Best Female Actors Of All-Time: Top 5 Legendary Actresses, According To Critics

What makes a great actor? Someone who can cry on the spot or convince an audience to be deathly afraid? Is it someone willing to drastically change their appearance for a single role? How about someone who can step into a role and own it like a boss?! Great actors make us forget they are acting, and some of the greatest in cinematic history include the best female actors of all time.

Obviously Hollywood actors make a lot more money than the average person, but a new survey finds some stars actually make more in a single second than many people do in an entire year! While she’s definitely a member of the A-list, it may surprise you to find out that Academy Award winner Sandra Bullock tops the list of actors in Oscar-worthy movies in terms of her worth per second to these films! According to a study, Bullock is worth nearly $95,000 for every second she’s on the screen in recent Oscar-nominated films.

In the film industry, female performers have been steadily rising to the top, and it’s an absolute must to recognize the incredible talents of these five trailblazers. These legendary actresses, from the iconic Ingrid Bergman to the talented Meryl Streep, have demonstrated what it takes to be one of the greatest. “I’m curious about other people. That’s the essence of my acting. I’m interested in what it would be like to be you,” says Streep, when giving an interview for Vogue.

Among these greats is also Bette Davis, a strong-willed and often unsympathetic trailblazer of women’s roles in her time. As the lead actress in “All About Eve,” Davis received an Oscar nomination for her powerhouse performance. The double-whammy of Bette Davis as veteran actress Margo Channing and Anne Baxter as her conniving ingenue Eve Harrington is what makes the film still so watchable. The pair are flung together in this timeless story about our resistance to growing old, with Davis’ scathing delivery of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s razor-sharp dialogue making this her finest performance.

From tear-jerking performances to award-winning roles, these female actors gave their all on the screen. StudyFinds examined 10 expert film sites and put together a list of the top five best female actors of all time who have graced us with their exceptional talent and performances. If you think we missed one of the greats, let us know in the comments below!

The List: Best Female Actors of All-Time, Per Experts

1. Ingrid Bergman

With her powerful performances and iconic roles, Ingrid Bergman deserves the number one spot. Her legendary characters in films such as “Casablanca,” “Gaslight” and “Notorious,” as well as her unforgettable performance in “Anastasia,” have made her an icon of Hollywood and the world. 

The Cinema Archives says, “Casablanca is among the best 25 female acting performances of all-time and repeat viewings solidify Bergman’s contribution. It is Bogart’s speech at the end but it’s Bergman’s emotional range (while Bogart plays Rick as more even and cool/steady) that help carry the film. It is enough to call it the co-lead.” 

Ingrid Bergman’s unique ability to connect with her audience and convey emotion made her an incomparable actress. Her numerous awards prove the impact she had on the world of cinema“With cool Swedish beauty and a fiery intelligence, Ingrid Bergman refused to change to suit Hollywood’s expectations and became iconic in her idiosyncrasies. Hollywood tried to pigeonhole her as a nun, victim or saint, but her European work showed far more strength and passion, eventually bringing the studios around,” adds Empire.

Ingrid Bergman
Ingrid Bergman. (Image by Matteo Venturella from Pixabay)

From an Academy Award to a Tony Award, Bergman was a shining star in the world of acting. Bergman won three Oscars for her role in “Gaslight,” “Anastasia,” and “Murder On The Orient Express.” “Bergman won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Anastasia, and returned to the United States for the first time since 1949 to accept the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress. Following Anastasia‘s success, Bergman continued to make American films shot in Europe and the U.S. until her death in 1982,” says American Film Institute

Her tenacity, humor, and intelligence made her an actress that could never be forgotten, and she is rightly celebrated as one of the best actresses of all time. The Rake adds, “True to form, she forged new territory in her final performance, as the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in the 1982 TV mini series A Woman Called Golda. Bergman won the Emmy for best actress but died in London from cancer before the ceremony, almost as if to ensure we would be talking about her after she was gone.”

2. Bette Davis

Bette Davis’s career spanned seven decades, and she was praised for her versatility, earning 10 Academy Award nominations and winning two.  

Screen Rant says, “She was the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the AFI and is considered one of the greatest and groundbreaking actors of her time. Of her over 100 different film credits, one of her most notable is All About Eve.

She was known for her bold and fearless performances. She often played strong female characters who challenged traditional gender roles — a role she took seriously on and off the screen! “Davis was known also for her fight for equal rights for women in the industry. She was known to refuse conformity and push the limits in the business of acting. Her fights with the studios lead to improved wages and improved roles for women,” adds Screen Rant.

She was also known for her unique sense of style, her captivating voice, and her iconic catchphrase, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” Movie Web says, “Taking her forename from novelist Honoré de Balzac’s book, La Cousine Bette, Bette Davis was one of the most decorated actresses of Golden Age Hollywood. Nominated for a record-breaking (at the time) 10 Oscars, the Death on the Nile actor took home two for her performances in 1935’s Dangerous and 1938’s Jezebel. Like Crawford, she made a career resurgence with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the later, underrated film The Whales of August. Starring in more movies than most people, Davis appeared in 99 films, and was wonderful in nearly all of them.”

“Seldom has an actor emanated so much force on-screen: Bette Davis was a cinematic cyclone, sweeping through scenes, leaving co-stars dazed and debris in her wake. She took on one complex role after another, not caring if the characters were unlikeable, and aced them all. Her work still bites today,” adds Empire.

With a career that spanned over 50 years, Bette Davis is a true Hollywood icon, and her legacy as one of the best actresses of all time will live on forever.

3. Audrey Hepburn

It’s impossible to leave out Audrey Hepburn. She was one of the greatest and most beloved stars of the 20th century, and her sense of style, grace and charm have made her an icon that has transcended time and will forever be remembered. 

“Audrey Hepburn is one of the most distinguished and talented actors of all time. She is both a film icon and a fashion icon, with her beauty and style placing her in the history books. Much like Diane Keaton, her personal style was routinely incorporated into her characters onscreen to contribute to her presence. With films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday, My Fair Lady, and Sabrina, she’s both highly recognizable in her many roles and brings a varied presence to each,” says Far Out Magazine

Born in 1929 in Belgium, Hepburn experienced a childhood unlike many in her industry. TCM adds, “From a traumatic youth in Nazi-occupied Europe, Hepburn effortlessly charmed her way into the hearts of producers, directors, co-stars and movie-goers alike, earning no less than drama’s highest-profile honor for her first major film outing, ‘Roman Holiday’ (1953).”

“In the era of the Hollywood blonde, as personified by the blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe, Hepburn was able to help create the image of the sophisticated sexy brunette,” says Sofy.

Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn (Image by aks9215 from Pixabay)

Beyond her film work, she spent many years doing valuable work as a humanitarian and activist. Her beauty, charisma, and charm captured the hearts of audiences around the world. Her performances were often nominated for Academy Awards and she even won an honorary Oscar for her humanitarian work. 

TCM concludes, “[Hepburn] seemed to define irrepressible, from her ‘Sabrina’ (1954) through her deceptively sweet call girl in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1961) to her heartwarming rags-to-riches Eliza Doolittle in the film version of one of the last old school hit musicals, ‘My Fair Lady’ (1964) to even late in her life when traveled the world as a high-profile spokeswoman for UNICEF. Her legacy on screen and off would be that of someone disarmingly defying her ‘place’ and pedigree, transcending them, and in the process, becoming that rare movie star who men wanted to be with and women concurrently wanted to be.”

Hepburn was a true inspiration to generations of aspiring actresses and will continue to be a timeless symbol of elegance and talent.

4. Meryl Streep

A three-time Academy Award winner and 21-time Oscar nominee, Streep is one of the most celebrated actresses of our time. She is highly lauded for her range and versatility, with her performances spanning a wide range of genres and characters. From her iconic roles in films such as ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ ‘Mamma Mia!,’ and ‘The Iron Lady,’ to her more recent performances in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ and ‘The Post,’ Streep has consistently shown her ability to deliver outstanding performances

YouTube video

Empire says, “So dedicated, she can perform ABBA like it’s Shakespeare. Nobody brings the emotion like Meryl Streep when it comes to heavyweight dramatic material – but she can also dial up the camp when she wants to, to spectacularly playful effect.”

Not only does she have a knack for making her characters believable and memorable, but she also has a unique style of delivering her lines that sets her apart from other actors. Streep is truly a master of her craft! Far Out Magazine says, “Often described to be the best actress of her generation, Meryl Streep makes her way onto nearly every list of the world’s best actresses. Even others who work in the industry with her are routinely starstruck and nervous to meet her. Her performances stand the test of time, and they will continue to do so for generations.”

It would be futile to attempt to name every accolade Streep has achieved for her work. However, many agree her role in ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ which she won several awards for including Best Actress in a Foreign Film, will forever be a groundbreaking performance. 

“In Sophie’s Choice, Meryl Streep’s performance as a Polish survivor of the Holocaust is so beautifully shaded, so infused with every element of her character’s light and darkness, that the mere feat of her mastering two full languages—she learned to speak both Polish and German for the part—almost seems like an afterthought. She’s luminous; she’s haunted. And then there’s ‘the choice’ when she’s forced to make an impossible decision. Novelist William Styron wrote that ‘tormented angels never screeched so loudly above hell’s pandemonium’ when he described Sophie’s reaction to the dilemma, but Streep’s interpretation is different: a silent scream, while a Nazi officer makes off with her crying daughter. Streep took what could have been a one-note tragedy and turned it into one of the most transcendent, affecting portrayals ever committed to film,” adds Entertainment Weekly.

Streep’s talent for embodying characters of all ages and backgrounds is unparalleled, and her long-running success in the industry makes her an indisputable part of the top five best actresses of all time.

5. Katharine Hepburn

Known for her distinctive style and independent spirit, Hepburn was an icon for women’s rights and empowerment. Her subtle yet powerful portrayals of complex female characters were often ahead of their time and have since become timeless. 

“The African Queen star is the record-holder for the number of Academy Award wins for Best Actress, having claimed the prestigious gong on four separate occasions between 1934 and 1982, for Morning Glory, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter, and On Golden Pond. Hepburn was a real pioneer, who embodied the persona of a strong-willed, independent woman, and that personality was used wonderfully in classic comedies like Bringing Up Baby and her frequent work with Spencer Tracy (Adam’s Rib, Woman of the Year),” says Movie Web.

From her Academy Award-winning roles to her acclaimed stage performances in plays such as ‘The Philadelphia Story,’ Hepburn was a force to be reckoned with. Flickside adds, “She was an actress ahead of her times. Few actors can boast of having gone toe to toe with the likes of Old Hollywood giants James Stewart, Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy. With roles that consistently stood out and redefined the cultural positions for women at the time, her legacy blazed a path for many actresses to come after her.”

“Perhaps the most famous female star of Hollywood’s golden age, sometimes referred to as the ‘First Lady’ of cinema. Katharine Hepburn’s distinctive accent, incredible cheekbones, revolutionary taste for slacks over dresses, and knack for playing strong, independent, witty women made her an enduring icon,” says Empire.

As an actress, she was bold, brave and unafraid to defy conventions, and her legacy lives on in the films and plays she left behind. There is no doubt that these five women have all made an indelible mark on the history of acting and the film industry. Not only have they been critically-acclaimed and awarded for their work, but they have also inspired generations of aspiring actors and filmmakers. Above all, they have proven that female actors can be just as powerful and successful as their male counterparts. With their talent, hard work, and artistry, these five women have undoubtedly earned the title of best female actors of all time. 

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  1. How did this article get past the State censors? I thought the left has told us there isn’t a difference between a man and a woman.

    1. Huh? What are you talking about Karen? Take a seat. Cult leader is about to go to prison. You have more important fish to fry. #evolve

      1. No women of color? What a bunch of racists. You know you have to put one in there. Equity.

  2. In naming the best female actors of all time how could you not mention JOAN CRAWFORD and BARBARA STANWYCK? And then there’s LORETTA YOUNG & JANE WYMAN whom are second to NONE MISS YOUNG was first to win OSCAR and EMMEY and was always UNFORGETTABLE. JANE WYMAN was ACTRESS & SINGER also OSCAR winner from a variety of roles that are MEMORABLE but never or seldom mentioned.

  3. Sorry, but Streep should be a co number 1 with Bergman. To put Betty and Audrey ahead of Streep is ridiculous. While both talented actresses, they’re light weights compared to Streep and Bergman.

    1. I don’t think that Audrey Hepburn should be there. I loved her, but Streep’s talents should be in the top 3, without question. That woman made everything seem so real. She truly was in the roles she played, it was like she transformed into that person. And some of the older one’s deserve to be there like Bette Davis, but some I do not think deserve to be in the top 5 of All Time!

    2. Bette Davis
      Barbara Stanwyck
      Ingrid Bergman
      Katharine Hepburn
      Lillian Gish

      Top 5 from the old age of cinema

      Meryl Streep
      Cate Blanchet
      Jane Fonda
      Vanessa Redgrave
      Viola Davis

      From ‘modern’ cinema

  4. How about a top 10,including some great actresses working today.

    Ingrid Bergman
    Cate Blanchett
    Bette Davis
    Judi Dench
    Audrey Hepburn
    Katharine Hepburn
    Vivien Leigh
    Frances McDormand
    Meryl Streep
    Elizabeth Taylor

  5. How did you leave Barbara Stanwyck out of this? I love Audrey Hepburn but, I beg to differ! She was charming, yes but great actress ? Stanwyck could do it all, comedy, musical, drama!!! You’re not talking about acting if you add both Hepburn’s but leave Barbara out!

  6. I would substitute Jane Fonda for Audrey Hepurn. Audrey Hepurn was very good but
    Jane Fonda played such a diversity of characters and had great range and depth
    as shown in: Coming Home (oscar), Klute (oscar), On Golden Pond, Cat Ballou, Barefoot In The Park, etc.
    Audrey Hepurn was an Icon (style,grace,etc) but Jane Fonda is immensely talented as an actress and has always displayed such depth in her dramas and such joy in her comedies.
    She is one of our greatest actresses.
    Thank you.

    1. Absolutely. Could do melodrama, farce, be a villain, do a strip tease, lead a band of cowboys and at 70 be lecherous.

  7. I think Meryl Streepis perhaps the greatest actress of our time. I’ve seen her I every film she’s made, but I saw Sophie’s Choice once, and I swore I’d never watch it again. Too heartbreaking.

  8. I hear you, Tina. By only having Top 5 they limited their list.

    Esp love Alfre Woodard, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, and Lupita N’yongo.

    1. 100% agree…I can’t stop ranting about it!!! The sooner she wins that much deserved 3rd Oscar the better!! White straight female privilege is however currently working against her, which is apparently a thing and makes me furious! I’m not homophobia I just believe people should be judged on their skills/performance and NOTHING ELSE!! I know I wouldn’t ever want a pity vote!! Cate’s name was written ALL over that Oscar and everyone knows it!

  9. Where are Sally Field, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, Jane Fonda, Eartha Kitt, Whoopie Goldberg, Dame Judi Dench & Frances Macdormand’s names?

    1. I agree with Sally Field being up there, but Goldberg..really?? She may be a pretty good actress of late, but no way should she even be considered for the top 5 or even the top 20!! There’s too many that have surpassed her talent just in these last few decades!

  10. Elizabeth Taylor
    Susan Hayward
    Cate Blanchette
    Cicely Tyson
    Claudette Colbert
    Maggie Smith

  11. Liz Taylor was one of the first screen Super Star. It’s a shame she was not on your list. The incomparable Susan Hayward who could wring out the tears in anyone. Cate Blanchette who is truly the new super star of cinema.

  12. Too racist on this list show Diversity it shows a white person created this list with no soul

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