~ Already an established child star with countless films under her belt, an iconic role as the saviour child prostitute in Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) transformed her from innocent Disney poster girl to the darker, much more controversial root of cinematic human exploration. Foster's most powerful work lay ahead of her in adulthood; her utterly staggering, achingly realistic Oscar-winning turn as destroyed yet fearless victim Sarah Tobias in The Accused (1988) is an entirely harrowing, honest and human depiction of victimisation and social prejudice, the most alarming expose of gang rape that cinema has to offer. It was just three years later until her most iconic role; her Oscar-winning powerhouse tour de force as FBI rookie Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) shows off her major star qualities as well as her expertise in humanistic characterisation. Clarice Starling is the action heroine whose steely determination is markedly caused by painful memories and targeted by Hannibal Lecter as she searches for twisted killer Buffalo Bill. These two performances are definitely among the most precise, realistic and extraordinary in cinema history, and therefore she is the most extraordinarily talented and complex actress whose skill is more natural and genuine than her peers.
~ Although she isn't necessarily natural in her technique or entirely emotive, Bette Davis capitalizes on her unconventional appearance and manages to convey both drama and darkness with edges of humour, truth and cynicism. Her astonishing, inspirational portrayal of aging theatre queen Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950) is pitch-perfect, timeless performance art and in turn, she may be bitchy and fearing middle age, but emerges as the most decent woman amongst the other characters. Later in life, alongside rival Joan Crawford - who plays her wheelchair bound sister - Davis gave one of her darkest, more comic and overpowering performances in the brilliantly twisty thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) where she plays an entirely faded ex-vaudeville kid/Hollywood starlet whose madness and alcoholism overrides into abuse and home truths. She may not have won Oscars for her best roles, but this pair of iconic character portraits are the more superbly melodramatic of cinema's great old Hollywood.
~ Charlize Theron is an exception on this list, because her career has been defined by one of the most powerful performances in cinema history. Although she has established herself in other roles, none have quite matched her blistering tour de force as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003). Her high ranking is dependent on that very portrait; projecting humour and pathos, piling on 30 pounds, wearing contacts, bad hair, make-up and dentures to create the unglamorous appearance of long-term prostitution, Theron manages to humanise someone that many people have condemned in reality, winning an Oscar to prove the point that no matter how questionable and immoral the character, the performance itself is worthy of its accolades.
~ Hilary Swank managed to gain her A-list status despite an inconsistent filmography with two Oscar-winning performances that defy physical and mental dedication and characterisation. Her portrayal of real-life transgender young man Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry (1999) is truly remarkable, and as the film itself is powerful and disturbing, Swank's acting is invisible, she embodies Brandon's swagger and charm with kindness and desperation. It is only her second Oscar-winning performance that equals the physical demand of Boys Don't Cry, and that is hick waitress Maggie Fitzgerald in the less disturbing Million Dollar Baby, whose transformation from dissatisfied woman to champion female boxer is mythic and heartbreaking. She may not have the tenacity of Meryl Streep, but she evokes an unspoken honesty, grace and realism in her acting which is much more refreshing than plain old wooden drama.
~ Although she is now an established serious dramatic actress, Nicole Kidman was used to sidelining Tom Cruise's career without crafting her own legacy. However, with their divorce came Kidman's greatest roles and surprisingly superb acting talent. Her Oscar-winning performance as suicidal author Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002) is utterly consuming, frighteningly honest and convincing, she resembles and embodies her character with passionate devotion, especially with that overt prosthetic nose. However, in my own opinion, her should-have-been Oscar-winning performance as derailed, abused waif Grace Mulligan in Dogville is bitterly raw and intensely human; such natural and poetic realism channels into the film's dark, theatrical exploration of dehumanization and evil. Kidman's mesmerising portrayal is her crowning glory, and will remain one of the most potent evocations of humanity in cinema history.
~ Perhaps the most intensely powerful actress of her generation, Vivien Leigh has been defined as Scarlett O'Hara but she embodies Blanche DuBois. Her breakthrough, Oscar-winning role as the iconic spoilt bitch Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939) whose selfishness and indecisive, childish nature causes her consistent heartache because she cannot be grateful for what she has unless it is unreachable. Her class and dark wit manages to make her perhaps as lovable as Rhett Butler despite them both being as bad as each other; its an incredible performance with the epic, grandiose film never overshadowing the beauty of her character. However, it cannot possibly match up to her Oscar-winning, life-imitating-art portrayal of fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) in which she spars with an animalistic Brando until he forces her into losing her mind completely. Although many remember Brando's naturalism, Leigh is not Method acting, she IS Blanche DuBois; lost, destroyed and fading into non-existence, her caustic beauty and instability are ultimately what causes her downfall in the presence of her sister Stella's unrefined brute husband. Such an unflinching, flawless examination of the kind of woman Scarlett O'Hara may have ended up, Leigh managed to do what many actresses never can: explore and evoke their own mental state in that of their character's. For that, Vivien Leigh is fearless: underplaying to Brando's spitting fury actually forces us to look at her more carefully and therefore become embroiled in her tragic madness.
~ Although she is astonishing and best known as the eponymous doomed courtesan Camille, Garbo managed to carve out her filmography with silent films and eventually historical dramas and became one of the few consistent Hollywood stars of the Golden Age. However, after she leaned towards ensemble and comedy, her retirement left behind her legacy intact without blips to diminish her star power and therefore an icon rather than an acting inspiration was born. For other dramatic actresses, Greta Garbo came across as the epitome of depressive and doomed lover whose romantic helplessness and disastrous life choices prove to be fatal for her mortality. In Anna Karenina (1935), as the ill-fated literature heroine, she throws herself into an oncoming train after choosing between contentment and passion and being unable to weather the tragedy that ensued; so far, there has never been a more accurate representation of that character in film history, her performance simply too nuanced and remarkable to imitate. She followed this with the equally doomed tale of romance between a socially incorrect match Queen Christina, which allows her to live at the end rather than her lover, and thus the classic pondering of life fade-into-ending. Although her image is more notable to modern popular culture, at the height of her art, Garbo remains the definitive dramatic actress of her time.
~ Despite only receiving one Oscar nomination, Naomi Watts is one of Hollywood's most consistent dramatic actresses whose breakthrough, exemplary dual performance as tragic failed starlet Diane Selwyn and her fever dream counterpart: the saccharine, optimistic Middle America prototype Betty Elms in the masterful Mulholland Drive (2001) is one of the greatest female performances of the last decade and the renowned portrait of Lynch's martyred blondes. However, her grief-stricken ex-addict blonde wife/mother Cristina Peck exists in the notable human condition drama 21 Grams (2003) and is her most widely recognised performance due to the Oscar nod she received for her effort, but not even this brilliant and honest exploration of hope, loss and gain can equal the darkness and infinite complexity of her previous anti-heroine for which she should have won an Oscar.
~ Meryl Streep resembles Bette Davis in many ways, particularly the fact they both tend to be better known for their melodramatic, overstated performances despite being rather good at subtle, understated acting; her career is still at its height withheld by an ability for comedy, darkness and drama. For me she is not quite greater skilled than other actresses of her generation; her legend is overrated in comparison to other icons of cinema, but she is still especially fantastic in two performances in her long filmography: her steely portrayal of real-life ill-fated nuclear power plant worker Karen Silkwood in the intriguing Silkwood (1983) is one of her best simply because its so quietly powerful. For similar reasons, her Oscar-winning turn as a wayward formerly devoted mother in Kramer Vs Kramer is particularly compelling; she plays the role of a mother who seeks out the independence that her husband possesses, forcing him to build the relationship she had with his son. In terms of career, there has been no more gifted actress in Hollywood with so many great roles in many different genres of film.
~ If anyone has seen her death scene in Gone With the Wind, they know that de Havilland can emote tragedy. However, her greatest performances were in fact as dramatic and brilliant, but more so astonishing in their execution than her breakthrough role. Her Oscar-winning performance in The Heiress (1949) relies on her ability to dramatically transform her character's demeanour from sweet, naive and innocent to cold, callous and cruel; it is an entirely convincing portrayal which still unfolds almost magically on screen. In The Snake Pit (1949), she again convinces as an inpatient whose mental breakdown causes her to witness the horrors of institutionalisation and eventual reliance upon such measures against the morose reality of the outside world. There were not many actresses in Hollywood's Golden Age as willing to strip away glamour to create such complex, challenging characters with deep issues resonant of the real-life woman in trouble.
~ Nearly as beloved as Meryl Streep, there is no doubt that after Heavenly Creatures (1994) and Titanic (1997) nobody believed Kate Winslet would continue such luck with her roles. However, she has worked steadily ever since in performances of which have ranged from quirky, typical, unbelievable to hilarious. Versatile as Streep and yet just as dramatically gifted, Winslet's greatest performance is her Oscar-nominated turn as tormented 50s housewife April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road (2008). Although she won an Oscar for her role as illiterate Holocaust assister Hanna Schmitz and it one of most ballsy, fearless portrayals, there is little doubt that the more deserved turn was in the previously mentioned film in which she is understated and heartbreaking. Her evolution from corset-wearing English rose to commercial movie star with blockbusters, indie pics and solid human dramas under her belt, she is the best actress of her generation.
~ Before she was part of the A-list superstar coupling known as Brangelina, Jolie struggled to find her voice in Hollywood. Her Oscar-winning turn as wisecracking sociopath mental ward ringleader Lisa Rowe in Girl, Interrupted (1999) showed she could act with less glamour and more realism. She returned to capitalising on her sex symbol status for several years until later on in her career when she took on two pivotal dramatic roles in A Mighty Heart, and more astonishingly, her Oscar-nominated heartbreaking performance in Clint Eastwood's Changeling (2008). As a result of her action heroine tag she may never be considered a consistent dramatic actress, but she has certainly proved that she could be the consummate actress capable of emoting complex humanism.
~ Widely remembered as one of Hollywood's most humanistic actresses, Susan Hayward is another star on this list whose career was defined by one staggering performance in Robert Wise's I Want to Life (1958). Her Oscar-winning portrayal of real-life death-sentenced Barbara Graham, whose part in the robbery and murder of an elderly woman is never shown, and yet her shady past unfolds over the course of the film as the opposite of her deficit: lovable, misunderstood and tragic. She is understated and yet truly powerful in her exploration of the downtrodden atypical broken woman whose attempts to go straight only force her more so into the darkness of society. Although in reality, the woman was complicit in the crime, the film accounts her to be innocent. There is no glossiness or cheap sentiment, it takes cold disdain and irony to understand the character of Barbara Graham, and Hayward's underplayed, subtle power is what forces us to recognise the woman instead of the headline. She plays the role with an unglamorous, sternly compassionate pathos, and her death scene in the gas chamber is truly fantastic. One of the greatest performances in cinema history, it would be difficult to find another during the 50s capable of such staccato realism and honesty.
~ Another example of the one-hit wonder performance, Gloria Swanson is solely remembered by film buffs for her iconic turn as delusional faded silent starlet Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's savagely caustic masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950). Her Oscar-nominated performance is legendary for its exploration of what was to come for modern-day Hollywood: vanity, surgical procedures to preserve youth, eccentricity and comebacks. Norma Desmond is the desperate Hollywood casualty whose failure to enter the talkies along with other stars caused her bitterness and insanity to rise to fore; after she becomes dependent on her down-and-out younger lover to scribe her return, such instability is fatal for them both as he ends up dead and she becomes lost in her own fantasy of renewed stardom. Gloria Swanson may not have been consistently as fantastic as she was in that film, but who can deny that she deserves to be known forever for that blisteringly ironic portrayal?
~ Since her compelling performance as a precocious child assassin in Leon, Natalie Portman has crafted an illustrious career in Hollywood despite being only 30 years old. V for Vendetta (2005) showed off her dedication with a shaven head and gift for intensity without being overtly dramatic. This talent served her well with an incredible, mesmeric, odd performance in Darren Aronofsky's ballet psycho thriller Black Swan (2010). She may never capture that edge of darkness and drama again in her career, but time will tell if she ranks amongst the other greats in Hollywood...
Whether or not they've had their flops, this list represents the power of Hollywood's best and their prevailing works. From career-best to consistently brilliant, the actresses here have given performances as blistering portraits of characters in the depths of existence, their lives troubled and darkness, tragedy and mental fragility are perhaps the reason for their distress. Either way, their art transcends with raw intensity and honesty to the point of documentary-style naturalism and realistic verve; such performance art could forgive any failure, but most of the actresses are not the kind to fall into the trap of commercialism over talent.