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Cannes Best Actress: Awarding the Best Since 1946

Bonjour! Robert Balkovich here. As the 70th Cannes film festival kicks off let's take a stroll down memory lane and revisit some of the most bold, daring, and 100% correct Best Actress awards the festival has given out. 

When you look at the list of names all together it's hard to argue that it isn't one of the best collection of actors ever grouped. The festival's penchant for awarding the best-of-the-best, started early...

Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn were early winners for All About Eve and A Long Day's Journey Into Night, respectively. Early non-English language giants awarded included the beloved Soviet actress Tatiana Samoilova for The Cranes Are Flying and Sophia Loren for Two Women, the latter of which would go on to be the first non-English language performance to win an Academy Award.

One thing the festival has always done is award incredible iconoclastic performances that get ignored by mainstream award institutions. Shelley Duvall's fast talking, shape shifting work in Robert Altman's 3 Women, Isabelle Huppert's terrifying study of desire in The Piano Teacher, and brilliantly unhinged Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars are all career best works by brilliant actresses that were, for one reason or another, snubbed in the US. Lars von Trier has made a cottage industry of directing Best Actress winners. Björk, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Kristen Dunst all won for challenging, brave, and in the case of Gainsbourg, extremely controversial performances. Only Björk got mainstream attention via a Golden Globe nod.

One of my favorite decisions was in 2006 when the entire female cast of Pedro Almodovar's Volver won Best Actress. Penelope Cruz, former multi-Razzie award nominee, went on to get her first Oscar nomination for her leading roleand was able to brush off the rocky start to her US film career.

The festival also has a strong history of recognizing great performances that did go on to awards recognition in the US. Sally Field and Holly Hunter won both the Cannes award and the Academy Award for Norma Rae and The Piano, while Meryl Streep got her Cannes notice for her Oscar nominated work in A Cry in the Dark (in my opinion, the second best performance of her career behind Sophie's Choice).

That's just a smattering of some of the most recognizable "best" from Cannes. The entire list of winners contains some of the best performances every committed to screen by actresses the world over. Who  are some of your favorites to win the award? 

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Reader Comments (30)

I agree with you about Streep. Her performance in Cry in the Dark is very underrated. For me, too, it is her best work after Sophie.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterK

The mid-90s triple Brit winners (Mirren, Blethyn and Burke) is something to behold.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRami

It was always my dream to watch every single winning performance but a lot of those older ones are hard to find! The list in general is superb and of the ones I've seen I love every single one of them.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

I think Spacek should've won Best Actress for 3 Women instead of Duvall.
Or maybe they should've shared the award -
instead of Duvall sharing it with Monique Mercure,
she should've shared it with Spacek.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

The Brazilian actress Fernanda Torres won best actress in 1986 for Eu sei que vou te amar. She is the daughter of Academy award best actress nominee Fernanda Montenegro (Central Station - 1998).

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

Emily Watson should have got the gold over Blethyn. The best Von Trier girl ever.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAna

My favorites...

Isabelle Adjani, Possession / Quartet
Isabelle Huppert, The Piano Teacher
Jill Clayburgh, An Unmarried Woman
Anne Bancroft, The Pumpkin Eater
Shelley Duvall, 3 Women

No doubt, Cannes has the strongest collection of Best Actress winners across the board.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMike M.

I remember Spielberg saying he thought A Cry in the Dark was the best film of 1989. Shelley Duvall, Isabelle Huppert, Holly Hunter .. these are all great performances. Cannes is often very spot on when rewarding great work.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJono

Sorry, of 1988. Thanks for the piece and the reminder to watch Maps to the Stars with the great Julianne Moore.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJono

I must say that Cannes seems to give something to Spanish performers in an ex-aequo mode, not only the "Volver" girls did win combined, in the 80s, the masterful, Oscar-worthy performances of two of the best spanish-speaking actors of all time (Francisco Rabal and Alfredo Landa) won for their performances in one of the most heartbreaking, thought-provoking, excellent spanish films of the decade (and history), "The Holy Innocents". If you didn't watch that one yet... you really should.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

So many incredible winners:

Bette Davis, All About Eve
Melina Mercouri, Never on Sunday
Sophia Loren, Two Women
Susannah York, Images
Shelley Duvall, 3 Women
Isabelle Huppert, Violette
Isabelle Adjani, Possession
Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
Irène Jacob, The Double Life of Véronique
Holly Hunter, The Piano
Brenda Blethyn, Secrets & Lies*
Kathy Burke, Nil by Mouth
Élodie Bouchez & Natacha Régnier, The Dreamlife of Angels
Émilie Dequenne, Rosetta
Björk, Dancer in the Dark
Isabelle Huppert, The Piano Teacher
Maggie Cheung, Clean
Penélope Cruz & co, Volver
Do-yeon jeon, Secret Sunshine
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Antichrist
Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia
Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars
Rooney Mara, Carol

*Both the Cannes jury and the Academy had to make the almost impossible decision of Blethyn vs. McDormand vs. Watson! I think most days I side with Cannes, but McDormand is one of my favourite Best Actress wins ever.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

Kirsten Dunst-Melancholia
Isabelle Huppert-The Piano Teacher
The women of Volver
Irene Jacob-The Double Life of Veronique
Isabelle Adjani-Possession

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99


The list pretty much begins and ends there, but let's not forget:

Virna Lisi, Queen Margot
Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
CHER, Mask
Giulietta Masina, Nights of Cabiria

...and of course, Barbara Hershey's back-to-back victories

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

It's really


everyone else

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAAA

Honestly, they've rewarded some of the finest actresses that have otherwise gone mostly unnoticed by awards bodies, and it's wonderful.

Shelley Duval?? Bjork? Kirsten Dunst??

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.


No coincidence that the three greatest Cannes best actresses are also three of history's greatest actresses.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I love that they gave an award to CHER for MASK.

And let's not forget that Barbara Hershey has TWO of these. Consecutive, if I'm not mistaken. She's the Tom Hanks of Cannes.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

A lot of great women on the list, but I'd give a shout out to Norma Aleandro in The Official Story and Kitty Winn in Panic at Needle Park.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterwill h

Bette Davis - All About Eve
Shirley Booth - Come Back, Little Sheba
Shelley Duvall - 3 Women (one of the really great, truly fearless performances ever)
Adjani - Quartet
Norma Aleandro - The Official Story
Irene Jacob - The Double Life of Veronique
Pernilla August - The Best Intentions
Brenda Blethyn - Secrets and Lies
And of course Huppert.

But the whole list is fascinating. A really amazing list of the world's greatest actresses, even if their individual wins might not be for the best performances.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

I prefer Spacek's performance over Duvall's in 3 Women by a small margin...

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

Meryl Streep A CRY IN THE DARK
Isabelle Huppert THE PIANO TEACHER
Juliette Binoche CERTIFIED COPY

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterErick Loggia

@Glenn Dunks

Actually Tom Hanks is the Barbara Hershey of the Academy Awards.

Just saying. remember where you are. Actressexual haven.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

Such an amazing list!

I love the boldness of their choices. While I wouldn't count it among my absolute favorites on the list, I love that Julianne Moore won for Maps to the Stars. Her win was a bit of a shocker, but very well deserved. And she's the sort of actress that totally SHOULD have a Cannes Best Actress win, so I'm happy it happened for her.

And Holly Hunter in The Piano has to be one of my favorite performances by anyone, ever. I normally hate it when one actor or actress sweeps every single award in a given year, but that's one performance where I felt like, "Yep. Give her EVERYTHING."

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

@ Brad - genius comment right there

I'll put in good word for Giuletta Mesina in Nights of Cabiria. She is both heartbreaking and hilarious (the recurring bit about the thermometer always cracks me up).

It is an impressive line up, sure, but WAY too many ties and cast awards which make it easier to gloss over poor choices and also feel like a cop out (or a blatant jury compromise in a year like Cher/Norma Aleandro). Also, due to the Festival nature, competition is narrower and no campaigning is involved to muddle the waters.

Is Bette Davis in All About Eve a great selection? Yes, of course, but there was no Gloria Swanson there to compete, was there? Also, the Academy and other straight up voting bodies do not get to sit down and arrange a nice little convenient triple tie between these two dames with an extra Judy Holiday to spice it up.

My take with Cannes is that it is just as political (e.g. when The Mission only agreed to be in competition if the Golden Palm was pre-assured or that disgusting choice of Fahrenheit 9/11, which is Pia Zadora levels of terrible) and has as many questionable choices (e.g. everything last year) as any of the other major awards, but it gets a pass because it's French.

May 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

I just realised that, if I'm not mistaken, Julianne Moore is the only actress that has managed the task of winning best actress in all the big three european festivals (cannes for Map to the stars, berlin for the hours and the volpi cup for Far from heaven), plus the oscar! That's the quadruple crown of film acting imo.

May 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPJ

I recently saw Emmanuelle Bercot in Moin roi and I think she was excellent.

May 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Streep performance in A Cry in the Dark is my best actress perf o 1988, followed closely by Close in Dangerous Liaison

Sidenote: she won Cannes in 1989, mths after she was nom n losr for 1988 Oscars.

Much as I luv Blethye in Secrets n Lies, Metink Emily Watson shldve won best actress.

May 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Norma Aleandro was not treated very kindly the year she won. She tied with Cher for Mask for Best Actress. Director John Boorman, presenting the award at the closing ceremy, told Cher "Ma chère Cher, sorry you have to share". Not very considerate.

Aleandro later had the satisfactinon of winning the New York Film Critics Best Actress award. After the ceremony, Village Voice columnist Michael Musto quoted her actually poking fun at her accent in English. Again, not polite at all; or, we swould say now: not politically correct.

And then came time for the Oscar. It was one of the most difficult years for Best Actress. The nominees in the end were Anne Bancroft (Agnes of God), Whoopi GOldberg (The Color Purple), Jessica Lange (Sweet Dreams), Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful) and Meryl Streep (out of Africa). Aleandro and Cher must have come in 6th and 7th.

Susannah York in Images and Joanne Woodward in The Effect of Gamma Rays... Two very strong performances and favorites of mine. Not acknowledged by Oscar, thoug.

May 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

PJ - Juliette Binoche also has won the European festival triple crown. She won Venice (for Trois Couleurs: Bleu), Berlin (for The English Patient), and Cannes (for Certified Copy). And she too won an Oscar!

And Isabelle Huppert almost qualifies: twice at Venice (for Story of Women & La Cérémonie), twice at Cannes (Violette & The Piano Teacher), and Berlin gave her and the other women of 8 Femmes a special artistic achievement prize.

May 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

So from the crop of women this year, what are your predictions? Nicole Kidman?

May 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterT

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