The Academy Awards are often little more than the world’s most watched popularity contest. The motion picture academy members pick their peers, and the acting categories can reward a worthy career rather than an outstanding single performance. For example, Nicole Kidman has delivered some great performances. Her role in “The Hours” is not among them, but it earned her an Academy Award.
Nevertheless, at their best, the Academy Awards honor and promote the best in art. The top five best actress performances of all time are roles that made people think, changed the art of film and even impacted our culture.
- Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999): Hillary Swank’s breakthrough role was the true story of Teena Brandon, who was born a woman but chose to live as a man. Brandon was raped and murdered in 1993.
This is not entertaining escapism. It is film at its most arresting, vital and challenging. Swank is riveting, and she makes the film a heartbreaking masterpiece. Watch her speech, her expressions and even her stride in this scene. Though only a minor box-office draw, the Academy Awards best actress prize helped drive huge video rentals and sales.
The film was released at the time of Matthew Shepard’s hate-driven murder, and helped inform the dialogue at the time regarding federal and state hate-crime laws.
- Vivien Leigh “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951): Let the message board flames light! Many consider Leigh’s earlier Academy Award for “Gone With the Wind” more deserving, but I instead had to pick the later role.
“Streetcar” redefined acting, generating three deserving acting Academy Awards (though notably Marlon Brando lost). Leigh portrays Blanche DuBois, a neurotic teacher driven from her Mississippi home to her sister’s New Orleans doorstep. Here is a wonderful scene starring Brando and Leigh.
These captivating performances make the film the ultimate adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ famous play. Leigh and the other actors created a new form of realistic, emotional acting and forever changed the art of film-making.
- Charlize Theron in “Monster” (2003): Never has a woman so beautiful been so difficult to watch. The stunning Theron thoroughly transforms herself into the rough and angry Aileen Wuornos, a real-life Florida prostitute who became a serial killer.
Through masterful direction and Theron’s acting, the film achieves a remarkable range of emotions and reactions. Though she perpetrates violence that is harrowing and repulsive (and the film doesn’t hold back), the viewer is left somewhat sympathetic toward a brutal serial killer. For this feat, Theron more than deserves the Academy Award. This scene has some adult language, but it showcases her stunning performance.
- Katharine Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter” (1968): Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Streisand were co-winners of the Academy Award for best actress in 1968. While Streisand is now mostly famous for Democratic fundraisers, Katharine Hepburn is now recognized as one of the greatest actresses of all time. Her role as a 12th Century Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is considered the finest achievement in a landmark career.
Hepburn’s queen is at once cunning and devious yet frail and vulnerable. The setting is medieval, but her performance is timeless and speaks to the nature of war and power in any era. This scene offers just one example of her perfect performance of a wonderful script.
- Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice” (1982): Hepburn’s main rival to the throne of best actress of all time is Meryl Streep, the woman of a thousand accents. This portrayal of a Polish concentration camp survivor was the early peak of a wonderful career.
This scene shows the power of her performance. Without Auschwitz footage or moving music, she brings to life Nazi horrors, survivor’s guilt, faith and the importance of family in a simple, short monologue.
Every generation must be reminded of the Holocaust, and this movie offers one of a harrowing reminder with a stunning performance of a simple, personal story.
All these performances are some of the most featured movies of the actresses that are telecast repeatedly on television and have become a staple for film lovers.