By John H. Foote
Like the men, these women steal movies, they rip the carpet from beneath the feet of the stars to give some of the most remarkable film performances in memory. Many are established stars, some were character actors never to dance so close to Oscar to greatness again. Their job was to support the story, the leads, to support the vision of the director, and in the case of the 25 actresses listed here, they shone oh so very bright.
Some are true supporting roles, some are near cameos, some blur the line between lead and supporting but because they were campaigned as supporting, I went with that.
From a wicked witch, a vile welfare mother, through to a furious and betrayed wife unleashing her wrath, to a vain Broadway star, through to a dim blonde in the sixties, these women have seared themselves into the landscape of audiences minds. More often than not their performance was what we were watching.
25. Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind (1939)
Is it politically correct to choose McDaniel for such a list? She moved me, so from my standpoint, yes, it certainly is. As the mammy for the O’Hara family, Mammy has cooked, cleaned and raised the children at Tara. She hears and sees more than she should, and often makes the mistake of opening her mouth when she should not. But clearly she loves the O’Hara family, as they do her. McDaniel, like Melanie becomes the conscience of the film and lets us know she understood Rhett Butler before anyone.
24. Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls (2006)
Though she lost as a contestant on the popular TV Show American Idol, her performance as Effie, the explosive songbird, is already a legend. Just three years after being voted off Idol, she was holding an Oscar for her simply stunning performance as the much-wronged singer in the group. Hudson is confident, amazingly so for a first-time actress, and she brings the house down with each song. Just a knockout.
23. Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Diminutive Mary Badham was selected from thousands of young girls to portray the plum role of Scout in the film adaptation of this beloved book. A tomboy through and through, Scout, just six, grows up fast in this southern town during the depression, when racial hatred rears it ugly head. Because her father is defending a black man accused of rape, they are targets for hatred in the community. Badham is natural throughout, helped mightily by Gregory Peck who became a lifelong friend.
22. Jane Darwell in The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)
Ma Joad is the strong matriarch of the Joad family who loves her son even though she knows his flaws, and understands what leaving their land in Oklahoma has done to her husband and his father. Somehow her strength gets them to California, where they find more and more despair. Yet Ma keeps the family strong, reminding them they are the people. A superb performance that won the character actress an Oscar.
21. Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (1962)
Miss Duke won a well deserved Oscar as Helen Keller, born deaf, dumb and blind, yet possessed of a burning intellect begging to be communicated with. The film explores the relationship between Miss Keller and Annie Sullivan, how she broke through the barriers, making contact with Keller. Duke gives a fabulous physical performance, hurtling herself across the screen bursting through a barrier we cannot see, but she feels with every breath. Deeply moving.
20. Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Wiest had come into cinema in the eighties, largely through her work in films directed and written by Woody Allen, as this was. Allen saw her explosive work as a battered wife in Independence Day (1983) and wanted her for this. As one of Hannah’s sisters, Holly she went through a period strung out or hyped on cocaine, and once off it begins dating her sister’s ex-husband. The joy on her face when she finds love lights up the screen because it is totally unexpected. Count me as a huge fan of this enormously gifted actress.
19. Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
Who knew she could act? Love is sensational as Althea Flynt, wife to Hustler publisher Larry, who helped him grow his empire. Love slips under and into the skin of this liberated woman who shared Flynt’s vision for his magazine, which was sex for everyone, and offend whoever we can. She became addicted to drugs when the millions came rolling in, and died, stoned in a bathtub. Love is shattering in the film, and though she won several critics awards, she was robbed of an Oscar nomination.
18. Meryl Streep in Adaptation (2002)
A lovely, funny, strange performance from Streep as author Susan Orleans, who had an affair with a botanist from Florida and wrote a book being adapted into a movie. Wanting her affair kept quiet she is not beyond killing if necessary, but her best moments come when stoned by orchid dust. Deeply moving, very funny, she and co-star Chris Cooper make great jazz together. I am not sure she has never been as sexual as she is here.
17. Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Cast against type, Lansbury is frightening as a twisted mother who allows her son to be used as a pawn in a political scheme. Her eyes are like burning embers as they bore into whoever she is intimidating with her quietly intense manner. Meryl Streep played the role in the remake and was frightening, but Lansbury will walk your nightmares.
16. Viola Davis in Fences (2016)
One of her generations most admired actresses, Davis gave a stunning performance as a much put-upon wife, who is forced to raise her husband’s child with another woman. That she does it speaks volumes about her as a person, about her humanity, and that she still can love her husband is staggering. She fills the screen with a ferocity only women possess and teaches those close to her how to love unconditionally.
15. Beatrice Straight in Network (1976)
For eight astounding minutes, perhaps less, this fiery redhead rages at her husband over the affair he is having with a younger woman. Straight gives us every emotion, anger, disbelief, betrayal, pain, shock, fear, and unbridled rage. We expect her to, at some point, hurl herself at him and beat him with her fists. The stage actress brings an alarming intensity to the scene that brings a startling realism to the film. She surges like an electrical current, torching the landscape on screen.
14. Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront (1954)
In her film debut, Saint portrays a young nun who has come home to get answers about her brother’s murder. Befriending ex-boxer Terry, who unwittingly drew her brother out to his death, she begins to question her vows when she finds herself falling in love with him. Saint was surrounded by hardcore method actors and director Elia Kazan, one of the father’s of method acting, and she handled herself beautifully, with confidence to spare. Incredible, considering most of her scenes were with no less than Marlon Brando.
13. Virginia Madsen in Sideways (2004)
In this wonderfully soulful performance, Madsen is every man’s dream as Maya, an intelligent waitress earning her degree part-time. A wine wizard, she describes herself perfectly when she describes a type of wine, and she did not even know she was doing it. So beautiful to see a mature, classy and sexy lady get a role that brings out everything she does right. Watching her fall for Myles is a thing of beauty, but then Madsen is a woman of great beauty and presence.
12. Julianne Moore in Magnolia (1999)
As a drugged out, grieving trophy wife suddenly staring all her flaws in the face and hating herself for it, Moore was heartbreaking. The scene in the lawyer’s office, admitting her cheating on her dying husband, trying to fill a prescription for her husband, being judged as a junkie and hating herself believing she is much worse. Moore is truly shattering in a remarkable roller-coaster performance.
11. Anjelica Huston in Prizzi’s Honor (1985)
The imperious Huston, tall, pale with jet black hair is magnificent here as Marose Prizzi. The granddaughter to the powerful Don, she is the one who inherited his cunning and ruthlessness. When she wants her man back, she sets in motion a brilliant plan to make that happen. Huston is a comic delight throughout the film, realizing what she has to do, and then, remarkably, making it happen. Clearly crossing her would get you killed. That she shares the film with no less than Jack Nicholson is all the more impressive, and she was directed by her legendary father, John.
10. Kim Hunter in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
As Stella, the sister to Blanche, wife to Stanley, Hunter brought a genuine earthiness to the role. A woman who has left her lofty upbringing in the south behind, she loves her life with the brutish Stanley. The reason? Lust. Pure lust, he gets those “coloured lights” going (metaphor for orgasm) and she cannot get enough of him. You can feel the heat between the two of them, no more so than the infamous “Stella” screaming, wanting her back with him. In a film full of career altering performances, Hunter was right up there with Brando, Leigh and Malden. All but Brando won Oscars.
9. Linda Hunt in The Year Of Living Dangerously (1983)
She portrays a man. Not a gender issue, but Hunt portrays Billy Kwan, a deceitful, manipulative dwarf photographer, who invaded the life of a man and woman. Set in a Indonesia in 1965 during a military coup, Kwan takes a liking to another reporter and helps get him interviews. Thinking himself a puppet master with his friends, Kwan learns he is only deceiving himself. Hunt disappears into the role with very little make up to become a member of the opposite sex. Utterly brilliant.
8. Olivia de Havilland in Gone with the Wind (1939)
In portraying the purely decent, fragile Melanie, De Havilland gave such a profound, moving performance, we wept when she died. Refusing to believe that Scarlett O’Hara is evil, she constantly defends her cousin, even when Scarlett blatantly chases her man, which she knows but looks past, believing Scarlett will realize Rhett loves her. Only at the end, when Melanie is dying does Scarlett realize she loves Rhett and her cousin. The gentle conscience of the film.
7. Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit (2010)
Fifteen years old, cast in a Coen brothers film opposite Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, this courageous young woman was magnificent as Mattie Ross. Feisty, whip-smart, vengeful, she is hell-bent on bringing her father’s killer to justice, but Old West justice meaning any means necessary. Though she searches for a man with true grit and finds him in Rooster Cogburn, it is she who possesses more true grit than all of them. You cannot take your eyes off her from the moment we first see her.
6. Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver (1976)
Foster was rising as an actress when casting as a 12-year-old hooker in Martin Scorsese’s searing Taxi Driver (1976). In a demanding role, Foster was absolutely believable, perfect in fact, as a young hooker, the lover of a dangerous pimp. She thinks, wrongly, she is in control of her situation. Neither does she realize that this friend she has made is a dangerous psychopath. Foster is tremendously good as a child pretending to be an adult, who will forever be shaped and warped by her experiences as a hooker.
5. Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
An extraordinary performance because initially we hate her. I mean, what kind of mother leaves her child and husband without a word of advance notice. Stressed, not in love with her workaholic husband, it is all Joanna can do to save her sanity, she must leave. What she does not count on, is the deep bond and love forged by her husband with her son. She returns to take the boy and is heartbreakingly honest in the courtroom. But it is her final action that proves the depth of love she has for her son. On the morning she comes to take him with her, she realizes he is home, and she loves him enough not to take him away from his Dad.
4. Cate Blanchett in The Aviator (2004)
It takes all of 10 seconds to accept Blanchett as movie star Katherine Hepburn, but once a believer it is uncanny how perfect the performance truly is. The voice, alternating between haughty and condescending, the laugh, the graceful walk but tomboy spirit. That she imbues her with the insecurity Hepburn fought all her life is all the more perfect. Yes, she won a much deserved Oscar, completely creating one of the most iconic women of the 20th century, making clear she too was to be counted as such.
3. Monique in Precious (2009)
Pure hateful fury. The moment we see her, this horrific, welfare case of a person, we know she is dangerous and vile. This brave actress threw vanity aside to give one of the terrifying performances on screen. Watch the way she fixes her eyes on her poor daughter, like prey, sizing her up, but that is how she has survived. A pathetic, horrible woman, brilliantly portrayed in a searing performance, that is shocking unapologetic, nearly defiant when she is called by a social worker.
2. Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
”Don’t speak” she says and repeats and repeats in one of the most hysterically funny scenes I have ever seen. As vain, manipulative Broadway star Helen Sinclair, Wiest is a bold, brash miracle manipulating the playwright to boost her part with her suggestions. Like a spider, she catches him in her web and devours him. Should have been the Best Actress winner that year, but campaigned as supporting and won…every single acting award in 1994. Simply, one of the greatest performances in screen history.
1. Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
Pure genius. A gifted, hard-working character actress she found the role of a lifetime as the Wicked Witch of the West. The stuff of nightmares, Hamilton was brilliant, making it clear the villain must be horrifying. For generations, she has walked the nightmares of children around the globe, her performance galvanizing in every way. Never forget, though a fantasy, a musical, within the witch wants a child and her dog dead, and is quite willing to kill them. Not cool, but it gives this film a shocking dark edge. The way she moves, speaks, carries her arms, that terrible laugh, just pure evil. Stunning. Shamefully, neither Hamilton or the cast were nominated, and each deserved to be.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.