Friday, September 9, 2011


This was a tough one.

There are so many great choices, wow, are there great choices! I could easily make a case for just about any performance by these actresses I love: Ingrid Bergman, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Vanessa Redgrave, Catherine Deneuve, Meryl Streep or Kate Winslet. Some of my specific runners-up included Olivia DeHavilland in THE HEIRESS, Maria Falconetti in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BOULVARD and Marion Cotillard in LA VIE EN ROSE. But ultimately my favorite female performance in a drama is a perfect match of great actress and role:

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND.
Original caricature of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND (copyright 2011)
I was a latecomer to this classic film from 1939. For some inexplicable reason, perhaps its length, I had never seen GONE WITH THE WIND all the way through until about a decade ago. I finally got the chance to view it in its entirety during a business trip to Santa Monica in the late 1990’s. The movie was being revived at a theater on the Third Street Promenade and I had a free afternoon so I decided to finally take it in. As I sat listening to the sweeping overture that preceded the movie I knew I was in for a treat. What I didn’t know was that I would walk out at the end of those four hours and immediately go back in and buy a ticket to see it again. I did so because I had to see Leigh’s marvel of a performance again right away.

Obviously a legendary film like GWTW has so much to recommend. It’s a great story and an important one, politically and socially. David Selznick’s incredibly detailed production is still a marvel from its lush cinematography to its exquisite costumes to Max Steiner’s hauntingly romantic score. The movie was expensive and expansive but also incredibly intimate. The story never loses focus on its lead. And Vivien Leigh holds our interest as Scarlett the entire time. She mesmerizes us, bewitches us, just as Scarlett does to all those who meet her. 
The character of Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most complex characters ever put up on the screen. She is a walking contradiction: both woman and child, sometimes selfish and other times selfless, often caring, too often vicious. Scarlett, like her name, burns with a fire that no one can extinguish. Her lusts, her passions, her temper, they’re too hot for anyone to handle, especially in the quaint and cordial old South. To find an actress to play such a mercurial and complex character, producer Selznick had his work cut out for him. He auditioned hundreds of actresses, finally settling on Leigh. She was an unknown, a Brit whose only real experience was on the stage. But Leigh was a natural for the medium of film. She became an instant star. Leigh brought intensity to the role of Scarlett that blazes throughout. Why, the inferno that takes down Atlanta couldn’t hold a candle to her.

It is astounding to me that Margaret Mitchell’s book became such a bestseller and that the movie is so beloved by the masses because at the center of the story stands a woman who is in many ways a monster. She dishes out pain and drama wherever she goes. She is hurtful, spiting, and very possibly sociopathic. Yet we understand the motives behind her actions because Leigh invests so much commitment in them. It draws us in, like moths to the flame. 

And of course it is entirely intentional that the great love of Scarlett’s life is with a man whose name is as fiery as hers. Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is Scarlett’s only equal: a man who is as stubborn and as selfish as she is. They’re perfect for each other but also disastrous together. Scarlett needs a complementary color to counter her excesses but the cool Ashley isn’t up to the task. Only Rhett is, even though it renders their relationship as dysfunctional as any portrayed on the big screen before or since. That we care for these two is a testament to Leigh and Gable both. They find deep wells of humanity in their character’s bad behavior. And they also play up the maverick qualities that Mitchell wrote for both of these firebrands ahead of their time. Rhett recognized that the way of the old South was a fool’s nostalgia. Scarlett is a smart cookie too, thinking for herself and defying the rigid rules of the time. They’re smart, accessible actors who compel us towards them.

Leigh wears every emotion on her sleeve as brazenly as Scarlett wore that dress made from the drapes, using her incredible eyes and a cocked eyebrow to draw us in to the inner workings of her character. Scarlett may not want to listen to the advice from Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) but Leigh’s eyes let us know that she takes her slave’s word as gospel. Scarlett may defend Ashley endlessly but Leigh’s eyes let us know that she’s bitterly disappointed by all of his weaknesses too. And even though Scarlett hisses at Rhett, Leigh’s arched eyebrow clues us in to the fact that she just can’t wait to be taken upstairs and kissed. And often. And by someone who knows how.

The role of Scarlett was gigantic and Vivien Leigh made it even bigger. It is a performance that excites me, frightens me, and leaves my jaw on the floor every time. I only wish that I had seen it sooner.

Now it’s your turn. There are so many amazing actresses and performances to choose from. What’s yours?


  1. My wife would totally agree...unless it was Judy Garland in Wizard of Oz...she'd agree with that too.

    Personally, I'd vote for Lacy Underalls in Caddyshack!

  2. Thanks, Tom. Yes, Judy is so wonderful in THE WIZARD OF OZ. It's often overlooked but it is one of the greatest performances on film.

    As for Miss Underall in CADDYSHACK, I shall have to revisit Cindy Morgan's titular performance there. Ha!

  3. Just like your previous blog post about favorite male dramatic performances, this category also defies an absolute definitive choice for me. Again, I’ll use the same angle as in my previous response: which female dramatic performance was so real, that the actor disappeared completely into the soul of that character.

    Hands down it’s Louise Fletcher as the infamous Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975). Brilliant acting, brilliant casting, brilliant writing...and whoever came up with the name “Ratched” was brilliant too. Mention that character today, over 35 years later, and most people STILL know who that is.

    Louise Fletcher’s suppressed, controlled and inflexible dominatrix ruled the ward with an iron fist and her most powerful weapon, the barely raised voice. She won every argument, enforced every rule, and crushed every soul. Her soulless eyes were framed by an unchanging military-like expression; her soft voice emasculated the men without them even knowing it; and her take-no-prisoners style ensnared any offender with gentle savagery.

    That “I know what’s good for you” attitude never looked so lethal.

  4. For me, the performance is Ellen Burstyn in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. Completely ROBBED by the Academy when they gave it to Julia Roberts.

    However, a DAMNED near second for me is Nurse Rachted in ONE FLEW...couldn't agree more.

  5. Hey Fan, very good choice. Fletcher was great in that role and underplayed nicely. Sorta sad she didn't do too terribly much after that role but she may have been hard to cast. Still, that one is a classic.

  6. Bart, you're right about Ellen Burstyn being robbed by Oscar for REQUIEM. Oscar tends to do that. Still, she has one for ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE and has been good in so many films. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I know I posted this a little earlier underneath my favorite performances in general, but I still have to go with Beulah Bondi in Make Way For Tomorrow, which is slowly becoming my favorite movie. She's just unforgettable. A few others that come to mind are Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice (obviously), Vivien Leigh in both Gone With the Wind and Streetcar, and also Helen Mirren in The Queen.

  8. I was also leaning heavily towards choosing the unforgettable Ms. Leigh for her alter-ego Southern Belle performance in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951).

  9. Jeremy, great choices all. And Fan, as always thanks for your thoughts. There are so many great performances that picking a handful of faves is difficult. But glad you offered your choices.

  10. Good article Jeff. I am going to watch GWTW again. For a controlled, 'deep well', of a performance I thought Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking was amazing. She just gets better and better in my eyes. To play a nun convincingly, where so much of the characters essence is contemplative and held within is a massive challenge for any actor. Few, if any, could have achieved the quality of Sarandon in this role. She was excellent too in Paul Haggis's The Valley of Elah. Here her screen time is minimal and many actors of her stature might have refused the role for this reason. However in the relatively brief time she has on screen (relative to the brilliant teetering impregnabilty of Tommy Lee Jones)she reaches out and grabs the audiences by the heart. Job done. She is an amazing actor.

  11. Thanks, Tivoli. Glad you like this. I like your choice too. Susan Sarandon is terrific. And she was wonderful in DEAD MAN WALKING for all the reasons you stated. She also can play against her looks and sensuality in roles like that and IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH. (I loved that movie. It's very underrated!) One of my favorite Sarandon performances was her turn in BULL DURHAM. There she used her sensuality and wit to great effect. She should have gotten an Oscar nomination for that but the Academy rarely recognizes comedic roles. Almost never in leads. No matter, Tivoli, thanks for sharing and I hope you keep following us here and chiming in with your great thoughts!