Here's what you have to do if you ever hope to get written up in the Economist's "lively, literary and irreverent" obituary page: live "an interesting and thought-provoking life." The editor states that it doesn't matter if a person is good or bad or even a major player, just so long as their life is worth reading about.
That came to mind as I started to compile a list of my favorite women actors. There are zillions of gorgeous women in film, of course, but far fewer interesting and thought-provoking ones because, of course, there are so relatively few roles that fit that description. So I don't know if what I've come up with here--and it's just a start--is a tribute to the actors or to the roles. Both, I think, for a poor actor would have a hard time holding her seat on a spirited role.
In no particular order.
Judy Davis as Cassandra, with Marcia Gay Harden, in Gaudi Afternoon (2003, directed by Susan Seidelman)
This movie is flawed and muddy, but the character of Cassandra is a gem, and one of my favorite Judy Davis roles--she's a variation on the frazzled yet oddly classy, super smart, sexually baffling women Davis plays so well ("Sally" in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives). Here she is a book translator, living alone in Barcelona.
In this scene, Harden's transgendered character is exclaiming over how wonderful Barcelona is. They pass some teenagers with cigarettes and she says with approval, "Even the children smoke!"
Dame May Whitty as Miss Froy ("rhymes with joy") in The Lady Vanishes (UK, 1938, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Miss Froy seems like a sweet old helpless dear, and I suppose she is; but it turns out, very extremely satisfyingly, that she's also a keen British spy.
Marie-Christine Barrault, with Victor Lanoux, in Cousin, Cousine (France, 1975, directed by Jean Charles Tacchella)
Barrault (niece of Jean-Louis Barrault of Les Enfants du Paradis/Children of Paradise) has not been in many movies, but I could never forget her role here as a woman who decides to conduct a love affair openly, in the midst of a society built on lies, silences, and secrets. For years I've debated with people who say her character was cruel in her honesty. Maybe so, but only because other people impaled themselves on the sharp end of it.
Lili Taylor as Teresa Carmela Santangelo, with Michael Imperioli, in Household Saints, (USA, 1993, directed by Nancy Savoca, from the novel by Francine Prose)
Taylor is brilliantly complex in everything she does. Here, Teresa, who may or may not be a saint, is saying she understands why a lot of girls, including herself, want to be like Saint Teresa of the Little Flower: because she didn't do anything.
Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo (USA, 1996, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
I don't see much humanity in the Coen brother's films, but Marge is a glowing exception. My favorite scene is when she, in the midst of a brutal crime investigation, calmly reassures her husband that people will use the 3-cent postage stamps his bird painting is going to be on. It's an act of perfect compassion.
Ten-year-old Mary Badham (Scout) and author Harper Lee on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962
Badham gave up acting at age 13, saying it wasn't for her; but this one role alone gave heart to girls like me, who just weren't the Hayley Mills type.
[Image from article on MB here.]
Catherine Keener as Nelle Harper Lee, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, in Capote (2005)
I had thought of Keener as only the beautiful, flighty type until I saw her stand firmly on the bare ground in this role.
Carmen Maura & Penélope Cruz in Volver (Spain, 2006, directed by Pedro Almodóvar)
Almodóvar, what can I say? Maybe it takes someone who knows that being authentic may have nothing to do with biology to create such good roles for women.
Judi Dench as "M" in Quantum of Solace (2008, directed by Marc Forster)
A no-brainer. Everyone sings Dench's praise for her obvious acting abilities and the extraordinary way she grows sexier as she grows older. I have a different reason to love her: she looks uncannily like my mother.
Jack Lemmon as Jerry/Daphne, with Tony Curtis as Joe in Some Like It Hot (USA, 1959, directed by Billy Wilder) [Image from Screencap Heaven]
Joe tries to snap Jerry/Daphne out of the illusion that s/he can marry Osgood (Joe E. Brown).
Jerry/Daphne: Look, I know there's a problem, Joe.
Joe: I'll say there is.
Jerry: His mother - we need her approval [and she doesn't approve of her son marrying girls who smoke]... but I'm not worried because I don't smoke!