My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress Ranking - Update

Here is a new update. The newly added performance is highlighted in bold. 

1. Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939)
2. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
3. Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
4. Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967)
5. Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven (1927-1928)   
6. Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
7. Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967)
8. Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938)
9. Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)
10. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

11. Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)
12. Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965)
13. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love (1970)
14. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941)
15. Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)
16. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
17. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
18. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
19. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
20. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)

21. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 
22. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
23. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)
24. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
25. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
26. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)  
27. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)
28. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)
29. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)
30. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)

Mary Pickford as Norma Besant in Coquette
Oh boy, I know that I need to defend myself right away. Mary Pickford’s performance in Coquette is most likely the most infamous winner (and maybe even nominee) in Oscar history because she is the poster child for “bad acting” and everyone who knows a little bit about the Oscars is aware of that. Even people who did not see Coquette know that Mary Pickford is the ultimate symbol for hammy and outdated overacting who was only honored by the Academy due to her legendary status as the most famous movie actress in the world and her involvement in the founding of the Academy itself.

So, how is Mary Pickford not last? To be honest, I actually decided to rank Mary Pickford now because I wanted a performance that would be easy to place and I thought that her position at the bottom would be a fairly easy task. But to my surprise I actually did not put her at the bottom…so what happened?

As you can see from my ranking, I surely do not consider Mary Pickford’s performance an artistic highlight. And from a purely neutral standpoint it would probably be fair to consider her the worst Best Actress nominee ever (although I cannot comment on this yet). But after all, nothing about this is neutral or objective – and when I rank the performances, there are other factors that come into play for me. And even if Mary Pickford is very often dreadful in Coquette, she always remains watchable – and that is a big plus for me.

Coquette is certainly a horrible movie – surely one of the worst to ever feature an Oscar-nominated performance. The script always changes between laughable and insulting and the whole cast is awful (apart from the actor who plays Stanley – he is actually quite good simply because he remains very understated during it all). All of this makes it easy for Mary Pickford to stand out – she is the clear center of attention, she is on-screen almost all the time and, like it or not, her character immediately draws attention. There is a reason why Mary Pickford chose this project as her big prestige movie – the role of Norma is a natural show-stealer, a flirty Southern Belle who loves a man against her father’s wishes. It’s a part with many big moments, from fearing about her lover to witnessing his death to defending her father in court. But of course, big showy moments do not make a great performance.

What is noticeable in Coquette right away is one thing – the star power of Mary Pickford. I know absolutely nothing about her apart from Coquette but I can believe that this actress was once the most famous woman in the world. There is something about her that draws you to her even when her acting pushes you away. I also don’t mind the fact that she was much older than her character – Mary Pickford spent her whole life playing children and teenagers so I can buy her as a young, flirty girl, especially since her delicate features help to strengthen this impression.

So, what does this all mean? On the one hand, yes, Mary Pickford has various awful moments. Most of the time it is stated that her acting seems to come from a silent movie – and that is very often true. She has a tendency to over-use her body, if that makes any sense, bending forward and backwards in agony, sliding away on a chair in court, grabbing her hair in desperation or shaking her arms in the air as she runs to the deathbed of her lover. Some of these moments might actually work in a silent movie (but even then they would be too much) but when she supports these gestures with her hectic and high-pitched voice, the effect is often rather grotesque. And der idea to show the flirting of Norma by putting her index-finger next to her mouth and forming some sort of puckered lips while uttering the word “adorable” looks absolutely ridiculous and does not do her performance any favors. Most of all, her work very often feels too forced – Mary Pickford projects every emotion in her performance 1000%, overstating basically every gesture, shaking her head too hard, flirting too hard, looking surprised too hard, even running too hard and crying too hard. It just becomes too much and this mostly contributes to the fact that her work feels so dated today.

There are also other things working against her. For example, the editor of the movie should have been shot at some point, always switching to unflattering close-ups at the most inappropriate times and even Mary Pickford’s expressive face cannot always save those. Also, what is up with the costume design in this movie? Apparently Mary Pickford wanted to do Coquette because she wanted to “wear smart cloths and play the lover”. But most of the time, Mary Pickford’s cloths make her look completely unattractive and homely without any truly redeeming features.

Well, so much on the negative side. But what is it that I like about her performance? Do I actually like something? As shocking as it sounds – yes. There is the aforementioned star power that, despite all the setbacks, makes me believe in Mary Pickford’s Norma. Yes, I can actually believe that a woman like this would exist, that she would be as shallow but also sometimes as true and she also works well with her cast members as I believe her to be a bigger sister, a faithful lover and a devoted daughter. And so she somehow pulls me right into her personal misery – at the end, I actually feel for her, I feel sad when she witnesses her lover die even if Mary Pickford again adds too many bizarre acting choices and I feel personally engaged in her story. I care more about Norma than I do about Diana Wynyard’s Jane, Irene Dunne’s Sabra or Shirley MacLaine’s Deedee. And as I also mentioned: Mary Pickford always remains watchable. Even when she is bad I like to see her. She adds energy into her performance that the other three actresses lacked – her scenes of sorrow and grief might be overdone but they still keep me interested. Watching her performance is like watching a bad painting – it might be bad but it still makes you look. The performances of Diana Wynyard, Irene Dunne and Shirley MacLaine on the other hand are rather like watching paint dry. These performance might be better acted (though in the case of Diana Wynyard I might actually disagree – just because her outdated acting is quieter than that of Mary Pickford it doesn’t mean that it is better) but I just don’t care about their characters. And for me, this is also a factor in my ranking.

Of course, my appreciation of Mary Pickford’s performance has limits. Just because she is not the last in my ranking does not mean that she is great. Her badness is certainly as bad as legend has it but she also has moments that make up for it. The aforementioned energy is one thing and very often she can suddenly inject really powerful or touching moments, very often just right after or before a good moment. The scene at the deathbed of her lover is an example: her delivery of lines like “Why, don’t you know me” or “Michael, don’t leave me” are incredible touching while her lines “You look almost like you’re dead” or “Maybe you’re only sleeping” are almost laughable. Her intensity when she learns about Michael’s fate from Stanley can be quite overwhelming but then she again resorts to some strange grimaces and overacting. And when she says “I don’t care” and refuses to help her father, she achieves maybe her best acting moment as she is suddenly completely honest and finds a rather quiet outlet for her anger – only to do an over-the-top breakdown a few seconds later. Her overall best scene might be at the end in court – even if she again uses her body too much and slides around the chair manically like a frightened deer, she is still rather touching.

So, the performance is certainly not great, not good, not OK – yes, many parts are bad but personally I can find some moments that compensate for it and Mary Pickford still possesses enough charisma and energy to keep me watching. And so I decided to not put her at the bottom of my ranking as I would rather watch her Norma than Diana's Jane, Irene's Sabra or Shirley's Deedee.