently icy characters. Seeing no other real dividing point between them, and no stand-out performances from either of them I’m gonna trust the Criticker rating on this and eliminate Tilda Swinton from the list.

My choice

Picking a replacement was a much tricker task. A lot of my favorite performances from actresses are from younger actresses whose resume remains a bit thin to really want to consider for this sort of list. Actresses like Saoirse Ronan, Elle Fanning, and Jennifer Lawrence are actresses I fully expect to make this sort of list in twenty years time. Curiously, one similarly young actress stuck out with an exceptionally high Criticker rating (80.08), as in higher than anyone on the list already, and that actress is Kristen Stewart. Easily derided for her go-to mannerisms or her involvement in the (ridiculously underrated) Twilight-saga films, she has put together a resume of really great films, 12 films in my case. Aside from the Twilight series she’s got her early role in David Fincher’s great Panic Room. She’s got two high degree of difficulty lead roles in indie films Speak and The Cake Eaters. She’s got a solid supporting role in Into The Wild and Adventureland. She’s got a more rounded filmography that the other actresses I mentioned int his paragraph and in my mind is really talented. If I wanted to go full Gonzo, I’d add her to the list. But since I’m already hindered by this list being a collaborative effort, I don’t want to put up with the next person, or maybe the person after that, dumping her right off. I want to make a pick that could well stand the test of time and make it to the end, so my journey continues.

This journey led me to two names, both of whom had their greatness confirmed by being cast in that British Acting Hall-Of-Fame that is the Harry Potter series (though they share a handful of credits). These actresses are Imelda Staunton and Emma Thompson. Staunton has the higher rating (80.13) than Thompson (78.23) but with only 8 films compared to 13. Staunton has the undeniably juicier role in the Harry Potter series and has done great work with Mike Leigh, namely in Vera Drake. Thompson hit highest gear in Mike Nichols’ Wit, joined by great turns in Love Actually, Stranger Than Fiction, and the great Shakespearian adaptation Much Ado About Nothing. Thompson is more noted for her comedic skills, though seeing Staunton as a guest on A Bit of Fry and Laurie confirms she can also deliver in that area.

Two things ultimately made my mind up on this, in favor of:

Emma Thompson. I do think her range is slightly larger, but I also feel like more of her gems remain unseen to my eyes. Thompson has been nominated four times for an Oscar, winning once, and I haven’t seen three of those, including the one for which she won. That so got into consideration in spite my not having seen some of her most acclaimed work goes a long way to showing why she deserves a spot on this list, hopefully to stay.

So with all that great lot of words spilled, I now must stop and pass the torch on. Next up to take a crack at the list will be my friend Alex over at Benefits of a Classical Education, where he will add some actress that worked with Borzage. I’ve got your number Alex, you can’t fool me.

25 Responses to The Ten: Best Actresses of All Time “Relay Race”

  1. Jessica says:

    What an excellent choice! For me she’ll forever be connected with Remains of the day, which is way up on my top list of movies. But there’s a lot of other goodness… Sense and sensibility comes to mind. You have my support in this.

    As opposed to you I thought Swinton was outstanding in We need to Talk about Kevin. Nevertheless I’m ok with you removing her. It’s not just about one movie, it’s about an entire career.

    • Bondo says:

      Yay, I’m glad I at least picked someone who you wouldn’t mind taking Swinton’s spot. Always nice to feel like others think I’m improving the list, even if I’m not always so charitable to them. ;-)

  2. martinteller says:

    I thought for sure you were going to ice Hepburn. Swinton’s been in some movies I don’t like (my Criticker score for her is 68.38, only a bit higher than yours) but that’s no reflection on her as an actress. I think she’s always an interesting presence. I’m not especially bothered your choice, though. It’d be hard for me to cut anyone else from this list, anyway. Maybe Blanchett or Streep.

    As for Thompson, a nice selection. I’m not very familiar with her career but I do love her in Remains in the Day and she does a really good job in An Education.

    • Bondo says:

      Obviously you weren’t wrong to fear for Hepburn. I think in addition to not having seen enough films, I reckoned Hepburn might be the more likely of the two to get reinstated, though maybe that’s a faulty thought if there is a tendency toward recency in these things. I do think through the first three iterations of this process we’ve aged up the list a bit. Clearly I should have nixed Stanwyck and replaced her with Elle Fanning to really inject some youth into the proceedings.

  3. Nostra says:

    Very interesting approach to remove one actress and replace her with someone else. Sad to see Swinton go though!

  4. Alex Thompson says:

    You know me too well.

  5. Pingback: The Ten: Best Actresses of All Time « Benefits of a Classical Education

  6. I love these relays, you get such a great swath of people in a short time.

    • Bondo says:

      Yeah, I think I’m seeing the value more in the write-ups that give everyone chances to talk about their choices than in the actual content of the list. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself as I prepare for disappointments along the way.

  7. paolocase says:

    The pain of taking out Monroe was bad enough for me to overlook the ousting of who, to me, is the greatest actress who ever lived. I’m in the ‘understanding’ phase now and realized that both women have great talent but are given shit roles. Monroe had her musicals even though she was capable of drama. Swinton gets art movies that are shallower than expected.

    Also, my favourite Emma roles are Primary Colours and An Education because they so go against her type and that’s the test of a good actress.

    • Bondo says:

      Of course one downside with the strong (though not overriding) reliance on Criticker ratings is not only does it count my rating for a Narnia film equal to We Need To Talk About Kevin, it doesn’t recognize the potential for the quality of the acting to stand distinct from the quality of the film. I also haven’t seen some of her acclaimed roles in smaller films like Julia and I Am Love. But in this case I can’t really say that matters because I’m not really wowed by her.

      • paolocase says:

        I am. I am Love was the movie that turned me into a TIlda fan, seeing how warm and shy she is despite her icy persona. I also want to see Orland because apparently that’s the one where she becomes a shape shifter.

  8. jackdeth72 says:

    Greetings, Bondo and company:

    I kind of wandered over here from Nostra’s ‘My Filmview’.

    Can’t say I’m sad to see Tilda Swinton go. When she connects in a film, she does it well, but those films are few and far between.

    I’ve been an Emma Thompson fan since her days opposite Kenneth Branagh and Ms. Thompson has consistently delivered. Basically, a younger version of Dame Helen Mirren.

    Excellent choice!

  9. sati says:

    Thompson is lovely, but I think Swinton is the best actress working today.

    • Bondo says:

      This is probably where not catching many of her lead roles hinders me, I don’t think she’s gotten enough work to be considered the best going at the moment.

      • paolocase says:

        Emma and Tilda have been working during the same time. The former is with her acting troupe with Hugh Laurie/Stephen Fry and the latter with Derek Jarman.

  10. Pingback: The Ten Best Actresses of All Time Relay Race « Southern Vision

  11. Pingback: Catching up with the Best Actresses of All Time Relay Race | Martin Teller's Movie Reviews

    • Bondo says:

      Some interesting picks there. Outside Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood, I’d be hard pressed to find an actress working primarily before the 1980s to include. Maybe Ginger Rogers. A lot of the old style acting doesn’t connect with me at all and I’m often less familiar with the full extent of their work. That may be the case with many of the black actresses you’ve included. I know the names/faces but don’t have a lot of roles standing out.

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