The evolution of the actress, part one

Posted by · 5:02 pm · October 2nd, 2008

Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a DreamThis is the first of a two-part study of legendary screen actresses through the years.  Stay tuned tomorrow for part two.

We often hear about the great actors in movie history: Brando, Nicholson, Duvall, Hoffman, Hackman, Washington, Freeman and DeNiro, men who advanced the craft into an art of the highest order.

But what of the women? They have never really been taken seriously in Hollywood as trend-setters.  Historians have even documented the genuine shock by studio heads when they realized that a woman, Vivien Leigh, had carried “Gone with the Wind” for its more than three-hour running time.

Leigh, Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn were the greatest of classic Hollywood, and certainly Elizabeth Taylor’s astonishing performance as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” broke ground for women in terms of what they could portray on screen and get away with. A genuine movie star, Taylor gained a great deal of weight for the film and was willing to play down her stunning good looks in the name of her art.

Brash and loud, vulgar and sexual, Martha was the greatest challenge of Taylor’s career, to which she responded with one of the cinema’s great performances. This was years before Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull,” which received substantially more attention. But all of the aforementioned actresses in one way or another broke ground for the fairer sex.

Hepburn was clearly the most gifted of the early screen actresses, adept at both comedy and drama, excelling as she aged, growing artistically in such films as “The Rainamker” and “Suddenly Last Summer” and ultimately giving her greatest performance in “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”  She won four Academy Awards for Best Actress in her time, including back-to-back wins in 1967 and 1968, and she was something of a surprise choice for “On Golden Pond” in 1981.

The dame that broke down the door for ladies in terms of realistic modern acting, however, was unquestionably Jane Fonda, with two galvanizing performances in “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” “Klute.” Fonda was utterly fearless in her portrayals of difficult women, unafraid to look horrible on screen, but more important she delved deep into their characters and portrayed them warts and all, letting go of the starlet label that seemed easily placed on her.  Hollywood began to take women a great deal more seriously after she came along in terms of authentic portrayals.

Ellen Burstyn would follow, a fine actress, but hardly anyone’s idea of a classically beautiful movie star.  Still very attractive, without the shape of the stars, Burstyn was real, and she portrayed real women on screen without a shred of vanity. Her performances in “The Last Picture Show” and “The King of Marvin Gardens” led to her Oscar-winning work in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” one of the great screen performances of all time.

In later years, Burstyn would follow her exceptional early work with an array of strong performances that proved she still had it, including “Same Time Next Year,” “A Dream of Passion,” “Resurrection” and what I personally consider to be her finest work, “Requeim for a Dream.” Her most recent work was perhaps the greatest of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, a gentle, powerful piece of acting in “Lovely, Still.”  With faithful distribution, this is a film that could garner the actress another nod for best actress.

Burstyn is still as surprised as anyone that she’s still working (and a lot), and when the right role is there, she is among the most formidable actresses in the business. She also knows she must be careful, as roles like the one she took in the remake of “The Wicker Man” take the edge off her brilliance.

Wrapping it up for part one, for a short time in the 1970s, it seemed Jill Clayburgh would be the actress of the future. Her superb performance in “An Unmarried Woman” secured the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Actress as well as an Oscar nomination, but more importantly, it secured the attention of audiences and critics. She was the “it” girl of the moment. Another Oscar nod came for “Starting Over” and then there was a controversial performance in “Luna” as a mother sexually active with her son in a film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci (following the hellfire that came with “Last Tango in Paris”).  After that “Luna,” Clayburgh fell sharply off the radar, emerging briefly a couple of years ago with a fine performance in “Running with Scissors.”

Tomorrow we’ll tackle another handful of actresses that have continuously pushed the medium forward, but for now, and following up on our conversation about the greats of the modern generation, have your say.  What actresses are most likely to take up the mantle of these classic performers?

→ 11 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

11 responses so far

  • 1 10-02-2008 at 8:07 pm

    D said...

    Halle Berry, Angela Bassett, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep…….

  • 2 10-03-2008 at 12:41 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Nice article, John, but a few too many “unquestionablys” and “clearlys” in here — everything is debatable.

    Are you limiting the discussion to American actresses only? (Or, in the case of Leigh and Taylor, actresses in American films?) The likes of Liv Ullmann, Simone Signoret and Vanessa Redgrave rate a mention.

    As for your last question, as I’ve said before: Cate Blanchett, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton.

  • 3 10-03-2008 at 3:47 am

    red_wine said...

    I personally feel that Bette Davis in All About Eve and Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind are two of the greatest towering performances in cinema.

    Especially Leigh as I would cite her performance as the greatest portrayal of courage on screen. And Davis in All About Eve gives such a modern performance, her timing is inspired. Never did I once feel I was watching a performance. She made me love her even in her tremendous downfall that Eve wrought for her.

    Of Actresses working today, obviously Meryl Streep is set to join the ranks as one of the 5 greatest actresses of all time. Emma Thompson is another favorite, my favorite performance being Remains of the Day where she personifies heart-break in the last scene when she recedes into the darkness riding on the bus. Kidman is also one of the modern greats with really powerful screen presence. Blanchett & Winslet follow with Winslet sure to be the most decorated actress of her generation.

  • 4 10-03-2008 at 5:24 am

    John Foote said...

    Agree that Laigh in GWTW is terrific — one of the best — as for Streep “set to join the ranks” — she surpassed all of them a long time ago —

  • 5 10-03-2008 at 8:08 am

    John Foote said...

    You make a good point Guy (as always) but I did limit the discussion to American films — that said you are indeed right, British and other actresses have made their mark — Liv Ullman, Emma Thomson and Vanessa Redgrave have all done formidable work, though I simply do not think they have been as consistent as some of those I champion — Redgrave is supposedly the greatest of all, (in the sixties) yet her films are few and far between and usually cameos, while Ullman did great work in the seventies for Bergman and Troell, but rarely anyone else — and also let’s be fair, in North America we simply do not get everything released in Europe, sdo of course there are going to Europeans I am missing — I love Isabelle Adjani, but her body of work, known to me (and likely you) is not widely known to others and to me it is arrogant to write about in that context and not include all those reading — again I make the assumpiton (perhaps wrongly) that most of the visitors to this site are North American; I need to adapt my writing to be global.

  • 6 10-03-2008 at 9:10 am

    Ivan said...

    The new classics…

    NICOLE KIDMAN/ since Dead Calm she shows her unique tone, then To Die For confirm her godess status, the rest (Eyes Wide Shut, Moulin Rouge, The Others, Dogville, Birth, Fur and Margot) is history.

    HOLLY HUNTER / That voice!! Raising Arizona, Broadcast News, Copycat, Living Out Loud
    That look!! The Piano, The Firm, Crash, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her

    NAOMI WATTS / Subtext at the top.
    Mulholland Drive, 21 Grams, We Don´t Live Here Anymore, King Kong, The Painted Veil.

    EMMA THOMPSON / UK Master, Kickass Dame. Meg Schlegel, Ms. Kenton, Ms. Dashwood, Cold Frances, Lovely Karen, Nanny Mc Phee and Karen Eiffel

    LAURA LINNEY / Multiples conquests, one method, a lot of charisma.
    You Can Count on Me, Kinsey, Jindabyne, The Squid and the Whale, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Truman Show, Myustic River, Primal Fear, Love Actually and The Savages.

  • 7 10-03-2008 at 10:09 am

    Craig said...

    And I would lile to add to your list, Ivan:

    JENNIFER CONNELLY (a fearless actress)for “Requiem for a Dream” and “House of Sand and Fog”

    MELISSA LEO (realism personified) for “Frozen River” and “21 Grams”

    And of course there are the great performances by Blanchett and Winslet, who seem to give stellar performances in any film they do. Kiera Knightly seems to be bringing up the rear in the great English acting tradition . . . . lest we forget Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren.

  • 8 10-03-2008 at 2:47 pm

    Patrick W. said...

    Isabelle Adjani is a ferocious and intoxicating actress. Her Oscar nominated roles, and ‘La Reine Margot’, perhaps being the most widely seen, but she has also been revelatory in ‘Quartet’ and ‘Possession’, the latter of which (for me) ranks as one of the best female performances of all time. Yes, it’s that good, and should be sought out by film fans if they have the time!

  • 9 10-04-2008 at 7:08 pm

    Mack said...

    Halle Berry? Yeah Right! Someone should right about actors and actresses who went artistically lazy and spiraled downhill after winning Oscars. Halle Berry and CGJr would certainly top the list. Throw in Helen Hunt, Gwyneth, and Robert Z!

  • 10 10-04-2008 at 7:08 pm

    Mack said...

    Halle Berry? Yeah Right! Someone should right about directors, actors and actresses who went artistically lazy and spiraled downhill after winning Oscars. Halle Berry and CGJr would certainly top the list. Throw in Helen Hunt, Gwyneth, and Robert Z!