Greatest Actresses of All Time

Greatest Actresses of All Time

As with any profession in the 20th century (and still, albeit to a lesser extent today), gender inequity was prevalent. The merciless and often unforgiving world of the film industry, which was run predominantly by powerful men, is no exception. With the criminal, predatory exploits of Harvey Weinstein revealing how indifferent the industry often is to these problems, it is no wonder there has been a stark lack of women in executive and directorial roles within the film.

These discrepancies also extended to female actors who were frequently typecast, with filmmakers employing the standard stereotypical tropes of women as the love interest, repeatedly sexualized, mistreated, and usually depicted as emotionally vulnerable and at the mercy of men. Considering the inherent prejudice of an industry that, more often than not, would work against them rather than for them, it makes the achievements of the American Film Institute’s best actresses of all time even more impressive.

Compiled in 1999, the American Film Institute, or AFI’s, list may be a bit dated, only including actresses who had their screen debuts in 1950 or earlier, but it’s still a wonderfully curated look at some of the most timeless, iconic stars in Hollywood history. Take a look at the women who paved the way, set a standard, and are still highly regarded in their field.

Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple has been a sensation ever since she was a child. The famous star was loved for her cheerfulness and talent. She could dance, sing, and act, which made her an absolutely delightful presence on screen. With her optimistic presence during the Great Depression, the public grew to be even more attached to her. She is best known for films such as The Little Colonel, Bright Eyes, The Little Princess, and Rebecca of Sunny Brook Farm.

Due to her success and positive impact on the screen, she received an honorary Oscar at age 6 for her uplifting contributions to cinema. From 1935 to 1938, she was a major box office hit in anything she starred in. However, the playful actress didn’t just enjoy a filmmaking career; she was also able to continue a path that involved building a family, being an environmentalist, and being a diplomat, proving how versatile the actress is.

Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish comes from a tough childhood, which led her to act in an attempt to fend for herself in the world. She is especially notable for her performances in silent films, which powerfully depict her emotionally authentic screen presence. Acting in silent films requires a whole level of mastery that only the very best of actors can reach, as they rely on close-ups and have to convey everything that cannot be expressed verbally.

Despite silent films rarely being produced in the modern day, they provide a truly immersive cinematic experience that is truly one of a kind. The actress’s career spans 75 years with an impressive filmography that includes The Night of the Hunter, The White Sister, and The Whales of August, and today, her work is more precious than ever. In 1971, the actress was awarded the honorary award for superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures.

Vivien Leigh

British actress Vivien Leigh, who sadly passed away at age 53 due to tuberculosis, was known for her beauty and her incredible acting performances both in theater and on film. She always wanted to be an actress and enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts to pursue that dream. Her debut role was in the film Village Squire. One of her major strengths was her impressive memorizing skills, which helped her with her lines. She deservingly earned two Oscars for Best Actresses in a Leading Role for both Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, which were both very physically taxing to do for her. These are two of the most famous films of all time, so it is no wonder she made the list as one of cinema’s most important stars.