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Who’s the Best Actress in Hollywood?

lange-blue-sky

In the November 1996 issue of Movieline, the magazine followed up their list of the 10 Best Actors in Hollywood with ten choices for best actress.  There are some notable absences from this list and a couple of choices that don’t hold up as well twenty years later.  These are ten very talented actress ranked in no particular order as chosen by ten different Movieline contributors.

The men run movies still, of course. They prefer pictures to be about guys who do increasingly spectacular and unlikely things only men dream of doing. (Men are so romantic.) They let very few women into the business in executive positions, and those very few are then surrounded and intimidated by a kind of mesmerizing, superstitious male scrutiny. A few more women get to direct–though they usually get their chance only with small pictures about noble and enduring women. As for certain hallowed areas of the craft, like cinematography, they get hardly any opportunity at all. It is still, most of the time, a man’s eye that sees women and frames their stories.

Meanwhile, in the last decade, in the larger America that is theoretically attached to Hollywood, more women have excelled in the workplace, survived as workers, wives and mothers, become single parents, elected to live without marriage or motherhood, discovered some happiness with other women, and gone crazy in the attempt to live up to the new hard-earned Liberties. We do live in an age in which–for good or ill–a majority of people reckon that Hillary Clinton is smarter than Bill (and more fixed on principles as well as more adept at ignoring them when she needs to). Thus, the most instructive thing to note about the role of the actress in American film today is the huge, and widening, gulf between what women are doing in life and what we like them to do on-screen. Was it really a breakthrough having Demi Moore collect $12.5 million for Striptease, a movie in which the falsehoods waiting to be delivered have to stand in line?

Of course, there are distinct glories to set beside the vulgar excess of Striptease. When Jessica Lange presented a rich portrait of a deeply troubled woman in Blue Sky, the whole film seemed to respect the novelty and occasion of her work– its grandeur, even. And eventually the Academy gave her the Oscar for it. But Hollywood had waited years to release so uncomfortable a movie, and even when it had Oscar on its side it did very small business. We have, seemingly, lost our appetite for outstanding demonstrations of how difficult it is to be a woman–indeed, difficulty as a whole has gone off the boil. Yet, cast your mind back through the years and Lange’s wife in Blue Sky finds a true sisterhood: Jane Fonda in Klute; Faye Dunaway in Chinatown or Network; Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence; Diane Keaton in Reds; Lange herself in Frances; Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice; Cloris Leachman in The Last Picture Show; Tuesday Weld in Who’ll Stop the Rain; and Barbara Loden in Wanda–if you don’t know or recall that last one, it may spike your interest a little more to learn that Ms. Loden also directed the picture.

Meryl Streep, now fighting superb rearguard action to stay in power, is widely attacked as being cold, mechanical, too evidently an actress. Yet Anthony Hopkins, who, it seems to me, is just as fully immersed in fine, precise craft, never takes the same punishment. Men, you see, are allowed to seem intelligent (which is the heart of Streep’s problem), and they get to play villains, like Hannibal Lecter, without being accused of hysteria, bitchiness or “going over the top.” Streep is the giant to a generation of fine actresses: not just Lange, but Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave (feel Mission: Impossible change its nature and potential when she comes on-screen), Miranda Richardson (just think of Damage and Tom & Viv), Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Glenn Close, Jodie Foster, Holly Hunter, Annette Bening and Elisabeth Shue.

Pfeiffer is an intriguing case: she is beautiful, yet not ingratiating. She is clearly very skilled, yet somehow she does not pick up the love or trust of the public. In The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Russia House, Scarface, Love Field, Dangerous Liaisons, Batman Returns and The Age of Innocence–think of that range–she is remarkable. Yet she still seems obliged to take clunky films and dispiriting parts–like Wolf, Dangerous Minds and Up Close and Personal. You have the feeling that if Pfeiffer’s eyes become one notch sadder, redder and older (she is 40 next year), her career might be in jeopardy. Then recall that it was in their 40s that Bette Davis did All About Eve and Katharine Hepburn did Adam’s Rib and The African Queen.

Will our movies furnish those opportunities? Or do we risk losing the best years of mature actresses’ lives just because they aren’t quite cute enough to fulfill our fantasies? As it is, we have to feel the question mark that hangs over the future of actresses as remarkable as Debra Winger, Anjelica Huston, Judy Davis, Frances McDormand (except in Coen Brothers films), Alfre Woodard, Lena Olin, Angela Bassett, and even Jennifer Jason Leigh, who seems resolved to make acting into a feat of eccentricity. The great challenge presented by a generation of good actresses is whether or not we can be made sufficiently angry with the stupidity and emptiness of our movies.

Intro by David Thomson

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Posted on November 15, 2016, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. You could pretty much always vote for Meryl Streep, but for this article & time period I’ll cast my imaginary ballot for Glenn Close. Overall, I feel this an excellent list.

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  2. If the article was made today cate blanchett would be on there. She is a modern day streep

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  3. Jennifer Jason Lee is criminally underrated. I’d also make a case for Kathy Bates. Demi Moore? Naaaaah. I wouldn’t even put her in the top 20 at the height of her momentum.

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