The Best Actresses In Hollywood History
Surprisingly, Meryl is not No. 1 on the list.
Who’s your all-time favorite actress? If you ask 50 people that question, you might get 50 different answers but there are certain women who will be at the top of many lists.
Ranking great actors — like any artist — is always a subjective choice in the end, but we looked back through Hollywood history and chose the women who proved more times than any others what being a screen star is all about. We kept in mind major award wins, like Oscars, Golden Globes and Emmy Awards — because we aren’t leaving great TV actors out — but also factored in critical prowess, longevity and range when crafting this list, so that it’s not purely about trophies.
Here are our picks for the best actresses in Hollywood history so far. Did your favorite star make the final cut?
30. Regina King
Notable Performances: “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “American Crime,” “The Leftovers”
She may have only started to earn awards and leading roles in the past few years, but Regina King has been proving her immense talent as an actor in top projects for more than 30 years.
Just since 2015, she’s won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and three Emmys for her work in movies like 2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” and TV dramas like “American Crime” and “Seven Seconds.” Like most great actors, King has range for days, proving her comedic chops in movies like “Friday” and shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Boondocks,” the latter of which saw her in a starring voice role.
29. Emma Thompson
Notable Performances: “Wit,” “Howards End,” “Sense and Sensibility” (1995)
As we’ll see on this list, there have been plenty of brilliant British women to break out as Hollywood stars and Dame Emma Thompson is certainly among the best.
Among Thompson’s hardware are two Oscars — one for acting and one for screenwriting — a Golden Globe, an Emmy and three BAFTAs, which are Britain’s version of the Oscars. She’s proven to be as comfortable playing roles like an absentminded professor in the Harry Potter movies as she is playing a cancer-stricken English professor in 2001’s “Wit.”
Always classy and witty, Thompson truly makes acting look effortless.
28. Faye Dunaway
Notable Performances: “Network,” “Chinatown,” “Bonnie and Clyde”
Arguably the leading woman of the 1970s, Faye Dunaway racked up a filmography that would make any actor jealous, including starring roles in three different movies selected among the 100 greatest movies ever by the American Film Institute — the most for any single woman.
Dunaway was nominated for three Oscars, winning one for 1976’s “Network,” and she also won three Golden Globes and an Emmy. While her roles in crime classics like “Chinatown” and “Bonnie and Clyde” are more quietly intense, Dunaway proved she could be as menacing as any actor ever in 1981’s “Mommie Dearest,” in which she gave one of the most in-your-face performances in cinema history.
27. Cloris Leachman
Notable Performances: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Young Frankenstein,” “The Last Picture Show”
Over a sprawling screen career that’s lasted more than 70 years so far, Cloris Leachman has proven to be a versatile star, earning awards for her work in movies and television across genres.
She won an Oscar for best-supporting actress in 1971’s stark small-town drama “The Last Picture Show,” in the only nomination she ever earned. Her TV career, in beloved shows like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spinoff, “Phyllis,” has been even more decorated, netting her eight Emmys — including seven for her work as an actor — in 22 nominations.
Now 93 years old, Leachman has never stopped working or earning acclaim, most recently with big roles in Fox’s “Raising Hope” and Starz’s “American Gods.”
26. Vivien Leigh
Notable Performances: “Gone with the Wind,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “That Hamilton Woman”
Gifted with striking looks, Vivien Leigh bolstered that with immense dramatic power to become one of the biggest stars of classic Hollywood.
Her work as the fiery main characters in 1939’s “Gone with the Wind” and 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” won her two Oscars for best leading actress and made her a legend, but she was equally strong in lighter fare like 1937’s “Storm in a Teacup.”
Leigh’s death of tuberculosis at the age of 53 cut short her career, but she proved in relatively few roles what she was capable of.
25. Barbara Stanwyck
Notable Performances: “Double Indemnity,” “Ball of Fire,” “The Thorn Birds”
One of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Barbara Stanwyck proved better at playing dangerous, cunning women than possibly anyone else in history.
Incredibly, she never won an Oscar but was nominated four times in the category of best leading actress, including for her smoldering work in 1944’s “Double Indemnity,” in which she played a woman who plotted to have her husband killed for insurance money. She did win a Golden Globe and three Emmys, one of which was for her role as a manipulative, wealthy woman in 1983’s blockbuster miniseries “The Thorn Birds.”
Before her death in 1990, Stanwyck was honored with lifetime achievement awards from the Oscars, Golden Globes and AFI, among others.
24. Allison Janney
Notable Performances: “The West Wing,” “I, Tonya,” “Masters of Sex”
Known primarily for her incredible television career — which has netted her seven Emmys so far — Allison Janney has proven time and time again to be a perfect actor, no matter the medium or genre. Four of those Emmys came for her work as the quick-witted White House press secretary on “The West Wing” and another pair have come from her work as a recovering alcoholic in CBS’s lighter sitcom, “Mom.”
Janney’s gift is being able to control every scene she’s in and easily command the viewer’s attention, as she did in her Oscar-winning role as a ruthless mother in 2017’s “I, Tonya.”
23. Glenda Jackson
Notable Performances: “Elizabeth R,” “Women in Love,” “A Touch of Class”
Like many of the best British actors, Glenda Jackson became an expert at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she performed in the 1960s before becoming a movie star.
From 1971 to 1976, she was nominated for four Oscars in the category of best leading actress, winning two of them. She proved equally capable of carrying comedies, dramas and period epics, also earning two Emmys for her work as Queen Elizabeth I in the series “Elizabeth R.” Jackson is one of only 24 actors in history to earn the coveted triple crown of acting, meaning she’s won a competitive award at the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys.
22. Sally Field
Notable Performances: “Sybil,” “Norma Rae,” “Lincoln”
In a career that has spanned more than 50 years on screen, Sally Field has proven to be capable of every role an actor could be offered.
She got her start as an innocent-looking, doe-eyed young woman in 1960s shows like “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun” before transitioning to more dramatic roles and instantly proving herself as a powerhouse. She won two Oscars for best leading actress in a five-year span, for her work in 1979’s “Norma Rae” and 1984’s “Places in the Heart.” Those roles followed her Emmy-winning turn in 1976’s “Sybil,” in which she played a woman suffering from mental illness.
Aging has only bolstered her career, with Field earning immense acclaim for roles in 2012’s “Lincoln” and 2015’s “Hello, My Name is Doris.”
21. Nicole Kidman
Notable Performances: “Moulin Rouge!,” “Big Little Lies,” “The Hours”
Since the early 1990s, Nicole Kidman has steadily worked as one of Hollywood’s most dependable leading women, earning love from critics and audiences alike.
From the sultry love interest she played in 1995’s “Batman Forever” to the singing and dancing she did in 2000’s “Moulin Rouge!” to the emotional depths she plumbed in 2010’s “Rabbit Hole” and even the fear she inspired in 2018’s “Destroyer,” Kidman has proven she’s capable of every role imaginable. Her recent starring role in HBO’s “Big Little Lies” has proven she can dominate TV as well, earning her an Emmy Award (for acting) to go along with her Oscar and five Golden Globes.
20. Jodie Foster
Notable Performances: “Taxi Driver,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “The Accused”
One of the most gifted child actors ever, Jodie Foster has been a mainstay of American screens since she was barely old enough to talk.
Her role as a 14-year-old prostitute in 1976’s “Taxi Driver” earned her the first of four career Oscar nominations so far. She won two of the statues in wildly different roles, one for playing a traumatized rape survivor in 1988’s “The Accused” and one for playing a whip-smart FBI agent in 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Foster has spent more time behind the camera in recent years, earning two Emmy nominations for directing and producing TV shows, but her work as an actor is up there with the best.
19. Sissy Spacek
Notable Performances: “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “In the Bedroom,” “Carrie”
When you talk about actors who’ve proven they can crush any performance, no matter the demands, Sissy Spacek has to come to mind.
In her early days on screen, she drew heavy acclaim for playing everyone from the naive girlfriend of a serial killer in 1973’s “Badlands,” to the killer herself in 1976’s “Carrie.” Her performance as country star Loretta Lynn in 1980’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” — in which she did all the singing herself — earned her an Oscar for best leading actress, a category she’s been nominated for a remarkable six times. As she’s aged, she’s continued to nail big roles, especially in TV shows like “Bloodline” and “Big Love,” earning her three Emmy nominations so far.
18. Viola Davis
Notable Performances: “Fences,” “The Help,” “How to Get Away with Murder”
Another one of the very few performers to earn the triple crown of acting, Viola Davis has been a magnet for praise, especially since her breakout role in 2011’s “The Help.” Her Oscar win — one of three nominations she’s earned so far — came for her powerhouse performance as a tired housewife in 2016’s “Fences,” the same role she’d earned a Tony Award for previously. Since 2014, she’s played a self-destructive and brilliant law professor in ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” a role that eventually made her the first black woman to ever win the Emmy for best leading actress.
17. Kate Winslet
Notable Performances: “The Reader,” “Titanic,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
Arguably the modern queen of period projects, Kate Winslet has racked up seven Oscar nominations so far, winning one for her role as a Nazi camp guard in 2008’s “The Reader.”
It was clear she was a brilliant actor from the time she was a teen, playing a young murderer in 1994’s “Heavenly Creatures.” From there, roles in beloved classics like 1997’s “Titanic” and 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” showed the immense range she possessed. The British star has won three BAFTAs on eight nominations so far and also won an Emmy for her work in HBO’s 2011 miniseries, “Mildred Pierce.”
16. Julianne Moore
Notable Performances: “Boogie Nights,” “Far from Heaven,” “Still Alice”
Another actor who only seems to get better with age, Julianne Moore has been one of Hollywood’s most dependable leads since the late 1990s.
She’s racked up five Oscar nominations so far and has proven her power in intense dramas like 1997’s “Boogie Nights,” character studies like 2002’s “The Hours” and out-there comedies like 1998’s “The Big Lebowski.”
In recent years, she’s put together a string of highly acclaimed performances in movies like 2010’s “The Kids are All Right,” 2018’s “Gloria Bell” and her Oscar-winning turn in 2014’s “Still Alice,” in which she played a brilliant professor who lives with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
15. Audrey Hepburn
Notable Performances: “Roman Holiday,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Wait Until Dark”
In terms of stars becoming style icons, Audrey Hepburn easily tops the list. But she was far from just another star with striking looks, Hepburn earned mounds of acclaim for her screen work, especially in the 1950s and 1960s.
Among her five Oscar-nominated roles were starring roles in lively pictures like 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and 1953’s “Roman Holiday,” the latter of which won her an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA. Hepburn further proved she could carry any film, no matter the genre, by leading a light thriller like 1963’s “Charade,” a smash musical like 1964’s “My Fair Lady” and a stark drama like 1961’s “The Children’s Hour.”
14. Judi Dench
Notable Performances: “Mrs Brown,” “Notes on a Scandal,” “Shakespeare in Love”
When you think of great British actors, Dame Judi Dench has to be one of the first that comes to mind. In a career that has spanned more than 55 years, she has come to personify the class and intelligence we typically associate with English stars.
She had a knack for live theatre and Shakespearean roles before becoming a regular presence on the big screen, where she’s earned seven Oscar nominations so far, all since 1997. She won her Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love,” which also netted one of her incredible 10 BAFTA wins among 26 nominations across film and TV.
13. Glenn Close
Notable Performances: “Fatal Attraction,” “The Wife,” “Damages”
It’s an absolute crime that Glenn Close has never won an Oscar, despite seven nominations so far, but her status as one of Hollywood’s greatest actors isn’t lessened by that fact. She was a juggernaut in the 1980s, earning five of those Oscar nominations in that decade alone for iconic roles in mature dramas like 1987’s “Fatal Attraction” and 1988’s “Dangerous Liaisons.”
Since then, she hasn’t slowed down a bit, bolstering her reputation with a series of strong roles in TV shows like “The Shield” and “Damages,” picking up three Emmys and 12 nominations along the way.
12. Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Notable Performances: “Veep,” “Seinfeld,” “Enough Said”
She’s dabbled in movies over the years but Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s work on the small screen has made her perhaps the most acclaimed actress in TV history.
Her 11 Emmy wins, including eight for acting, are impossible to argue with. She’s won Emmys for starring roles in three separate hit series: “Seinfeld,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and “Veep,” showing she can nail any role she steps into.
Simply put, she’s earned the right to be considered the most gifted comedic actress ever.
11. Jane Fonda
Notable Performances: “Klute,” “Coming Home,” “Grace and Frankie”
Jane Fonda’s fiery personality, incredible looks and sheer screen presence made her arguably the biggest star of the 1970s.
She’s been nominated for seven Oscars, six of which came between 1969 and 1981, winning two for best leading actress. Pretty much always playing intense roles, Fonda proved as adept at portraying sci-fi heroes like the one in 1968’s “Barbarella” as she was at playing a downtrodden working woman bent on revenge in 1980’s “9 to 5.”
In recent years, Fonda has become an outstanding TV star, earning Emmy nominations for her work in HBO’s “The Newsroom” and Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie.”
10. Elizabeth Taylor
Notable Performances: “National Velvet,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Suddenly, Last Summer”
Stars don’t come much bigger than Dame Elizabeth Taylor, who was one of Hollywood’s brightest from the 1940s through the 1960s.
Her magnetic performances earned her two Oscars and five total nominations in the category of best leading actress, as well as massive paychecks for her consistent box-office drawing power. Taylor’s two wins came for dark performances as a prostitute in 1960’s “Butterfield 8” and as a vicious wife in 1966’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” the latter of which still stands as one of the most intense pieces of screen acting ever.
9. Jessica Lange
Notable Performances: “American Horror Story,” “Feud,” “Country”
Few actors have been able to dominate movies and television with acclaimed performances like Jessica Lange.
She proved herself to be one of Hollywood’s best stars in the 1980s, when she earned five of her six career Oscar nominations from 1982 to 1989. She won the coveted trophies for her work in 1982’s “Tootsie” and 1994’s “Blue Sky.” Since 1996, she’s earned eight Emmy nominations for her work in TV, winning three of them, starring in acclaimed hit shows like “American Horror Story” and “Feud.” Lange is also one of the elite few to earn the triple crown of acting.
8. Cate Blanchett
Notable Performances: “Elizabeth,” “I’m Not There,” “Carol”
It can easily be argued that Cate Blanchett is the greatest actress of her generation, proving herself time and time again in demanding, top-billed roles across genres.
The Australian star has earned seven Oscar nominations since 1999, winning for 2005’s “The Aviator” and 2014’s “Blue Jasmine,” the latter of which showed she could also nail comedy. How many actors can say they’ve portrayed Queen Elizabeth I, Katharine Hepburn and Bob Dylan on screen, earning Oscar nominations for each? Nobody but Blanchett.
7. Shirley MacLaine
Notable Performances: “The Apartment,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Ask Any Girl”
Shirley MacLaine was such a multi-talented performer that the Golden Globes created a special award just for her in 1959, dubbing her the most versatile actress.
One of those rare stars that could truly do anything, she earned six Oscar nominations in her long career, finally winning one long overdue for 1983’s “Terms of Endearment.” Whether it was dramas like 1958’s “Some Came Running,” comedies like 1960’s “The Apartment” or romantic films like 1963’s “Irma la Douce,” MacLaine proved game for any role. She eventually earned lifetime achievement honors from the Golden Globes and AFI.
6. Bette Davis
Notable Performances: “All About Eve,” “Dangerous,” “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
Born with a pair of the most expressive eyes in cinema history, Bette Davis became one of the most dependable stars of classic Hollywood thanks to her nearly unmatched onscreen presence.
Davis was nominated for an incredible 10 Oscars — all in the best leading actress category — and won two of them. She managed to be a top-billed player for more than 40 years, picking up an Oscar nomination in every decade from the 1930s through the 1960s for a range of roles in everything from romance to film noir to psychological drama.
When she was given the AFI’s life achievement award in 1977, she became the first woman to earn that immense honor.
5. Maggie Smith
Notable Performances: “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “Downton Abbey,” Harry Potter series
If you need to know what makes Dame Maggie Smith such a brilliant actor, just watch her make an art form out of stealing scenes in the Harry Potter movies.
Smith epitomizes the grace and intelligence that we often link with British actors, but she also has a natural presence that few other stars could ever aspire to possess. When she’s in a scene, you are looking squarely at her and that’s one of the skills that has landed her six Oscar nominations, including two wins, and 18 BAFTA nominations, including a record four wins for best leading actress. Add onto that her recent television career, which included three Emmy wins for “Downton Abbey,” and you’ve got one of the most acclaimed actors in history.
4. Frances McDormand
Notable Performances: “Fargo,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Olive Kitteridge”
With intensity and range that have rarely been matched in Hollywood history, Frances McDormand has proven herself several times over to be among the best actors ever.
She’s earned a reputation for outstanding work outside the big studio system, winning two Independent Spirit Awards for her work in indie films, which is tied for the most by any actress. McDormand has also won two Oscars, both in the best leading actress category, for wildly different roles: as a mild-mannered police officer in 1996’s “Fargo” and as a tough-as-nails mother looking to avenge her daughter’s murder in 2017’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” She is another of the few actors to earn the triple crown of acting.
3. Ingrid Bergman
Notable Performances: “Casablanca,” “Anastasia,” “Gaslight”
Loaded with mystique and immense dramatic talents, Ingrid Bergman was one of the true icons of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood.
She took home three Oscars on seven career nominations, including for a late-career turn in 1974’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” In addition to her unforgettable performances in 1942’s “Casablanca” and 1946’s “Notorious,” Bergman became a triple crown of acting winner by picking up two Emmys, one of which was for 1982’s TV movie “A Woman Called Golda,” which debuted just a few months before her death.
2. Meryl Streep
Notable Performances: “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Silkwood”
If you measure acting skill by acclaim and awards consideration, nobody comes close to Meryl Streep. Her 21 career Oscar nominations are the most for any actress by a mile and her three wins put her in elite company. Those honors, combined with her eight Golden Globes (in 31 nominations) and three Emmys (in four nominations), make her a magnet for awards. She’s already been given a lifetime achievement award from AFI although she has plenty left to do on screen.
Streep has not only captivated in deadly serious dramas like 1988’s “A Cry in the Dark” and 1982’s “Sophie’s Choice,” but she’s proven a master of lighter fare like 1992’s “Death Becomes Her” and 2008’s “Mamma Mia!” Few actors of this stature have taken as many risks with their role selections as Streep.
1. Katharine Hepburn
Notable Performances: “The Philadelphia Story,” “Morning Glory,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”
There’s probably been no star to carry the kind of dramatic weight in Hollywood history as Katharine Hepburn, regardless of gender. The shadow she cast from the 1930s through the 1960s and even beyond is simply unmatched.
She won a record four Oscars during her career and netted 12 nominations, all of which remarkably came in the category of best leading actress. She proved to have unlimited range, dazzling in everything from comedies like “The Philadelphia Story” to heartbreaking dramas like “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and even adventure flicks like 1951’s “The African Queen.”
Even when co-starring alongside icons like Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy, Hepburn completely dominated the screen.