The 100 Best Female Characters in Film
Movieline’s list of the 100 best female characters in film includes heroines and villains, victims and women who triumph. Most of these characters are strong, though some more than others. A lot of them aren’t terribly admirable, but they are all memorable characters immortalized by the actresses who portrayed them. Did your favorite make Movieline’s list? (The article ran in the April 1997 issue of the magazine, so any characters after that date are out of bounds.) Who were you glad to see included and who was overlooked? Sound off in the comments section.
Alma (played by Patricia Neal) in Hud: This slow-drawling, womanly, wised-up housekeeper tells the incorrigible Paul Newman she’d have happily had sex with him if he’d asked her instead of trying to rape her. Suffice it to say, this takes place in Texas.
Ellie Andrews (played by Claudette Colbert) in It Happened One Night: The spoiled heiress must defy her father and run off to marry her Mr. Right if she is ever to grow up and be her own person; and then, of course, she must learn that her father was right about how wrong her Mr. Right is so that she can see that her Mr. Wrong (who happens to be her father’s Mr. Right-for-her) is the real Mr. Right.
Anita (played by Rita Moreno) in West Side Story: The feisty, hot, experienced, I-like-to-be-in-America girl who’s whore to Maria’s virgin, and causes everybody a lot less trouble for it.
Anna (played by Deborah Kerr) in The King and I: The warmest, most gracious instrument of 19th-century Western imperialism ever invented.
Mary Hatch Bailey (played by Donna Reed) in It’s a Wonderful Life: Sure, it’s a portrait of unquestioning love. It’s also a tribute to a lost breed–women who quietly, unfussily prevail.
Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster (played by Kim Novak) in Vertigo: Victim? Predator? Ghost? Hitchcock’s enigma-to-beat-most-other-enigmas. The gal most guys deserve to meet.
Ellen Berent (played by Gene Tierney) in Leave Her to Heaven: What goes on in this all-too-pretty head? Desperate strategizing. If your crippled brother-in-law threatens to take your husband’s attention away from you, simply engineer a tragic drowning. If your unborn baby makes the same mistake? Throw yourself down the stairs. Points for originality.
Lisa Berndle (played by Joan Fontaine) in Letter From an Unknown Woman: Here is a testament to and elegy for the relentlessness of hopeless love in the female of the species, and hence a plea to the male of the species to forgo the slightest encouragement if the female’s love cannot be requited.
Karen Blixen (played by Meryl Streep) in Out of Africa: She had a farm in Africa. And everything failed, except her character, which was tangled up in contradictions that fueled a saving imagination.
Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester (played by Janet Gaynor) in A Star Is Born: “This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” And she knows everything you need to know about Hollywood.
Fanny Brice (played by Barbra Streisand) in Funny Girl: A hugely talented Brooklyn-born ugly duckling who turns herself into an uptown swan (with a big bill).
The Bride (played by Elsa Lanchester) in Bride of Frankenstein: The prototype of today’s surgery-mad starlets. And a pioneer in hair-streaking, to boot.
Berenice Sadie Brown (played by Ethel Waters) in The Member of the Wedding: The mammy whose saintliness extends all the way to not gagging the logorrheic prepubescent female she’s forced to share the kitchen with.
Irene Bullock (played by Carole Lombard) in My Man Godfrey: A rich, spoiled, insecure, booze-addled, selfish, willful, utterly spaced-out, adorable, glamorous, good-hearted, Park Avenue society girl of the ’30s.
Lucy Burrows (played by Lillian Gish) in Broken Blossoms: Born poor, left for dead by a father who beat her to a bloody pulp, this Silent Era heroine presses her fingers to the corners of her tremulous lips to force a smile–and fails to use her suffering as an excuse for substance abuse, abuse of others or incessant whining.
Carrie (played by Sissy Spacek) in Carrie: Every paranoid fantasy about female puberty–and girls know that in the case of female puberty, paranoid fantasy can be very close to reality–wrapped up in one pale, vengeful girl.
Catwoman (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) in Batman Returns: Guys, wanna know what happens when you (metaphorically) throw gals out the window? They get slinky the way you always wanted them to, only now they come with claws and whips, and psychological wounds transformed into lethal finesse. The best you can hope for is to get your face licked after your butt’s been kicked.
Margo Channing (played by Bette Davis) in All About Eve: A warning to women about the stupidity of ever befriending younger, prettier versions of themselves. No wonder sisterhood’s in short supply in showbiz.
Nora Charles (played by Myrna Loy) in The Thin Man: Authentically sophisticated practitioner of that only-works-in-the-movies marriage strategy wherein the witty, stunningly beautiful wife keeps up with, and often ahead of, her husband in such things as martini drinking, and makes the whole experience fun for both of them.
Charlie (played by Teresa Wright) in Shadow of a Doubt: A small-town girl who indulges in romantic (make that incestuous) fantasies about her namesake, Uncle Charlie, comes to realize that the dashing hero is actually a heartless murderer of women. Naturally, nobody else in the family understands this. So she must kill him herself. As must every girl.
Chris (played by Angie Dickinson) in Point Blank: The reason John F. Kennedy felt he had to do Angie Dickinson?
Queen Christina (played by Greta Garbo) in Queen Christina: Showing commendable common sense, she gives up the throne of Sweden to romance a Spanish knockout.
Sister Clodagh (played by Deborah Kerr) in Black Narcissus: A sublime notion of feminine spirituality, she’s the sophisticated and very superior Mother Superior who comes from her Western tradition to a wild Eastern place and is shaken down by the rakish Englishman who is the man of her dreams and nightmares.
Daisy Clover (played by Natalie Wood) in Inside Daisy Clover: Nervous breakdowns, screaming fits, a frenzied desperation to please, serial relationships with wrong guys–the incisive portrait of an adolescent Hollywood star.
Jane Craig (played by Holly Hunter) in Broadcast News: The contemporary working girl at her brightest–inspired, resourceful, relentless and bonkers.
Stella Dallas (played by Barbara Stanwyck) in Stella Dallas: The tacky, self-immolating mom who watches from outside a window as her only child marries into a Park Avenue family. If this type existed today, you’d send her for a makeover and hire a gigolo to keep her occupied at the reception.
Bree Daniels (played by Jane Fonda) in Klute: The girl with the most distinctive hairdo in the history of prostitution. Not Dick Morris’s type.
Mrs. Danvers (played by Judith Anderson) in Rebecca: A warning to second wives and new girlfriends about the importance of tossing out all things and people belonging to your predecessor.
Billie Dawn (played by Judy Holliday) in Born Yesterday: A spectacular early example of the bodacious-bodied ditz-cum-millionaire’s bimbo.
Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Blvd.: The godmother for a society in which everyone’s ready for their closeup.
Cruella de Vil (the cartoon) in One Hundred and One Dalmatians: She sounds like Tallulah Bankhead imitating a seal, and is too cool to sing.
The New Mrs. de Winter (played by Joan Fontaine) in Rebecca: A heroine for women who are forced by circumstance to compete with the Ideal Woman without benefit of poise, confidence or the ability to accessorize–which is to say, most women.
Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity: An inspiration or cautionary tale, depending, for women who don’t merely like to use men, but like to use them to kill their husbands.
Fran Dodsworth (played by Ruth Chatterton) in Dodsworth: A pinnacle of female vanity, selfishness, pretension, grandiosity, disloyalty, self-delusion and overdressing.
Blanche DuBois (played by Vivien Leigh) in A Streetcar Named Desire: Vain, neurotic, self-deluded, manipulative, weak but tyrannical–you know, Southern.
Isadora Duncan (played by Vanessa Redgrave) in Isadora: A righteously annoying creative pioneer.
Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (played by Mary Badham) in To Kill a Mockingbird: The socially blundering, pre-feminine girl-child of Atticus Finch has curiosity, impatience, combativeness and smarts operating both for and against her as she tries to crack the codes of adult society.
Alex Forrest (played by Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction: Evidence that nothing is tougher on a marriage, a car or a furry little animal than an unmarried, libidinous, big-city lady editor.
Lisa Carol Fremont (played by Grace Kelly) in Rear Window: The girl too sexy, too refined and too smart not to indulge her boyfriend’s fantasy that she’s frivolous.
Frenchie (played by Marlene Dietrich) in Destry Rides Again: The ultimate old West saloon gal–sexy, tough and heroic when motivated by love.
Lily Garland (played by Carole Lombard) in Twentieth Century: A minimally talented shopgirl who gets turned by a theatrical Svengali into a self-enchanted virago. Sounds like half of Hollywood to us.
Miss Giddens (played by Deborah Kerr) in The Innocents: Imagine a morally upright, proper 19th-century British woman–Anna from The King and I, say–but one who seethes with sexual repression and religious hysteria. Now imagine her as the caretaker to two very odd, perhaps demonically possessed children.
Holly Golightly (played by Audrey Hepburn) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: What’s not to love?
Laurel Gray (played by Gloria Grahame) in In a Lonely Place: The used, smart L.A. beauty who inspires her self-destructive screenwriter/lover to pen the lines: “I was born when you kissed me. I died when you left me. I lived a few weeks while you loved me.” This must be how the joke about the Polish actress who slept with the screenwriter got started.
Marylee Hadley (played by Dorothy Malone) in Written on the Wind: Of all the rich, messed-up, cocktail-swigging, didn’t-get-enough-attention-from-Daddy-so-I’m-gonna-screw-lowlifes little sisters in big screen history, none does the rumba so thrillingly.
Annie Hall (played by Diane Keaton) in Annie Hall: The apotheosis of hip, dope-smoking, neurotic ditz as ideal modern woman.
Charlotte Haze (played by Shelley Winters) in Lolita: Vulgar, pretentious, horny, cloyingly seductive and terrifying mom who discovers that her middleaged dreamboat has married her in hopes of porking her adolescent daughter. A classic of her type.
Karen Holmes (played by Deborah Kerr) in From Here to Eternity: A bitter, edgy wife who not only grabs at clandestine sex, but screws Burt Lancaster in the Hawaiian surf. A model for our times.
Alicia Huberman (played by Ingrid Bergman) in Notorious: A sinner seeking Cary Grant’s assistance in her struggle for redemption, but, more important, the best excuse for a zillion closeups in the history of film.
Jane Hudson (played by Bette Davis) in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: A has-been movie star serves her invalid sister a dead parakeet and a rat, then takes her to the beach and lets her fry in the sun. Sisterhood for a society in which everyone is ready for their closeup.
Janet (played by Susan Sarandon) in The Rocky Horror Picture Show: It was back in the ’70s that she got liberated from her fatuous virtue, and since then good girls have had no excuse for their insufferable ignorance.
Jody (played by Joan Cusack) in Men Don’t Leave: Serenely eccentric, winningly bossy and unstoppably blithe, Jody steals teenaged Chris O’Donnell out of his unhappy, fatherless home and takes him into her own home and bed, then cures his grieving, widowed mom. One of film’s inexplicable, inimitable good souls.
Kirsten (played by Lee Remick) in Days of Wine and Roses: At last, equality for women in alcoholism.
Sandra Kovak (played by Mary Astor) in The Great Lie: A brilliant, conceited, self-obsessed pianist who hands off her newborn to her friend like last year’s gown. A career woman’s career woman in the age before cheap Central American labor.
Sugar Kane Kowalczyck (played by Marilyn Monroe) in Some Like It Hot: Best thing that ever happened to a ukulele, Tiny Tim included.
Lara (played by Julie Christie) in Doctor Zhivago: What other heroine has incited passion, madness, betrayal, revolution, thousand-mile treks through snow, poetry and bestselling theme music?
Mabel Longhetti (played by Gena Rowlands) in A Woman Under the Influence: Whereas there are a thousand times more serial murders on-screen than there are in real life, the reverse is true of nervous breakdowns. Mable has such a dilly it almost compensates for the imbalance.
Wilma Dean Loomis (played by Natalie Wood) in Splendor in the Grass: A one-girl argument against parental meddling in teen romance.
llsa Lund (played by Ingrid Bergman) in Casablanca: The kind of celluloid creation who ruins guys for real-life women.
Mama (played by Irene Dunne) in I Remember Mama: This warm, enduring, protective Norwegian mom struggles to make a decent life for her family in San Francisco, setting a terrifying standard for women forced to play this role in real life.
Marge the Police Chief (played by Frances McDormand) in Fargo: She can crack a case, build up her man’s self-esteem, capture a killer and speak out for human decency, all while in an advanced state of pregnancy and at sub-zero temperatures.
Martha (played by Elizabeth Taylor) in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: One of the crudest, funniest, most self-destructive and venomous harpies in the history of film. An early glimpse of how Elizabeth Taylor looks in the morning.
Maude (played by Ruth Gordon) in Harold and Maude: The character who poses the question,Why kill yourself when you can have sex with an 79-year-old woman instead?
Terry McKay (played by Irene Dunne) in Love Affair. The earliest and best version of this thrice-created character who’s proof that women who are down on romance are the most likely to meet the love of their lives.
Evelyn Mulwray (played by Faye Dunaway) in Chinatown: That most fascinating of creatures, an honest liar. When the tarnished beauty doesn’t let her sordid past keep her from dressing spectacularly, making a last stab at trusting a man, or dying to protect her child, she becomes a tragic heroine.
Ninotchka (played by Greta Garbo) in Ninotchka: A delightful prototype of today’s Russian woman–an overnight, overdue convert to capitalism and glamour.
Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh) in Gone With the Wind: Hollywood’s one-woman argument for PR-stunt talent searches.
Sugarpuss O’Shea (played by Barbara Stanwyck) in Ball of Fire: Who’d have thought a Snow White knockoff could be so sexy?
Kitty Packard (played by Jean Harlow) in Dinner at Eight: “I read a book the other day. Do you know that the guy said machinery is going to take the place of every profession?” says this ’30s blonde bimbo supreme. Another character looks her up and down and says: “Oh, my dear, that’s something you’ll never have to worry about.”
Sarah Packard (played by Piper Laurie) in The Hustler: “The girl” in this smoky, gritty, booze-guzzling classic about pool sharks raises passivity to an art form.
Mildred Pierce (played by Joan Crawford) in Mildred Pierce: A ’40s, martyr-style working mom who’s a mystery to any late ’90s working mom, but an inspiration to female impersonators everywhere.
Ruth Popper (played by Cloris Leachman) in The Last Picture Show: She may be a dirty-dishwater Mrs. Robinson, but at least she sleeps with Timothy Bottoms instead of Dustin Hoffman.
Rachel (played by Kelly McGillis) in Witness: From strapping farm widow and obedient adherent of a marginal antimodern, pacifist religion to luminous maiden straight out of de la Tour to passionate heretic and soul-changing lover. All in one season.
Rachel (played by Lillian Gish) in The Night of the Hunter: Cinematic proof that little old spinsters are children’s and civilization’s best defense against bad parents and psychopathic, homicidal, fundamentalist charlatans.
Norma Rae (played by Sally Field) in Norma Rae: We like her, we really like her.
Nurse Ratched (played by Louise Fletcher) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Without this spiteful, power-abusing psychiatric head nurse in our collective imagination, how many more of us would have succumbed to the lure of going nuts?
Raymond’s mother (played by Angela Lansbury) in The Manchurian Candidate. The mom other paranoid males only think they have.
Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) in Alien: A woman so cool, so smart, so brave and so beautiful that she can move in after the guys have failed and blast the bejesus out of a gnashing, drooling outer-space killing machine and look sensational in bikini underpants? Plus she risks her life for a puttytat? The ultimate role model for the Millennium.
Mrs. Robinson (played by Anne Bancroft) in The Graduate: This lacquered, restive suburban barracuda elevates The Graduate from a museum of ’60s romantic blather into a genuine classic.
Rosemary (played by Mia Farrow) in Rosemary’s Baby: We are all indebted to Rosemary for making it perfectly clear that if you grow up a good Catholic girl, and treat others as you would have them treat you, you’d better not marry an actor.
Sally (played by Susan Sarandon) in Atlantic City: This oyster shucker, who’s hell-bent on becoming a croupier, has such an inventive way with a lemon that she prompts ancient Burt Lancaster to pop a woody.
Rose Sayer (played by Katharine Hepburn) in The African Queen: A middle-aged spinster shoots the Whitewater rapids of the Dark Continent with a sweaty, cussing skipper, and beams post-coitally, “Now that I’ve had a taste of it, I don’t wonder why you love boating, Mr. Allnut.” What other character could have given Hepburn a chance to experience the Big O on-screen?
Sera (played by Elisabeth Shue) in Leaving Las Vegas: The newest member of cinema’s elite club of beautiful losers.
Catherine Sloper (played by Olivia de Havilland) in The Heiress: A Jamesian masterpiece of a woman, Catherine gets exquisite, if Pyrrhic, revenge on looker Montgomery Clift not so much for lusting after the money she has, as for not lusting after the beauty, charm and wit she doesn’t have.
Cora Smith (played by Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice: She’s cheap, self-deluded, hot-blooded, homicidal. In other words, a Hard Copy calendar girl, way before her time.
Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs: Hannibal the Cannibal loves her enough to refrain from mixing her with fava beans. She needs no further endorsement.
Annie Laurie Starr (played by Peggy Cummins) in Gun Crazy: A money-and-gun-obsessed carnival markswoman who shoots up much of the nation’s countryside the instant she finds the guy who really makes her trigger-happy.
Sue Ann Stepanek (played by Tuesday Weld) in Pretty Poison:A true-blue American psychoteen who gets straight to the point and shoots her mother.
Milly Stephenson (played by Myrna Loy) in The Best Years of Our Lives: When her husband comes home from war, she refrains from applying her emotional energies to the task of trying to understand either what he’s been through or what he’s going through now, and reserves them for unpresumptuous tolerance.
Frances Stevens (played by Grace Kelly) in To Catch a Thief. “I’m sorry I ever sent her to finishing school,” carps her nouveau riche mother. “I think they finished her there.” Oh shut up.
Anne Sullivan (played by Anne Bancroft) in The Miracle Worker: Tough love in action.
Thelma and Louise (played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon) in Thelma & Louise: They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore, and like most people who are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, they must die. But, as exemplary feminists, they do the job themselves.
Judith Traherne (played by Bette Davis) in Dark Victory: Trash cinema’s persuasive argument that the best fate for a society playgirl is an early death.
Catherine Tramell (played by Sharon Stone) in Basic Instinct: Dresses like Grace Kelly (sans panties), kills like Norman Bates (sans mother).
Vivian (played by Lauren Bacall) in The Big Sleep: One of the coolest, most sardonic, most glamorous rich girls ever to hit noir. Whether you want to be her or sleep with her, she’s your best defense against going nuts trying to follow the plot she’s embroiled in.
Matty Walker (played by Kathleen Turner) in Body Heat: A woman who can wear a red skirt like nobody’s business and mean it when she says, “You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.”
Lucy Warriner (played by Irene Dunne) in The Awful Truth: Cinema’s wittiest, smartest, loveliest and most stylish lesson in how to avoid the ugliness and drudgery of playing the Wronged Wife.
Lena Younger (played by Claudia McNeil) in A Raisin in the Sun: A wise South Side Chicago widow who finds herself locked in the conflict between Old School black vs. New.
Sophie Zawistowska (played by Meryl Streep) in Sophie’s Choice: You expect that a woman of such luminous and live beauty is energized by secrets. The beauty becomes indelible when you discover there is just one secret, and it is calamity.
Virginia Campbell is one of Movieline’s executive editors; Stephen Rebello interviewed Salma Hayek for the Jan/Feb ’97 issue of Movieline.