The Top Tens: Female Supporting Performances

Every month, our contributors submit lists of ten films fitting certain topics. Each month, we feature an alphabetical list of films along with commentary explaining our selections. There will also be an itemized list at the end of each of our individual selections.

In May and June, we looked at the best performances by actors and actresses in leading roles. These were the big performances that dominate a film in an obvious way. For the next two months, we’ll be looking at performances that dominate the screen in different ways. A supporting actor or actress has the unenviable task of building on the world that the lead must inhabit. Their characters form the backbone of the production, but are seldom given the due they should be thanks to a societal focus on leads in movies. That doesn’t mean many aren’t memorable. Some are indelible part of our cinematic landscape.

This month, we’re looking at the women. In our lists, six actresses appear on multiple lists. The strange part is, compared to previous lists, each of them appear twice (or more) for the exact same performance. That isn’t to say that these actresses don’t have a bounteous array of performances from which to choose, it’s that these are oftentimes iconic performances that transcend the average performance they would give. One of those six shows up three times: Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Talk about iconic. The other five actresses, showing up twice each are Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca; Judy Davis as Sally in Husbands and Wives; Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate; and Thelma Ritter as Moe Williams in Pickup on South Street.

Now, let’s give our contributors an opportunity to explain just why these performances are so great to them. After the break, dig into our setups and follow that by reading about each film.

The Introductions

Wesley Lovell: It is never an enviable task to narrow lists of great films or performances down to a meager ten. However, that was our task and while I had difficulty narrowing down to the final list, I cannot think of a single name here that I would even consider leaving off of it.
Peter J. Patrick: Six of my top ten favorite performances by actresses in supporting roles are from the ten-year period between 1934 and 1943. Three are from the ten-year period between 1953 and 1962. The tenth is from thirty-one years later. Seven of these actresses are playing mothers, while three are playing spinsters. They represent characters who have just enough screen time to make their contribution to their films unforgettable. Half of these performances were nominated for Oscars but none won. All live in the memory more fondly than many that have won including some of those that won the years they lost.
Tripp Burton: A great supporting performance has to do the near impossible: they have to make the people around the actor all look better, but when they are on screen they have to dominate the proceedings. All of these performances do just that, some in loud ways and some in quiet ways. They prove the power of the female presence on screen, however, and are all embedded for life in my brain.
Thomas LaTourrette: Looking at my final list, I was surprised at how many of them are basically for the first time I had seen one of these actresses onscreen. Six of them in fact. I am not sure if that is because I did not know what to expect of the actress before, or if they just wowed me with their debuts. It is not that they were all young when I first saw them, but maybe not having anything to judge them by made me think more about that individual performance. Others like Lynn Redgrave, Teri Garr, and Judy Davis, whom I knew from earlier work, but was deeply impressed by a later performance. Only one is from a comedy, but there definitely are comedic elements in some of the roles. None of them are from too recent a movie, though Viola Davis in Fences was a close eleventh place finisher, but they are all performances that have stayed with me.

Amy Adams – Junebug (2005)

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This was my introduction to Amy Adams. She was charming as the very pregnant chatterbox of a sister-in-law who hoped that her pregnancy would bring her closer to her husband. When things go wrong with the pregnancy, she is devastated. It shows through her face and voice, and it is equally devastating to the viewer. I was impressed by her performance, and she has lived up to that early promise.

Shohreh Aghdashloo – House of Sand and Fog (2003)

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – As the submissive and confused wife of a proud man, Shohreh Aghdashloo made an impressive impact. Not well known to American audiences before this film, she proved unforgettable. Not understanding her husband’s motivations and need for owning a certain house, she befriends and tries to help the previous owner. This unfortunately leads to dire consequences for her family. She has not had as good a film role since, though she has been impressive in different television programs.

Joan Allen – Nixon (1995)

Commentary By Tripp Burton – Joan Allen is one of those actresses who may be incapable of giving a bad performance, but her Pat Nixon stands out as one of the best. A quiet stalk of nobility among the crazy cornfield of Oliver Stone’s vision of Nixon’s America, Allen fills every frame of her work with the dignity and grace of a true First Lady, while also reminding us of how intelligent and fiercely protective you have to be to stand next to a President.

Sara Allgood – How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Raised in an orphanage, Allgood lost her husband of two years and her only child to an Australian influenza epidemic while touring in 1917, belying her character’s mother of a large Welsh coal mining family. The Abbey Theatre and British stage veteran’s performance was very much in the tradition of John Ford’s strong, tougher than they look matriarchs that stretched from Margaret Mann’s World War I German mother in Four Sons to Jane Darwell’s indominable Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Her scenes with 12-year-old Roddy McDowall are especially moving.

Judith Anderson – Rebecca (1940)

Commentary By Wesley Lovell – My list has a penchant for villains, Judith Anderson portrays one of the best in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. The cool, ever-present Mrs. Danvers watches menacingly from the shadows as her beloved late mistresses’ husband (Laurence Olivier) takes a new wife (Joan Fontaine). There’s more than a measure of psychosexual tension in Anderson’s performance and that haunting, subsurface anger crackles in her hands. This is one of the most iconic performances of the era.

Commentary By Tripp Burton – If Alfred Hitchcock is most known for his beautiful blondes, he should also be given credit for the performances he guided to support them. Judith Anderson, one of the most dependable supporting actresses of the 1940s and 1950s, glides through Hitchcock’s Rebecca, as much of a ghost as the one that may or may not permeate Manderley. She holds every moment very close to the vest, never quite letting you know what she is thinking but always letting you know that she is thinking something. It is a puzzlement of a performance and one that never quite leaves your mind.

Harriet Andersson – Cries and Whispers (1972)

Commentary By Tripp Burton – Ingmar Bergman wrote more interesting female characters perhaps better than any male filmmaker in history, and this list isn’t really complete without one of them. Harriet Andersson’s Agnes isn’t the most complex woman he wrote, or even the most complex woman in Cries and Whispers, but Andersson’s performance is one of the most emotionally raw and devastating performances I’ve seen. She captures the physical and emotional pain of cancer more realistically than anyone else while also becoming a guiding center for the other women in the film. It is a remarkable, painful performance to experience.

Peggy Ashcroft – A Passage to India (1984)

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Except for a brief role in The 39 Steps, I had not seen Peggy Ashcroft onscreen before her triumphant role in A Passage to India. She played a kindly and surprisingly unprejudiced traveler to India. Encouraged to spend time with the native Indians, she and her prospective daughter-in-law have adventures both good and bad. She refuses to believe accusations against a new friend and decides to return to England. It is a quiet but strong performance that deservedly won her an Academy Award.

Louise Beavers – Imitation of Life (1934)

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Once a maid in real life between acting gigs, Beavers’ beaming smile and larger than life personality were used to great effect as the mother who suffers heartbreak at the hands of her ungrateful daughter who goes to great lengths to pass for white. No background character this time, Beavers is the heart and soul of the film, easily stealing it from superstar lead Claudette Colbert. Unfortunately, there were no Oscars for supporting players in 1934, leaving it to her close friend Hattie McDaniel to become the first African-American to win an Oscar five years later for Gone with the Wind.

Annette Bening – The Grifters (1990)

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Annette Bening had acted with the Denver Center Theater Company before going off to conquer Broadway and Hollywood. I had seen her in several productions, but nothing prepared me for her manipulating and sexy minx in The Grifters. She is on for the long con, and is desperately trying to get John Cusack to join her. Throughout the film she uses all her feminine wiles to get what she wants. Things do not always go well for her character, but the smug smile and the wiggle of her walk are memorable.

Cate Blanchett – The Aviator (2004)

Commentary By Wesley Lovell – It’s not just that she imitated screen legend Katharine Hepburn. It’s that she did it with such flair and presence that you forgot whether you were watching Hepburn or one of our generation’s greatest actresses, Cate Blanchett. Blanchett had the unenviable task of portraying a Hollywood icon while making her seem both larger than life and intimately connected to the viewer. She did that with such grace and panache that the performance itself would have been equal to Hepburn herself, even in her prime.

Beulah Bondi – Of Human Hearts (1938)

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – One of the most durable of the character actresses who could be relied on to brighten any film she was in, Bondi could have carved out a successful career just playing James Stewart’s mother, which she did for the first time here. As the wife of a poor minister (Walter Huston) with a smart if selfish son (Gene Reynolds as a child) in antebellum Ohio, Bondi sacrifices mightily to support her son’s wishes to become a doctor. When during the Civil War the now widowed Bondi doesn’t hear from him, she writes to President Lincoln (John Carradine) who personally chastises the son (now James Stewart) who returns home to a glowing Bondi.

Darlene Cates – What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – A non-professional actress, Cates impressed novelist and screenwriter Peter Hedges with her 1992 appearance on the Sally Jessy Raphael Show in an episode in which the mother of three spoke movingly about her five-year ordeal in which the then over 400-pound woman was unable to leave her house. Hedges approached her about playing the morbidly obese mother of Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio in the film version of his novel, which she accepted. Her scenes with Depp and DiCaprio, both of whom remained in touch over the years, are among the most moving in the film.

Gladys Cooper – Separate Tables (1958)

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Between her Tony-nominated performances in The Chalk Garden and A Passage to India and numerous TV roles, the quintessential British grand dame had her best big screen role of the 1950s as a trouble-making old biddy who comes between mousy daughter Deborah Kerr and dirty old man David Niven while estranged lovers Rita Hayworth and Burt Lancaster have their own issues. Also with Cathleen Nesbitt as her friend “Gladys” and Wendy Hiller as hotel proprietress “Miss Cooper”. Niven and Hiller won Oscars, but it’s the real Miss Cooper who steals the show even as she stews while everyone else rebuffs her.

Jane Darwell – The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Commentary By Tripp Burton – A great supporting performance is there to support the other actors and make their work as powerful as possible, and perhaps no one has ever done that more powerfully than Jane Darwell at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. Henry Fonda’s final speech, rightly hailed as one of the great monologues in Hollywood history, is only made better by the few reaction shots of Darwell’s face during his speech. She feels exactly as we feel and draws us in even closer to Fonda’s honesty. This doesn’t undermine Darwell’s Oscar-winning work throughout the rest of the film, though, which she dominates with a matronly fire and grounds every moment in her raw power.

Judy Davis – Husbands and Wives (1992)

Commentary By Tripp Burton – Like his hero Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen has always given women the most complex and generous roles in his films (and has gotten 13 of them Oscar nominations). It is hard to limit that list down to one, but Judy Davis has never been better than with what Woody Allen wrote her in Husbands and Wives. She is smart and funny, while also exploding off the screen with a passion that is unequalled. It is a performance that runs the gamut and shows off what makes Davis one of our most remarkably underrated actresses today.

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Starting off as an originally amiable and matter-of-fact divorcing woman, Judy Davis goes on to make all sorts of wrong choices. She seemingly is always unsatisfied, even when dating the young and handsome Liam Neeson. She is hypercritical, intelligent, and hysterical in all sorts of good ways. She may not be a woman that you totally like, but she is hard to forget once you have seen her.

Sandy Dennis – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

In only her second film, Sandy Dennis was remarkable as the young, fragile, and neurotic wife of a new college professor who ends up at a night of adult games put on by an older professor and his wife. She is befuddled, distraught, angry and drunk over the course of the evening as she is played by two masters of manipulation. It may be a somewhat mannered performance, but her anguish is all too real.

Teri Garr – Young Frankenstein (1974)

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Playing dumb is not an easy thing to pull off, but Teri Garr did it magnificently as Inga the helpful assistant. Blonde, buxom, and eager, she is both naïve and open. But the biggest thing she pulls off is the impression that there is nothing in her head. She can stand and look perfectly blank, which is a feat that few people can do. She often played the dumb blonde, but never more perfectly than in Young Frankenstein.

Jean Hagen – Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Commentary By Tripp Burton – In terms of pure laughs, no one may have milked their brief screen time more than Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain. This is a masterpiece of a film that succeeds on every level, but what Hagen brings to the table as both the comic relief and the villain makes all of it work even better. With a voice that seems inspired by a helium tank gone awry, Hagen set the template for every dumb blonde that followed, but no one has ever equalled her performance.

Margaret Hamilton – The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Commentary By Wesley Lovell – As children, one of the earliest memories many have is of The Wizard of Oz, a classic family feature that was a staple of each of our lives. Part of that experience is the terrifying Wicked Witch of the West portrayed by character actress Margaret Hamilton. Her chilling take on the classic villain has given many a child nightmares. It’s the kind of iconic performance that cannot be easily replicated or replaced.

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – The former kindergarten schoolteacher and animal rights activist with more than a hundred screen credits was in real life the opposite of her iconic Wicked West of the West who frightened little children. She relished the celebrity it brought, especially from the mid-1950s on, after The Wizard of Oz was shown on network TV, often signing autographs with the letters WWW (for Wicked Witch of the West) attached. She later did many parodies of the role on TV and in films like 13 Ghosts. The real Hamilton was more like Cora, her Maxwell House “good to the last drop” spokeswoman of the 1970s.

Commentary By Tripp Burton – Perhaps no performance has scared more children throughout the last 100 years than Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West. It is big and brash but also so calculated that you know every move she makes is a threat to everyone around her. That cackle is ingrained in all of our memory, and in a film full of iconic performances from wonderful performers, hers may be the most iconic of them all.

Corinna Harfouch – Downfall (2004)

Commentary By Tripp Burton – Corinna Harfouch’s work in the last third of Downfall, the difficult to watch story of Hitler’s final days in his bunker, are among the most emotionally devastating experiences I have had in a movie theatre. As she deals with the realization that everything she believes in is coming to an end, and then takes a series of actions that shake any human to their core, Harfouch gives us an air of nobility while also crumbling inside at the same time. She is an actress who I have never seen in another film, but this one performance is enough to solidify her in my memory forever.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste – Secrets & Lies (1996)

Commentary By Wesley Lovell – As a budding cineaste through much of the 1990s, I was fascinated with the various indie dramas that blipped on Oscar’s radar. In one of my favorite years, 1996, Mike Leigh released his family drama Secrets & Lies about a young woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) searching for the mother (Brenda Blethyn) who had given her up for adoption. While Blethyn’s shocked and stunned performance is a solid achievement, Jean-Baptiste does her better, delivering a wonderful, subdued performance.

Madeline Kahn – What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

Commentary By Tripp Burton – There are a lot of great Madeline Kahn performances that you could put on this list (she was perhaps better than anyone else at stealing a film with minimal screen time), but her first film performance may also still be her best. What’s Up Doc? has a fantastic ensemble of comedic actors in their prime, but any moment where Kahn is on screen you can’t keep your eyes off of her. She controls the audience in the same way she controls her put-upon fiancé, and every shriek, whine, outburst, and question is perfectly tuned for comedic gold.

Angela Lansbury – The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Commentary By Wesley Lovell – While her early work and later work are characterized by friendly and amiable characters, Lansbury delivered her single greatest performance in John Frankenheimer’s Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate. As Mrs. Iselin, Lansbury gives a decidedly darker turn than many of her other roles, conveying sinister depth with seemingly little effort. Although she made her greatest name on the Broadway stage, Lansbury was not just deserving of her Oscar nomination for this role, she should have won.

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – No performer, male or female, has ever had as varied and long-lasting show business career as Lansbury, who started in films as a character actress at 18, became a Broadway legend in her 40s, and a TV legend in her 60s. She was nearing the end of her reign as one of the screen’s best character actresses when she played the manipulative mother of assassin Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate. Only 37 at the time of filming, she was just four years older than Harvey, but played his mother without makeup. When ten years older co-star Frank Sinatra asked her to play his mother in another film, she knew it was time to move on.

Julianne Moore – Boogie Nights (1997)

Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Far from just starting out in the acting business, Julianne Moore leapt to the forefront of our minds with her staggering performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. As the porn matriarch Amber Waves, Moore is pure magic alongside an array of wonderful performances. Moore’s presence is felt from the minute she arrives to her very last scene and even in scenes where she’s absent. That’s the hallmark of a strong supporting performance.

Agnes Moorehead – The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Long before she became forever known as Endora on Bewitched, Agnes Moorehead was a prominent character actress in Hollywood. She gave many strong performances, but her best came in The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles brilliant (even with studio butchering) period adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Moorehead’s tempered performance as Fanny explodes from the screen marking one of her most important works.

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – A charter member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air radio program, Moorehead made her film debut as Welles’ mother in Citizen Kane, but played her greatest role as the shy old maid aunt in his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons for which she received the prestigious New York Film Critics award for Best Actress and the first of her four Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress. The performance is an exercise in great acting that should be required viewing for any aspiring actress. Who can forget her breakdown scene opposite Tim Holt or the way she looks lovingly at Joseph Cotton in the end?

Una O’Connor – This Land Is Mine (1943)

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Best remembered for her screaming women in The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein and her hard of hearing housekeeper in Witness for the Prosecution, her best role was as schoolteacher Charles Laughton’s overprotective mother in Jean Renoir’s 1943 Hollywood film This Land Is Mine about the Nazi occupation of an unnamed collaborationist country which is clearly meant to be France even if the accents are English (Laughton, George Sanders) and Irish (Maureen O’Hara, O’Connor). O’Connor’s foolish woman unwittingly causes the arrest of her son, leading to his execution.

Joan Plowright – Enchanted April (1991)

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Joan Plowright starts the movie as a typical priggish Englishwoman caught up in memories of a better past. She is a somewhat unwelcome addition to spend April at a seaside castle in Italy with three women she does not know. Over the course of the month she learns to enjoy life and to act younger and freer. Her planting of her no longer needed cane at the end of the film is a fitting end to the movie.

Lynn Redgrave – Gods and Monsters (1998)

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Lynn Redgrave has a field day playing the loyal but disapproving housekeeper to Ian McKellan’s James Whale. She has worked for him for many years, but cannot approve of his homosexuality. She can be occasionally flinty, but you also know that she wants the best for him. It would have been easy to play her two dimensionally, but Redgrave makes you care about Hanna as well gaining a number of laughs from her along the way too.

Lee Remick – Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – As the raped wife of an army lieutenant, Lee Remick is flirty, wounded, and vivacious. One is never sure what her motivations are or how truthful her recollections are. James Stewart is befuddled by her mixed signals, even reminding her once that her husband might be watching her, to her chagrin. The fact that the viewer is not sure of either her intentions or her past add to the intrigue of her performance.

Debbie Reynolds – Mother (1996)

Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Through much of her early Hollywood career, Debbie Reynolds was a celebrated singer and actress. Adored by millions, Reynolds delivered classic performances in movies like Singin’ in the Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Yet, it wasn’t until her career had receded that she landed the role of her career. Not that she wasn’t great in the past, but in Albert Brooks’ Mother, Reynolds played Brooks’ overprotective mother with wit, charm, humor, and style. It was a career-capping performance that demands repeat viewings.

Thelma Ritter – Pickup on South Street (1953)

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – When people think of Thelma Ritter, they think of the acerbic wit that was the hallmark of her performances from All About Eve to Rear Window to Pillow Talk and beyond, but the radio actress whose film career took off like a house afire after her uncredited bit in Miracle on 34th Street could also play dramatic roles with the best of them. There is no finer performance on her resumé than that of the police informant living out her meager life in a tiny apartment in a rundown part of town. Her death scene is one of the most unforgettable ever captured on film.

Commentary By Tripp Burton – In the twelve-year period from 1950 to 1962, Thelma Ritter was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars six times, a remarkable achievement for such a unique Hollywood talent. She was the quintessential character actress, usually the wise-cracking sidekick, although with Pickup on South Street she was given her most complex role ever. As the professional thief turned informant, Ritter uses her smart-aleck persona to great use and is devastating.

Jo Van Fleet – East of Eden (1955)

Commentary By Wesley Lovell – In 1955, Elia Kazan brought John Steinbeck’s classic novel to the big screen. East of Eden puts tragic heartthrob James Dean in the central role allowing him to deliver one of the best performances of his short-lived career. However, Jo Van Fleet as his mother delivers a powerful dramatic performance in a brilliant picture. From her first scene to her last, she’s a captivating presence.

Shelley Winters – A Place in the Sun (1951)

Commentary By Wesley Lovell – One thing can be said about Shelley Winters. Her big screen persona was grand beyond compare. A compelling and often commanding presence in film, Winters turned in numerous wonderful performance, including her Oscar-winning work in The Diary of Anne Frank. Her first Oscar-nominated turn came in the Elizabeth Taylor-Montgomery Clift drama A Place in the Sun. Her meek, tragic story gives the film its soul. Her outsized presence was in check and, as a result, she delivers one of her single best performances.

Wesley’s List

Peter’s List

Tripp’s List

Thomas’ List

  • Judith Anderson – Rebecca
  • Cate Blanchett – The Aviator
  • Margaret Hamilton – The Wizard of Oz
  • Marianne Jean-Baptiste – Secrets & Lies
  • Angela Lansbury – The Manchurian Candidate
  • Julianne Moore – Boogie Nights
  • Agnes Moorehead – The Magnificent Ambersons
  • Debbie Reynolds – Mother
  • Jo Van Fleet – East of Eden
  • Shelley Winters – A Place in the Sun
  • Sara Algood – How Green Was My Valley
  • Louise Beavers – Imitation of Life
  • Beulah Bondi – Of Human Hearts
  • Darlene Cates – What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
  • Gladys Cooper – Separate Tables
  • Margaret Hamilton – The Wizard of Oz
  • Angela Lansbury – The Manchurian Candidate
  • Agnes Moorhead – The Magnificent Ambersons
  • Una O’Connor – This Land Is Mine
  • Thelma Ritter – Pickup no South Street
  • Joan Allen – Nixon
  • Judith Anderson – Rebecca
  • Harriet Andersson – Cries and Whispers
  • Jane Darwell – The Grapes of Wrath
  • Judy Davis – Husbands and Wives
  • Jean Hagen – Singin’ in the Rain
  • Margaret Hamilton – The Wizard of Oz
  • Corinna Harfouch – Downfall
  • Madeline Kahn – What’s Up, Doc?
  • Thelma Ritter – Pickup on South Street
  • Amy Adams – Junebug
  • Shohreh Aghdashloo – House of Sand and Fog
  • Peggy Ashcroft – A Passage to India
  • Annette Bening – The Grifters
  • Judy Davis – Husbands and Wives
  • Sandy Dennis – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
  • Teri Garr – Young Frankenstein
  • Joan Plowright – Enchanted April
  • Lynn Redgrave – Gods and Monsters
  • Lee Remick – Anatomy of a Murder

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