Who's the Best Actress in Hollywood?

Ten writers tell us the actress they believe is Hollywood's most terrific.


The men run movies still, of course. They prefer pictures to be about guys who do increasingly spectacular and unlikely things only men dream of doing. (Men are so romantic.) They let very few women into the business in executive positions, and those very few are then surrounded and intimidated by a kind of mesmerizing, superstitious male scrutiny. A few more women get to direct--though they usually get their chance only with small pictures about noble and enduring women. As for certain hallowed areas of the craft, like cinematography, they get hardly any opportunity at all. It is still, most of the time, a man's eye that sees women and frames their stories.

Meanwhile, in the last decade, in the larger America that is theoretically attached to Hollywood, more women have excelled in the workplace, survived as workers, wives and mothers, become single parents, elected to live without marriage or motherhood, discovered some happiness with other women, and gone crazy in the attempt to live up to the new hard-earned Liberties. We do live in an age in which--for good or ill--a majority of people reckon that Hillary Clinton is smarter than Bill (and more fixed on principles as well as more adept at ignoring them when she needs to). Thus, the most instructive thing to note about the role of the actress in American film today is the huge, and widening, gulf between what women are doing in life and what we like them to do on-screen. Was it really a breakthrough having Demi Moore collect $12.5 million for Striptease, a movie in which the falsehoods waiting to be delivered have to stand in line?

Of course, there are distinct glories to set beside the vulgar excess of Striptease. When Jessica Lange presented a rich portrait of a deeply troubled woman in Blue Sky, the whole film seemed to respect the novelty and occasion of her work-- its grandeur, even, And eventually the Academy gave her the Oscar for it. But Hollywood had waited years to release so uncomfortable a movie, and even when it had Oscar on its side it did very small business. We have, seemingly, lost our appetite for outstanding demonstrations of how difficult it is to be a woman--indeed, difficulty as a whole has gone off the boil. Yet, cast your mind back through the years and Lange's wife in Blue Sky finds a true sisterhood: Jane Fonda in Klute; Faye Dunaway in Chinatown or Network; Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence; Diane Keaton in Reds; Lange herself in Frances; Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice; Cloris Leachman in The Last Picture Show; Tuesday Weld in Who'll Stop the Rain; and Barbara Loden in Wanda--if you don't know or recall that last one, it may spike your interest a little more to learn that Ms. Loden also directed the picture.

Meryl Streep, now fighting superb rearguard action to stay in power, is widely attacked as being cold, mechanical, too evidently an actress. Yet Anthony Hopkins, who, it seems to me, is just as fully immersed in fine, precise craft, never takes the same punishment. Men, you see, are allowed to seem intelligent (which is the heart of Streep's problem), and they get to play villains, like Hannibal Lecter, without being accused of hysteria, bitchiness or "going over the top." Streep is the giant to a generation of fine actresses: not just Lange, but Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave (feel Mission: Impossible change its nature and potential when she comes on-screen), Miranda Richardson (just think of Damage and Tom & Viv), Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Glenn Close, Jodie Foster, Holly Hunter, Annette Bening and Elisabeth Shue.

Pfeiffer is an intriguing case: she is beautiful, yet not ingratiating. She is clearly very skilled, yet somehow she does not pick up the love or trust of the public. In The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Russia House, Scarface, Love Field, Dangerous Liaisons, Batman Returns and The Age of Innocence--think of that range--she is remarkable. Yet she still seems obliged to take clunky films and dispiriting parts--like Wolf, Dangerous Minds and Up Close and Personal. You have the feeling that if Pfeiffer's eyes become one notch sadder, redder and older (she is 40 next year), her career might be in jeopardy. Then recall that it was in their 40s that Bette Davis did All About Eve and Katharine Hepburn did Adam's Rib and The African Queen.

Will our movies furnish those opportunities? Or do we risk losing the best years of mature actresses' lives just because they aren't quite cute enough to fulfill our fantasies? As it is, we have to feel the question mark that hangs over the future of actresses as remarkable as Debra Winger, Anjelica Huston, Judy Davis, Frances McDormand (except in Coen Brothers films), Alfre Woodard, Lena Olin, Angela Bassett, and even Jennifer Jason Leigh, who seems resolved to make acting into a feat of eccentricity. The great challenge presented by a generation of good actresses is whether or not we can be made sufficiently angry with the stupidity and emptiness of our movies.

David Thomson


by Michael Atkinson

Describing Meryl Streep as the greatest American film actress alive is like saying Oswald didn't act alone--it's so obvious everyone's sick to death of hearing it. She is, therefore, praised but unloved, and something of a victim of her own ability to accumulate Oscar nominations. No matter--imagine the last 19 years of American film without her. Streep is a one-woman, damn-the-torpedoes blitz of whip-smart performance force, and only a fool could maintain that her brilliance is merely a mailer of pyrotechnics, or accents.

More than anything, Streep is passionately interested in observing and capturing the honest details of reality. She is disinterested in glory or glamour. Streep is never so chameleon-like that her natural personality (shrewd, shy, gracious and not marketable outrageous) is ever fully obscured, but her surrender to her characters' subtlest particularity is always complete. And isn't that how we grasp others in real life, through the details? The way they hold things, walk, stammer, wear clothes, hide their eyes from the sun, pet a dog--these are resonant verities on film, and nobody observes them like Streep does. She masters accents because that's the way people talk. She charitably fills the awkward gaps between macho moments in The Deer Hunter with embarrassed giggles, or coyly brushes her hand on her skirt, unconsciously calling attention to her plump rump in The Bridges of Madison County, because those gestures are living truth. For Streep to do more, she'd have to serve you stuffed goose right there in your seal. Very simply, Streep belongs to the handful of movie performers whose films are as distinctive an auteurist body of work and as humane a vision of the world as any great director's.


by Shawn Levy

It's tempting to think of Alfre Woodard's greatness in terms of nots--as in, she's not cute, she's not pliant, and she's not nearly busy enough. Maybe that's the root of the most attractive thing about her: she seems not to care if she satisfies anyone but herself. Think of how she clenches her face and speaks down to those who offend her as if she knows she's better and isn't afraid to say it. There hasn't been a leading lady since Bette Davis so comfortable with unpleasantness, condescension and scorn. Woodard's frustration is so appealing because it feels so real. Was there ever a more believable screen mom than the one she played in Crooklyn? A proud, beleaguered woman who foolishly had five kids by a jazz musician? She's always hollering shocking things at them--"I can't even take a piss without six people hanging off my tits!"--but outsiders who dare raise a like voice to her brood find themselves dealing with a lioness.

Woodard pokes at words with her tongue as if they were made of gum, and while the effect is occasionally grotesque, it's more often fascinating: what type of person talks with such strange energy, swallowing sentences or rushing head-long through them, drawing out syllables languidly or stifling them with a snort? Whether she's playing opposite Danny Glover (Mandela, Bopha!, Grand Canyon), Delroy Lindo (Crooklyn) or Denzel Washington (a few seasons of "St. Elsewhere"), she plain eats them up.

Yes, she's a black actress, and depressingly enough, she's doomed on occasion to play roles like the judge in Primal Fear (though she subverted that reverse-racist cliché by slurping scotch noisily and not even attempting to hide her impatience). A boxing analogy is apropos: think of how the heavyweight champ is really just the best fighter of a certain weight, but how a smaller man might actually be the best fighter in the world, pound for pound. Well, pound for pound. Alfre Woodard's as good as Hollywood's got.


by David Thomson

It is the great advantage of actresses that they are not trusted to carry films. They are not the figureheads of insolent aggression, the loges of manliness that men have to be. Of course, that means that women are often the meek bystanders waiting to be rescued, patronized and accepted by the triumphant men. On the other hand, actresses do some-times find themselves in movies where a group of people interact, share, challenge and maneuver. And if some actresses thrive on the environment and situation of their films, it is because they do not have to bother with that great fantasy of being alone.

In the case of Susan Sarandon, it begins to define her talent to describe exactly how she is with others: listening through Sean Penn's bluster in Dead Man Walking, patient with her own innocence or ignorance, waiting for his true voice; so implacably attached and committed to Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise that the younger woman is led to a deeper sense of what life might be, so that friendship dawns on her as a bond that can explain the film's ending; interacting with Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City so that the dreams of two people may dunce together for awhile without stepping on anyone's toes; being a mother, a wife and someone undergoing immense education in Lorenzo's Oil; understanding baseball enough in Bull Durham to know that "supporter" has many meanings in the sports world. Susan Sarandon turned 50 on October 4, 1996. She has paid her dues-- The Front Page, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Other Side of Midnight, King of the Gypsies, The Buddy System. She has seldom mustered the bizarre selfhood that believes in being "beautiful," and yet she has grown stronger, bolder and more herself. Maybe only other actresses of her time have the full appreciation of where she has been, what she has accomplished, and of how gravely she promises to stay with us. Always with others.


by Joshua Mooney

What an odd, impossible niche Judy Davis has carved out for herself: the literary cinematic heroine. She's played wife and muse to thinly-disguised versions of William S. Burroughs, Paul Bowles (in Naked Lunch) and D.H. Lawrence (in Kangaroo). She was secretary, lover and ghostwriter to the Faulkneresque W.P. Mayhew in Barton Fink. In 1979's My Brilliant Career she was an ugly duckling in 19th-century Australia who transformed her life into literature through sheer force of will. In Impromptu she was the dangerous, steadfastly passionate authoress George Sand. Certainly this suggests that Davis radiates intelligence on-screen. But more than that, she is the consummate scene-stealer, the center of attention in every movie she's in. There's no other way to portray a writer's muse--or to bring to life the infernal, internal plots that writers them-selves are always following.

Davis has a brilliant way with the neuroses and ambivalence inherent in not only literary, but all relationships. She toys knowingly with the hazardous zone between free-dom and solitude. To her characters, relationships are what they are in real life: predestined disasters, or barely healed cuts waiting to be opened again. Watching Davis take the wrong turn in a romance is horrifically mesmerizing, like watching a slow-motion car wreck. In Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives she yearns to break free from cheating husband Sydney Pollack. When she does, she finds ecstasy and more with the perfect Liam Neeson--only to chuck it all when her straying hubby repents. Davis gives sub-stance to men's darkest fear; that women can do without sex, not to mention men. She is a character actress with the charisma of a leading lady--and the only woman who would be equally convincing as Zelda Fitzgerald, Maud Gonne, Anne Sexton or Molly Bloom.


by Edward Margulies

"You're writing about Angela Bassett as the best actress in the business?" one of my friends scoffed. "'When I saw Malcolm X, I thought she was so dull I understood why, in the movie, Malcolm left his wife at home!" My pal misses the beauty of Bassett's remarkable acting: fiercely committed to breathing life into her roles, she plays her characters as they're written.

To be sure, when passion is called for, Bassett is adept at breathing fire into her roles--real fire, explosive and dangerous. Faced with an almost impossible challenge portraying the early Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It?-- having to illuminate a masochistic dishrag without a shred of help from the script--Bassett never faltered. After slowly building up small glimmers of the rage that ends up setting her free, she is startlingly raw as she beats her abusive spouse (Laurence Fishburne) in the back of a limo. Ferociousness is also the hallmark of Bassett's best performance to date, as the wife dumped by her ex in Waiting to Exhale. Whether torching his clothes and car, walloping his blonde mistress, chopping off her own hair, or seducing a married man, Bassett is a hellion--angry, sexy and real. Using her expressive, liquid eyes and light touch, she manages to sidestep all the pitfalls of playing a woman scorned. Alone in a bar, she meets Wesley Snipes, and the two lonely boozers trade sad stories. Then Basset breaks your heart with a mix of innate warmth and inconsolable bitterness as she says, "I don't have a Plan B. My marriage was supposed to last." Only a great actress could, with a single line reading, locate the heart of a movie.


by Virginia Campbell

I first saw Jodie Foster years ago in an episode of the TV series "Kung Fu," where she played a small child possessed of such spiritual gravity that David Carradine's Caine recognized her as a soul male. It was an early case of perfect casting, based, no doubt, on the affect Foster has probably always radiated: a blend of self-determination and cerebral clarity. When you look at photographs of Foster's face, you believe for a moment that physiognomy is destiny: her features--eyes set wide apart; open brow; symmetrical jaw that looks like an unbreakable china vase--convey a message of lucid commitment to difficult effort.

Foster's greatness as an actress comes out of what Meryl Streep gets accused of: letting you see the wheels turn. Foster is a thinker, and her best characters are women who must think themselves through dilemmas. Sure they feel, but there are times when feeling is as cheap as talk. When what's called for is thought, and will, Foster in close up can show you the whole risky endeavor, and the doubt that goes with it.

After struggling post-Yale to establish herself as an adult actress, Foster won her first Oscar for The Accused. It was a mediocre movie, but it was made important by Foster's performance in the role of a working-class young woman who gets gang-raped in a bar and has to think herself through her own lowly self-image to arrive at a point where she can out-think her lawyer's preconceptions and get herself some justice.

The most definitive argument for Foster's preeminence is The Silence of the Lambs, a collision of huge talent and perfect casting for which Foster won her second Oscar. For the same reason she was horribly wrong in Maverick, a witless exercise in coy unreality, and bravely wrong in Nell, an utter fantasy falsely presented as real-ism, Foster was supremely on the mark as FBI agent Clarice Starling. Here she had a mind and will and reality to inhabit. The story may be a little hokey, but Clarice is the real thing--a non-strident, ever-struggling, humane, fearing, doubting, thinking feminist heroine of modern film. Only Foster seems to bring this kind of reality to film right now, and it's a reality that's in need of endorsement.


by Charles Oakley

Every moviegoing generation craves its sensible movie star. Emma Thompson is ours. In the rent-a-castle and cinched-bodice stuff for which she's best known (Howards End, The Remains of the Day, Carrington, Sense and Sensibility), she's all bristly irony, astringent intelligence, wit, economy, self-restraint. She is our great long-sufferer, morally upright, wringing dry a wry line in the grand manner of such other sensible bygone stars as Irene Dunne or Greer Carson. No wonder she wins exemplary notices, even Oscars. Yet somewhere behind the power of Thompson's precision talent there is always a wink that nudges you to imagine her cracking up in laughter after every take, merrily mocking herself and all things terribly British. What other star would you suspect of tackling a role as hemmed-in as that of the sensible sister in Sense and Sensibility just to get at the one climactic moment in which she hyperventilates and breaks down crying at Hugh Grant's declaration of love?

As praised as she is, Thompson must be a touch dismayed that, outside of her mirthful Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, she's yet to score a major comic success in movies. She's treasured in England as an anarchic cutup, a spy in the house of mirth. It's a different story here. She tried to prove her comic spunk in Junior, but the only mildly amusing thing about that project was that she and Arnold Schwarzenegger had matching hair tints. To get a good glimpse of Thompson's subversive comedic instinct, you'd have to seek out her hilarious bout of lovemaking--all lips, arms, legs-- with Jeff Goldblum in The Tall Guy, or watch her wry, self-effacing silliness in the costume roundelay Impromptu.

Perhaps the only actress ever to win an Oscar for a screen adaptation will write an unexpected new chapter for the story of her own greatness by turning away from what has won her fame. She deserves admiration for backing out of The Horse Whisperer. (Like I said, she's sensible.) Maybe Thompson will set out to prove that she's our great, untapped, renegade comedienne.


by Stephen Farber

To my mind the greatest actresses have all made an indelible impression playing villainesses. Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Angela Lansbury all relished their excursions into evil. Glenn Close is one of the only working actresses who has the potential to join the pantheon. In Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons she had the quality--the same quality that Davis and Stanwyck had--of making nice girls disappear. A great villain is always seductive. In Fatal Attraction a part of you couldn't help rooting for Close's sexy, diabolical Alex Forrest, maybe because she was so forthright in the way she blasted through Michael Douglas's snivelling hypocrisy, Thai's why the original ending--in which Close outsmarted Douglas by killing herself and insuring that he would be arrested for her murder-- would have been so satisfying, and why the reshot version butchered her canny characterization.

Actresses who are willing to plunge into the heart of darkness usually have a strength and daring that enliven all of their performances. The same commanding authority that distinguishes Close's sinister characters is also on exhibit when she plays more sympathetic roles--in Jagged Edge or The World According to Garp or the TV movie Sarah, Plain and Tall. But by now, Close has shown an ability to play just about anything. Her only problem is the same one that has affected all American actresses as they approach SO: no one writes multidimensional vehicles for middle-aged women. Close's few film roles in recent years-- Meeting Venus, The Paper and The House of the Spirits--have been negligible, and it's no wonder that she turned to television and to Broadway, where she held court in Sunset Boulevard. Now it's good to have her back on-screen in Disney's 101 Dalmatians. We can only hope that her return to wicked-ness will mark the start of a new cycle of cinematic triumphs.


by Stephen Rebello

Movie cameras don't photograph Vanessa Redgrave acting so much as witness her mercurial emotional shifts. A reckless, luminous romantic, she's easily the foremost exponent of masochistic rapture since Garbo or Bergman. Redgrave has long seemed to me our one indisputably great contemporary actress, and if she has been more out of Hollywood than in, her quality and influence stand above that technicality. From the days of Blowup, Isadora and Camelot to her elegant pilfering of Howards End, Redgrave's skill and daring have given her beauty a run for its money. It could be argued that many of her movie choices have been odd to the point of being self-inflicted wounds; one could also argue that, since she has refused to muzzle her political views, she has sometimes had to make the best of what came along. Why, she didn't even get to do the movie version of John Le Carré's best-seller The Little Drummer Girl, which many people believe she inspired.

In my blue heaven, where my favorite actors tear into roles they were born to do, in peak possession of their talent and looks, Redgrave would pretty much reign as queen mother--Mother Goddam, that is. There. I could experience, say, her willful, doomed French lieutenant's woman, her Carrington to Dirk Bogarde's Strachey, her vulnerable countess of The Age of Innocence. Back on earth, I know I'll want to see whatever Redgrave, who's nearing 60 now, next gets herself up to. Whether or not movies afford her any further shots on the level of playing the disturbed teacher in Wetherby, I know at least I can always return to two quintessential moments. The first is in Blowup when, trying to seduce an incriminating roll of film from David Hemmings, she smokes a joint to relax, but her body and head jerk to the jazz he's put on the stereo. The second is when she sing-speaks "I Loved You Once in Silence" in Camelot and illuminates that pretty much irredeemable film with her urgency. Redgrave's most recent film appearance is a teaser for what she still might do. In Mission: Impossible, you could see her wry amusement at Tom Cruise's huffing and puffing as he "struggled to keep pace with her.


by Allison Rutland

Winona Ryder, you ask? OK, I'll concede that it was tempting to write about Jessica Lange or Michelle Pfeiffer instead. I'll agree that Ryder could be considered too young to be included on a list of best actresses. She is still my choice. I know you can't judge an actress by her past work if she's only 25, so I'd like to bring up Ryder's future. What other actress has the right stuff to dominate her generation into the 21st century? (Jennifer Jason Leigh, I would have said a couple of years ago, but now I fear she's burning out.) At her age, having played mostly teenage in the course of her young career, Ryder couldn't have possibly accumulated a world-class oeuvre, but so what'? Think about the future of movies, and Ryder will be there, rising above the dross as the most intuitive and honest Hollywood actress anywhere in sight.

Ryder's choices so far--announcing her different-ness with Heathers long ago, and

trusting in a period ensemble piece like Little Women more recently--have generally done well by her. At her best, Ryder rises above occasions that would crush her contemporaries--the take-me-away-from-all-this-death hysteria of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and the raw, child-bride-lost-in-America lunacy of Great Balls of Fire!, just to name two. And though Ryder received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for The Age of Innocence, she's never been given full credit for the quiet grace with which she fulfills her pivotal role in that film. It's a performance so smart and subtle it makes everyone else in the movie, appear as if they were overacting. Imagine the impact of The Godfather, Part III if it had been Ryder, not Sofia Coppola, shot on the steps in the end. Coming up in The Crucible, Ryder promises to locate the sexual ants in the pilgrims' pants with so little visible effort that the old Arthur Miller auto-da-fe chestnut may seem like a brand new stretch of the legs.

Hollywood being what it is, there will surely be many things Ryder will never gel the chance to do. But there are many years ahead to prove she won't miss her opportunities.