Some lists are just lists. Some lists reveal deeper truths. Then there's this one.
When I sat down to compile my list of the all time greatest performances by an actress in a lead role, I went through all the steps I had gone through when putting together the other acting lists. When I got to my short list this fact hit me: Only three of my top 10 appeared in American films. I was raised on American film, and my previous lists have shown that bias. So what is it about American film that seems to deny lead actresses great parts? I mean, we created Blanche DuBois and The Women on stage, Lucy Ricardo and The Gilmore Girls on TV. But even allowing for all the omissions I will no doubt hear about, I can't find enough female counterparts in American film. I'll leave you to ponder that as I unveil the greatest performances by a leading actress (of all time!).
Bibi Andersson (Persona, 1966): It would be easy to fill this list with Ingmar Bergman actresses. Liv Ullmann, in the same movie, is astonishing. The homophonic Harriet Andersson could have multiple roles. I have already chosen Ingrid Thulin as a supporting actress. As Nurse Alma in this psychological suspense-turned-horror film, Andersson is stranded on an island with the mute and manipulative actress played by Ullmann, and must talk and talk constantly as she gradually loses her mind.
Louise Brooks (Pandora's Box, 1929): Brooks's career was going nowhere in the States when G.W. Pabst invited her to Germany to play Lulu, a young woman for whom sexuality was currency. Prior silent films had their share of vixens, but in terms of depth and complexity, Lulu was a whole new ball game. Soon, Marlene Dietrich would bring this type of character from Germany to the U.S. But it took an American actress working in Germany to pave the way.
Bette Davis (All About Eve, 1950): This is American through and through. Davis's unique look and voice made her difficult to slot. Her immense intensity on-screen overcame that. Margo Channing, the first lady of Broadway, is concerned about aging. Davis turns her into among the most compelling characters in American film, regardless of gender.
Renee Falconetti (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1929): She was a popular comedienne on the French stage when Carl Theodor Dreyer cast her in one of the last great silent films. She never made another movie. Shot mostly in close-up, this is the most intense performance by an actress ever put on celluloid.
Katharine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby, 1938): She could play comedy and drama equally well. This Howard Hawks's screwball revealed both sides. Screwball comedy is the lunatic cousin of film noir, riotously funny, but, when at its best, dangerous and imbalanced as well. Hepburn played this duality better than anyone.
Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher, 2001): If you know Huppert and her director Michael Haneke from this year's Amour, this may come as a bit of a shock. For here they examine psycho-sexual games of domination and masochism alive in the artistic soul. Erika is sympathetic and hateful in equal measures and Huppert creates her so vividly that the extremes never seem unbelievable.
Marilyn Monroe (Some Like it Hot, 1959): Marilyn was an underrated comedienne during her life, but directors understood her talent. Billy Wilder put up with all of her famous insecurities on the set because he knew no other actress could come close to the sexual allure and sympathetic vulnerability in creating Sugar Kane.
Jeanne Moreau (Eve, 1962): Please don't read too much into the fact that the only two French actresses on the list are also the only two actresses who played women heavily involved in sexual domination. That's what a therapist is for. Moreau was about as versatile as they come. She made many fine movies, and truth be told, I don't really think this is one of them. But as a character, Eve is extraordinary, among the most crassly powerful women ever put on film.
Kinuyo Tanaka (Ugetsu monogatari, 1953): Actresses are often closely associated with a favorite director, and though she was married to a different one, Tanaka's films for Kenji Mizoguchi rival those of any actress/director pairing in film history. Not only is she heartbreakingly brilliant in Ugestsu, but she has a crucial role in the most poignant final scene ever filmed.
Jeong-hie Yun (Poetry, 2010): South Korean film has been a revelation of late. Hye-ja Kim, in 2009's Mother, could easily be on this list as well. The range Yun displays here, in a story that could have easily become maudlin, is remarkable. She suffers personal tragedy, overwhelming financial pressure, and sexual humiliation all while dealing with early-stage dementia. And still she seeks beauty in her life. The movie, in turn, reflects her beauty.
Meryl Streep: Not even the great Hepburn is her equal when it comes to range. She has been so good in so many things that it's easy to overlook her. She even got Seth MacFarlane to shut up at the Oscars. My problem has always been with her movies, not with her. Many of those Best Actress nominations were in movies that I would not pay to see a second time. That began to change in recent years. So, since this is an award for a performance, I am giving Ms. Streep a special award for the back-to-back tandem of Julie & Julia and Doubt. Together they show her comedy and her intensity, her astonishing ability to recreate a clichéd real-life chef with true humanity, and the craft which allows her to transform her face, voice, and posture into a nun mining the deepest depths of faith. I'd say she has a future.