Here is a new update. The newly added performance is highlighted in bold.
Winning performances are higlighted in red.
1. Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939)
2. Jessica Lange in Frances (1982)
3. Gloria Swanson in Sunset
4. Olivia de Havilland in The
5. Anne Bancroft in The
6. Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven (1927-1928)
7. Glenn Close in Dangerous
8. Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful (1985)
9. Edith Evans in The
10. Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938)
11. Greta Garbo in Ninotchka
12. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie
and Clyde (1967)
13. Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)
14. Bette Davis in The
Little Foxes (1941)
15. Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965)
16. Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958)
17. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love (1970)
18. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
19. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of
20. Julie Christie in Away from Her (2007)
21. Shelley Winters in A Place
in the Sun (1951)
22. Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (1967)
23. Ingrid Bergman in The
Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
24. Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown (1997)
25. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)
26. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
27. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
28. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
29. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
30. Katharine Hepburn in Guess
who’s coming to dinner (1967)
31. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)
32. Teresa Wright in The
Pride of the Yankees (1942)
33. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters
34. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next
35. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
36. Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
37. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
38. Loretta Young in Come to the
39. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)
40. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)
41. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)
42. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)
43. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)
Vanessa Redgrave as Mary, Queen of Scots in Mary, Queen of Scots
Compared to my original review of Vanessa Redgrave more than six years ago (good God…), my opinion did not change too drastically but Vanessa slipped down a couple of spots nonetheless. I think the reason is mostly that the flaws in her work have become more apparent to me while her highlights do not excite me anymore the way they used to in the past.
It has to be said: while my opinion on Vanessa Redgrave altered only slightly, my opinion on Mary, Queen of Scots itself did change more drastically: while I previously considered it mostly a mess with some fun parts and strong moments, I can now only see the mess. Mary, Queen of Scots is almost an insult to the glorious costume dramas that came before and after it – fake sets, fake costumes and a largely unappealing supporting cast do their best to destroy any good-will right away and the script does its best to ruin anything else. The movie is pretty much a disaster from start to finish (and Ian Holm gives probably one of the worst death scenes of all time – I guess he needs to squeal like Florence Foster Jenkins because he is bisexual?) and only one person manages to leave it untouched: Glenda Jackson, reprising her work as Elizabeth I, is simply unable to be anything less than fascinating to watch and she gives grace, dignity and excitement to her performance when everything around her falls apart.
Vanessa Redgrave unfortunately achieves not the same effect. She starts her performance on a very over-the-top note, fearing for the life or her husband, shouting “I love him” with a high-pitched voice or dramatically screaming “Francois” into the night. All the usual qualities of Vanessa Redgrave, this mysterious aura, her visible intelligence and graceful personality, are lost in this performance. The problem mostly seems to be that Vanessa Redgrave is simply too intelligent to play Mary in her early years – she apparently wants to craft her as some sort of air-headed dreamer who knows no worries and has to learn of real life and politics but this is never achieved. Rather, we get to see an unconventional actress trying her best to give a save, conventional performance without any surprises or depth, appearing both bored and overwhelmed in the process. When Mary greets her new Lords in Scotland and dramatically spreads out her arms and declares “My Lords of the Congregation”, Vanessa Redgrave displays a wide smile on her face that makes me wonder if this is Mary, trying to be charming or if this is Vanessa, realizing how ridiculous the whole thing actually is. Additionally, Vanessa Redgrave has a constantly weird way of rushing her dialogue – she often speaks multiple sentences without a single pause between them, ranging from moments of anger to moments of joy - this might work at some moments of her performance, but becomes rather distracting in others very quickly.
The screenplay of Mary, Queen of Scots certainly does not do Vanessa Redgrave any favors. Instead, it actually causes the biggest problem of this performance: the script rushes through the stages of Mary’s life, it asks her to be flirty and brave one second, stupid and dependent on others the next, loving her husband, then hating her husband, suddenly showing feelings towards another Lord, refusing to abdicate before naively meeting Elizabeth and finally suddenly wised-up and self-scarifying. The major fault of the movie is that if offers no sense of time – we follow Mary from about 18 to 45 but Mary, Queen of Scots never makes this clear and neither Glenda Jackson nor Vanessa Redgrave seem to visibly age at any point. And because Mary gets thrown into so many different situations without any logical connections, Vanessa Redgrave’s performance never finds a true character in her acting. Instead, she plays Mary different from scene to scene without any flow and at the end of the movie I never have the feeling that I had seen Mary, Queen of Scots but rather Vanessa Redgrave acting different little scenes. Glenda Jackson, on the other hand, managed to actually create a character and her Elizabeth appears like a complete creation. This also results in the probably most curious fact of the movie: the title might be Mary, Queen of Scots but for long stretches of screen time, Vanessa Redgrave almost feels disposable and only rarely does it truly appear to be her movie and the story of Mary Stuart. The character of Elizabeth might be of secondary importance but she easily dominates large parts of the story.
All this was now a lot of negativity and I do believe it is justified. But I will also say that there are positive aspects as well that need to be highlighted. Vanessa Redgrave might not find a character in her performance and focus on the single scenes but she does work well in many of them. Obviously, not all of them – it actually takes quite some time for Vanessa Redgrave to warm up. Most of her early scenes in France and the beginning in Scotland show her pale and uninteresting, trying hard but unsuccessfully to give emotional intelligence to her work. Despite her natural and charming screen presence, Mary’s lightness and coquettish behavior fail completely but she does become more impressive in her later dramatic scenes. Almost bursting with hate at the arrogance of her brother, scheming her way out of a trap by her husband or later drugging him and then comitting adultery right next to his sleeping body, Vanessa Redgrave becomes a much more dominant presence as the movie goes on even if she still might change too often from scene to scene. She most of all comes to live when the misery of her character increases. She is touching when she begs her love not to go out and fight, tense when she tells her brother she will die as Queen and almost heartbreaking when she lets Mary, despite her calm exterior, look with fear at the scaffold where she is about to die in a few moments.
Most of all, however, the highlight of Mary, Queen of Scots are the two moments that apparently never happened – the meetings between Elizabeth and Mary. What is most amazing about these scenes is that they are completely not what you expect. Considering the movie’s reputation as ‘royal camp’ or ‘royal bitch fight’, everyone would most likely assume that their scenes together are the highlight of this. But this is wrong – in the hands of Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, these scenes are surprisingly subtle and moving, full of character development instead of superficial insults and surprisingly quiet in tone despite the occasional emotional outburst. These scenes proof that neither Vanessa Redgrave nor Glenda Jackson are actually actively trying to come across as camp – if the movie can be accused of that, it is actually the men who are responsible for it. Both Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson are the calm centers of an over-the-top storm around them – and even if Vanessa Redgrave did not achieve to create a real character, she still has to be applauded for resisting (mostly) the chances to be as exaggerated as her surroundings (at least as the movie went on). Even more remarkable about these scenes between Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave is the fact that, despite having been constantly overshadowed while not sharing a scene with her, Vanessa Redgrave actually leaves the stronger impression when acting opposite her co-star. That is not to say that Vanessa Redgrave is the better actress or the bigger personality (I would say they are equal in both departments) – rather, she really benefits from the screenplay at these moments. In their first scene, Vanessa Redgrave, even if she again binds various sentences together without gasping for air once and rushes through her lines faster than needed, creates a spellbinding impression as she openly displays her hate for Elizabeth but the best moments of her performance come in their second meeting when Mary rejects all of Elizbeth’s attempts and offers and explains how she is willing to die now and that it is Elizabeth who has to kill her. Vanessa Redgrave delivers her lines in these moments quietly and calmly but with strong accusations and convictions nonetheless. These moments are not enough to completely erase the memory of the often clumsy performance that came before them but they are enough to look at her work as a whole with a certain satisfaction.
It’s a pity that after all these expensive and big costume Dramas of the 60s, a fascinating story such as that of Mary and Elizabeth was given such a poor vehicle. I guess it’s not wrong to see a strong level of sexism as movies about Kings or Kings and Queens are always given the truly royal treatment while a story about Queens and only Queens appears to have been filmed in some old warehouse between some old props. Mary, Queen of Scots might have been given two fascinating actresses – but as this ranking shows, that’s not always a guarantee for success.