ByJack Mitchell, writer at
I'm a student at the University of Sussex, studying Drama and Film. I'm a huge cinephile, watching and discussing a wide variety of cinema
Jack Mitchell

There have been so many talented performers throughout the history of cinema. On the back of the shock news that three-time Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis is retiring from acting, let's take a look at the actresses who could give him a run for his money in each decade.

1. 1920s — Gloria Swanson

Though many would argue that Gloria Swanson's greatest performance was her unforgettable and complex turn in the legendary Sunset Boulevard in 1950, she was a huge star long before that, hitting the big time in the '20s and starring in 28 films in that decade alone. She was an impressive performer and you'd be hard-pressed to find as prolific a female star in that period.

2. 1930s — Vivien Leigh

Though her career spanned several decades, Vivien Leigh's high point came with 1939's Gone with the Wind. This iconic film — to some the best film ever made — is still one of Hollywood's greatest moments. Leigh's acting signified the shift away from silent movies to a more solemn style of cinema. Her grounded, fantastic performance as Scarlett O'Hara emphasized the changing landscape of Hollywood, and makes her comfortably one of the biggest stars of the 1930s.

3. 1940s — Ingrid Bergman

Ingrid Bergman was the biggest female star in the 1940s, an era that boasted several best actress contenders. Her performances in classics like Casablanca and Gaslight are a strong enough case for this pick. Bergman's subtle performances and breathtaking ability perfectly encapsulated the growing realism in Hollywood cinema at that time.

4. 1950s — Grace Kelly

It's difficult to believe that Grace Kelly's career spanned just six years of the 1950s, as she quit acting to become European royalty when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. However, her performances in Alfred Hitchcock films like Rear Window, Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief were enough to win Kelly long-term acting esteem.

She tended to play the conventionally attractive female companion who managed to break down gender stereotypes by having her own agency and not just playing up to societal expectations for women of the time. Her most celebrated performance in Rear Window displayed a feisty and subversive nature and shows why she remains a cinematic legend.

5. 1960s — Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn is a cinematic icon, establishing herself as a household name with her charismatic, confident, heartwarming performances. Though a star in the 1950s, with classics like Roman Holiday and Sabrina, it was Hepburn's 1961 performance in Breakfast at Tiffany's that served as the high point of her film career.

She continued to win acclaim in the '60s for her performances in My Fair Lady and Charade, making this decade her own. No one could compete with the charm of Hepburn at the height of her career, and she seems to have carried this trait through to her personal life with her humanitarian work for UNICEF before her untimely death at the age of 63.

6. 1970s — Diane Keaton

What a decade Diane Keaton had in the 1970s! For most performers, starring in one classic film would be a pleasure, but Keaton appeared in The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, Annie Hall and Manhattan in the space of a decade. This makes a rather compelling case for Keaton owning the 1970s.

From gritty, realist gangster thrillers, to game-changing, intellectual dramedies, Keaton did it all, showcasing her versatility in adapting to wildly different roles and still managing to conjure up her best performances time after time. While still active in cinema today — with her newest film Hampstead having just hit movie theaters — the '70s marked the pinnacle of acclaim for Keaton.

7. 1980s — Meryl Streep

Many argue that is the greatest living actor and would happily name her as the best of each decade in her career. However, the 1980s marked the peak in her illustrious career, and we need to give other actors a chance. Streep's performances in The French Lieutenant's Woman, Sophie's Choice, Silkwood, Out of Africa and A Cry in the Dark saw her soar from jobbing actress to extolled star.

Though Streep has since given us several fantastic performances and has broken the record for most nominations since then, the '80s introduced us to Streep's chameleon-like acting prowess and set us up for what was to come.

8. 1990s — Jodie Foster

Despite a brilliant performance in 1976's Taxi Driver, it took a while for child star Jodie Foster to prove the true extent of her ability. While winning her first Oscar in 1988 for The Accused, it wasn't until The Silence of the Lambs, a 1991 film, that Foster truly knocked our socks off. Though as an adult she became more picky with her roles than she had been in previous decades, her performance at the beginning of the '90s is one of the most memorable in cinematic history.

The Silence of the Lambs is an undisputed classic, and while it's Anthony Hopkins' cannibal mastermind Hannibal Lecter that most people associate with this film, Foster's portrayal of the underdog Clarice Starling took everyone by surprise. The actress had never displayed such depth, but her confident performance with subtle moments of vulnerability established her as a star who we all wanted to see more of after this film. Foster's definitive performance left an unforgettable mark on the landscape of '90s cinema.

9. 2000s — Cate Blanchett

Although her 24 films were never all going to be critical or financial hits, Cate Blanchett established herself as Hollywood's leading lady in the 2000s. From her fantastic performance in trilogy, The Aviator and Babel, no one could touch the prolific Blanchett. Her four Oscar nominations within that decade, and subsequent win for The Aviator, demonstrate Blanchett's skill. She is such a tour de force and we are far from having seen the best. received her most recent Oscar nomination last year for the brilliant Carol and continues to be an unrelenting staple of modern-day cinema.

Who Will Define The 2010s?

Alicia Vikander? Jennifer Lawrence? Natalie Portman? There are so many incredible female actors in Hollywood right now and we are blessed to live in a time where, despite the potential for improvement in representation, women can and do play strong, triumphant characters. While it's too early to declare a definitive best female actor of the 2010s, we are lucky to have seen so many inspired performances.

Which actor would you like to see on this list? Sound off in the comments below.


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