In closing up my acting Top Tens, here is my list for Lead Actress performances. This was a tough one (aren’t they all) and I’m saddened to have left some of my favorites off the list. Claudette Colbert was once in my top five for her performance in ‘The Smiling Lieutenant’, but she has been given the shaft here. Annie Girardot was also on this list for a while for her towering work in ‘Rocco and His Brothers’, but she came up short this time around. I also really wanted to site my 1981 winner and runner up, Isabelle Adjani and Diane Keaton for their career best performances. Choosing between them is hard enough (Adjani is my #1 by a very miniscule margin) but leaving them off this list was even harder. At the end of the day though, there were a slew of newer performances that were battling for spots here. Swank (for ‘Boys Don’t Cry’), Sarandon (for ‘Dead Man Walking’), Weisz (for ‘The Deep Blue Sea’) and Cotillard (for ‘Rust + Bone’) were all considered and deserve the recognition and respect. Amazing performances!
With that said, I'm in love with this top ten, and despite my adoration for my Supporting Actress, Actor and Lead Actor lists, I think that from top to bottom this is my favorite Top Ten! Sheer perfection across the board.
So, here we go!
It’s not that the idea of creating a threefold performance hasn’t been done before, or at least attempted, but the very depths to which Duvall goes to actually etch out every variation of this character and her personas is rather unprecedented. She completely obliterates all doubt in her genius and finds such subtle and nuanced ways to establish the fractured lines in her delivery. She splinters so ominously, building tension in her very delivery. She understands how to find those lines in nearly every scene, so that when the film reaches its end and our minds are flooded with questions about what we just saw we are welcomed into the arms of a person we are struggling to understand and yet feel oddly connected to. Above all else, she’s unforgettable; and that alone is worth remembering.
Charlotte Andergast is a marvel to digest, because you cannot help but sympathize with her while simultaneously getting repulsed by her. She has all but abandoned her children and (as we learn) her husband for her own selfish pursuits, but as she is brought face to face with her actions it is obvious that she never really understood what she was doing. Her final decision is further proof that she is not ready to fully comprehend her emotional state and the effect that it has on those around her. She is a conundrum, but a flawlessly natural one. She is natural because Bergman makes her that way. Ingrid is hands-down one of the greatest actresses to ever grace the screen. This is her finest hour. With a perfect grasp of her director’s vision (Ingmar has such a way with words, painting his scenes like poetry, and Ingrid beautifully speaks every line) and a stunning array of emotional daggers, Ingrid weaves her character’s tale for us in a way that allows us into her mind and makes us a part of her development. There are so many ‘moments’ here that I wish I could capture, but words cannot do them justice. The subtle yet profound way that Ingrid shakes her eyes (yes SHAKES them) while watching her daughter stumble through Chopin, the neurotic way she babbles to herself while contemplating her situation, the grand ‘performance’ she puts on for the sickly Helena, the way she completely absorbs ever word Eva speaks and slowly crumbles; all of them are just unbelievably sincere.
I can’t hide behind any kind of unbiased here, since I’ve made it pretty clear that I consider Kate Winslet the greatest actress of her generation (although Marion Cotillard is so close a second that she’s almost #1) and so it comes as no surprise that she’d land on this list somewhere. What may be surprising to some is that it is for this film and not one of her more dramatic roles. Sure, she was top notch in everything from ‘The Reader’ to ‘Revolutionary Road’ to ‘Heavenly Creatures’ and ‘Little Children’, and while they were all dramatic and moving, it is this electrifying comedic turn that nabs the top spot in my book. What is so revolutionary about what Winslet does here is that she completely embodies the soul of the film. She builds such a force within her character, idealizing everything the film stands for and shading every layer of Clementine. She is charming, neurotic, compassionate, quirky, endearing, painful and even at time loathsome and yet she completely works. She’s not some mere cliché, and she isn’t particularly ‘shaped by the film’ as much as the film is ‘shaped by her’. She becomes everything needed to sell this idea and root us in this story. Quite honestly, without her this film would have failed.
Ullmann is one of those actresses who has done so much with her career, and with Ingmar Bergman, that finding ONE performance that worked above all else was a difficult one, but this little seen gem in Bergman’s filmography held the answer. I actually had to dig and dig through the internet to find a bootleg DVD copy of this film in order to see it, since it’s out of print and out of region and impossible to find in the US right now. So, despite the sound issues (I was reading the film anyway so it’s not like it mattered that much) I plugged away and was able to take in the masterfulness of Ullmann’s tour-de-force. Knowing that Ullmann received an Oscar nomination for this film is comforting, because it proves that AMPAS can be brilliant sometimes. Sure, she lost (but Dunaway was not a bad choice) but the very fact that she got the nomination is just beyond words. The exploration of mental illness through the eyes of one supposedly understanding to that illness is fascinating to watch, and the way that Ullmann completely gives of herself in this role is haunting to the core. Her breakdown is unflinching and the way she bleeds such rich intensity is not only so demanding of her physically, but emotionally as well, and she delivers in every way.
Selling the kind of woman that two men would die to ‘share’ is something that is rather difficult to do. The thing is, Jeanne isn’t merely presenting us a woman so secure in her sexuality and beauty that she enticing two men to sleep with her, for that is not a difficult task in the least. No, Jeanne is saddled with the responsibility to delivering a performance that convinced the audience that this woman is so desirable, from all angles, that two men cannot LIVE without her. She does it. Not only is she vivacious and alluring but she tones down the sexuality and amps up the lovability. You can’t help but fall madly in love with her. Catherine becomes the definition of charm and elegance. She radiates this ethereal quality that sucks you into the vacuum of her heart. While the depths of the film’s core is truly not about her at all (see my interpretation here), Moreau walks away the film’s true star because she layers each aspect of her character with this alarming sense of awareness, completely ‘in the know’ of what she’s doing (manipulation at its most charming) and yet she makes it look so easy.
I hate that so many baulk over this win. I personally find it utterly fantastic! The juxtaposition of charm and grace with the emotional beating is summed up so effortlessly by Minnelli’s delivery. Her handling of the musical numbers is flawless, completely selling the sex alongside the emotional weight, but it is her dynamic portrayal of Sally’s homelife that truly anchors this performance. This is more than just a mere song and dance number. She captures the ethereal quality to Sally’s flamboyancy, understanding that her quirk is part of her charm, and she allows her to hide behind that with expert balance, seeping Sally’s more emotionally charged interior into the cracks in her exterior ever so gently. This becomes key to making her bigger moments (the pregnancy, the breakdown, the finale) all the more effective for they offer us peeled layers of fragility that never quite unveil themselves fully and yet keep Sally a real person.
Without a word, Falconetti explodes on the screen with so much passion one is literally reduced to a sobbing heap of flesh at the very sight of her. Sited by many cinephiles as one of the greatest performances of all time, it’s not all that shocking to see her making the list. She’s incredible. Her iconic performance is referenced in cinema, even today. Just look at Anne Hathaway’s tremendous portrayal of Fantine in last year’s ‘Les Miserables’. Her delivery of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is, without a doubt, wholly inspired by this beautiful performance. Her alienesque eyes carry such emotional weight, displaying her unwavering loyalty and devotion to the god she believes is backing her, as well as capturing the very fear that runs through her veins at the thought of her impending fate. The director's method of filming her only works to embellish what she is already accomplishing. With unflinching realism, Falconetti completely rewrote the definition of acting all the way back in 1928.
What I think is so intoxicating about what Meryl does here is that she plays Lindy with such a rare shred of honesty that one cannot help but love, loathe and become frustratingly confused by her very demeanor. The tragedy that consumes her character is one that I would never wish upon another human being, and quite frankly it shook me to my core, but it was the way that Meryl found every ounce of raw human defensiveness that made this performance so haunting. Lindy deals with her situation in stark contrast to her husband, forcing herself to find humor in her treatment to deaden the pain; but when she takes the stand and her countenance falls and she starts to crumble you begin to understand that she is not as cold as she appears. It was the building of this ‘mask’ and then the subsequent tearing of it down that made her performance so effectively calculated. You won’t forget her; you can’t! She embodies everything that defines classic ‘acting’ and yet she drives it home in a vehicle that fits her skin like it were her own.
‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ will always be regarded as the one that showed me what a great actress can do with a great part; chew the hell out of it. But to say that she ‘chews’ the scenery isn’t to say that she oversells anything, for Taylor understood the importance of ‘pulling back’ and allowing the emotional relevance of the character seem into every scene. She portrayed a relatable vulnerability, one that denoted a confused state. She wanted the love and affections she thought she deserved, and yet she couldn’t completely hate her husband for not giving it to her. I love that you never doubt her devotion to Brick, despite the fact that she knows they don’t have a marriage anymore. Her words would cut like knives to anyone else, but they seemingly make barely a dent in her husband. She is distraught and bewildered and just plain tired of wanting. Taylor plays Maggie with such delicate precision, making sure to layer her words wisely. We feel every ounce of her emotional makeup in a mere glance across the screen; breaking down the complexities of the performance without ever feeling stagy or forced. She is an effortless presence here, something that is felt deep within.
‘Woman Under the Influence’ is such a fascinating film to begin with because it challenges everything we think we know about mental illness and instability by presenting our chief antagonist in such a sympathetic light that everyone around her becomes the true antagonist and she becomes our beacon of light. What helps to make all this work is the staggering portrayal of Mabel by the glorious Gena Rowlands. This is one of those performances that divides people, and so I’m not sure that anyone is going to actually agree with my #1 here, but the thing of beauty to me is that this performance is not without passion. Some hate it, some love it, but most don’t merely like or dislike it. The reason for this is because Rowlands delivers a performance that is not restrained by the boundaries of what we ‘expect’ to see. She is challenged by the prose of her film and thus she challenges us back with a performance that walks so many thin lines and breaks so many rules. She establishes what we think is ‘obvious’ and then pushes each button and tampers with each issue in order to create a complete performance, and one that is unlike any other I’ve ever seen. It’s a complete transformation, one that doesn’t draw from anything other than Rowlands ability to create.