Entertainment Movies

Friday 17 November 2017

The 17 most iconic female film roles of all time

Hundreds of film performances by hundreds of females are deserving of awards, but only some roles pervade the pop culture consciousness

Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs
Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs
Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Carrie Fisher in Star Wars
McAdams in Mean Girls

Will Lawrence

More than 50 years after the release of Walt Disney's classic film Sleeping Beauty, the studio is set to retell the tale as a live-action picture from the point of view of the original antagonist, the evil Maleficent – one of the most iconic villains from Disney's entire pantheon of baddies.

In anticipation of the release, we have rounded up what we consider to be the 17 most iconic female characters, heroines and villains from all of cinema history – though you may still find a Disney favourite tucked somewhere inside.

The list is entirely subjective, of course, but we did set some ground rules – namely that in honour of the new movie (in which Angelina Jolie stars in the title role) only live-action characters would be considered, no –animations, and we also ensured that it was the character who retained our focus. This is not a list of best actors or best performances.

So please, read on and see if you agree with what we regard as the main contenders for the title of the Most Iconic Female Movie Characters of all Time.


Martha, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Elizabeth Taylor inhabited a host of memorable characters across her 50-year career, but when re-teaming with Richard Burton in the aftermath of Cleopatra, she summoned a dark and angry performance as the harridan wife of his boozy college professor. She gained 30lbs for this highly salacious piece, as well as a second and final Oscar win. Drop in for drinks and brace yourself!


Mildred Pierce, Mildred Pierce (1945)

Joan Crawford's starring role in this film noir was her first lead for Warner Bros after leaving MGM. The film is a little too melodramatic for today's tastes – and it doesn't say much for the position of women in Wartime society – but Crawford's eponymous devoted mother, who makes such enormous sacrifices for her ungrateful daughter, stands as a classic Hollywood female. The role claimed the actress her one and only Academy Award.


Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Tennessee Williams's tragedy famously came to life on screen courtesy of director Elia Kazan, with Vivien Leigh starring as the flawed and fading beauty Blanche, who's crushed by the brutish beast Stanley (Marlon Brando). It is the latter's performance as Blanche's rapacious brother-in-law that still invites most praise, rather than Leigh's sparrow-like turn, but Blanche is an unforgettable character and Stanley's most violent act towards her remains a shocking piece of cinema.


Carrie Fisher in Star Wars


Princess Leia, Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983)

Carrie Fisher's strangely hair-styled princess of Alderaan is fiery, feisty and unafraid. Back in the day, she proved many a teenage boy's personal sci-fi fantasy (especially when that randy old slug Jabba dressed her in a belly dancer's clobber). Her popularity was hardly surprising, however – scour the pantheon of characters that inhabit the first Star Wars trilogy and Leia emerges as pretty much the only woman in the entire galaxy.


Marge Gunderson, Fargo (1996)

Frances McDormand invariably shines in her husband's films, and never more brightly than in this snowbound thriller from the Coen brothers (Joel is her spouse). She stars as a Minnesota police officer on the trail of two "kind of funny looking" kidnappers. For all the memorable events elsewhere in the film, it is Marge's clutch of scenes with fisherman husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) that define the character most strongly. Nightcrawlers anyone?


Annie Wilkes, Misery (1990)

A whole host of crazies came under consideration for this list – from Bonnie Parker through to Basic Instinct's Catherine Tramell, plus the likes of archetypal bunny-boiler Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction) and nutjob Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) – but the strangely old-fashioned ankle-breaker from this Stephen King adaptation looms over them all. Miss Wilkes's peculiar mix of girly prudishness and latent violence earned actress Kathy Bates an Academy Award.


Mrs Robinson, The Graduate (1967)

The Oscar-nominated performance from Anne Bancroft as cougar-like seducer Mrs. Robinson lies at the heart of Mike Nichols's film. The actress brings no little pathos to her memorable mother-wife-mistress – here is a woman living a life she never wanted, all too aware that her beauty fades with each passing day. It's tragic yet timeless stuff. Here's to you, Mrs Robinson.


Bridget Jones, Bridget Jones' Diary (2001), Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004)

Helen Fielding's classic character captured the early-noughties zeitgeist and provided actress Renee Zellweger with perhaps her most celebrated role – that of the thirty-something London woman bidding to have it all: thriving career, perfect man, family and trim figure. It is a lot to ask, but Bridget's persistence in trying to meet modern society's expectations earned her a special place in the hearts of millions of empathising women.


Thelma Dickerson, Louise Sawyer, Thelma & Louise (1991)

The adventure buddy movie genre is more usually the preserve of males, but director Ridley Scott subverts convention with panache as Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) drive their way, post-violent act of retribution, towards one of the most iconic (and referenced) movie endings of all time. The duo deserve equal billing and both actresses earned Oscar nominations. A number of critics cite the film as a piece of neo-feminism. Others see it simply as a rattling good movie.


Annie Hall, Annie Hall (1977)

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton transfer their at one time real-life love affair to the screen in this excellent romantic comedy about two New York neurotics and their failure to fully connect. Keaton's Annie is brilliantly ditzy but also a highly intelligent and emotionally complex woman, a fact recognised by the Academy when bestowing the actress with her one and only Oscar to date.


Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz (1939)

At the time of its release, this was MGM's most expensive production of all time and yet it proved a box office misfire, failing to recoup the original investment. As time passed, however, and re-releases flooded the cinemas, it eventually emerged as one of the most famous films ever, thanks in no little part to the plucky central character, memorably brought to life by Judy Garland.


Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins (1964)

Combining live action and animation, this Walt Disney picture sends a magical flying nanny to visit a dysfunctional London family in a bid to improve their general wellbeing. Earning 13 Academy Award nominations – the most ever granted to a Disney picture – Mary Poppins was a box office smash thanks in no small part to Julie Andrews' heart-warming and easy performance.


McAdams in Mean Girls


Regina George, Mean Girls (2004)

Not all iconic female roles are in classic films, and this early Noughties turn by Rachel McAdams resulted in a character recognisable by name to just about anyone under 45. McAdams was 26 when she took on the role of the lead "plastic", a vile but popular and beautiful high school Junior who everyone loves and abhors in equal measure. Apparently, her hair is full of secrets, and if she punches you in the face, it's awesome.


Clarice Starling, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

She might be just "one generation from poor white trash", with her "good bag" and her "cheap shoes" but the deceptively tough FBI agent Starling emerges as one of the most memorable movie heroines of all time – the greatest, in fact, according to the American Film Institute's list of 100 Heroes and Villains. Julianne Moore did a decent job in Hannibal but it is Jodie Foster's Oscar-winning original performance, bearing all Starling's weaknesses as well as her strengths, that lingers in the memory.


Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s


Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

Audrey Hepburn's most famous performance comes courtesy of Truman Capote's most famous piece of fiction, in which the wonderfully extrovert and seemingly rather facile party girl is gradually revealed to be a much deeper and more beguiling woman. The film earned Hepburn an Oscar nomination, while the shot of Holly looking to camera, chin on her gloved right hand, cigarette holder delicately poised in her left, has gone on to become one of Hollywood's most enduring images.


Ellen Ripley, Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), Alien Resurrection (1997)

There is Sarah Connor in The Terminator films, Lara Croft, the Bride from the Kill Bill movies and now Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, but none of these action heroines can touch Sigourney Weaver's bad-ass Lieutenant Ripley, the one human strong enough of mind to combat the galaxy's most destructive life form. She is brilliant in Alien, awesome in Aliens.


Scarlett O'Hara, Gone with the Wind (1939)

Back in the time when girls were taught to defer to boys, to dress up real pretty and to remain sugar-sweet, Scarlett erupted as a smouldering firebrand, refusing to conform, teaching young girls everywhere that they did not have to take it lying down. Vivien Leigh's Scarlett fights for what she believes in and is prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals, no matter the obstacles or the mistakes she'll make along the way – after all, tomorrow is another day.

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday’s Irish Independent


First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment