Friday, December 12, 2008

My Twenty Favorite Actresses

People know better than to tag me for things like this, but when Film Experience's Nathaniel R. launched a "Twenty Favorite Actresses" meme, it captured my imagination -- or rather, the results did. All the lists I've seen on other blogs (Nathaniel's been maintaining a list) have been interesting or intriguing, but it wasn't until I set about assembling my own that I saw how truly subjective these lists are and what they say about each of the compilers and their respective views about women.

What I think my list shows about me is that I like strong, intelligent, adventurous, enigmatic women, but also quirky, curious, funny women --and indeed I do. I was initially concerned that my list would include a lot of intangible, wraith-like women, presences rather than actresses, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that my final choices convey quite a bit of warmth and tangibility. At the same time, I found that I tend to respond to actresses who are instruments of a director's specific vision. And I'll warn you up front: my list is almost entirely Eurocentric.

My list is followed by the names of some other actresses of whom I am exceedingly fond, but whom I couldn't really include in my main list -- mostly because they've affected me on the strength of only one great, or one particular, performance to date. And it pains me to leave out so many other wonderful actresses whom I've admired and/or adored -- women like (off the top of my head) the recently late Nina Foch, Jessica Tandy, Ruby Dee, Vera Miles, Jane Asher, Diana Sands, Kumi Mizuno, Marianna Hill, Joan Cusack, my dear friend Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni and, more recently, Pamela Adlon -- because they are still awaiting (and, in some cases, never got) The Role that would let them show the full range of their talents. An even tougher bullet to bite is knowing that there are many, many actresses who earned a place on this list, by giving indelible performances in unforgettable films -- Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Patricia Neal, Janet Leigh, Billie Whitelaw, Anouk Aimée, Vanessa Redgrave, even Paula Prentiss (who is so wonderful in MAN'S FAVORITE SPORT?, a film I love), to name a few -- but, as I say, this list isn't really about them; it's about me.

I have tried to present my list in order of preference as much as is humanly possible. The first 10 are pretty firm; the second 10 are more interchangeable in their order. Let's start at the toppermost of the poppermost:


DELPHINE SEYRIG
In assembling this list, I realized that acting talent is ultimately not as important to me as presence, and how rare it is to find both qualities in the same package. Delphine Seyrig is my favorite because she truly was a great actress, as Alain Resnais' MURIEL perhaps proves best of all, but more importantly, she was one of the medium's great enchantresses. François Truffaut understood this when he cast her as Antoine Doinel's ideal woman in STOLEN KISSES, as did Jacques Demy when he cast her as the Fairy Godmother in DONKEY SKIN. She had tremendous natural chic and a voice like milk and honey; when she uses that voice in Harry Kumel's DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS to describe the tortures committed by Countess Erzebet Bathory, the frisson she creates is unbearably erotic. I find her most compelling in Joseph Losey's ACCIDENT ("It can't be... it can't be...") and Luís Buñuel's THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE. People who knew her personally have described the offscreen woman as "down to earth," which doesn't jibe at all with the celestial being I know from the movies, but knowing that "Delphine Seyrig" was not the woman herself but rather her invention only raises her higher in my estimation. The camera loved her, yes, but no more than I.

IRENE JACOB
And yet... No actress, past or present, illuminates the screen for me like this one does. When Krzysztof Kieslowski died, I wept for her loss moreso than yours, mine and ours. Louise Brooks had her Pabst, Soledad Miranda had her Franco, but no other meeting of actress and director tapped the spiritual heights and depths that Jacob and Kieslowski explored together in THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE and RED. Discovered by Louis Malle in AU REVOIR, LES INFANTS, Jacob has the well-trained ability and natural grace and bearing to knock any film onto higher ground, but most other directors she's worked with haven't known what to do with that advantage. After dabbling in US/UK productions like OTHELLO and U.S. MARSHALS, she has returned to French productions -- and consequently, and very sadly, American fans like me are losing track of her.

HELEN MIRREN
I feel a bit guilty for placing Helen Mirren here, in the third slot, because I feel she's the most watchable and consistently surprising actress working today. Her career is the ultimate proof that genuine talent is unassailable: this Royal Shakespeare Company player was pulling the most brazen get-attention stunts from the very beginning, stripping off for Michael Powell's AGE OF CONSENT while still in her teens, romping around fully nude in Ken Russell's SAVAGE MESSIAH, and moving on to the Guccione porn of CALIGULA... but complementing these more revealing roles was her real dues-paying work in O LUCKY MAN!, THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY and CAL. Age, which destroys most actresses in the marketplace, has only reinforced her standing; she remains vitally sexy in her 60's, and her intelligence and continuing audacity have much to do with her sex appeal. For anyone else, her many PRIME SUSPECT roles as Jane Tennison would have been a career pinnacle, but for Mirren, it was just a way of getting to still more amazing portrayals as England's past and present Queens. Incredibly, her best work could still be ahead of her.

MONICA VITTI
She makes my list solely on the strength of her work with Michelangelo Antonioni (L'AVVENTURA, L'ECLISSE, RED DESERT), but these are some of my favorite films and they're all about her. While those three films are a bit staggered in quality, or at least in the order I like them, her work grows deeper and richer from one film to the next. It's possible that I should have placed her in the slot after...

JULIETTE BINOCHE
Her filmography tells you everything you need to know. Binoche has at least one advantage over Irène Jacob: even when she appears in commercial trifles that seem unworthy of her, like Louis Malle's erotic suspenser DAMAGE or the Steve Carell comedy DAN IN REAL LIFE, she invests them with a warmth, tenderness and gravitas that somehow lifts every other player, every other department, up to her level. Her talent invites everyone in, and can bear it. At her best -- as in Philip Kaufman's THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, Kieslowski's BLUE or Leos Karax's THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE -- she is in a league of her own.

ROMY SCHNEIDER
Romy would have made my list had she only made Andrzej Zulawski's astonishing THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE (pictured), but her career is an almost chronologic study of an actress awakening to the depths of her own art, and her lessons were hard-won from a tragic life. Orson Welles wisely cast her as one of the many taunting female presences in THE TRIAL, after which she seems to first come fully into her own opposite real-life lover Alain Delon in the erotic thriller THE SWIMMING POOL. But her best work was still to come, with Zulawski, but also in CESAR AND ROSALIE, Visconti's LUDWIG, DEATH WATCH and the shocking THE INFERNAL TRIO.

PAMELA FRANKLIN
This British actress made her screen debut at age 10 in Jack Clayton's THE INNOCENTS and continued to make films, showing exquisite taste in everything she made throughout the 1960s, from animal-themed family fare (A TIGER WALKS, THE LION) through a stunning performance in THE THIRD SECRET where we actually see her graduate from a child to a young adult actress of the first caliber. Hammer's THE NANNY and a remarkable second collaboration with Clayton, OUR MOTHER'S HOUSE, heralded her teen phase, which climaxed with her extraordinary work in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE, for which she deserved an Oscar nomination. She continued to be a beguiling presence in a few scattered adult roles, like John Huston's SINFUL DAVEY, John Erman's ACE ELI AND RODGER OF THE SKIES and John Hough's LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, but after making a couple of trashy films for Bert I. Gordon and finding no other work in her adopted America but forgettable guest spots on disposable TV series, she wisely got off at the next stop and never looked back.

ÉDITH SCOB
She inhabits Georges Franju's work (HEAD AGAINST THE WALL, EYES WITHOUT A FACE, JUDEX) and Luís Buñuel's THE MILKY WAY like an Angel in captivity, and I would imagine it's a rare director who can summon the courage to work with such delicate baggage... but she's grown into a tough old bird, and perhaps always has been, showing a fuller range of human emotions in films like THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE, TIME REGAINED, and THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF. She's actually shocking as the drunken bitch slut in Zulawski's FIDELITY. Good for her!
LOUISE BROOKS
Some argue that her helmet-shaped haircut made her, others claim that she spent her later years devising her own mythology, but her work onscreen supports her legend. Brooksie had what Bettie Page had before Bettie Page had it: the perfect balance of wholesomeness and decadence -- she seemed to hold up a mirror to mankind's darkest desires. It was her good fortune to be invited to Germany to work with the great G.W. Pabst, who, in THE DIARY OF A LOST GIRL and PANDORA'S BOX, found ways to ponder these qualities visually so that the rest of us would ponder them too. Eighty years later, we still are, and she doesn't seem to have aged a day, even though the real Louise has long since come and gone. She was a damn good writer, too.

SOLEDAD MIRANDA
This former dancer showed unusual vibrancy even in her earliest work in Spanish cinema, but it took Jess Franco to transmute her into the horror genre's most compelling Galatea. Remote, unknowable and absolutely haunting, she seems to need our protection as well as our blood. Her immortality was cemented by her death in an auto accident at the age of 27.

ANNA KARINA
I must admit to loving Karina as much for what she represents -- the artist's muse -- as for what she's done, but she's splendid in everything she made with Godard, even the little silent movie pastiche they made together for Agnes Varda's CLEO FROM 5 TO 7. This isn't the first or the last time I'm saying this of my choices, but I wish more of her work was available for viewing here in the States; I would love to see her in Tony Richardson's film of Vladimir Nabokov's LAUGHTER IN THE DARK.
MEIKO KAJI
For my money, she of "the castrating gaze" is the finest silent film actress of the talkies -- as her "Female Prisoner Scorpion" and "Lady Snowblood" series prove in spades.

CATHERINE DENEUVE
Her beauty and cool demeanor have prevented many from taking her as seriously as she deserves. She may well be the finest actress to have devoted a major share of her career to horror and fantasy cinema: REPULSION, BELLE DE JOUR, THE HUNGER and DANCER IN THE DARK, not to mention her delightful work with Jacques Demy. Like Helen Mirren, she continues to do outstanding work in mature roles.

GRETA GARBO
One of the great faces of cinema, Garbo's perfection runs the risk of making her too emblematic. Cold-blooded in most photos, she's a warmer presence onscreen, giving her best performances in her later movies: QUEEN CHRISTINA, CAMILLE and NINOTCHKA. She was still maturing at her craft when the crass mediocrity of TWO-FACED WOMAN propelled her into an early and permanent retirement.

DEBORAH KERR
Frankly, she doesn't ring my bell in everything she did, but Michael Powell (who loved her) really knew how to use her. She was indelible as the three faces of womanhood in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, and luminous as Sister Clodagh in BLACK NARCISSUS. Also remarkable in END OF THE AFFAIR and THE INNOCENTS, and iconic in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

MILENA VUKOTIC
My dark horse selection, but she's more than earned her placement here, I assure you. Quirky, funny, stylish and sexy in a offbeat way, La Vukotic -- a favorite of Fellini (she was the maid in JULIET OF THE SPIRITS and the TV interviewer in TOBY DAMMIT) and Luís Buñuel (who cast her in THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE and THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY) -- is likewise unforgettable as the corrupt associate in THE HOUSE WITH THE YELLOW CARPET and the plain spinster daughter who cannot bear to live after the spectacular dismemberment and staking of Udo Kier in BLOOD FOR DRACULA. I suspect I have not seen her best work.

MARIA DE MEDEIROS
This bird-like Portuguese was remarkable as Anaïs Nin in Kaufman's HENRY AND JUNE and heart-stoppingly sweet in Quentin Tarantino's PULP FICTION. There's no one else in movies quite like her -- I enjoy her music, too. (You can see some samples at YouTube.) I would like to see more of her screen work, but comparatively little has received distribution in the States. She's multi-lingual, works where and when she likes, and seems quite content not to be chasing the runaway train of movie stardom. A sensible woman, then, as well as a fine and varied artist. Praising her gives me oral pleasure.

DALIAH LAVI
A true she-lion of the cinema, possessed of balletic grace, animal energy and superhuman spirit. She rightly categorizes most of her films as "garbage," but she gave extraordinary performances in Mario Bava's THE WHIP AND THE BODY and the fact-based story of demonic possession, IL DEMONIO. She left the cinema in the 1970s to concentrate on a career in music, with which she had extraordinary success in the German market.

STEFANIA SANDRELLI
I'm told that this Divinity is not only one of Italy's finest actresses, but an intellectual offscreen as well. I first took note of her in the delightful performances she gave in Bernardo Bertolucci's THE CONFORMIST and Pietro Germi's ALFREDO, ALFREDO, and Bertolucci has continued to cast her in supporting roles in later pictures like 1900 and STEALING BEAUTY. But it was her breakthrough performance in Germi's DIVORCE, ITALIAN STYLE that continues to resonate; it's a marvelous film on every level, but I came away from it with one basic thought: that Sandrelli had the most sacred chin I'd ever seen. She also displayed a fearless, gratifying and volcanic eroticism in Tinto Brass' THE KEY. I hate having to vamp on this again, but the IMDb credits her with 116 films, and I doubt that more than 20 have had any exposure in America.

JESSICA HARPER
Pictured here in Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA, this deep-voiced Chicago gamine was the bravest American actress of her generation, giving classic (and sometimes startling) performances in De Palma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, the ROCKY HORROR sequel SHOCK TREATMENT (where she struts about, looking like a dolled-up 10-year-old boy in drag, singing about looking for trade), the X-rated INSERTS, the Steve Martin version of Dennis Potter's PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, and Woody Allen's STARDUST MEMORIES. She retired from films after having children, then pursued a successful career as a musical entertainer for kids, but was lured back for a bit part in Steven Spielberg's MINORITY REPORT. The year before, in A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, the presence of lead actress Frances O'Connor had prompted numerous critics to mention her startling resemblance to Harper -- proving that she had not been forgotten during her long vacation from the screen.

This has been a tough but rewarding game to play. I deserve and accept all the kicks and punches that Molly Parker, Gena Rowlands, Bibi Andersson, Jean Seberg, Claude Jade, Claudia Cardinale, Dominique Sanda, Julianne Moore, Kathy Bates, Maggie Cheung and Naomi Watts (not to mention Anna Magnani, Mona Washbourne and Margaret Rutherford) can dish out. Of course, the eye is often more fickle than the heart, and I may feel differently about some of the above by tomorrow. Many, however, are permanent in my pantheon.
It warrants mentioning that every actress who made this list had more than one shot at getting through to my heart and mind. In closing, I feel the need to mention a few other actresses who worked the major magic of getting me to fall in love with characters they portrayed in individual movies: Rebecca Pidgeon in STATE AND MAIN, Pamela Brown in I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING!, Cathy O'Donnell in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, Kathleen Byron in THE SMALL BACK ROOM, Teresa Wright in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, Susan Strasberg in PSYCH-OUT, Anne-Laure Meury in THE AVIATOR'S WIFE, Olivia Williams in RUSHMORE, Zhang Ziyi in 2046, and Claudine Spiteri in THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS spring most wonderfully to mind.

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