THE GREATEST SERIES: The 10 Greatest Actresses of All-Time



Tackling a definitive list like this is something I’ve generally avoided in the past, but for a while I’ve felt drawn to this project. Several months back I entered the first installment to what I’m simply calling “The Greatest” series. This time I’ve went through the grueling task of putting together a list of who I think are the 10 greatest actresses of all time. This is the second installment of a series that I hope to branch out in a number of interesting directions. I hope you enjoy it and take time to share you’re thoughts below.

There are some brilliant actresses who are favorites of mine but who don’t yet have the body of work to be considered a member of THE GREATEST. I’m talking about talents such as Jessica Chastain, Emily Blunt, Carey Mulligan, Elizabeth Olsen just to name a few. I love these ladies and with a few more great performances under their belts they could join this list. But for now let’s get started by listing #11 – #20:

#20 – Jodie Foster
#19 – Rachel Weisz
#18 – Helen Mirren
#17 – Maureen O’Hara
#16 – Kate Winslet
#15 – Nicole Kidman
#14 – Vivian Leigh
#13 – Deborah Kerr
#12 – Meryl Streep
#11 – Bette Davis

Now let me introduce my 10 Greatest Film Actresses of All Time:

#10 – Juliette Binoche

L Juliette BinocheIt may surprise some people to see Juliette Binoche in such a prominent spot on this list, especially those unfamiliar with her body of work. For me few actresses can give a more deeply personal and emotionally committed performance than this immensely talented French actress. Her abilities speak for themselves, but you gain a better understanding of her appreciation by simply looking at the great filmmakers who have put her in their films: Jean-Luc Godard, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Michael Haneke, and Abbas Kiarostami just to name a few. Binoche has an amazing knack of versatility. I don’t know if a role exists that she can’t play. There are certainly some bigger names behind her on this list, but for my money any movie with Juliette Binoche attached to it is automatically interesting.

#9 – Grace Kelly

L Grace KellySome may cry foul and say that Grace Kelly lacks the body of work to be considered one of the greatest actresses of all time. I can certainly understand that sentiment. At the same time I believe Kelly’s beauty, elegance, sincerity, and natural abilities helped her portray some truly magical characters. Grace Kelly was an profoundly talented actress and she had an effortless grace. And she could hold her on with any of the big named actors she worked with whether it was James Stewart, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, or Bing Crosby. In fact, Grant would later call Grace Kelly his favorite actress. Kelly starred in one of my favorite westerns “High Noon” and in two of my very favorite Alfred Hitchcock pictures “Rear Window” and “Dial M for Murder”. She was an Academy Award winner and beloved by the entire industry.

#8 – Cate Blanchett

L Cate BlanchettIn the world of modern moviemaking few actresses can consistently amaze me like Cate Blanchett does. There are so many things about her acting that I appreciate. One of the things I love are the old-school sensibilities you see in various degrees in all of her work. But Blanchett has also shown a willingness to branch out of her comfort zone and she has always excelled. She’s played in small intimate independent films and huge grand-scaled blockbusters. But the unbelievable consistency of quality that she brings to each project is a testament to her amazing range and impeccable talent. She has been nominated for six Academy Awards and has won two all by the age of 45. It’s hard to argue against Cate Blanchett’s place on this list and she is one of those rare performers who truly makes whatever film they are in better.

#7 – Elizabeth Taylor

ElizabethTaylorMany people will remember Elizabeth Taylor for a number of reasons. It may be her very unusual friendship with Michael Jackson. Or it could be for her seven marriages and numerous other romances. What she should be remembered for is being one of the most emotional and dynamic actresses ever to grace the big screen. Taylor was successful at an early age. She started as a child star and reluctantly moved to adult roles. It was there where her career skyrocketed. Taylor was not only a tremendous actress, but she was also one of the most beautiful women ever in the business. She often used these two gifts to create some of the most sultry, sexy and provocative characters you’ll find. She would go on to earn six Oscar nominations winning two of them and cementing her name among the greatest actresses of all time.

#6 – Barbara Stanwyck

L Barbara StanwyckThis may be a little high on the list for some people, but simply put I think Barbara Stanwyck was a phenomenal actress. In many ways she was an underappreciated performer and you rarely hear her named mentioned by many modern day moviegoers. In fact she is the only actress in my Top 10 to never win an Academy Award. That’s hard to believe. Just think back to some of her great work in movies like the fabulous “Stella Dallas”, the hilarious Howard Hawks comedy “Ball of Fire”, one of the greatest movies ever made “Double Indemnity”, the holiday classic “Christmas in Connecticut”, and the character-driven “Titanic”. These just scratch the surface on what was a brilliant film career. Stanwyck was the consummate professional and was loved by everyone she worked with from her co-stars to the film crew. She was also one of cinema’s truly great actresses.

#5 – Audrey Hepburn

L Audrey HepburnIn so many ways Audrey Hepburn embodied the idea of a big movie star. She had exquisite beauty and an undeniable fashion sense. But Hepburn was much more than that. She was also a fabulous actresses who played several signature roles in films that still stand as classics. Hepburn set the movie world ablaze in the 1950s through the 1960s. Her popularity launched in 1953 with the beautifully romantic “Roman Holiday”. She would go on the win the Best Actress Oscar for that performance. The very next year she would get another Oscar nomination for her work in Billy Wilder’s “Sabrina”. Many other great performances followed in “War and Peace”, “The Nun’s Story”, and of course “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. Audrey Hepburn is a true screen legend, but I often think her great acting gets lost behind her iconic image. That should never be the case.

#4 – Olivia de Havilland

L Olivia de HavillandI’ve always found Olivia de Havilland’s career to be a fascinating one. From her wonderful assortment of movies to the positive impact she has had on the industry, de Havilland has an important place in the history of cinema. She was also an actress who weathered the trials of early studio contract work to blossom into one of the most versatile performers we have ever had. She was always good even during those testy early years. She really became noticed working alongside Errol Flynn. The two would star in eight movies together. But she got a tremendous break when she landed a role in “Gone with the Wind”. This performance lead to the ability to seek more challenging roles. She was tremendous in films like “The Heiress”, “Hold Back the Dawn”, “To Each His Own”, and “The Snake Pit”. Olivia de Havilland is one of the few of that era still with us today – one of the true great actresses.

#3 – Marion Cotillard

L Marion CottilardI always love actors and actresses who don’t allow themselves to be pigeon-holed and who aren’t consistently within their comfort zones. Marion Cotillard is one such actress. Some may scoff at her being so high on this list but I find her to be one of the most captivating actresses working today. I’m always amazed at the sheer heart and emotion that she brings out of her characters. Her career started in France and she earned some much deserved attention. But her big break came when she landed the starring role in the Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en Rose”. Her performance has been rightly praised and its impression is still felt. She would go on to give a number of challenging performances in the French ensemble film “Little White Lies”, “Rust and Bone”, and most recently “The Immigrant”. And that doesn’t include the perfect touches she brings in her supporting work. “Midnight in Paris”, “Inception”, and “Nine”.

#2 – Katharine Hepburn

L Kate HepburnIt is impossible to even consider the greatest actresses of all time without Katharine Hepburn being mentioned. For over six decades Hepburn entertained audiences with performances that spanned nearly every genre. She worked with some of the best actors including Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and long time partner Spencer Tracy. She had an equally impressive list of directors who sought her for their roles. Hepburn’s journey wasn’t without its troubles. At one point she earned the reputation of being hard to work with and her career declined. But several big roles and great performances changed that. “The Philadelphia Story” brought her back to prominence and “The African Queen” did the same thing for her several years later. Her success continued into who elder years and by the end she had won an unprecedented four Academy Awards. It was an amazing career.

#1 – Ingrid Bergman

L Ingrid BergmanNarrowing down such a list has proved to be an almost impossible task, but from the very beginning I knew who would occupy my top spot. For me it has to be the Swedish beauty Ingrid Bergman. She was an actress always known for her innate natural looks and abilities when it comes to acting. In fact her first American movie role (“Intermezzo: A Love Story”) made her an instant star. Through the years that followed her roles would garner more attention and her performances only got better. Perhaps her most recognized role is Ilsa from the classic “Casablanca”. But who can forget her Oscar-winning work in “Gaslight” or her collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock “Spellbound” and “Notorious”? There was “The Bells of St. Mary’s”, “Joan of Arc”, “Anastasia” and so many more. She continued to shine on through the late 1970s even winning her third Oscar for “Murder on the Orient Express”. It was a magical life and career that has left us with so many wonderful cinematic treasures.

30 thoughts on “THE GREATEST SERIES: The 10 Greatest Actresses of All-Time

  1. I saw your header and immediately asked, where is Ingrid? As I scrolled down I was getting a little peeved. Then I got to number one and heaved a sigh of relief. OK good choices. Maybe Deborah Kerr should be somewhere in the top ten.

    • Ha Ha! I love hearing from others who live Ingrid. Wasn’t she magical? I think Kerr could have easily made the Top 10. In fact she was just a couple of weeks ago. I swear, this was really tough. I changed it so many times. But Ingrid was always #1

  2. Very interesting list. No real quibble with who you picked, but we could haggle the order forever. Only I know that I’d do different beyond a shadow of a doubt is find a spot for Meryl Streep in my top 10. Great post.

    • Thanks so much for checking it out. I figure I’ll hear from several folks who would have Meryl in their Top 10. It’s underatandable. This was so tough. I actually had a harder time settling on this one than I did when I did the actors. Ive been debating with myself for months.

  3. Great list there Keith. I’d maybe have Julie Christie and Diane Keaton in mine…perhaps Jane Fonda too, but I haven’t given it as much thought as you and it’d be difficult to leave people out that are in your list! Tilda Swinton and Amy Adams are two of my favourites working regularly today, as well, but it’s hard to narrow it down to 20.
    I’ve never seen Casablanca and it’s on TV this coming weekend here, so it’s time to rectify that!

    • Wait, you’ve never seen Casablanca? Oh please do fix that. It is my favorite movie. Make sure you let me know what you think about it.

      As the months went by this became a pretty grueling task. It was a lot more difficult than when I did the actors earlier this year. I gave a lot of consideration to Swinton and Adams. I think some great arguments could be made for their inclusion.

      As always thanks for the comments.

  4. Very interesting selection Keith. I agree fully with your top two choices – although they would probably swap positions in my own list – but I would diverge from that point on.

    My own selection would have to feature:
    Ava Gardner – her sultry beauty and enjoyment of life always captivate.
    Jean Simmons – so versatile and flexible.
    Gloria Grahame & Marie Windsor – two of the greatest noir actresses.
    Lauren Bacall – insouciant, sexy and assured.
    Geraldine Page-rarely got parts worthy of her talent but when she did no one was better. She could convey so much with such small gestures.
    And to round it off, maybe Ida Lupino and Gena Rowlands.

    • Great comments and I love several of the names you mentioned. I gave a ton of thought to Ava. Fabulous actress. Lauren Bacall is a personal favorite of mine. The problem is I usually relate her to those fabulous Bogart movies. After those there were only a handful that really struck me as great performances. But personally she’ll always hold a huge spot in my heart.

      Ida Lupino is a really cool pick. She’s up there with Lana Turner, Irene Dunn, and several others that certainly deserve mentioning.

  5. Awesome list Keith!! I was gonna say, ‘where’s Emily Blunt??’ but you gave a good reason why she’s not here and I agree. I do love her and Chastain but give ’em a few more years to prove their mettle 🙂

    I like practically every one on your top 10 except for Grace Kelly as I’ve only seen her in To Catch A Thief which I didn’t really like. I guess I always see her a beautiful woman but not necessarily a great actress, but that might be ’cause I need to see more of her work 😉

    • Thanks a bunch Ruth! TOUGH to put this together!!! Blunt and Chastain – I can definitely see them making their way on this list before too long. Sooo good.

      Definitely look up some of Grace Kelly’s other work. She truly is a wonderful actress. You really need to check out Rear Window. The best Hitchcock film IMO.

      • I’m glad we share our love for Blunt & Chastain, those two are such strong actresses. And YAY for Binoche & Blanchett, hey seems like we like actresses w/ last name that starts w/ ‘B’ ahah. I will put Rear Window on my next year’s Blindspot list, need to see more Jimmy Stewart movies, too!

      • Woo Hoo! You can never go wrong with Jimmy Stewart. In Rear Window they really hit home the notion that “opposites attract”. They are so good together.

        As for Blunt, I really think she starting to catch more people’s attention. That really excites me. She deserves it.

  6. So happy to see Ingrid at no.1. But I so desperately wanted Emma Thompson in that list for she certainly tops my list. Also would have loved to see Frances McDormand in that list

    • Emma Thompson is great no doubt. But let me confess something – there is so much of her work than I still need to see. Thats a shame isn’t it?

      Love the McDormand pick. She was actually in the top 20 and then out. Then she was back in and so forth. I finally forced myself to settle. A lot tougher than when I did the men.

  7. Great list. I love all the stars mentioned here. And I agree Elizabeth Taylor should be remembered for being one of the most dynamic actresses ever. Love almost all Audrey Hepburn movies. And Ingrid Bergman, what a great actress.
    Love the newer lot mentioned too, especially Marion Cotillard.

    • Thanks so much for checking out the list and commenting. I did one for actors several months ago but this turned out to be a lot harder. There were several I hated to leave out of the top 10 and even more that I hated to leave out of my top 20. But I do think the top 10 represents some of the very best actresses in cinema history. I would watch those ladies in anything they do.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  8. Great list here, Keith! I appreciate all the love for the French actresses, like Juliette Binoche and Marion Cotillard. I have enjoyed both of them in every film I’ve ever seen of either of theirs! I also wholeheartedly agree with Cate Blanchett – she really does make everything she’s in better!

    • Hey Kristin! Thanks for stopping by. Aren’t Binoche and Cotillard wonderful? They bring so much to every film they are in. Some may not agree with Cotillard being that high up on the list, but I truly think she is tremendous and one of the best.

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    • Oh that’s an interesting pick. I love it. There’s no doubt Page was great and influenced many American actresses. It was nice to see her get her due for The Trip to Bountiful.

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