With Elizabeth Taylor’s passing, the world has lost an icon. Taylor was more than an actress. She was more than the lady with all the diamonds. Elizabeth Taylor was class, grace and poise defined. She was a true humanitarian – a vocal supporter of gay rights and AIDS research. She had a no nonsense attitude and was never afraid to speak her mind. There will never be another Elizabeth Taylor.
Prior to her death, Elizabeth was far more well known by name than she was for her work on film, but that doesn’t change the fact that she was, first and foremost, an actress. Although she hadn’t worked regularly in quite some time, her roles in films like “National Velvet”, “Giant”, “Little Women” and “Cleopatra” are, like Elizabeth, iconic.
Elizabeth wasn’t alone in her role of strong, beautiful women who changed the world. There are women from all walks of life and all career paths that have changed the world through their work. This ten part series is about those women. Each Saturday, I will be posting a new part in the series dedicated to iconic women in a different medium. We’ll start with film.
A few notes before we start. First, Elizabeth Taylor will not be on any of these lists. This entire project is dedicated to her and was inspired by her. Second, the lists are not ranked in order of significance. It would be impossible to rank one woman over another. Third, I’ve left more modern performers off of these lists (there are a few exceptions) because it’s almost impossible to tell who will stand the test of time. Finally, each woman’s name is linked to their Wikipedia page. If you’re unfamiliar with the life and work of any of these women, I urge you to learn more by clicking their Wiki link.
Okay, so now what you know what we’re doing here and how you can contribute, let’s start by looking back at the top ten iconic women in film.
01: Lauren Bacall
Lauren (born Betty Joan Perske) is considered by many to be the first leading lady of the ‘film noir’ genre. Her performances in “The Big Sleep” (1946) and “Dark Passage” (1947) put her on the map, but she later proved herself as a comedic actress in movies like “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953) and “Designing Women” (1957). Later on in Bacall’s career she won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for her performance in “The Mirror Has Two Faces” (1996). In 1970, Bacall was given a Tony Award for her performance in “Applause” and received a second Tony Award eleven years later (1981) for her performance in “Woman of the Year”. Today, Lauren remains active at 86 years old on the big and small screens.
02: Ginger Rogers
Ginger (born Virginia Katherine McMath) got her start after winning a Charleston dance competition. She went on to be a successful star on Broadway, later transitioning to movies. Ginger starred in an impressive 73 movies over the course of her career. In ten of those movies, she starred as Fred Astaire’s romantic interest; a pairing that redefined the musical movie genre. In 1940, she received the ‘Best Actress’ Academy Award for her performance in “Kitty Foyle”. Ginger also introduced songs like “The Gold Digger’s Song (We’re In the Money)”, “Embraceable You” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”. Ginger passed away from congestive heart failure at 83 years old in Rancho Mirage, California.
03: Ingrid Bergman
Although Ingrid may be best remembered as Ilsa in “Casablanca”, her story is one of scandal and triumph. After her affair with famed director, Roberto Rossellini, while they were both married forced her to abandon her successful film career in America to return to Europe in 1950, she returned to America six years later to star in “Anastasia”. The film was successful and her performance earned her a second Academy Award. Over the course of her career, she won three Academy Awards, a Tony Award and two Emmy Awards. She also starred in two of Alfred Hitchcock’s most respected films; “Spellbound” and “Notorious”. Although she also starred in Hitchcock’s ”Under Capricorn” many believe the poor performance of the film can be attributed (at least in part) to the scandal surrounding Bergman at the time. Bergman died following a long battle with breast cancer in London on her 67th birthday.
04: Rita Hayworth
Rita (born Margarita Carmen Cansino) is considered one of the most influential actresses of all time despite the fact that she never received an Academy Award nomination. Over the course of her 37 year career, Rita starred in an incredible 61 movies including “Only Angels Have Wings”, “The Strawberry Blonde”, “Blood and Sand” and “You’ll Never Get Rich”. She is perhaps most remembered for the one-glove strip tease she performed in “Gilda” – a scene that secured her icon status. She struggled with Columbia, the studio who owned her contract, for several years and was even suspended for refusing to star in “My Client Curley”, making her one of the few film stars of her era to really fight with her production company. Rita passed away from Alzheimer’s disease in Manhattan at 68.
Katharine (born Katherine Houghton Hepburn) has been called the greatest actress that ever lived. With an impressive 12 nominations for ‘Best Actress’ at the Academy Awards and a record 4 wins (not to mention scores of other awards and nominations), Katharine is one of the most decorated actresses in history. The ‘American Film Institute’ named her the greatest female star in the history of American cinema. Just glance over her screen credits and you’ll see why. Although some felt her public persona was off-putting, she proved an actress can be successful without being a sexpot. Often rough and tumble and often refusing to wear makeup, Katharine was a trailblazer. In 2004, Cate Blanchett portrayed Katharine in “The Aviator”, a performance that earned Cate an Academy Award. Katharine passed away from natural causes in Connecticut at 96 years old.
06: Bette Davis
Bette (born Ruth Elizabeth Davis) was the first performer – male or female – to receive ten Academy Award nominations, a feat that has only matched or beaten by four other performers; Meryl Streep (16 nominations, 2 wins), Katharine Hepburn (12 nominations, 4 wins), Jack Nicholson (12 nominations, 3 wins) and Laurence Olivier (10 nominations, 1 win). She earned rave reviews throughout her career for the most part due to her willingness to play characters many other actresses wouldn’t touch. She transcended any one genre of film although she is perhaps most fondly remembered for her romantic comedies. Despite personal turmoil with her daughter and severe health problems, Bette continued her career right up to the end. Bette passed away from breast cancer in France at 81 years old.
07: Greta Garbo
Greta (born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson) was one of the true greats of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Starting out in silent movies such as “Flesh and the Devil”, “Love” and “The Mysterious Lady” she seamlessly transitioned to “talkies” with “Anna Christie” which earned her an Academy Award nomination. Greta received her second Academy Award nomination for “Anna Karenina”. What really makes Greta special, though, is the fact that she was really one of the first women in the industry to shy away from the limelight. She was an extremely private woman who treasured solitude. She avoided social functions, rarely signed autographs and granted few interviews. Greta passed away from pneumonia and renal failure in New York at the age of 84.
08: Mae West
Mae (born Mary Jane West) was far more than an actress or a sex symbol. Mae was a playwright and screenwriter, often writing the screenplays for the movies she appeared in or, at the very least, rewriting her scenes. In fact, one of the scenes she rewrote became one of her most famous scenes. In “Night After Night”, a hat check girl exclaims, “Goodness! What beautiful diamonds!” West’s reply sums up her persona beautifully. She responds, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” George Raft, West’s co-star, is said to have stated that with that line West ‘stole everything but the cameras’. Mae epitomizes old Hollywood glamor. Despite facing heavy censorship throughout her career, Mae forged a strong and lasting career. She passed away in Los Angeles following several strokes at age 87.
09: Clara Bow
Clara (born Clara Gordon Bow) is the quintessential flapper girl – absolutely personifying everything that was the ‘roaring 20s’. She was a superstar of silent movies; starring in an impressive 46 silent films before moving on to ‘talkies’. At the absolute height of her stardom, she is said to have received a whopping 45,000 fan letters which was unheard of in those days. She often refused rehearsals, preferring instead to act from immediate direction. Clara had problems, though and eventually landed in a sanatorium. Despite continued box office success, Clara wanted something ‘real’ and feared she would be remembered as someone who “couldn’t do nothin’ but take her clothes off” so she left Hollywood behind and became a rancher in 1933. She married and seemed to have found peace, but later tried to commit suicide in 1944. After more time in an institution, she left, scoffing at the suggestions she was schizophrenic. Clara suffered a heart attack at age 60 and passed away in Los Angeles.
10: Audrey Hepburn
Audrey (born Audrey Kathleen Ruston) is quite possibly one of the most well known actresses who has ever lived. Her face is instantly recognizable; her unique beauty and class shining through in every picture. Her roles in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Wait Until Dark”, “My Fair Lady” and “Roman Holiday” are, in themselves, iconic. She was one of the first women in entertainment to also get involved in humanitarian efforts; devoting much of her time later in life to UNICEF. That dedication to UNICEF earned her the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’, one of the highest honors a civilian in the United States can be awarded. She is also one of the very few performers to win an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony and an Academy Award. She received her ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ one month before she died at age 63 in Switzerland.
Who would you have included on this list if you chose the top ten? What current actress would you nominate to stand among these women in decades to come? I’ll take all of your nominations into consideration when I’m creating the list that will come in Part 10 of this series! And remember, sharing is caring. If you like the article, share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter.