Once upon a time I counted down the ten best Best Actress wins. That’s not what’s going on here. I’m still reeling from the perfect batch of Best Actress nominees we were served this year (with apologies to the fire-inventing Emma Thompson, who was left out), and now I’m dishing out a list that I can’t wait for Cate Blanchett to join: the 10 most fabulous performances to win the Best Actress Oscar. Eat up these sumptuous performances and you’ll never be hungry again.
10. Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
What could be more perfect than letting an eccentric, manipulative, sarcastic woman guide the lives of students? Sounds absolutely right to me. Maggie Smith approaches this role with the subtlety of a zeppelin crash and looks like a mod muse while inspiring “the Brodie set” with her pedagogue magnetism. Is it a fluffy character study? Maybe, but when Smith announces “My students are the creme de la creme,” you can’t help but revel in her ridiculous glow.
Vivien Leigh: austere, commanding, and Maleficent cool. It takes a woman of her sheer skill level and eyebrow versatility to take on the role of Scarlett O’Hara, and not just Margaret Mitchell’s heroine has (maybe) more lines than anyone else in cinema: It’s because Scarlett is a horrid hag sorceress who thinks the Civil War is annoying because it means there are fewer people around to clean her house. She flirts with betrothed strangers for fun. She allows herself to be attracted to an oily ferret in a vest named Rhett Butler. And she does not care about Melanie’s stupid deathly illness or whatever she has. She is just theatrically asinine, and Vivien Leigh uses stage finesse and kickass wardrobe choices to make her childish horsesh*t our lifeblood.
8. Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Booze and rancor. Rancor and booze. A beautiful endless waltz of terror. Elizabeth Taylor is just dropkicking canteens of brandy at the camera while Richard Burton dissolves into a shame spiral and Sandy Dennis literally becomes a spiral using tornado-like dance moves in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. She smokes and complains and screams and damns while half-asleep and always cheeky. She is fabulously brutal, and although Edward Albee says it’d have been a better movie with Bette Davis and James Mason in the lead roles, I’m forever drunk on Liz Taylor’s woozy devastation.
7. Cher in Moonstruck
Unlucky in love. Living with her muthah. Reluctantly thrilled by sex with a blue-collar Coppola. Fine with a one-liner. Cher is a whirling, love-spewing diva as Loretta Castorini, even when she’s sparring with Olympia Dukakis about her moonf*ck of a life. “Your life’s going down the toilet!” she’s told, but for once she’s experiencing the grace and grandeur of her beloved opera. And she looks about as amazing as anyone could look in mid ’80s Brooklyn Heights.
6. Jane Fonda in Klute
F*ck you if the name “JANE FONDA” doesn’t fill you with immediate doses of adrenaline and gasoline. If someone screams her name three times, you should basically be a speedboat. Do you like shag-wigged glamor? What about prostitute candor? You get both here as Jane smokes your heart like a stogie as Bree Daniels, who unleashes deathly monologues about her inner workings, insecurities and dogged intellect. “It’s easy to manipulate men, right?” she deadpans to her therapist. Bam. Right. Bree is a living fist-pump.
5. Faye Dunaway in Network
One of my favorite categories of fabulousness is evil. In Network, Faye Dunaway plays a tall, comely, ratings-driven version of Satan named Diana Christensen who blithely refers to herself as “a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.” She is fascism in a pencil skirt and just force-fed you an audience research report. And if you don’t read it, she’ll “sack the f*cking lot of you — is that clear?” A menace. An intentional madwoman who is endlessly, effortlessly, gloriously hatable.
4. Susan Hayward in I Want to Live
I don’t know the last time you saw a movie about a fabulous prostitute in jail who can thrill you with sheer angst while boogieing down on a dancefloor. I Want to Live gave us this awe, as well as the ever-kickass Susan Hayward in the role of Barbara Graham, a convicted perjurer who claims her innocence for a long time (which is funny because Hayward even admitted the real-life Graham was probably guilty). We root for her innocence but mostly marvel at her coolness, not to mention her resemblance to Vivien Leigh and Alley Mills from The Wonder Years. Imagine if Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind starred in a women-in-prison movie. Yes. YES! We’re gonna dance-dance in Sing Sing!
Nicky Arnstein may be a pretentious zero, but Fanny Brice is a roller-skating, jokety-jokin’, singing supernova. Whether in a sharp animal print or a fur hat and tangerine traveling coat, Barbra is constantly redefining charisma on the silver screen. She transcends mortal timing and could pierce the Earth’s core with pitch precision, but instead she chooses to charm us with a wink and a droll aside. You can’t rain on her parade because she’s thunder. The blend of ambition and vulnerability in her unforgettable eyes is always worth a revisit.
2. Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter
Here she is: The reigning sneerer of 1183. Eleanor of Aquitaine may be kept in a tower, but she’s more ferocious than the next three centuries of queens who followed her. “I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it justice!” she gurgles at Henry II before probably erupting in a cacophony of growls and shouts. Not to downplay the achievements of the divine K.H., but this is clearly her most deserved Oscar win and a performance worthy of its own legacy. Her stare, stank, and jawline are weapons, and her mighty self-possession fuels them with ammunition.
Every possible version of the word “fabulous” is here. Fabulous hair. Unthinkably fabulous wardrobe. A fabulously gnarly vocal quaver. A fabulous desperation. Singing. Smiling. Scrounging. Sally Bowles is a tragicomic experiment in chicness, and her “Money”-worthy talents qualify her to be the boldest heroine in any movie musical. Liza Minnelli imbues Sally with ebullience and naivete, and her wobbly voice is a one-of-a-kind diamond mine of fabulous moments. She sounds like Cher being tickled. That’s how fabulous she is.