From Catherine Deneuve to Gong Li, these are the greatest actresses of all time.
There is something wonderfully fascinating about inhabiting different roles believably, and creating a performance that imitates reality. The dedication and discipline that goes into crafting a character is no small feat. From classically trained actresses to those who prefer an improvised, freer form of acting, it is all about creating an immersive experience for the audience. Before films, there was a dearth of actresses in theatre. Parts meant for women were performed by men, or teenage boys in disguise. The first actress appeared onstage in London, in 1660. Since then, as theatre has evolved into films, they have dominated screens. Films no longer depict them as a mere accessory, rather, they are accorded three-dimensional characters to play.
When it comes to picking the greatest in any category, we recognize the fact that our list may not necessarily align with yours. That being said, this is simply our attempt at honoring some of the best actresses of our time. Let’s take a look.
1. Catherine Deneuve
With a career spanning more than 80 films, Catherine Deneuve is a towering figure in European cinema. Making her debut at the age of 13, she shot to prominence with her role in the 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In the ‘60s, Deneuve was sought after by acclaimed directors like Roman Polanski and Bunuel. Fellow artists and audiences alike have noted her proclivity towards playing mysteriously beautiful and aloof women across many of her films. This has not gone unnoticed, as critics like Pauline Kael have compared her to American icon Grace Kelly, noting her “icy yet mysterious perfection.”
A 14-time Cesar Award (national film award of France) nominee, Deneuve has made an elegant transition from playing seductive femme fatales in films to taking on more maternal roles. Her work in Indochine (1992), for example, not only won her an Academy Award nomination, but also stands out as a testament to her solid screen presence. Her versatility lends itself to all kinds of roles from bored housewives (Belles du Jour, 1967) to daring adventurers and strong matriarchs. No one sums up her influence and impressive work across cinema and modeling more succinctly than Marjane Satrapi, who directed her in Persepolis (2007).
If you live in France, Catherine Deneuve is the symbol.
2. Isabelle Huppert
A consummate professional at playing deeply flawed and complex characters, Isabelle Huppert is the crème de la crème when it comes to actresses who defy easy categorization. She gained popularity as a teenage actress in France, and established herself as a force to be reckoned with in her collaborations with directors like Jean Luc-Godard. Her work in New Age cinema, with the likes of Claude Chabrol speaks of her chameleon-like ability to transform and elicit awe.
She has gravitated towards roles that depict suffering women on the cusp of madness. Her characters in films like The Piano Teacher (2001) and Elle (2016) belie her extraordinary capacity to visually present tough emotions like anguish and vanity. Critics have noted her ability to bring empathy to terrifying characters and introducing ambiguity to the feminist ethos in all of her work.
Huppert’s signature minimalist style of acting is key to many of her performances. Even though she has played incestuous mothers, crazed killers and sadomasochistic women, she maintains that her approach to her work is not cerebral, or improvisational. She views the work of an actor molded into a persona by the director. This trademark style of acting has led to her to be characterized as a reductionist, depicting great internal turmoil through sparing gestures and minimal methods.
3. Setsuko Hara
Best known for her collaborations with director Yasujiro Ozu in the Noriko trilogy (where she played three different characters, all named Noriko), Setsuko Hara elevated the portrayal of tragic heroines into something akin to an art form. A majority of her characters are women in crisis, quietly and resolutely making their way in the world. Of course, it is Hara’s ability to invest her characters with an understated dignity and strip a role down to its most basic form.
Noriko represents a generation of Japanese women who underwent transition in Post-war Japan. They were strong-willed to survive through the war and war-related famine. And the post-war changes in laws, gave women more freedom to choose their path in life. Yet there’s a pull from the middle-class, conservative mindset of the time that the women strived to balance between their familial expectations and personal desires. This is very evident in the roles Hara played in Ozu’s films which ranged from unmarried yet financially-independent daughter, widow to single mother. Apart from Ozu’s films, Hara played wonderful roles in A Ball at the Anjo House and as a discontented wife in three different and important Mikio Naruse’s films.
Her acting, which often blurred the line between her personal consciousness and fictional persona, is evident in her role as Michiyo in Mikio Naruse’s Repast (1951). She carried something of this fictional reticence into her real life as well. With a reluctance to be in the public eye comparable to that of Greta Garbo, she retired from filmmaking after Ozu’s death. In fact, her enigmatic screen presence and life continues to be influential in Japan, where she is nicknamed “The Eternal Virgin.”
Popular perception of her as Ozu’s muse nearly overshadows the rest of her filmography: quiet, tender and contemplative as Noriko, she has been cited as “the archetypal Ozu female” by film historian Donald Richie.
4. Hideoko Takamine
If there was ever an actress who personified the plight and enterprise of women in post-war Japan, it is undoubtedly Hideoko Takamine. She first burst onto the scene as a child actress, and garnered acclaim for her work in Mikio Naruse’s films. In her frequent collaborations with directors Naruse and Keisuke Kinoshita, Takamine played characters who embodied the spirit of perseverance. Her roles as a school teacher in the post-war Japan period (Twenty-Four Eyes, 1954) and as expat Yukiko (Floating Clouds, 1955) highlight her naturalistic and sensitive style of acting. Such a method easily lends itself to her exploration of roles that are rooted in reality, and often invoke a quality of being suspended in time.
She herself has noted her tendency to play such characters, remarking that she tries “to be as natural as the women that one sees in the news.”
Like her contemporary, Setsuko Hara, Takamine was influential in centering narratives about the inner lives of women in contemporary Japanese cinema. With a career-defining role in the film When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), she has perfected a mode of cinematic realism that endows characters with a striking screen presence. Never heavy-handed or melodramatic, Takamine had the unique gift of capturing the extremes of hope and despair in her act.
5. Gena Rowlands
Four Emmys, two Golden Globes and a career across film, television and stage, Gena Rowlands’ performances have been some of the most prolific and unique of the century. Making a name for herself in television programs, Rowland transitioned into films with roles in acclaimed productions like Woody Allen’s Another Woman (1988), and the biopic The Betty Ford Story (1987). A great character actress, she has been credited with recreating ordinary characters in a manner that felt distinct and fully realized.
Married to director John Cassavetes, she would go on to make ten films together. The pair is often credited with laying the foundation for independent filmmaking in America with films like Faces (1968), Gloria (1980) and Love Streams (1984). But Rowlands’ greatest role came in A Woman Under the Influence (1974), the film which started bringing great critical attention to Cassevetes-Rowlands collaborations.
A penchant for unconventional characters has defined her acting choices. She’s played former first lady Betty Ford, as well as iconic characters like The Girl (played by Marilyn Monroe in the film) in a stage production of The Seven Year Itch. The spontaneous quality she exhibits in a lot of her work, especially her films with Cassavetes, could be attributed to her humble beginnings in theatre.
Rowlands displayed a deeply intimate understanding of her craft, often reading the script again and again to absorb the essence of her character. While collaborating with her husband, she used an innovative acting technique — Rowland and Cassavetes would not discuss the script, keeping the characters to themselves to fully own the essence of the part.
6. Juliette Binoche
With dual, equally successful careers in French and English-language films, Juliette Binoche has that much sought-after, bona fide movie star quality. She first rose to prominence playing roles in films like Hail Mary (1985) and Family Life (1971). Some of her most acclaimed roles were to come in the late ‘80s. She made her English language film debut opposite the legendary Daniel Day-Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). As Tereza, the role solidified her status as a prominent actress to watch out for, on the international stage. Meanwhile, her two collaborations with director Leos Carax — Bad Blood (1986) and The Lovers on the Bridge (1991) elevated her to prominence in the French film industry.
Her performances in Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown (2000) and later Hidden (2005), one of the best films of that decade, won her critical appreciation. Most importantly, Binoche is probably the only actress to have worked with different and very influential international filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami (in Shirin, Certified Copy), Hirokazu Koreeda (in The Truth), Hou Hsiao-hsien (The Flight of Red Balloon), and Kieslowski (Three Colours: Blue).
Refusing to be typecast, constant reinvention of her on screen persona has been the touchstone of Binoche’s career. Initially playing sensitive, solemn women, Binoche punctuated her work with quirky projects like Chocolat and Dan in Real Life. While she has often been cast as melancholic and tragic young women, especially in period dramas, Binoche retains a radiant presence. Calling these characters, her “sorrowful sisters,” her devotion to her craft is further enhanced by her immersive attention to character details. Her recent work in films like Godzilla (2014) and Ghost in The Shell (2017) are proof of her versatility. Bouncing back from many crossroads in her lengthy career, she continues to entertain audiences in blockbusters and arthouse indie gems alike.
7. Liv Ullmann
Frequently touted as one of Europe’s greatest actresses, Liv Ullman started her career in theatre. She gained recognition for playing Nora in an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and went on to work with director Ingmar Bergman. Both of them were frequent collaborators, with Bergman calling Ullman his muse. They made ten films together including Cries and Whispers (1972), and Autumn Sonata (1978).
Ullman was not only a talented actress, but an accomplished theatre performer as well. She was acclaimed for her roles in two of Ibsen’s plays – A Doll’s House and Ghosts. One may note her aptitude to play women trapped in rigid societies with a rich inner life, unable to let any of it out. Her naturalistic mode of acting is particularly on display when it comes to stage performances. Jean Cocteau’s monodrama A Human Voice is perhaps the prime example.
Her work in the films Emigrants (1971) and Face to Face (1976) garnered her two Oscar nominations for Best Actress. Ullman displayed great capacity towards directing as well. She directed Sofie (1992) and Faithless (2000) to great acclaim. Ullman was characterized by a rare reticence among actresses. In the later part of her career, she hardly accepted roles. She turned down roles specifically written for her in productions like Ocean’s Twelve (2004), and Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980).
8. Ingrid Bergman
A terrific career of over 50 years in film, television, theatre, European and American cinema, along with three Academy Awards — that’s Ingrid Bergman for you. Working in films such as Gaslight (1944), Joan of Arc (1948) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), she embodied an everyday glamour that was lacking in Hollywood at the time. Bergman quickly became an onscreen representation of on-screen American femininity in the post-war years. Even though she is most remembered for playing Ilsa Lund opposite Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942), her repertoire included characters from all walks of life.
She was as adept at playing virtuous heroines, as she was at playing characters that were deeply conflicted and in distress. While a significant part of her career was affected adversely due to her relationship with director Roberto Rosellini, Bergman bounced back with films like Anastasia (1956), playing a long-lost princess. The film garnered her a second Academy Award.
While her films with Rosellini like Stromboli (1950) and Europa ‘51 (1952) were denounced back in the day, owing to their affair, they have since been reappraised as exemplars of Italian neorealism. Sustaining a career that has spanned across decades, Bergman was rightfully considered a Hollywood institution. Her grace, and complete devotion to her part never fail to leave one spell-bound. As Rick Blaine would say: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
9. Bette Davis
Bette Davis made her first broadway appearance at the age of 21 in the comedy Broken Dishes. Couple of years later, in 1931 she made her first film appearance and was under a contract with Universal Studios. After making her transition to Warner Bros., in 1934 Bette Davis did her first critically acclaimed role in RKO studios’ Of Human Bondage. From then on Davis had a knack for playing complex, strong-willed women. Though the ‘tough-dame’ role was a familiar trope of Hollywood, Davis’ dynamic and unflinching performance was such that one critic wrote:
I think Bette Davis would probably have been burned as a witch if she had lived two or three hundred years ago. She gives the curious feeling of being charged with power which can find no ordinary outlet.
Davis, who won Best Actress Academy Award for Dangerous, indeed channeled vigor and vitality. She followed up her win with roles in Marked Woman (1937), in which she played a prostitute; her next role in Jezebel (1938) was that of a southern Belle, and was so similar to that of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) that Davis was one of the most recommended choices for the role.
Her transition from the Golden Age of Hollywood to contemporary cinema continued with roles in films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962) Appearing in a horror film after a period of scant success was a considerable risk, and it paid off for Davis. Audiences and critics alike praised her turn as the crazed Jane Hudson, and the film has since been considered a cult classic.
10. Katherine Hepburn
Which actress has the most number of Oscars to her credit? Katharine Hepburn. She was an actress ahead of her times. Few actors can boast of having gone toe to toe with the likes of Old Hollywood giants James Stewart, Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy. With roles that consistently stood out and redefined the cultural positions for women at the time, her legacy blazed a path for many actresses to come after her. She made her debut in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), garnering modest acclaim. Working in films like Little Women (1949) and Morning Glory (1933), she earned a reputation as a formidable actress, receiving the Academy Award for Best Actress for the latter.
Her best roles, however, were yet to come in later films like Bringing Up Baby (1938), The African Queen (1951) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). She mostly played strong-willed, upper-class women with intellectual flair, and critics have noted her tendency to play herself in many versions of her characters.
Hepburn was an unconventional woman, and her career wasn’t always smooth-sailing. There existed intense mutual dislike between her and the press, and a string of failures got her labelled as “box-office poison”. However, taking charge of her own films, Hepburn made a comeback that was arguably more successful than her first act. An accomplished theatre actress, particularly of Shakespeare, Hepburn was highly opinionated and greatly involved in all aspects of filming, from directing to cinematography.
11. Gong Li
Touted as one of the finest Chinese actresses of her day, Gong Li debuted with Red Sorghum (1987) by the legendary Zhang Yimou who personally handpicked her for the part. The film went on to be widely appreciated for its sensitive depiction of peasants during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It exposed her to a wider audience after it became the first Chinese film to win a Golden Bear at the 38th Berlinale. Continuing to collaborate with Yimou, she acted in films like Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), and To Live (1994). She also portrayed the role of a complicated Peking Theatre actress in the critically acclaimed drama, Farewell My Concubine. Li has been noted to play strong-willed, sensitive women in period dramas who are often going through hard times.
Worldwide recognition arrived with her role as a single mother in the Sun Zhou film Breaking the Silence (2000). Even though she has mostly avoided Hollywood roles, film critics have seen in her a throwback to the halcyon days of ‘40s Hollywood. Her international debut in Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) was met with widespread positive reviews and praise for her character, Hatsumomo.
Her discipline and attention to minutiae are evident in her roles. For Shanghai (2010), she studied WWII documentaries and accounts, and took dancing classes to render a faithful depiction of an undercover spy. She has remarked of her method, “It takes time to create a good role, and it is not easy to find a good role and one you like, so I am not in a hurry, nor need I be in such a hurry.”
12. Jeanne Moreau
Debuting at France’s prestigious theatre group Comédie–Française, Jeanne Moreau established herself as leading lady in films like Jules et Jim (1962), La Notte (1961) and Elevator to the Gallows (1956). The strict discipline and rigid structure of the movement lent her the versatile background necessary to hold her own in films as well as stage productions. She looked for traditional stories and solemn acting roles at the beginning of her career. She hoped to prove to her father, who strongly opposed her career choices, that acting was not an immoral field to work in.
As her career progressed, she worked prolifically in French new age films, collaborating with directors like Luis Bunuel, François Truffaut, and Michelangelo Antonioni. Her collaboration with renowned director Orson Welles led to the films The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (1965) and The Immortal Story (1968). Welles, a longtime admirer, once proclaimed her the “greatest actress in the world.”
On the lookout for sensitive, well-written and progressive roles, Moreau described herself as “a woman of the 20th century”. She once remarked- “Nearly all the film directors are macho. Except Buñuel. He was a crazy man.” She displayed a knack for direction as well, directing films like Lumiere and a documentary on Lilian Gish.
13. Barbara Stanwyck
Making her debut in the acclaimed Broadway show, Burlesque, Barbara Stanwyck gained accolades for her sensitive and moving performance. Soon after, she began appearing in films, making a breakthrough with Stella Dallas (1937) that earned her the first Oscar nomination of her career. Stanwyck had a penchant for roles that required her to portray unlikeable characters in a sympathetic light. She was adept at comedic roles, appearing in films like Ball of Fire (1941), The Lady Eve (1941) and You Belong to Me (1941). She balanced out her lighthearted roles with parts in noir thrillers.
For her role as a murderous wife in Double Indemnity, she received much praise and recognition. Barbara has played feisty and strong-willed roles from the start of her career, but in Billy Wilder’s noir her character was out and out villainous or purely evil. In fact, the jaded wife Phyllis was one of the greatest villain characters in Hollywood. Her role as the titular heroine in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) also drew much acclaim.
Since Stanwyck was active in the early period of transition from silent films to sound pictures, her physical mannerisms and highly attuned sense towards the same have been noted. Critics like Pauline Kael have noted that she displays an ease of presence along with “an intuitive understanding of the fluid physical movements that work best on camera.”
14. Meryl Streep
There is hardly an actress working today who can claim to be more prolific, or more celebrated than the ever-luminous Meryl Streep. Having worked in over 80 films, Streep shot to stardom with her role in The Deer Hunter (1978), personally recommended by Robert De Niro. The film exposed her to a greater audience and earned Streep her first Oscar nod. She later appeared in Kramer vs Kramer (1979), an intimate, heartbreaking portrait of a marriage at the seams. A career driven woman in an unfulfilling marriage, Joanna Kramer remains one of her most beloved roles till date.
Streep is one of the few actors to have had extended success across her career, making the transition from a young starlet to a legitimate Hollywood institution. She’s also an exception to the usual Hollywood norms relegating older women to the sidelines. Her portrayal of the delightfully wicked Miranda Priestly is its own reward for watching The Devil Wears Prada (2006). I’d be lying if I said I’d never haughtily taken off my glasses and imitated “Florals? For Spring? Groundbreaking” in her acerbic manner.
Truly, it speaks to her mastery of the profession that she is able to milk her roles and create a striking portrayal out of the bare minimum. Case in point — in a film like Little Women (2019), with a veritable star cast, Streep stands out as Aunt March, even when given a part that hardly demands any screen time.
15. Cate Blanchett
Cate Blanchett has consistently wowed audiences with her uncanny ability to bring characters to life. Making her film debut alongside screen legends such as Frances McDormand and Glenn Close, she has since portrayed figures like Queen Elizabeth I, Bob Dylan, and Katherine Hepburn. For her unnervingly close portrayal of the latter, she earned her first Academy Award, making it the first instance that someone had been awarded an Oscar for playing a fellow Oscar winner. She has a decidedly otherworldly quality about her. It was first noticed by audiences in her turn as Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings films.
Her most notable acting method is imparting a sense of empathy and inner turmoil towards her characters. Even while playing unreachable characters like Queen Elizabeth I, or villains like Lady Tremaine, she draws the viewer intimately into her act.
One of the best actresses of the 21st century, her ability to adapt to varied roles is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Her portrayal of rock and roll legend Bob Dylan in an unconventional manner is testament to her ability. She distills the essence of a personality in every single glance and word. With an impressive repertoire of roles that include Blanche DeBois, Lady Tremaine, and Hela, Blanchett comfortably aims at a legacy that would be out of reach for an actress of lesser caliber.
16. Marion Cotillard
Christopher Nolan has described Marion Cotillard as the essence of the femme fatale in his film, Inception (2010). I find that this notion adequately sums up her elegant and understated presence across her body of work. Her performance as iconic French singer Edith Piaf may just be her most memorable role, but she has an inimitable presence that can be acutely felt in the films she has appeared in. Making her debut in the television series Highlander (1992), she made a name for herself through films such as Big Fish (2003), A Very Long Engagement (2004), Two Days, One Night (2014) et al.
Cotillard possesses that unique ability to convey the emotional state of her character through her facial mannerisms and expressive eyes. She has been touted as one of the “greatest silent film actresses of our generation” for her expressive style of acting.
Her versatility across roles is truly fantastic. She has played playful characters like a fictional Picasso mistress in Midnight in Paris (2011), to a deeply angry and damaged woman, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (2016). Her role as French icon Joan of Arc on stage has garnered her critical acclaim. Annette, her most recent film is yet another quirky project in her roster that speaks of her immense charm and guile in any role.
17. Penelope Cruz
Known for her frequent collaborations with director Pedro Almodóvar, Penelope Cruz first gained recognition internationally for her role in Vanilla Sky opposite Tom Cruise. Make no mistake, however — Cruz had already accrued an impressive catalogue of performances in Spanish films, including her debut Jamon Jamon (1992). She went on to act in critically and commercially acclaimed films in both Spanish and English. Her role as a down-on-her-luck mother in Almodóvar’s Volver(2006) earned her an Academy Award nomination, and her later work in Vicki Cristina Barcelona (2008) made her the first Spanish Actress to receive the award.
She has cemented her place as a leading lady with a heady mix of roles across genres, with Almodovar citing her as his muse. From the horror flick Gothika (2003), to blockbuster franchise films like Pirates of The Caribbean, and biographical dramas like Loving Pablo (2017), Cruz displays a flair for inhabiting the roles she plays with an inimitable intensity.
The naturalistic spontaneity of her performance does not betray her methodical attention to her craft. For example, to play journalist Virginia Vallejo, Cruz reportedly studied hundreds of interviews. She has often been touted as a sex symbol, oozing appeal that is comparable to that of Old Hollywood screen sirens like Carmen Miranda and Rita Hayworth.
18. Kate Winslet
Who can forget Kate Winslet’s introduction as Rose in Titanic (1997)? The iconic scene which featured a distraught Winslet about to jump ship, introduced her to a wide audience. However, she had worked on critically acclaimed films like Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Hamlet (1996). Undoubtedly, the queen of modern period pieces, she is notable for playing headstrong, troubled women. Winslet followed up her role in Titanic by playing left-field characters in films like Hideous Kinky (1998) and Iris (2001).
She has remarked that her intention was not to leverage her success to negotiate bigger salaries, but act in interesting productions and hone her craft. Revolutionary Road (2008) reunited her with co-star Leonardo DiCaprio. Playing April Wheeler, Winslet portrayed a terrifying blend of emotional repression and disappointment in 50’s era suburbia. Her natural grasp of complicated characters is further enhanced by a meticulous attention to detail. Peers such as Leonardo Di Caprio and Jude Law attest to her discipline, noting her to be “the most prepared and well-researched actor on set.”
Throughout her long career, she has played roles that contrasted previous casting choices and showcased a new facet of her screen persona. Roles like Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and Hanna Schmitz in The Reader (2008) have earned her unilateral praise, with the latter earning her an Oscar. In her most recent role as a small-town detective in Mare of Eastown (2021), her penchant for playing demanding, morally grey characters shines through in an immersive performance.
19. Anna Magnani
Often referred to as La Lupa, Anna Magnani was one of the greatest Italian actresses of the 20th century. Her given epithet (literally translating to she-wolf, or more specifically, Lupa the wolf who helped found Rome) is a testament to her legendary status. Her unforgettable contribution to Italian cinema was instrumental in bringing a mode of cinematic realism. She was noted for playing real-life, gritty characters. Forgoing glamorous parts in favor of down-to-earth, complicated women, Magnani made a name for herself in films like Rome Open City (1945), Mamma Roma (1951) and Bellissima (1962).
Not many actors possess the conviction and self-knowledge to make audiences instinctively believe the parts they are playing. However, critics have long noted her natural screen and stage presence that she uses to great effect. Her tendency to play regular women in difficult situations allowed her to reach out to the audience in a way few artists could, with her acting style often termed as “volcanic.”
Film historian Robin Wood has expressed the view that Magnani’s skill is not transforming into a character, but rather bringing immense emotional authenticity to her roles, that it is rendered convincingly. Her role in The Rose Tattoo (1955) is one such example, for her portrayal of Serafina, she became the first Italian to win the Academy Award. Tennessee Williams, the writer of the film, is said to have written the screenplay with her in mind specifically.
20. Sophia Loren
I’ve always found Sophia Loren’s status as an actor a little overlooked. A genuine performer, she provided the raven-haired, sophisticated European answer to America’s Monroe-esque blonde bombshell obsession. But that hardly does her justice. Seen as a sex symbol for much of her career, she was undoubtedly an icon of the Swinging Sixties. Her breakthrough role was as a pizza seller in The Gold of Naples (1945) In the subsequent years, she garnered recognition with the Italian audience for roles in Lucky to Be a Woman (1956) and Scandal in Sorrento (1955). Her role as Donna Sofia, a playful woman in love with a fisherman, proved to sceptics that she was more than just a pretty face.
With a dynamic screen presence, acting chops and great comedic timing, Loren expanded into American films with projects like The Pride and The Passion (1957) Desire under the Elms (1958) and Houseboat (1958). She followed up her role in light-hearted films with a part in Two Women (1960). Playing a single mother in Italy during World War II, Loren delivered a heart-wrenching performance that captured motherhood in all its contradictions.
Funny, charming, and capable of completely stealing a scene, Loren’s enigma lies in constant reinvention of herself. Choosing to make European films over Hollywood productions in the glory days of her career, she exhibited a perpetual drive for challenging narratives. You can never quite take your eyes off her when she is on screen, and what a sight it always is.
There we are! Ranging from some of the best actresses of today to those that have reigned over the better halves of the last century, these women have the ability to fully immerse themselves in their characters. No wonder, then, that our fascination for them is so timeless. Some of the greatest actresses of all time, their capacity to get under the character’s skin and deliver a range of emotions is nothing short of transcendent. They imbue their characters — from all walks of life, with all sorts of motivations — with nuance and a rare realism. And in the process, we get a deeper look at who we really are, and the desires that drive us. Their hold on us comes from the magic that happens when a consummate performer sinks their teeth into a role, making us forget reality for a bit.