OPINION: Some of the best actress performances of all time

Celebrate Women’s History Month with these timeless performances


Magaly Muñoz

In celebration of Women’s History Month, opinion writer Bradley Hinkson shares his favorite actress performances. Graphic made in Canva.

Bradley Hinkson

March is Women’s History Month and there’s no better way to celebrate than to look at the women in film. There have been a number of iconic actress performances throughout film history, and I’m here to cover a few because listing them all would take quite a while.

Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence”

There probably has yet to ever be a performance that is as raw and intimate as Gena Rowlands in this film.

In it she plays Mabel, a housewife who is constantly put down upon by the people in her life mostly because they see her erratic behavior as harmful to herself and those around her. However, they just can’t see it as her longing for happiness and some sort of acceptance.

Rowlands gives a performance that most actors wish they could have in their whole careers. It’s filled with so much emotion and reality to it that it does the impossible in that you start to forget that Rowlands is performing. You start to understand that she is not trying to portray someone with mental illness but instead a woman who has had so much pressure put on her for how she should act. Rowlands has these little tics and mannerisms she does, including a constant movement of her thumb sticking out, that adds so much character to Mabel. She wants to truly be herself but can only let it out in small actions.

“A Woman Under the Influence” is one of the toughest films to get through. John Cassavetes, who was Rowland’s husband at the time, directed the focus on close-ups of the actors to create a claustrophobic and uncomfortable experience but in a way that made the drama feel real. So much of it falls onto Rowlands and her just as incredible co-star Peter Falk, and it works wholeheartedly. Her performance is one for the ages and just rightfully sits as one of the greatest of all time.

“A Woman Under the Influence” is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and HBO Max.

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Sheryl Lee in “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me”

It’s genuinely so hard to watch a character so pure and full of goodness fall into so much darkness.

Serving as a prequel to the “Twin Peaks” television series, the film focuses on the days leading up to the death of Laura Palmer before the events of the show began. It breaks away from some of the more fun soapy and mystery elements of the show to deliver something much darker and sinister.

In the series, Lee never got as much screen time playing Laura, though she did as Laura’s cousin Maddy, but creator David Lynch had always felt a connection to the character of Laura and knew Lee was the actress for it. The film was not received positively upon its release, it was even booed at the Cannes Film Festival, but it has been rightfully re-evaluated.

Laura Palmer wouldn’t be who she was if it wasn’t for Lee. She exudes the innocence of Laura, which makes her descent into a more sinister life even more tragic. There’s a genuine fear that Lee is able to convey, no one screams like her, but it comes from this loss of innocence that Palmer has. When the film becomes more and more disturbing, the final 15 minutes is some of the most unsettling stuff put to film. Lee is for better or worse able to portray so much of what Laura goes through, all the way to the absolutely devastating final shot of the film of Laura having to accept her fate.

“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s a worthy enough experience if not for Sheryl Lee’s performance.

“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and HBO Max.

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Maggie Cheung in “In The Mood for Love”

It takes a lot to find sensuality in a film with no actual lovemaking in it, which makes a performance like Maggie Cheung’s quite the revelation.

Taking place in 1960s Hong Kong, the film focuses on two strangers, played by Cheung and the just as phenomenal Tony Leung, who secretly start having a romantic relationship when they discover their own partners are having an affair with each other. They both must hide their relationship from a culture and society that would disapprove of it.

As mentioned, there is nothing overtly sensual about the film, so it takes an actress like Cheung to make this into something truly romantic. She can do it just through a simple glance or the expression on her face. You see and feel that intimacy just in the way she looks at Leung. Whether it be in them eating at a restaurant or sharing a quiet intimate moment in the streets, there’s so much chemistry between them, mostly brought to life by Cheung’s performance. You can tell she so desperately wants to run away with this man and she does it with very few words. There’s longing in her and it’s impossible not to see it.

If there is anything more apparent on screen than the film’s beautiful colors, it’s Cheung’s ability to convey love and sadness with just a simple look.

“In the Mood for Love” is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and HBO Max.

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Catherine Deneuve in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”

Let’s keep the romance blooming.

Spanning some years from the late 50s through the early 60s, Geneviève, played by Catherine Deneuve, and Guy, played by Nino Castelnuovo, are young lovers who are ready for marriage until Guy is sent to war and the two must separate. The film follows their relationship before, during, and after Guy is sent to war.

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is entirely sung but doesn’t have full on musical numbers as it is done in recitative dialogue. This wholly benefits the emotion of the film since so much is brought out in big singing gestures, which makes Deneuve so wonderful here. She has this sweet innocence at the start of the film that makes Geneviève sympathetic, which makes it even more impactful when she has to watch Guy leave. The main moment in particular when the two lovers have to depart is heartbreaking if not just for Deneuve’s performance. It leaves me a wreck each time.

Though as the film continues and she goes through the sadness that forces her to mature, that’s when we really get to see Deneuve’s talents. As we see her go from grief to acceptance of her possibly never seeing Guy again, we see Deneuve wonderfully process these emotions through her facial expressions and her lovely singing voice. It’s equally delightful and devastating. For anyone who is a fan of “La La Land,” they’ll find many similarities between the film especially in their endings.

Though, my feelings on her performance may be a bit biased as this is one of my all time favorite films.

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and HBO Max.

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Isabelle Adjani in “Possession”

How do you put into words a performance like this?

Mark, played by the always sensational Sam Neill, is thrown for a loop when his wife, played by Isabelle Adjani, decides to divorce him out of nowhere. She then starts exhibiting strange behavior that makes Mark question her sanity. Is she mentally ill? Or is there a more supernatural force at play?

Every performance here is turned to 11 on a scale of 10. There’s no real subtlety here, think of this as an even more dramatic domestic drama. It’s in your face, and that’s what makes the whole thing so haunting and draining. You want to look away with how horrifying Adjani comes off, but you can’t look away because it’s the kind of committed performance that can be a wonder to see.. Sometimes you don’t need horrifying images to be scary, just a performance that can be just as equally horrifying.

She puts her whole body into this performance and gives the kind of unhinged performance no other actor has been able to do since. It all comes together in the infamous subway scene that, as with the rest of her performance, needs to be seen to be believed. We’ve had many iconic actress performances in horror, a recent example being Toni Collette in “Hereditary,” but I don’t think anyone can come close to the ferocity of Afjani’s performance.

Her screams will echo through your head for a while. 

“Possession” is not streaming anywhere as of the time of publication, but a special Blu-Ray release can be purchased.