Actresses playing actresses in film – ranked!

On the 70th anniversary of Sunset Boulevard, in which Gloria Swanson plays terrifying silver screen star Norma Desmond, we look at the greatest interpretations of actresses by actresses

10. Marlene Dietrich in Stage Fright (1950)

A classic role of elegant, sophisticated malice and brazen wrongdoing for Marlene Dietrich as Charlotte Inwood, a fashionable star of the West End musical stage who appears to have murdered her husband, and is planning to frame her lover Jonathan, an actor whom she is cynically using. But a sweet-natured, struggling young actress called Eve is falling in love with Jonathan, and wants to help him. Using her acting skills, she poses as a maid and insinuates herself into the employ of smoky-voiced Charlotte, to spy on her.

Marlene Dietrich in Stage Fright, 1950.
Marlene Dietrich in Stage Fright, 1950. Photograph: Allstar Collection/Cinetext/WARN/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

9. Juliette Binoche in The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

The All About Eve template recurs in movies about actresses – and Juliette Binoche riffs on it with accomplished skill in this movie from Olivier Assayas. She plays Maria Enders, a movie star who lives a cushioned life of international luxury. Having made her name as a young woman in a gay drama, she is now being cajoled into doing a remake, only this time playing the cynical older lover. But her personal dynamic is more in her friendship – or relationship – with her personal assistant, played by Kristen Stewart, with whom she has a spirited debate about whether superhero movies are worthwhile.

8. Deepika Padukone in Om Shanti Om (2007)

Deepika Padukone made a dazzling debut in this bold, fantasy romantic adventure about reincarnation. She plays Shanti, a 70s Bollywood actress who is killed in a fire, deliberately set by a vengeful, unbalanced producer to whom she was secretly married and whose child she was expecting. Shah Rukh Khan plays a humble movie extra who is hopelessly in love with her from afar, and dies trying to rescue her from the blaze. Thirty years later, he is reincarnated as a famous actor who is plagued with an inexplicable fear of fire and obsessed with visions of Shanti and auditions thousands of hopefuls to be his leading lady and finds an exact duplicate of the woman of his dreams – played again by Padukone.

7. Meryl Streep in Postcards from the Edge (1990)

Meryl Streep plays Suzanne Vale, a young movie actress whose substance abuse is madly out of control, in this comedy based on the autobiographical novel by Carrie Fisher. Having not really dealt with her problems with cocaine and prescription drugs, Vale finds that the insurance company will only cover her next picture if she lives with a responsible adult – and the only one available is her outrageously difficult mother, herself a veteran star, played by Shirley MacLaine. (Fisher’s own mother was Debbie Reynolds.) The film is candid about the anxieties and banalities of the movie business and engagingly funny about growing up with a famous movie mum.

Ayako Wakao in Floating Weeds.
Ayako Wakao in Floating Weeds. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy Stock Photo

6. Ayako Wakao in Floating Weeds (1959)

Yasujirō Ozu’s Floating Weeds is a delicate tragicomedy of manners and misadventures about a travelling company of actors. Ayako Wakao plays Kayo, a young actress in the troupe who unwittingly becomes involved in a plot driven by sexual jealousy. The lead actress of the group cajoles and bribes young Kayo into seducing a young man in the town where they happen at that moment to be playing. This is due to pure spite, because this young man is the (unacknowledged) son of the troupe’s male star, with whom the older actress is having an affair and who had a relationship with a local woman here, decades before, and appears still to be infatuated with her. Inevitably, Kayo falls in love with her young man.

5. Judy Garland in A Star Is Born (1954)

A Star Is Born has been born four times, but this has to be the best version, with Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett, the wannabe actress who rises to movie greatness with a new stage name – Vicki Lester – under the gallant tutelage of a boozing and psychologically unstable star, Norman Maine, played by James Mason. They marry, but Norman’s career wanes just as hers soars, and she is deeply concerned at his angry depression, his drinking and the damage to his fragile male ego. A Star Is Born became part of Garland’s mythology (in real life, it was Mason who was concerned about Garland’s drinking) and her wide-eyed vulnerability and passion assumed a new intensity in the persona of a fictional movie star.

4. Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950)

For many, All About Eve is the classic female star myth, replete with paranoia, unsisterly scheming and duplicitous cunning. Bette Davis is Margo, a star of the Broadway stage who is approaching middle-age and perhaps worried that her best years are behind her. A lovely, apparently innocent and obliging young fan with the evil-temptress name of Eve (played by Anne Baxter) impresses Margo when they meet backstage, gets herself hired as her personal secretary and soon makes herself indispensable to Margo; but she is a would-be actress, a cuckoo-in the-nest who wants Margo’s career. Davis is very stylish as the disillusioned star whose vulnerability is revealed in this backstage manoeuvring.

Helena Howard in Madeline’s Madeline.
Helena Howard in Madeline’s Madeline. Photograph: Parris Pictures/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

3. Helena Howard in Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

At 20, Helena Howard made a stunning debut in this movie about emotional development and theatrical performance, devised through improvisation under the control of director Josephine Decker. She plays emotionally troubled teenager Madeline who joins an experimental theatre company which (like the film) uses improv. Through her sheer passionate commitment and instinctive engagement, Madeline becomes their biggest star, due to her absolute lack of inhibition. But Madeline is only just recovering from an episode that landed her in a psychiatric hospital; now the company is planning to devise a whole new improvised show all about her psychological problems. Will this tip her back over the edge? An amazing study of an acting life in the 21st century.

Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.
Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Photograph: Ronald Grant

2. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson embraced a late-career phase of playing self-aware terrifying dragons and this was probably the greatest of all. She is Norma Desmond, once a star of the silent screen who has now been utterly forgotten and lives a grim Miss-Havisham-like existence in her mouldering mansion. William Holden plays a failing screenwriter who blunders on to her property one night, and finds himself hired as a supposed “script doctor” for her self-penned delusional comeback vehicle and as her general factotum, companion and flatterer – finding that writers are lower than everyone in Hollywood. Her butler, Max, is played by Erich von Stroheim, a brilliant silent movie director in real life and so exquisitely cast. Swanson’s Norma has imperious statements about how pathetic the modern movie business is, how lacking in its old mythic grandeur (“I’m still big, it’s the pictures that got small.”) and possesses a tragicomic magnificence.

Gena Rowland with Ben Gazzara and John Cassavetes in Opening Night.
Gena Rowland with Ben Gazzara and John Cassavetes in Opening Night. Photograph: Allstar/FACES DIST.

1. Gena Rowlands in Opening Night (1977)

This film from director John Cassavetes, with its wonderfully moving and intelligent performance from Gena Rowlands, is another meditation on the All About Eve parable of the stage actress confronting the passing of youth. But it shows that this theme can be presented as an emotionally generous drama, and not as a black-comic hysterical cat-fight. Rowlands plays Myrtle, who is doing out-of-town previews for a play in which, for the first time, she is playing an older character. Mobbed by autograph-hunters after the show, Myrtle is deeply shocked when a troubled teen fan who is eerily similar to her own younger image, recklessly flings herself at her departing limo and is killed. This event triggers a breakdown that manifests itself in unstable behaviour onstage and her various colleagues, lovers, ex-lovers, friends and backers are unsure how to handle it – all having a lot riding on this show. Myrtle is scared that if she does too well playing the older woman, then that is what she must resign herself to being, in art and in life. This film about a troubled actress shows that these ideas are not simply about vanity, or competition; they are the occasion for a profound, existential meditation on love, friendship, sexual politics and the phases of mortality.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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