What does it mean to give a memorable performance? Is it the one that gets people talking at the water cooler on Monday morning? Is it the one that wins the Academy Award every year? Or does it mean that the actor was good at making us laugh and cry and feel all sorts of emotions that we didn’t even know we had? Some actresses have spent their careers playing women of all types; strong and weak, bitter and happy, old and young, rich and poor, ones that prospered and ones that failed. Each performance has moved us, changed us, made us re-evaluate our ideals, and our beliefs in ourselves and the ones around us. Acting isn’t what it used to be. For better or for worse, Hollywood has glamorized and deglamorized the female persona to the point where great performances are a thing of the past. Sure, there’s still Meryl Streep, with her three Oscars in tow now, but she is not the contemporary answer to the queens of the silver screen of an era gone by too quickly and too suddenly. Here are a few ladies that you might have heard of, or, if you’re lucky, are only discovering for the first time.
Maria Falconetti – The Passion of Joan of Arc - 1928
Maria Falconetti’s performance is the only one on this list that comes from a silent movie. It was her face that did all the talking necessary. The pain and misery found in her facial expressions throughout The Passion of Joan of Arc is palpable and heart wrenching. Carl Theodore Dreyer did a magnificent job of directing Falconetti, who never starred in another film again. The complete version of The Passion of Joan of Arc remained lost until 1981, when a copy of the original negative was found in the closet of a mental institution in Norway. Even due to age and the invention of sound, her performance continues to resonate to this day. Her performance is timeless and superb. Falconetti died in 1946, at the age of 54.
Vivien Leigh – A Streetcar Named Desire - 1951
Vivien Leigh was another reclusive actress who starred in very few films in her career. After her iconic turn in Gone With the Wind in 1939, she married Laurence Olivier and moved to England as he pursued his artistic career. When Olivier got a job working on an American production in the early part of the 1950s, Leigh decided to reprise a role she originally played on stage in London, the fading Southern belle, Blanche DuBois, in Tennessee Williams’ landmark play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Starring alongside Marlon Brando in his screen debut, Leigh performed her way to her second Oscar win, and left behind a torn and shattered character that began in the mind of one our greatest playwrights, and continued to breath through the direction of Elia Kazan who directed the original Broadway play, and finally found its life and being through the words and emotions of Vivien Leigh, one of Hollywood’s most famous and infamous characters that ever was. She starred in just three more films after this one, and passed away in 1967 at the age of 53.
Elizabeth Taylor - Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - 1966
By the mid-1960s, Elizabeth Taylor has already endured a lifetime of trauma. Married five times, and widowed once, she experienced a lot of turmoil over her personal life, much of which came when she began a torrid affair with co-star Richard Burton on the set of the infamous Cleopatra, which was finally released in 1963. The two married, and divorced, then got married again, then got divorced again. In between, they co-starred together in Mike Nichols’ debut as a film director, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? based on the acclaimed play by Edward Albee. The film gained a lot of attention, bringing home five Academy Awards, including one for Taylor for Best Actress. In order to play the alcoholic, 50-ish character, the 33-year-old Taylor gained 30 pounds for the role. It paid off, with the second Oscar statuette of her career.
And a few of the other most memorable performances...
Gloria Swanson - Sunset Blvd. - 1950
Swanson’s infamous turn as Norma Desmond mirrored her own downfall from silent-era fame. She immortalized the troubled, and deprived actress with the famous last words of the film, “I’m ready for my close-up Mr. Demille!”
Faye Dunaway - Network – 1976
Playing a cold hearted, but ambitious TV executive, Faye Dunaway won an Academy Award as part of the most impressive cast in movie history.
Jane Fonda – Coming Home - 1978
Fonda’s heartfelt performance as a soldier’s wife who falls in love with an injured veteran gave Fonda the second Oscar of her career. An underrated war film that was overshadowed by the release of another post-Vietnam epic, The Deer Hunter.
Rena Owen – Once Were Warriors - 1994
Owen was strong and fearless as a wife and mother involved in an abusive relationship with a member of the Maori tribe in New Zealend. An absolutely brutal depiction of life down under.