The 10 Greatest Actresses of All Time
Acting is one of the main aspects of a certain kind of filmmaking. It is so powerful that some filmmaker’s careers and even certain movements are profoundly shaped by the actresses and actors that appear the films. Some actresses and actors have become idols and figures that represent and shaped entire generations.
Sometimes we see an actress who is great for the broad variety of characters she can display and for being chameleonic, but other times they are revered for portraying very specific roles in a way that nobody but themselves are able to. A chameleonic actress can adapt to any role and thus any style, and an actress with an extremely distinctive style shapes the form of the film in which she appears.
Here is a list of some of the greatest actresses in film history. In trying to keep it diverse, there will be actresses with broad careers and a lot of international awards and recognition, and others whose careers have been short yet brilliant. The work of these actresses has shaped not only filmmaking, but the way in which some generations have changed. With nothing further, here is the list.
10. Isabelle Huppert
French actress Isabelle Huppert has been nominated 50 times for different international recognitions and has won more than 100 awards. Her career has lasted almost 50 years now and consists of more than 100 films. She is recognized as the actress with more appearances in the Cannes Film Festival and more nominations at the Cesar Awards. Huppert is one of the actresses with the highest recognition of many generations to the current day.
Huppert has starred some of the greatest films in history over several decades. In the 1970s, she impersonated Jacquelyn in “Les Valseuses” (1974); Rose in “Le juge et l’assassin” (1976); Pome in “La Dentelliere” (1978), Violette Noziére in the film of the same name (1978), and Anne Brontë in “The Sisters Brontë” (1979). Huppert played the lead character in the acclaimed film by Michael Haneke, “La Pianiste” (2001). Most recently, she appeared in “Elle” (2016), for which she received her first Oscar nomination.
9. Anna Karina
The iconic actress who became face of the Nouvelle Vague may not as awarded as the other actresses in this list, but she indeed has an outstanding career. She was born in Denmark and moved to Paris where she meet Jean-Luc Godard in 1959.
Her relationship with Godard shaped both of their careers in the 1960s. During this decade, Anna Karina played the lead roles in films such as “A Woman Is a Woman” (1961) as Angela, a role for which she won the Silver Berlin Bear. She also appeared in “Pierrot le Fou” (1965) as Marianne Renoir, and as Natacha in “Alphaville” in the same year.
Even though Karina’s career was deeply related to Godard’s in the beginning, both distanced themselves and Karina found new projects. She appeared in some of Jacques Rivette’s films and In 1967, she impersonated Marie Cardona as a lead character along with Marcello Mastroianni in Luchino Visconti’s “The Stranger.” She even appeared in films directed by Werner Fassbinder and Ingmar Bergman.
8. Giulietta Masina
Giulietta Masina was born in Italy and became one of the most revered actresses, not only in Italy but in Europe overall. It was her collaborations with her husband Federico Fellini that gained her international recognition. With “Nights of Cabiria” (1957), she was nominated at the BAFTAs and won five awards, including Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, a Golden Globe, the Silver Ribbon, the Zulueta Prize, and Sant Jordi’s award for Best Actress.
“Nights of Cabiria” is regarded as Masina’s finest performance, but she also had success with “Ginger and Fred” (1986), where she played (with Marcello Mastroianni) a couple that imitates Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. She also gave a wonderful performance as Gelsomina in “La Strada” (1954), a role that demanded she play a kind and innocent girl, a role which she would transcend during her career.
7. Setsuko Hara
Appearing in almost 100 films, Japanese actress Setsuko Hara has starred in some of the finest films from great Japanese masters such Yasujirō Ozu and Mikio Naruse, and even Akira Kurosawa.
With roles as the daughter in the films of these directors, she became a symbol for Japanese Golden Era of Cinema, even though she would not gain international recognition and reduced fans of her work. Much like Ozu’s films, the performances from Hara are extremely idiosyncratic and thus hard to understand for the Western public.
The peak of her career was likely in the Noriko Trilogy by Ozu, consisting of “Late Spring” (1949), “Early Summer” (1951) and “Tokyo Story” (1953). In these three films she played the role of Noriko, but the characters she played were not exactly the same. In this trilogy, Hara’s ability to display subtle emotions and kindness is seen at its highest.
After these roles, she had a rough time with her career due to personal illness, and she retired from acting in 1963, the year of Ozu’s death. The shortness of her career did not prevent her from making a place in the history of Japanese cinema as an actress as important as Bette Davis is in Hollywood.
6. Meryl Streep
Iconic American actress Meryl Streep’s career is one of the most awarded, prolific and multifaceted trajectories in the history of acting. She has won three Oscars (“Kramer vs. Kramer” in 1980, “Sophie’s Choice” in 1982 and “The Iron Lady” in 2011) which is no small thing, as she has been nominated no less than 17 times for this award.
Between BAFTAs, Emmys and many more distinctions, she has gathered more than 150 awards and 350 nominations. Streep’s career consists of almost 50 years of acting from the beginning of the iconic cinema decade of the 1970s (“The Playboy of Seville” in 1971) until today, where she remains active.
Streep has occupied a privileged place in Hollywood for many generations, impersonating roles as diverse as Francesca Johnson in “The Bridges of Madison County” (1955) and Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006).
Streep is characterized for her multifaceted ability to adapt to any kind of role, a characteristic that has allowed her to collaborate with the finest directors in Hollywood such as Alan J. Pakula, Clint Eastwood and Robert Benton. Streep’s talent is one that goes far beyond genders and styles, managing to erase her persona to embody that of the character.
5. Bibi Andersson
Swedish actress Bibi Andersson started her career in Sweden’s top schools of dramatic arts. It was in the theatre where she met Ingmar Bergman, with whom she would collaborate in some of the most iconic films in history, and at the same time they made their way in the Stockholm theater scene. Her career as an actress has been recognized most notably in Germany (Berlin International Film Festival), France (Cannes Film Festival) and Great Britain (BAFTA film awards), where she has been awarded for her work in Swedish films.
Andersson also worked with American filmmaker John Huston and has appeared in Argentinian films. She is currently working mostly in theater. The highlight of her career is considered to be her roles in Bergman’s films in the 50s and 60s; her role as Alma in “Persona” (1966) is one her more demanding roles in film history, as her identity is slowly transformed due to her interaction with a woman who has decided to remain completely silent (Liv Ullmann).
But this is just one of the many demanding roles she has played through her career, which includes Sara in “Wild Strawberries” (1957) and Mia in “The Seventh Seal” (1957). Andersson indeed occupies a place as important as the films of Bergman in the history of acting.
4. Liv Ullmann
Liv Ullmann has appeared in nine films of Ingmar Bergman, films which are considered among the finest of all Swedish directors. Between these films are “Cries and Whispers” (1972); “Autumn Sonata” (1978), where she shared the screen with Ingrid Bergman; and the complex “Persona” (1966), where she played the demanding role of a woman who decided to stop talking due to a secret only she knows. Ullmann also appeared in “Scenes from a Marriage” (released in theaters in 1974), where she become internationally known due to the commercial success of the film.
Ullmann had a successful career in Norway as a theater actress before appearing in Bergman’s films. After her collaborations with Bergman, she became a still working filmmaker and writer. Ullmann’s career has been internationally awarded at the Oscars, Golden Globes, Cannes Film Festival, and many other nominations. She has become one of the greatest actresses in film history by impersonating emotionally complex and demanding characters.
3. Ingrid Bergman
The winner of three Oscars and five Golden Globes, Ingrid Bergman worked with the finest filmmakers not only in Hollywood, but in world cinema, working with directors such as Victor Fleming, Roberto Rossellini and Ingmar Bergman. She developed her career in five languages (Swedish, French, German, English and Italian). She starred in the iconic film “Casablanca” (1942) and her work was internationally recognized.
With “Gaslight” (1944), she won her first Oscar, as well as the Golden Globe and NBR Award. She was awarded again in 1957 for her role in “Anastasia” (1956) also winning the Golden Globe and NYFCC Award. Finally, she won her third Oscar for her role in “Murder on the Orient Express” (1975), also winning the BAFTA.
The 1940s were especially brilliant in her career; she won her first Oscar and was nominated three more times in that decade. She was Oscar-nominated four more times – in 1944 for playing Maria in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1943); in 1946 for playing Sister Mary Benedict in “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945); in 1949 for playing Joan of Arc in Victor Fleming’s film of the same name (1948); and finally, in 1979 for playing Charlotte Andergast in “Autumn Sonata” (1978).
2. Bette Davis
One of greatest stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Bette Davis was selected as the second greatest actress of all time by the American Film Institute. Born in Massachusetts, Davis started her career on Broadway.
She started appearing in films in 1930 and it was in that same decade that she would make herself a place for herself as one of the finest actresses in Hollywood. She won two Oscars for her leading roles, once in 1936 for her role as Joyce Heath in “Dangerous” and in 1939 as Julie Marsden in “Jezebel.” She was also nominated nine times for Oscars in the following decades.
As much as William Wyler shaped the way in which films were made for many years, Davis shaped the way acting was done for many generations. Davis is an icon of the Golden Age of Hollywood. She presided over the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1941 and was awarded by the American Film Institute for her career on a whole, which consists of more than 120 appearances.
1. Katharine Hepburn
The winner of four Oscars for Best Actress in Leading Role (the first in 1933 for “Morning Glory,” the next two during the 1960s, and the last one in 1981 for “On the Golden Pond”), and nominated eight times more for that same award, Katharine Hepburn is regarded the greatest actress in film history by the American Film Institute.
Hepburn was known for the broad range of characters she played, going from dense films based on literature classics to crazy comedies. Hepburn shaped the image of an American modern woman as she challenged the expectations she had on herself.
Hepburn started her career on Broadway and started a career as a film actress in 1932 (with “A Bill of Divorcement”) that would last for more than 60 years. Hepburn appeared regularly in Shakespeare-based films. She faced hardships during her early career (after her first Oscar), but she made a comeback with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Spencer Tracy, with whom he would produce nine critically and commercially successful films