The Golden Age of Hollywood

OK, this isn't an original idea, there's a meme going around on several movie blogs asking for a list of your 20 favorite actresses. Since I haven't been "memed," I thought I'd be pro-active and start a discussion. So here are my 20 favorite classic film actresses in no particular order (hey it was difficult enough just to narrow it down to 20).

Norma Shearer
Clara Bow
Katherine Hepburn
Paulette Goddard
Irene Dunne
Anna May Wong
Judy Garland
Claudette Colbert
Thelma Todd
Marlene Dietrich
Jean Arthur
Ann Sheridan
Gloria Swanson
Elizabeth Taylor
Shirley MacLaine
Joanne Woodward
Vivien Leigh
Bette Davis
Celeste Holm
Jane Wyman

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A very strong list.

I'd have to go with the following:

Lillian Gish
Maureen O'Hara
Katharine Hepburn
Barbara Stanwyck
Agnes Moorehead
Irene Dunne
Jean Arthur
Claudette Colbert
Mildred Natwick
Donna Reed
Gloria Grahame
Shirley Booth
Lee Remick
Myrna Loy
Kathleen Freeman
Claudia Cardinale
Loretta Young
Gina Lollabrigida
Susan Hayward
Jean Peters
Shame on me. I forgot to mention Thelma Ritter. Hmm . . Scratch Agnes Moorhead.
Katherine Hepburn
Veronica Lake
Myrna Loy
Catherine Deneuve
Sophia Loren
Maureen O'Hara
Claudia Cardinale
Natalie Wood
Anne Bancroft
Ann Sheridan
Ginger Rogers
Marjorie Main
Marlene Dietrich
Agnes Moorehead
Paulette Goddard
Eve Arden
Dorothy Lamour
Angie Dickinson
Lee Remick
Kim Novak

1. Ingrid Bergman. The most beautiful woman ever to visit the Warner Bros. studio neverland version of Morocco (gross understatement, by the way). I can't think of another actress who inhabited more courage or grace than Ms. Bergman, whose face speaks a thousand emotions in the most quiet words. Favorite Performance: She brings so much to a truly underwritten role in Casablanca, but her strongest and most complex character was Alicia Huberman in Hitchcock's deleriously romantic Notorious

2. Barbara Stanwyck. There was NOTHING this woman couldn't do. She handled screwball comedy (The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire) with the same whip-smart gusto as film noir (Double Indemnity, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers), the sensitivity in melodramas (Stella Dallas, Clash by Night) and with the same indomitable strength as in Westerns (The Furies, Forty Guns), making her possibly the only actress to crash--and rule--the boy's club of film genres. And as witnessed in her pre-codes such as Baby Face and Night Nurse, she was possibly the only woman to ever get the better of John Wayne and Clark Gable (of course, both were struggling actors and she was rising--does that count as taking advantage of young men?). She was a born survivor, and her strength and spirit can never be topped. Favorite Role: in essential dual roles in Preston Sturges' comedic masterpiece The Lady Eve--again, she gets the better of Henry Fonda, who called Stanwyck his favorite leading lady.

3. Katharine Hepburn. Like Stanwyck, there are fewer actresses who have more strength and spirit, whose career extended and survived for so long. People say she had mannerisms or that she was essentially playing herself (not true, by the way), but if that's true, consider me falling for Hepburn in everything she appears in. She could be the strongest person in the room but she never let you forget the sensitivity that was hiding just beneath the surface, the uncertain girl she never grew out of. Favorite Role: There are too many, but her turn as the woman in love with her sister's fiance in the poignant, underrated Holiday deserves an audience.

4. Carole Lombard. I can't feign objectivity: I think Carole Lombard was the funniest woman ever put on this planet, as well as one of the most beautiful. She seemed to love laughing at her own jokes, which made them all the more enjoyable, and she had no problem with looking like an idiot--she was a supreme comedienne (why oh why didn't she work with Preston Sturges?) . It's a real shame that she never got a meaty dramatic role to show off her chops she clearly had the sensitivity for. It's a tragedy that she died so young at age 32 selling war bonds. Her husband Clark Gable was devastated and never--ever--got over her death. And when you think about it, who could blame him? Favorite Performance: As Hazel Flagg, the girl *not* dying of Radium Poisoning, in Nothing Sacred.

5. Marilyn Monroe. It's been said that there have been more books written about Monroe than WWII. And the similarities are there: she was a bombshell, she has become a symbol of our culture, she was a very, very complex being. She was also a mess in her personal life, from her damaged childhood of being passed from one foster home to the other, of the messy marriages, of never being taken seriously as an actress (she had to star in the adaptation of a mediocre Broadway hit Bus Stop to get the glowing reviews of her dramatic ability that was evident in hear earliest roles). But before she shot to the top in Howard Hawks' girl-power musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she was tackling difficult roles as the confused, dangerous babysitter in the taut little thriller Don't Bother to Knock, where she's less femme fatale than a deer caught in the headlights. And you get the feeling that that's how Monroe was, even when she made glorious love to the camera: a scared little deer, wondering why everyone is looking at her. Favorite Performance: As the ditsy Lorelei Lee, Monroe makes a splash in her big breakthrough. And her rendition of "Diamonds are Girl's Best Friend" is a show-stopper.

6. Jean Arthur. Like Monroe, she was difficult, she was deeply insecure (one director once said that he had to almost literally drag her out of her dressing room to do a take). But she was a natural comedienne, and a deeply charming one at that. You'd have to be Scrooge not to fall for her. Frequent collaborators George Stevens called her one of the best comediennes of all time, Frank Capra called her his favorite actress. And even late in his life James Stewart, who certainly shared the screen with a great deal of talented actresses, bestowed Jean with the honor of saying she was the best actress he ever worked with, even though they didn't bond off-screen. Favorite Performance: Of all the hardened women of Capra's films who dissolve in the opportunity of love, it is the most joyful to watch Clarissa Saunders melt at Jefferson Smith's idealism in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I still find it hard to believe Arthur was passed over for an Oscar nomination.

7. Jeanne Moreau. She looked like the French Bette Davis, but she was closer to the sister Ingrid Bergman never had. There isn't a role where Moreau doesn't completely feel immersed in her role, and she earned a career that included working with Orson Welles (who called Moreau "the greatest actress in the world"), Louis Malle and Francois Truffaut, to name a few. It's a true delight to see her come alive in front of the camera. Favorite Performance: Her most famous and celebrated, as the unpredictable Catherine who inspires both freedom and tragedy to Jules and Jim. It's been rumored that by the end of filming, both the young director Truffaut and the old novelist of the source novel Henri Serre (and the film's producer to boot) were all in love with Moreau.

8. Lee Remick. Remick never had the big stardom she deserved; after her heyday in the 1960s she mostly did made-for-TV movies. But she leaves a huge impression in whatever she touches. Elia Kazan first discovered her when he gave her a debut as the girl who steals Andy Griffith's heart (she also knows a thing or two about twirling a baton) in his masterpiece A Face in the Crowd and used her again in his obscure gem Wild River, her favorite role. Remick had this gift of communicating so much with her eyes, which said more than most actors do with their whole bodies--I can watch The Omen completely on mute and understand exactly what's going on because of what her eyes say. Favorite Role: As Jack Lemmon's loyal wife who follows him into the darkness of alcoholism in Days of Wine and Roses, she's the film's breaking heart.

9. Gloria Grahame. Grahame was descended from royalty, but being the Queen of Film Noir (though in reality she was closer to the Mistress) was the closest she got to a crown. Her contribution, from the scarred moll of Fritz Lang's The Big Heat to her weary prostitute in Crossfire, even the emotional despair of It's a Wonderful Life, makes her an icon of the genre. And yet, she was rarely a true femme fatale--all of her characters share an underlying vulnerability and need for love and security that ground them in a harsh reality. And Grahame's wicked sense of humor and awareness of her sexuality gave her that crackle that's deeply unforgettable, even in a small role as Bedford Falls' town flirt Violet Bick in Frank Capra's masterpiece. My Favorite Performance of hers comes from a huge favorite film of mine, Nicholas Ray's heartbreaking film noir/romance In a Lonely Place where she plays Humphrey Bogart's redemptive muse/girlfriend with problems and insecurities of her own. It's as much a joy to see these two vulnerable, disillusioned souls come together (Grahame makes an amazing foil for Bogart) as it is despairing to see their union break apart from their own fears.

10. Natalie Wood. A rare actress who made the graceful transition from child actress to mature adult, Natalie Wood worked with more idols before the age of 20 than most actors do in a lifetime, from Orson Welles to Bette Davis. However, she really came into her own starting with her fiercely emotional performance as a confused teen seeking solace in other troubled souls in Rebel Without a Cause, and people who are turned off by her first scene where she's overwrought will never see the grace and the agonizing honesty she brings to the film. And that's what separated her from the rest: her truthfulness. Favorite Performance: in Elia Kazan's powerful story of sexuality and adulthood, Splendor in the Grass.

11. Ava Gardner. Slowly, very slowly, I understand her appeal, and I find a great actress in a star who never considered herself very well. She can play unearthly goddess (The Barefoot Contessa, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman) and she can play brash and drunk (Mogambo, Night of the Iguana) with equal believability. She was an actress you never really got over, and you're not alone: her tortured marriage to Frank Sinatra was so passionate he sobbed hysterically when he heard of her death. Favorite Performance: I love her soft-spoken goddess in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, but I find it impossible to forget her damaged, understanding performance as the woman who has to come to terms with love and eventual death in On the Beach.

12. Dorothy Malone. Another actress who never really got the big career she deserved, she did manage to win an Oscar for playing the nymphomaniac sister of Douglas Sirk's gleefully operatic Written on the Wind, though her best performance is possibly in Sirk's next film as a long-suffering, deeply hurt wife in The Tarnished Angels. And like most of the underrated actresses on this list, she is an utter delight to discover and she steals every scene she's in. And it takes a great actress to steal the show from Lauren Bacall not once but twice--the first time in my Favorite Performance of hers, as the unnamed bookstore proprietress who bonds with Bogie over wit and books in The Big Sleep. For about five minutes you completely forget about Bacall, and in her turn in Sirk's grand opera of melodramas you barely even remember Bacall was in the film.

8 More (Favorite Performances marked in parantheses):
13. Audrey Hepburn (Two for the Road)
14. Kim Novak (Vertigo)
15. Constance Towers (The Naked Kiss)
16. Vivien Leigh (Waterloo Bridge)
17. Judy Garland (A Star is Born)
18. Bette Davis (All About Eve)
19. Anna Karina (Vivre sa Vie)
20. Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth)
Great list! Your comments are very insightful, too. I don't know how I forgot to add Gloria Grahame, but then she never really does get her due. Thanks for remembering her and her outstanding performance in In a Lonely Place.
Holy crap, is that ever an intimidating list to try and follow! I am not sure I could ever follow it, so I won't try much. I agree with just about everyone you mentioned.

Marilyn gets a lot of backlash because she was trouble to work with and seems so one-note. But she could really get some stuff going when she tried (and had a good director to help). THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH and THE MISFITS get unfairly underrated. In both cases, the films had strong supporting/co-stars. But Marilyn holds her own. In the ITCH, she's sexy and funny and vulnerable, and the picture is genuinely amusing. MISFITS is a lot harder to watch, especially knowing what would soon happen to her and Gable (and Clift was about done, too, yes?). But I thought it was dark and thoughful and about as different as ITCH or Sugar Kowalski or anything else she had done.

Natalie Wood was outrageously, almost painfully beautiful. I really like her in BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE.

And so was Grace Kelly, not on your list, but often my pick for most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She only made a few pictures, but she left her mark in them all. Everyone has seen REAR WINDOW and HIGH NOON and TO CATCH A THIEF. But she often gets missed in THE COUNTRY GIRL, a picture that ought to make us reconsider Bing Crosby, too.
1. Joan Crawford
2. Diane Keaton
3. Natalie Portman
4. Michelle Morgan
5. Janet Gaynor
6. Irene Dunne
7. Doris Day
8. Ingrid Bergman
9. Deborah Kerr
10. Olivia de Havilland
11. Carrie Fisher
12. Vivian Leigh
13. Donna Reed
14. Greta Garbo
15. Louise Beavers
16. Sandra Bullock
17. Julia Roberts
18. Norma Shearer
19. Meryl Streep
20. Julie Andrews
I do have a top 3 but then after that the list is random.

1. Irene Dunne
2. Greer Garson
3. Barbara Stanwyck
4. Paulette Goddard
5. Claudette Colbert
6. Carole Lombard
7. Doris Day
8. Ginger Rogers
9. Gene Tierney
10. Jean Arthur
11. Katharine Hepburn
12. Celeste Holm
13. Betty Garrett
14. Lana Turner
15. Myrna Loy
16. Maureen O'Hara
17. Donna Reed
18. Joan Fontaine
19. Olivia de Havilland
20. Loretta Young
Irene Dunne
Barbara Stanwyck
Myrna Loy
Jean Arthur
Madeline Carroll
Bette Davis
Claudette Colbert
Jane Wyman
Joan Crawford
Loretta Young
Joan Blondell
Olivia DeHavilland
Rosalind Russell
Ida Lupino
Margaret Sullavan
Ginger Rogers
Greer Garson
Ann Sothern
Carol Lombard
Marlene Dietrich

Here's my top 20:

1. Carole Lombard
2. Greta Garbo
3. Marlene Dietrich
4. Brabara Stanwyck
5. Maureen O' Hara
6. Joan Crawford
7. Katherine Hepburn
8. Myrna Loy
9. Olivia de Havilland
10. Catherine Deneuve
11. Sophia Loren
12. Jeanne Moreau
13. Claudette Colbert
14. Doris Day
15. Ava Gardner
16. Grace Kelly
17. Greer Garson
18. Irene Dunne
19. Paulette Goddard
20. Ginger Rogers

... though there are plenty more that unfortunately didn't make the cut.
whoops... I put mine on the blog...

I had to throw in a few modern actresses too...
Great list Joanne! Sorry I didn't tag you. I never know who wants to participate in these things. I'll think of you next time.

I'm beginning to like Thelma Todd and I'm happy to see her on your list.


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