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My Top 10 Actresses of All-Time

April 25, 2011

I’ve just gone through a spell of catching up with some old Hollywood classics. In the space of a few weeks, I’ve been in the pleasurable company of some of the greats – Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, the list goes on. And then it occurred to me: why not try to name my 10 favourite actresses of all-time? Note I use the word ‘favourite’ and not ‘best’ – this is subjective. I’m probably slightly partial to contemporary whims, and I lack for a bit of knowledge on African/South American cinema, but here’s my top 10, in age order….

Ingrid Bergman

There are so many great actresses to choose from in the golden Hollywood decades of the thirties and forties, but Ingrid Bergman to me almost is the cinema in terms of the sheer diversity and scope of work she has done. She acted in five different languages, across five decades, working with the greatest filmmakers in the world (Cukor, Hitchcock, Rossellini – the list is endless) in a variety of roles that played on her sophisticated beauty, intelligence, underrated sense of humour, and overall sense of poise and dignity that very few actresses have matched. People often associate Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart, and while that’s fair, Bergman more than held her own opposite him. She was amazing in Robert Rossellini’s heartfelt Viaggio in Italia, and one of my personal favourites was her classy little two-piece with Cary Grant, Indiscreet, about two middle-age singletons playing around with the conventions of marriage.

Joan Fontaine

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Some of my first memories of the movies involve Joan Fontaine (watching black-and-white matinées on BBC 2 on Saturday mornings). Her prim, petite wholesomeness was exactly the right base for the lurid, gothic canvasses of Rebecca and Jane Eyre to play out on, and she offered such an interesting contrast to the maverick, domineering lead men in both films, Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles respectively.

Lauren Bacall

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Perhaps the most purely ‘sexy’ actress in movie history – she could seduce a man with the merest look in her eyes or on wordplay alone. Her repartee with Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not and the quite staggering The Big Sleep is immortal, but she has retained a regal air and gravitas even into her old age, convincing as the Upper East Side matriarch in Jonathan Glazer’s chilly Birth.

Frances McDormand

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Frances McDormand’s name in the opening credits of a film always sends a ripple of comfort and reassurance through me. At the risk of sounding patronising (though I can’t explain it any better), her presence in a movie is like that of a much-beloved aunt. She’s so calm, genial, and always utterly herself – even when playing a gallery of marginal eccentrics in her long association with the Coen brothers. Obviously people remember her excellent Oscar winning turn in Fargo, but perhaps my favourite McDormand performance is in Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys – playing the exasperated, but caring, ultimate object of affection for Michael Douglas’ dope-addled academic.

Kristin Scott Thomas

It was always going to be one of Kristin Scott Thomas or Charlotte Rampling for the Anglo-French vote, but I went with Scott Thomas based on the fact that I haven’t seen much of Rampling’s work in the Seventies for which she is most famous, and – because even though her films with François Ozon are delectable – they do tend to play on the mysteriousness of Rampling, where as Scott Thomas’ performances are more multi-dimensional. Scott Thomas is, quite simply, a class act, with one of the most photogenic and graceful cinematic personas around. It doesn’t matter whether she’s in French tongue or English, whether she’s playing the sophisticated adultress of The English Patient, or stolid middle-aged romantic characters in the underrated Random Hearts and The Horse Whisperer, or her recent French pièce de résistance – I’ve Loved You So Long – her class shines through.

Juliette Binoche

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Binoche’s impeccable arthouse credentials and ability to laugh, cry and glower on cue are almost a touch overawing and tyrannical – but the sheer immensity of her body of work and willingness to seek out the world’s best filmmakers commands respect. I was first drawn to her in the underrated, and quite experimental, version of Wuthering Heights where she played the dual role of Catherine/Cathy to such poignant effect (once one assimilates that this Yorkshire gal speaks with a French accent), she grounded Anthony Minghella’s bombastic Oscar winner, The English Patient, and was magnificence personnified in Abbas Kiarostami’s quite brilliant Certified Copy. Binoche however, will always be associated in my mind with the amazing tour de force that was Krzysztof Kieślowski’s shimmering Three Colours: Blue.

Li Gong

Again another contemporary selection, but it betrays my age I guess? What’s amazing is that Li Gong appears ageless despite having been an icon of Chinese cinema for over 20 years now. She also has one of the most expressive and bewitching of faces in modern cinema. She was great in Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, I thought her coupling with Colin Farrell in Miami Vice really worked, and she was the best thing about the otherwise lame Memoirs of a Geisha.

Irène Jacob

I have to confess to basing this selection on relatively little evidence. But sometimes it isn’t the scope of the body of work that matters, but its perfection. Jacob met her heavenly match in the guise of genius director Krzysztof Kieślowski, and while her performance in Three Colours: Red is exceptional, it’s the mesmeric, mysterious tone poem of The Double Life of Veronique that I can’t get out of my head. I almost like the fact that her career, certainly to Anglo-American audiences, never went stratospheric after these masterpieces, although she does still pop up occasionally in French cinema.

Naomi Watts

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For Mulholland Drive alone, Naomi Watts deserves a place on this list. It’s a truly staggering performance, and in years to come, when so many other stars and films have faded from the collective memory, that film and that performance will endure. There are so many elements to it – from the convincing depiction of the smalltown starlet at the beginning, to that wonderful single-take audition scene, but it’s the film’s extremely dark and dystopian final third where she comes into her own. Watts is far from a one-hit wonder though. She was exceptional in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s underrated 21 Grams, and has always offered solid, reliable support in the numerous productions she’s played a part in (think Fair GameThe International and J. Edgar).

Scarlett Johansson

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When I think of contemporary Hollywood actresses, the one that always sticks in my mind is Scarlett Johansson. I don’t think I ever got over a Saturday matinée double-header in the early noughties which consisted of Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring. I’d been aware of Johansson before with excellent performances in younger parts for The Horse Whisperer and Ghost World, but here she was in her early 20s – pretty (in a subtle, unassuming way), charming, funny, preternaturally mature, and with a radiance that seared off the screen. To me, her career then kind of got disappointing, with Johnansson playing into the incorrect media perception of her as a sexy blonde starlet (the whole point being she was interesting because she didn’t know she was sexy). She seems to be back on track though, and I thought she totally outclassed Hollywood’s current favourite actress, Natalie Portman, in the recent The Other Boleyn Girl.

Honourable Mentions

I’ve only seen Barbara Stanwyck in one film (Double Indemnity, let’s wash over her work on Dynasty!) but what a film and performance. Magnolia aside, to me Julianne Moore can do no wrong, great in Boogie Nights, easily the best thing about The Hours, and heartbreaking in Far From Heaven. Easily one of Hollywood’s most iconic actresses – Rita Hayworth – famous for Gilda and the absolutely brilliant Orson Welles’ film The Lady from Shanghai. As mentioned above, I love Charlotte Rampling, especially in her François Ozon collaborations. I’ve not seen enough of their work but I loved Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love and Cecilia Roth in All About My Mother. And I can’t forget Claudia Cardinale, for Il gattopardo alone….

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2011 1:18 pm


    For interest, Irène Jacob releases a new album today, Je Sais Nager, with her brother Francis Jacob on the Universal Jazz label (

    FNAC is supplying it in France (

    Amazon UK will be releasing it on 3 May 2011 (

    For the latest information about concerts planned, check Alain Martin’s site over in France (


    Alexandre FABBRI


  1. The Double Life of Veronique | Patrick Nabarro

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