1. MARION DAVIES is unrivaled in terms of concentration. She lives inside the world of each of her characters. A lot of actors break ‘the fourth wall’ of acting. They do it consciously when they look at the director (because they think the camera is not on them); or unconsciously, because they are aware of the mechanics of storytelling, and are not fully experiencing the story from the character’s point of view. But with Marion, there’s a total suspension of outside reality, in an effort to concentrate on make-believe and turn it into something real. Other actors attempt to do this, but not to the level of success that she does. She’s the best there ever was on film.
2. LUISE RAINER has the uncanny ability to layer multiple styles within the same role. She usually does drama, comedy, music and action in the course of the same film. She has a technique where she combines the work of other writers and directors and superimposes it on to her current performance. She’s a very deliberate actress and nothing is left to chance.
3. VIVIEN LEIGH. We have a serious stage-trained actress masquerading as a beauty queen. We also have a very haunted and tragic performer. Watch ‘Gone with the Wind,’ then watch her other films, and you will see that this woman is playing herself and using the characters to confront her own real-life emotional instability. She’s riveting.
4. KATHARINE HEPBURN hides in all her roles. She takes a line, puts some sass and style into it, and glibly thinks she has you fooled. And she has herself fooled half the time, then her real nature kicks in, takes over, and we get this dynamic imprint of a troubled personality bursting with goodness. This happens in Kate films all the way through her career. She never really outgrew her childlike persona.
5. ALINE MACMAHON is the most naturalistic actress ever on film. When you see Aline, either as a flapper in the early 30s, or as a robust character actress in the mid 50s, you still get the same effervescent personality. After spending 90-120 minutes with Aline on film, you feel as if you just had a conversation with a real person, that’s how intimate and natural her performances are.
6. JEAN HARLOW does what nobody else has ever done, and it’s an easy trick when you think about it. She takes a passage of dialogue, and pumps it into one long run-on sentence, spitting it out in one breathless take. Then she pivots, looks at her costar and gets ready for the next rapid-fire delivery. At the same time, she uses her mind to absorb the plight of the character and exaggerates it for comic effect. She must’ve had attention deficit disorder, way before it was ever diagnosed in people. She’s extremely energetic, sexy, funny and strong. I get exhausted watching her, and I want more/more/more.
7. MARIE DRESSLER is basically a character actress who fooled everyone into thinking she was lead star material, and she was given some great roles. You have to be darn good to become the country’s biggest box office attraction when you look like you’ve just been hit by a truck. Marie’s ability to mix pathos and comedy, sometimes within the same line of dialogue, is what makes it work. We’ll never see another star like her again. And that’s a shame.
8. BARBARA STANWYCK never gave a bad performance. Ever. What I like about her is that she worked across many genres and she understood the trends of the business better than anyone else. Also, when we watch her work on screen we see the real-life Ruby, before she became movie star Barbara: a tough girl who survived the abuses of foster homes and is making the world see how tough she is. She breaks my heart every time.
9. JEAN ARTHUR is the sweetest movie star of all time. Painfully shy in real life, and someone who didn’t like to look at herself in the mirror, Jean radiates a fragile warmth on screen. She also had a knack for picking good material, good directors and good costars. She made more classic films than most. In fact, there is not one clunker in her filmography. With the exception of one or two mediocre films, everything she did is regarded as a classic.
10. GINGER ROGERS was one of the screen’s most versatile performers. She was doing racy pre-code films in the early 30s, then in the mid-30s she hooked up with Fred Astaire for a series of landmark musicals, then she dropped Fred and ventured into comedies and melodramas, earning an Oscar for best actress. She was a life-long Republican (in liberal Hollywood), and she was not afraid to be herself, stand up for what she believed in and deliver the goods.
11. JUDY GARLAND could sing, Judy could dance, and Judy could have a breakdown on camera and you would never know it, because she was too busy giving of herself to entertain you. She’s one of MGM’s most abused stars (within the studio system) but one of the public’s most adored. Her career on film was too short in my opinion. She died in her late 40s. If she had lived as long as some of the others, think of the other cinematic gifts we would’ve had. We were robbed.
12. DORIS DAY had some of the worst scripts: silly puffball comedies and sugary musicals thin on story. But in the midst of it all is a really solid entertainer. When she gets the chance to really act, as she does for Hitchcock in one of his films, she’s great to watch.
13. MARIA OUSPENSKAYA. The great European-born stage actress was brought to Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s as a character actress. She’s one of the most reliable women on screen. You can see her teaching her younger costars while she delivers a line and feeds them their next moment. This is evident between her and a young James Stewart in ‘The Mortal Storm’ and with her and Bob Cummings in ‘Kings Row.’ She could play aristocrats and peasants with ease. A truly versatile, dynamic actress.
14. OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND sued the studios and won. In fact, she helped end the bondage of actors under studio tyranny in the mid-40s. It changed the whole business, and it changed her prospects. No longer was she playing second fiddle to Errol Flynn. Now she was a freelance artist getting great roles, and she soon won two Oscars as best actress. She had not only tenacity, but talent. And she believed in herself enough to prove it.
15. INGRID BERGMAN had ambition. She was already a star in her native Sweden, when she mastered the English language and came to Hollywood. Then, she mastered Italian and went to Rome and made films there. She was a maverick spirit who had more control over her performances than many of her contemporaries. Probably, to her, acting was a science, and she perfected and patented her own special formula.
16. MYRNA LOY began at the end of the silent era. She had a large number of hit films in the 1930s and into the 1940s. When her career seemed to wind down in the early 50s, she went through a revival, because her style was most in tune with the techniques of the method actors’ movement. I think her likable nature, her huge box office stature and her ability to adapt in Hollywood added to her longevity and timeless quality.
17. BETTE DAVIS is good when she feels safe and has a good director and good piece of material to work with. She sort of presents caricatures of women, but within her performances are very strong decisions about the character and the motivation. She also brings an ironic sympathy to parts where she is supposed to be hardened and make us dislike the role she is playing.
18. SYLVIA SIDNEY. This stage-trained talent had several starring roles in the 1930s and 1940s. I think she preferred the theatre to Hollywood, but she returned to films sporadically, and she had some memorable character turns and cameos in later years. I love some of her work at the beginning stages of her career. Her eyes are so expressive, and you get to see the world reflected in such unique ways.
19. CORNELIA SKINNER. If there’s one role that can make a career, it’s Ms. Skinner’s role in ‘The Uninvited.’ I have never seen such an evil woman on screen. She’s superb. She’s purely wicked and brutal. How does an actress do that without it becoming a cardboard Cruella DeVille?
20. DAME MAY WHITTY was a renowned British stage actress who made movies in the later period of her career. She could play the lovable elderly woman who was the victim of a psychopath. Then, in her next movie, she could play the psychotic role herself. You never know if you’re watching good or evil, until you’re about half-way into one of her pictures. She takes you on a journey with her roles.
21. DAME JUDITH ANDERSON has a level of precision in her performances. If she’s doing a bit part or a more expanded supporting role, she is always pitch perfect and there are no false moments with her. And she makes it look effortless. What’s interesting about Dame Judith is that she could’ve been made up as a more glamorous leading woman, but she was put in these character parts, and it sort of gives her an advantage over less-attractive character actresses.
22. MARY ASTOR. Like Judith Anderson, Mary Astor was another leading actress type who carved out a niche in supporting roles. That was not by studio design but by Ms. Astor’s own choosing. She did not want the pressure of having to sell a movie and preferred to leave that to other actresses. But still, MGM would occasionally convince her to take a lead or loan her out to other studios that gave her a lead role. She did carry a few really good pictures, especially the ones she did with Humphrey Bogart.
23. KAY FRANCIS glides through her roles as if acting is the easiest thing in the world, when we all know it isn’t. Sometimes I turn the sound down and just watch her move on screen as if it’s a silent film. She’s charming and a real diva. Her melodramas are often considered classic tearjerkers, and she had some of the most dashing leading men in Hollywood to star alongside her. She’s an interesting combination of style and substance.
24. ETHEL BARRYMORE. I haven’t seen an Ethel Barrymore performance on film I disliked. In fact, she makes me curious about the techniques of acting. The way she does a woman in peril or a death scene is very compelling. In one movie, she has only six minutes of screentime, and that’s near the end of the film. But somehow she steals it from the other actors who have labored for 84 minutes before she got there. I like how she won the battle against ageism in Hollywood. She was appearing in starring roles into advanced age, and the year before she died, she was the lead actor in her final film. I guess the public didn’t want to let her go. Neither do I.
25. HATTIE MCDANIEL. We all know she was the first African American to win an Oscar for playing the maid in Gone with the Wind. But her career was so much richer than that one performance. True, she played the domestic servant role in most of her movies, but it’s how she did it. She is truly great in ‘They Died with Their Boots,’ a western with Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland. The way she turns a line and brings out the humor in a plain piece of dialogue is truly spectacular. She redefines what it means to be a character actor.
26. NINA FOCH had a cool demeanor in several film noir masterpieces in the 1940s, and she continued to do character parts in the 1950s and beyond. She later became an acting teacher, and her influence increased. I like how she plays a role as both a victim and a victor. Her characters struggle against the cruelties of the world, but they overcome these obstacles because of her level-headed approach, even when she is ironically in the wrong.
27. JULIE HARRIS reminds me of Ingrid Bergman. I think she’s another scientific actress. She looks at all the elements, then boils it down to see what works and what doesn’t work. Even when she has a role or piece of action or dialogue that doesn’t exactly work, she uses it in such a way that brings a greater truth to the situation. I love how she puts her unique stamp on roles, regardless of genre. She never serves the plot. She uses the plot to gain insights about character and make us relate to her and what her character is going through. I never know if that’s Julie Harris bringing something from her own life into the role, or Julie Harris taking something from the role and applying it to her real life. She’s one of the best stage-trained actresses of her generation, if not THE best.
28. HELEN HAYES could do scorching pre-code roles in the early 1930s, then she could do neurotic women in social message dramas of the 1950s, then ultimately she ventured into warm character parts in Disney comedies of the 1970s. It doesn’t matter what phase of Helen Hayes’ career we look at, because she’s consistently good through the years. I like how she uses the hysterics of the plot to convey a real, subtle moment of understanding for the character. She brings it up full-throttle, then she slowly lowers the boom, and it’s devastating to watch her and the others around her.
29. LAUREN BACALL was the quintessential glamor girl/starlet who wanted to be taken serious, so she really applied herself and became a great actress. She never lost her good looks, even as she aged, so she really developed herself in two areas: as a movie star; and as a solid actor. She’s worked in a variety of genres, with a variety of directors and costars. She plays the survivor and she shows us how stylish and fun that can be.
30. ELIZABETH TAYLOR grew up on camera. She went through all the phases of her life with the movie-going public. There’s a familiarity and an intimacy with her. Like Lauren Bacall, she develops into a serious actress, a worthy rival to any stage-trained contemporary. She goes through unique phases of her career, especially those films she made with Montgomery Clift and Richard Burton. She also has that quality of fragile beauty that Vivien Leigh had.
31. NORMA SHEARER married Irving Thalberg, the wonder boy of the MGM studios in the 1930s. As a result, she was given first choice of the studio’s prestige pictures. She would often bump Joan Crawford out of a role. Because of her many hit films, Norma became a bankable commodity. She was very chic and gave MGM its greatest dose of glamour. When Thalberg died, she retired at a young age and focused on raising her children. She owned a large chunk of MGM by that point, and before they bought her out (and even after she sold), she continued to find new starlets for the studio. She plucked Janet Leigh from obscurity.
32. MARY PICKFORD was one of the first major international film stars, joining the ranks of Charlie Chaplin and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Although the film business has changed a lot since the first days of Mary Pickford pictures, the fact that people still know her name means that her reputation has lasted at least 100 years (and many of her earliest films are intact). What’s interesting about a Pickford performance is that she plays girls and young women with a wide-eyed innocence in the midst of an ever-changing world (before and after the Great War). She maintained this youthful image for most of her career and hardly seemed to age. She finally ventured into talkies and made the transition into more adult roles.
33. LILLIAN GISH was one of the silent era’s most famous female stars. She made many hit films and worked with top directors of the day, including D.W. Griffith, her close friend and mentor. She was still young in 1929/1930 when she made the transition to sound and did some successful talkies. Eventually, her career led into character roles in the 1940s and 1950s, and she was always involved with a prestige film of one sort or another. She stayed true to form, till the very end, appearing in a lead role in ‘The Whales of August’ in 1987, when she was 93!
34. CLAUDETTE COLBERT. Not counting the Oscar win for ‘It Happened One Night,’ Claudette Colbert made a significant impact on the Hollywood film industry. She played one of the versions of Cleopatra. Then, she became known for a series of screwball comedies she made, first with director Ernst Lubitsch, and next with director Mitchell Leisen. Most of those films were huge hits, and Claudette was one of the highest paid actresses of her day. In the 1940s and 1950s, she transitioned into war films and other social message dramas. Her career ended when she was unable to adapt to the trend of method acting in the 1950s. But she had already completed 20 years worth of memorable film work and a lasting reputation had been guaranteed.
35. IRENE DUNNE had an incredible combination of musical talent and skills in both comedy and drama. In short, she was another one of those multi-talented ladies who ‘did it all.’ Some of Irene’s best work comes when she partners up with Cary Grant in a few classic screwball comedies of the 1930s and early 1940s. She turned in memorable performances in the mid-40s playing mothers in nostalgic family dramas, losing some of the sexiness of her earlier songbird persona. There’s something very particular about an Irene Dunne performance. She doesn’t commit to any action on camera, unless she knows exactly how it will end. As a result, it’s easy to trust her performances and know that there is always some sort of emotionally satisfying pay-off.
36. ROSALIND RUSSELL moves effortlessly between screwball comedy and serious drama in the late 30s and 40s. She seems to adapt easily to changes in film acting styles through the years without losing her personality or particular flair. In fact, when you look at the filmographies of most actresses from her era, you can see how smart her acting choices were and why she outlasted so many others. She continued to draw big box office for thirty years, and if it had not been for a decline in her health and her death at a relatively young age, it’s logical to assume that she would’ve gone right on making good films.
37. ALICE FAYE. A lot of people don’t know who Alice Faye is today. And that’s a shame, because she was the biggest musical star at 20th Century Fox from the mid-30s to the mid-40s. But her discography is arguably more important than her filmography. Through her films, she launched dozens of hit recordings, more than any other star at that time. A lot of those songs became classics thanks to Alice Faye’s warm, personable delivery.
38. BETTY HUTTON is best known for her role in the big-budget MGM musical of Irving Berlin’s ‘Annie Get Your Gun.’ But she had a very successful film career for ten years leading up to Annie. What is great about Betty Hutton is her sheer passion for performing and show business. I think she may’ve worked harder than any other singer/dancer/actress of her generation. She never gives anything less than the absolute limit. She also has a great combination of sex appeal, vocal ability and comic talent.
39. GREER GARSON. When Norma Shearer stepped down at MGM, the studio looked to British import Greer Garson as a replacement for its more prestige films. Greer was up to the task, and thanks to her roles with frequent costar Walter Pidgeon, she became a very popular star and had earned an Oscar for ‘Mrs. Miniver.’ However, by the mid-1950s, her film career waned. She could still be seen in big budget productions until the late 1960s.
40. ETHEL WATERS is sort of in the same mold as Hattie McDaniel, having been stuck playing domestic roles. But I think Ethel has a quality that Hattie does not. She’s a very soulful singer, and her work seems less comic, and much more poignant. She seems to have hit her stride in the late 40s and early 50s in social message dramas like ‘Pinky’ and ‘Member of the Wedding,’ which she performed successfully on Broadway before doing it on film. I wish there were more actresses like Ethel Waters today, and in recent times, perhaps Esther Rolle comes closest to that type of quality.
41. LANA TURNER was the consummate studio starlet. But critics were surprised to find she had a natural flair for acting. She bowled them all over with her sordid performance as a femme fatale in ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ Her personal life was just as sordid and involved many real-life scandals. But she was one of MGM’s biggest stars and she made some worthwhile films, as well as the typical studio fluff. In the mid 50s, she really hit her stride in melodramas, and her film career continued successfully into the mid 60s. She had survived a tumultuous personal life and the ups and downs of life in Hollywood. You go, girl.
42. GRETA GARBO was known by her last name. Doesn’t that tell you something? Garbo was hired by MGM and helped Hollywood usher in a new era of exotic movie stars, after people like Theda Bara and Clara Bow had retired. Other studios soon had their own alluring stars (Anna Sten for Sam Goldwyn and Marlene Dietrich at Paramount). And while these imitations could act, there was only one Garbo. Fans flocked to see her in ‘Camille’ and ‘Ninotchka.’ Strangely she grew restless with Hollywood and fearing her time before the cameras was about to come to an end, she walked away from it all in 1942 and never returned. This added to the Garbo mystique.
43. JOAN CRAWFORD is a legend. A lot has been written about her private life, but if we just focus on her film career, we find a lot of interesting phases. She starts as the mad jazz flapper in the 1920s, then she becomes a more sophisticated leading lady in the 1930s, and by the 1940s, she has gone into a series of successful film noir productions. She does a big western in the mid 50s and some melodramas. Then, she wraps her career up in the 60s with some horror classics. She was truly one of the screen’s most versatile, durable stars. Maybe that can be attributed to her real-life ambition, but I think it’s an indicator of her talent. She specialized in playing risky parts that other actresses were afraid to take. She didn’t seem to mind alienating the audience by playing against type and shattering everyone’s expectations of her. She was bold.
44. JANE WYMAN was a very versatile performer. We don’t think of Jane Wyman as a comedienne or a singer. Instead, we think of her as a serious dramatic actress, perhaps due to her Oscar win in ‘Johnny Belinda’ or the great Sirk melodramas she did in the 50s. But she did very well in lighter fare with Bing Crosby and David Niven. And she also worked for Disney in the 1960s, turning in some memorable performances in family films. What I like about Jane Wyman is her adaptability and the integrity and professionalism she conveys.
45. DONNA REED was more than the TV sitcom mom she became in the late 50s and 60s. As early as 1940, she was being given a chance to show her serious acting talent in gangster pictures and war films. Then, came some film noir and westerns. The career highlight for her was in ‘From Here to Eternity.’ I like how Donna Reed was able to work in so many genres and able to retain the wholesome Iowa girl qualities she first brought to Hollywood.
46. JEAN HAGEN burst on to the film scene in the late 1940s. She seemed to waste no time, building a resume of strong supporting roles. She could be a dependable girl friday or a ditzy moll. She worked on many high-profile projects with many top-name directors. She also was not afraid to take risks. She quit TV’s ‘Make Room for Daddy’ to rededicate herself to stage and film roles. It was not career suicide as some may’ve expected, but rather, it led to a resurgence for her in the late 50s and early 60s.
47. JEANNE CRAIN became one of producer Darryl Zanuck’s most successful starlets in the late 1940s at Fox. But Jeanne Crain was not just another pretty girl, and she could really act. This is evidenced in her Oscar-nominated role as a mulatto in ‘Pinky.’ She later worked with Cary Grant in ‘People Will Talk’ and with Glenn Ford in ‘The Fastest Gun Alive.’ She brought a strong sense of values to her film portrayals.
48. MAUREEN O’HARA had several interesting, and successful, film partnerships. She worked with director John Ford and costar John Wayne in several films, becoming a life-long friend of both men. She also had a life-long friendship with Charles Laughton and made several important films with him. Plus, she did a series of pirate films with screen idols Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Tyrone Power. I find her work and her choices interesting because she usually appeared in male-dominated action films, adventures films, or westerns. She was not known for frilly comedies or women’s melodramas. She was a strong performer who was very feminine but fit right in with the guys.
49. LUCILLE BALL. Everyone loves Lucy, or at least many people do. Yet the Lucy they know is usually the one from 50s television. But Ms. Ball had a lengthy film career, dating back to the mid-30s. She appears in a variety of genres, and she works her way up from bit parts to supporting roles and finally, lead roles in some very good film noir from the late 40s. Plus there is her comic output with Bob Hope in the four films they did together. It’s interesting to see early glimpses of Lucille on film, especially her work for RKO. She eventually wound up owning RKO in the late 50s, as the first female executive in charge of a major Hollywood studio. She arrived.
50. AGNES MOORHEAD starts her great film career with Orson Welles in ‘Citizen Kane,’ but she wastes no time going to work for the studio system and becoming a regularly featured character actress in many prestigious productions. She has a vast filmography, and seemingly, no part was too big or too small. She plays everything; a nasty aristocrat; a rural caregiver; an unhinged mother; and a subdued suburbanite with a great deal of flair and ease. I am never bored watching this woman on film.