Following the release of the trailer for Sir Daniel Day-Lewis’ final film, Phantom Thread, last week, I looked at who may attempt to fill his enormous boots as the finest actor in the world. There were a number of excellent candidates, and in the end Day-Lewis’ fellow Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator Joaquin Phoenix came out on top. While thankfully there is no such retirement from our female thespians to spark a similar discussion, I have decided to pose the question nonetheless. We are in a golden age for actresses, with the number of elite female screen stars at the very least matching, and quite probably outnumbering the quantity of their male counterparts.
“We are in a golden age for actresses, with the number of elite female stars quite probably outnumbering their male counterparts ”
It has been posited by some that awards for acting should not be divided by gender, in the same way that they are not for directing or writing, or any other category for that matter. The only reason the divide stills exists is tradition. It is interesting to consider what would have happened were there just one Academy Award for lead performance in years gone by. Take last year – the two best lead performances by some distance were Isabelle Huppert in Elle and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (if in this hypothetical situation there were still only five nominees then the rest of the field may well be made up by actresses considering the accomplishments of Natalie Portman in Jackie, Annette Bening in 20th Century Women, Sonia Braga in Aquarius and Sandra Huller in Toni Erdmann, though Adam Driver was a delight in Paterson). An intriguing battle, and as devastatingly good Affleck is at communicating emotional turmoil in his stooped posture and mumbled speech, Huppert’s performance was a tour de force that surely would have come out on top (although considering she lost the actual real-life Academy Award to Emma Stone for La La Land, she would probably be unjustly beaten again – you can’t escape fuck-ups by the Academy even in the hypothetical realm).
It is difficult to determine whether this prominence is down to a particular purple patch for women acting in film, in the sense that many have emerged together by chance, or whether there have always been vast quantities of great actresses, and that in the past we were only able to see a few due to limited opportunities in a historically sexist industry. It could be argued that were there more substantial roles written for women over the past fifty years, we could have seen twenty Hepburns instead of just two. Or more contemporaries to the likes of Taylor, Bergman and Leigh. Our pig-headed discrimination by gender has robbed us of great art. That is not to say that enough female characters are being scripted in the present day. Far too many times we see these incredible talents have to play second fiddle to their male colleagues, often submissively portraying the object of love and lust, rather than a fully fleshed out human being with their own ideas, thoughts and feelings; their own story. I think this time of great actresses has arisen due to a combination of good fortune providing us with more talented artists than ever before, and meatier parts finally beginning to appear, allowing a platform for them to showcase their abilities. With so many phenomenal female performers, the industry will soon be left with no choice but to bow down and give them the significant roles they deserve, and have deserved for a very long time.
“Far too many times, these incredible talents play second fiddle ”
(Note: This is a list of the best actresses working today. It was incredibly difficult to whittle it down to just ten, and the difference between some on this list is negligible. That is a testament to the astounding talent of the women on screen that we have the pleasure of watching work. Honourable mentions: Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Michelle Williams, Rooney Mara, Kristen Stewart, Juliette Binoche, Penelope Cruz, Meryl Streep, Charlize Theron, Judi Dench, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Linney, Laura Dern, Greta Gerwig, Rachel Weisz, Jacki Weaver, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, and Annette Bening)
10. Natalie Portman
Best Performances: Black Swan, Jackie, Closer
Bursting onto the scene aged 13 in Luc Besson’s cult thriller Léon: The Professional, Portman is one of those few child actors who has managed to maintain a constant stream of work well into adulthood, and she has done so to great acclaim. She has worked with a number of notable filmmakers, including Besson, Michael Mann, Wong Kar Wai, George Lucas, Terrence Malick, Darren Aronofsky, Pablo Larrain, Wes Anderson, Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Anthony Minghella, Mike Nichols and Miloš Forman. Her ability to mix powerful performances in the work of critical darlings with lighter roles in commercial blockbusters, including the Star Wars prequel trilogy and the first two Thor films, has made Portman a household name and recognisable face. She is best known for her Academy Award-winning turn in Black Swan, but was equally as mesmerising in last year’s Jackie.
9. Tilda Swinton
Best Performances: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Michael Clayton, Orlando, Burn After Reading, Only Lovers Left Alive
Though Brit actress Swinton’s career spans back to the mid 80s, she has only really began to be noticed in the 21st century when she began taking supporting roles in more mainstream films. Even then, she only truly came into the public eye with her Oscar-winning supporting role as a ruthless lawyer on the verge of a mental breakdown in Michael Clayton. Make no mistake though – Swinton is far more than a supporting character actress, well capable of seizing the reigns as a lead, best demonstrated in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. A rock star, an unfulfilled wife searching for more, a vampire reconciling with her partner, a mother battling to love her strange child – Swinton’s filmography is one of the most diverse in the industry. Also an accomplished performance artist, Tilda Swinton is a remarkable talent who will likely never gain the acclaim she deserves, but so long as she keeps making bold choices and delivering smolderingly intense performances, we’ll keep tuning in to her recognisable face.
“Tilda Swinton is far more than a supporting character actress”
8. Maggie Cheung
Best Performances: In the Mood for Love, Clean, Days of Being Wild, 2046, Hero
Raised in Britain and Hong Kong, Cheung’s inclusion on this list is somewhat controversial considering that she has not acted in a film since 2010, and it is unclear if she will be returning. There are rumours that she will be returning for Wong Kar Wai’s next project, Blossoms, and going off that, she is included. Anyone who has seen the best of Cheung, a woman renowned for her elegant portrayals of fierce women in simmering dramas, would be somewhat surprised that at the beginning of her career she was typecast in comedic roles as weak and clumsy women. That all changed when she was cast in Wong’s As Tears Go By, a moment Cheung herself cites as the true beginning of her serious acting career. This would be the start of a fruitful collaboration, with the two teaming up on Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love, and 2046. Though she has worked very infrequently this century, she makes this list on the strength of the few projects she does take. Cheung acts with grace and fire in equal measures, and it is always spellbinding to watch her balance these elements in each one of her delicate performances.
7. Naomi Watts
Best Performances: Mulholland Dr., 21 Grams, Eastern Promises, Funny Games, The Ring
English Watts struggled to gain any traction in the entertainment industry until her thirties. Her early career consisted mainly of Australian television spots, including a recurring stint on Home and Away, and a number of near misses, including auditioning five times for the female lead in Meet the Parents before being told she was ‘not sexy enough’ (ugh). Then, at the turn of the century, the legendary David Lynch picked up Watts’ headshot, and in a turn of events that eerily resembles a famous scene in his surrealist neo-noir psychological thriller masterpiece, cast Watts as the lead in Mulholland Dr. Watts is astonishing in what is an incredible film, and this dichotomous performance alone is good enough to warrant a place on this list. Since then she has been best in her Oscar-nominated turns in 21 Grams and The Impossible, as well as under the wing of great directors David Cronenberg and Michael Haneke in Eastern Promises and Funny Games respectively. Yet it is her character in Mulholland Dr. that will stick long in the memory, demonstrating a truly remarkable range, and making one think that Watts could convince in any role.
6. Amy Adams
Best Performances: The Master, Junebug, Doubt, American Hustle, The Fighter, Arrival
Born in Italy, American Amy Adams’ entire filmography is from the 21st century, with her first major role coming in Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. However, she became unemployed a year later, and her breakthrough role didn’t arrive until 2005’s Junebug, for which she garnered his first Oscar nomination. Since then, these nods have been a regular occurrence, and yet for some reason the Academy seems to hate the extremely likeable Adams. Five nominations and no wins. And she wasn’t even nominated for a terrific performance in Arrival last year while Meryl Streep was once again invited to the Dolby Theatre for singing badly in Florence Foster Jenkins, a film where she was heavily outshone by Hugh Grant. To be fair, she has always been up against solid opposition, losing to the likes of Cate Blanchett, Penelope Cruz, Rachel Weisz, and Melissa Leo. That being said, she should surely have won for her tremendously controlled performance in The Master ahead of Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables. Though Adams has dabbled in blockbuster fayre in her role as Lois Lane in the Superman films, she has largely stuck to working with artistic auteurs, such as Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, Mike Nichols, Denis Villeneuve, and Tom Ford. So long as she continues this career path, surely she will one day get up on stage to collect a golden statue. Her next opportunity will come in Adam McKay’s 2018 Dick Cheney biopic Backseat, starring Christian Bale.
We will be concluding our countdown of the greatest actresses working today in next week’s issue of Felix