Who's the Greatest of Them All?

Responding to our Arts & Entertainment Poll question “What is the most impressive screen performance by an actress that you can remember?”, our readers showed a marked taste for the patrician. The majority of screen favorites—Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh, Greta Garbo, and Ingrid Bergman—belong to films from the 1930s and 1940s, widely considered to be a golden age for Hollywood in general and the “woman’s picture” in particular. Among the more adventurous choices were Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Giulietta Masina in La Strada. Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, Anjelica Huston in The Dead, and (heavens) Cher in Mask. Then there was the respondent in New Jersey whose favorite was Marie Dressler in Tugboat Annie. But he’s also the guy who claims to support fund-raising for the arts by “offering to do my fan dance.” Is it a mark of the decline in strong roles for women (or roles for strong women) that so few of the actresses mentioned repeatedly— among them Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Jessica Tandy, and Glenn Close—are contemporary? And where were the more ethnically diverse actresses— Alfre Woodard, Angela Bassett, Marisa Tomei, Judith Malina—who have done such interesting work recently? Not to mention the more offbeat, such as Debra Winger, Kathy Bates, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Madeleine Stowe, and Stockard Channing, each of whom recently turned in at least one striking performance that had little to do with her beauty. Still, my vote goes to Bette Davis, for her bitchy, forthright diva in All About Eve and for the repressed spinster who swanned into a cool socialite in Now, Voyager.