My Nine Favorite Performances By Women in Film

Giulietta Masina, Nights of Cabiria

I recently wrote the script for one of those 48 Hour Film Project competitions. (We won the Audience Award, hooray.) At the beginning of those crazy weekends, each filmmaking team picks a genre out of a hat: comedy, horror, science fiction, etc. The genre we chose this year was "Film de Femme", which isn't a genre as much as it is a rule that whoever picks it must cast a woman in a strong central role. Apparently independent and amateur filmmakers are just as guilty as Hollywood studios at making guy-centric movies, and must occasionally be forced to cast women. I'm proud to say that I had no problem working within this "genre", as most of my films have women front and center. I'd like to share my favorite performances by women in other female-friendly directors' movies.

  1. GIULIETTA MASINA, Nights of Cabiria (1957). Although I admire almost any performance by Meryl Streep or Bette Davis, the roles featured in this list tend to be more offbeat, slightly less celebrated today. Masina, who starred in several of her husband Federico Fellini's films, was at her most expressive as the sassy but vulnerable prostitute in Nights of Cabiria. Her sad, funny, almost Chaplinesque character is something to treasure.
  2. SHIRLEY MacLAINE, The Children's Hour (1961). MacLaine starred in the watered-down musical adaptation of Nights of Cabiria, Sweet Charity. It's an only middling success, and MacLaine is kind of annoying in it. But eight years earlier, she put in stunning work as a closeted lesbian in William Wyler's effective adaptation of the Lillian Hellman play. I'm not sure if she's ever been as good since.
  3. BETTY HUTTON, Annie Get Your Gun (1950). Speaking of musicals, I am not exactly a Broadway baby, but Hutton was sensational here as Annie Oakley, not only singing and dancing but displaying a surprising emotional depth. If you watch the DVD, you'll see some cut scenes of the film's original star, Judy Garland. She may be the bigger name, but as far as Annie Get Your Gun is concerned, she pales in comparison to her replacement.
  4. ISABELLA ROSSELLINI, The Saddest Music in the World (2003). You can't get much more offbeat than the very weird Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, who helmed this nearly indescribable feature in which Rossellini, as a legless beer heiress whose dreams of mobility come true when she's fitted with glass legs filled with beer, is clearly having great fun. So will you.
  5. CATE BLANCHETT, I'm Not There (2007). I was disappointed by Todd Haynes' overlong biopic of Bob Dylan, but Blanchett is incredible as one of Haynes' various incarnations of the enigmatic musician. Even the Academy recognized her cross-dressing work as Dylan (she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress). I have no interest in ever seeing this film again, except for Blanchett's scenes.
  6. FALCONETTI, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent classic is famous for the astounding - and astoundingly modern - performance by Renee/Maria Falconetti (here billed by only her surname), who never made another film after this emotionally draining experience. If you think silent movies are all more or less the same, then see this. It's like something from another world.
  7. MIRA SORVINO, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997). Yes, really. Sorvino followed up her Oscar-winning role in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite with her truly unique take on a twentysomething dimbulb. With an accent somewhere between valley girl and surfer dude, Sorvino pulled off that rare feat: being sexy and hilarious at the same time. The last half hour of this goofy movie was too silly even for me, but I could listen to Sorvino's line readings again and again.
  8. ELIZABETH HARTMAN, A Patch of Blue (1965). A few years back, I included both Falconetti and Elizabeth Hartman on a list of nine "one-hit-wonder" actors. In her Oscar-nominated debut as an abused blind girl in A Patch of Blue, Hartman rose above the potential mawkishness of her character, with a performance that was both sweet and heartfelt.
  9. KATHY BATES, Misery (1990). The only role on this list to actually receive an Oscar, Bates' legendary turn as a writer's biggest - and most terrifying - fan was far and away the best thing about this formulaic thriller, and created an uncommon thing: a female movie character that people endlessly quoted.