OK, so like two months ago I ran down the top 10 coolest male actors ever. I promised a part 2 for their female counterparts, so here we are. Honestly, the reason for the delay (besides pure laziness, of course) was that this half of the list was so much harder to nail down. Sure, the difficulty in defining cinematic “coolness” means that much of this enterprise is based on my gut reaction anyway, but it seemed like with the men there were definitely certain qualities that we have been conditioned to think of as “cool:” suavity, toughness, independence, rugged good looks, perhaps an element of glamour and a certain marriage between on- and off-screen personas. It’s not that such characteristics aren’t cool for women to have; in fact, they apply to basically everyone on this list. It’s that Hollywood for so long resisted such an image of femininity, only allowing women roles that showed them as meek, sidelined, decidedly uncool supporting characters.
So with the Dames, I think there’s an extra quality to consider: how much the actress resisted traditional female roles, instead staking out original, distinctive parts. What do you think?
10. Shirley MacLaine
Coolness must run in the family, as MacLaine is the elder sister of Warren Beatty, #9 on the Dudes. Of MacLaine, Clint Eastwood once said, “It’s hard to feel any great warmth to her. She’s too unfeminine and has too much balls. She’s very, very hard.” Given the nagging feeling that Eastwood is a bit of dick in real life, that’s enough of an endorsement for me. MacLaine was a real pioneer in bucking the Hollywood feminine stereotype in roles like the enigmatic Fran Kubelik of Billy Wilder’s genius “The Apartment.”
Her New Age spirituality has made her the subject of much derision over her life, but I appreciate that MacLaine seems to have always kept a good sense of humor regarding her rather kooky beliefs (see her turn as the greeter at the “Past Lives Pavilion” in Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life”).
9. Maggie Smith
She’s gained bonus points in recent years for her bad-ass embodiment of Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter series, but Smith earned her spot on this list long before that. Perhaps her coolest quality is that Smith always projects austerity and gravity, even when she’s being wickedly funny (see: “Murder by Death,” “Gosford Park,” “Keeping Mum”). She’s made a career out of inhabiting such extremes, playing comedy and tragedy with equal witty measure and grace.
8. Faye Dunaway
It’s a sign of the paltry offerings for actresses over 30 in the film industry that Dunaway went from “Network” to “Dunston Checks In” in less than 20 years. But at her height, Dunaway was a symbol of a cultural revolution: roles like Bonnie Parker, Evelyn Mulwray and Diana Christensen made her the defining actress of the late 60’s-70’s generation of Hollywood auteurs. Her striking, unconventional beauty and independent, uncompromising characters helped usher in a new era of filmmaking.
7. Catherine Deneuve
Fitting that I should give Deneuve the #7 spot, to match her with long-time friend/occasional more-than-friend Marcello Mastroianni, possibly the coolest, most cosmopolitan international couple ever matched. For Deneuve, we should perhaps take the term “cool” quite literally; her ice-queen screen persona served her well in Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” and her collaborations with Luis Buñuel. She was/is the master of that particular brand of aloof, meticulous, sexy, calculating cool.
6. Jamie Lee Curtis
Another extraordinary talent reduced lately to shilling easily-digested yogurt. The “scream queen” made her name bringing an element of respectable acting to horror films like the original “Halloween” and “Prom Night,” but movies like “A Fish Called Wanda,” “True Lies” and the “Freaky Friday” remake have shown that she really is the premier comedic actress of her generation. Plus, she’s married to actor/director Christopher Guest, and is officially “Lady Haden-Guest.” How cool is that?
5. Uma Thurman
Honestly, as long as you’re involved in a Quentin Tarantino film and are not named Quentin Tarantino, your coolness factor gets a significant bump. The “Kill Bill” films and “Pulp Fiction” are a clinic in self-conscious hipness, with Thurman’s winking mixture of sexuality and bad-assery bringing to mind an up-to-date Mae West. It’s also telling that Thurman was cast to take on the Diana Rigg (another strong candidate for this list) role in the remake of “The Avengers,” and we’ll just ignore the fact that “The Avengers” remake was excruciatingly terrible.
4. Marlene Dietrich
There are few (if any) other actresses in history who were so iconic at being themselves. That is, Dietrich was always Dietrich, whatever that image means to you, exactly. From the cabaret stage to the silent screen, Dietrich was one of the greatest performers of all time. She wielded her sexuality like a weapon, and commanded the audience’s attention like no other.
3. Sigourney Weaver
Probably the best example on this list of the “pioneering” quality I was talking about in the intro. Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley in “Alien” and “Aliens” was really the first time Hollywood let a woman helm an action franchise, and Weaver knocked it out of the park. Weaver was a no-nonsense bad-ass without completely masculinizing herself (note the strong maternal themes of the sequels), setting the path for a new kind of femininity in Hollywood. Oh, and she’s an incredibly good actress, too.
2. Katharine Hepburn
That she was often seen as prickly and disagreeable in the public eye mostly just goes to show that Hepburn was way ahead of her time in her inflexible dedication to a quality career. She embodied intelligence, drive and independence when most women were reduced to staring moon-eyed at their leading man. And guess what? Her lineage has actually been traced all the way back to Eleanor of Aquitaine (whom she famously played in “The Lion in Winter”). THAT’S SO COOL.
1. Lauren Bacall
Yes, Bacall even trumps husband Bogie, on my subjective relative scale, at least. It’s a little tricky to justify why I give Bacall such a high standing, without focusing on her husky voice and sultry looks like a typical beauty-obsessed viewer. But it’s perhaps fitting that my #1 should be defined by the indescribable, the ineffable. Basically, if I could shake hands with just one actress in history, I think it would be Bacall. So hang in there just a few more years, please, Lauren!