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10 Most Iconic Actresses From Hollywood's Golden Age (& Their Best Role) – Collider

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These women are Hollywood gold!
The 2020 Netflix series, Hollywood, aimed to highlight the “unfair systems and biases across race, gender and sexuality” of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In that era, between the 1920s and early 1960s (roughly), it was the American actresses whose very presence in major motion pictures challenged the status quo in the industry.
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These iconic women boast countless awards and nominations, credits under Hollywood’s many box office hits, and broke down barriers in a gender and racially underrepresented industry. Iconic may be an understatement, but actresses like Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, Hattie McDaniel, boast a legacy from Hollywood’s Golden Age which remains a staple in entertainment culture even today – these are the roles that cemented that legacy.
Crawford found early success in the 1920s and ‘30s, but her popularity waned soon after (the rise and fall of stars were common in this era, after all). But her triumphant return to cinema came after she took on the titular role in Mildred Pierce (1945) where she would go on to win an Academy Award for Best Actress that same year.
Much like the trends of today, methods of filmmaking and storytelling in the Golden Age of Hollywood were ever-fading. The noir style of movies came and went following the post-World War II era, Crawford’s depiction of a struggling single mother in Mildred Pierce is regarded as one of the best noir films of all time. Throughout the years acting has remained a career within the family, with Crawford’s granddaughter, Kaia Gerber, recently starring in the latest season of American Horror Story.
Nina Mae McKinney, a singer, dancer, and one of the early African-American actresses on Broadway and in movies. She led the all-Black cast as “city girl” Chick in the 1929 movie musical, Hallelujah that addressed themes of racial stenotypes, religion, and American history.
In the early days of Hollywood’s Golden Age, African American representation was scarce. Hallelujah aimed portray the African-American experience in an authentic light, and earned praise for successfully doing just that (for the era). McKinney only wanted to perform, and couldn’t get many roles in the United States, so she left for Europe in the ‘30s and starred in many international productions. From Harlem to Hollywood to France, McKinney became known as the first African American woman to take on a role film meant for general audiences.
From American Westerns to romantic dramas to Shakespeare renditions, Katharine Hepburn was known for roles in many genres. But it’s Bringing Up Baby (1938) which showed she truly understood the craft. Though the movie was a box office failure, it gained appreciation during the latter part of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Much like Hepburn, the slapstick comedy was simply ahead of its time.
Over the course of her 60-year career, Hepburn advocated for her rights as an actress, took on roles with deliberation, and went on to be named The American Film Academy's number one female screen legend of the Classic Hollywood Era. Her legacy surpasses the many roles she took on in film, TV, and onstage, and she became known as a “modern woman” of her era.
When Bette Davis starred in the 1950 American drama, All About Eve, it almost served as a full-circle moment for the actress. Davis originally got her start as a Broadway actress, but moved to Hollywood in pursuit of feature length roles. Two decades later, she would play Margo Channing in All About Eve, an aging Broadway star whose onstage career was coming to an end.
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Davis won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her depiction of Margo, and earned herself an Oscar nomination. It wasn’t her first award (or nomination) and would not be her last, and she became the first person (regardless of gender) to earn 10 Acadamy Award nominations.
Though she held many titles – actress, singer, comedian, McDaniel is most notably known for being the first African American to win an Oscar in 1940. The award was given for her supporting role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind – a film whose problematic themes transpired into real life – where McDaniel was unable to attend the Atlanta premiere due to Jim Crow laws.
McDaniel faced racism within the industry, due to existing laws and prejudice, but that did not stop her from continuing to pursue endless ‘firsts.’ Her contributions to the industry are widespread, in part supported by – not one – but two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, documentaries, poems, and honors in her name.
The late Gardner was an award-nominated actress and singer. She came from humble beginnings in the American south, and until the 1950s only appeared onscreen in small (but numerous) roles.
Gardner’s most notable performance was in Show Boat, the movie’s third adaptation since 1929. Yet, the 1951 version of the hit musical may have been the most successful, in part due to Gardner’s name being involved. Show Boat became the third highest-grossing film of that year, bringing in over $7 million at the box office.
Nearly 70 years after the release of The Wizard of Oz – and 50 years after Judy Garland’s death – the powerful biopic, Judy, hit theaters. The true mark of an icon comes from imitation, and Renee Zellweger portrayed Garland’s final years with an authenticity that is both an ode to the Golden Age actress and a tragic tale of child stardom.
RELATED: Movies From The 1930s Everyone Should See At Least Once
Garland was just 16 years old when she was cast in The Wizard of Oz, and her role of Dorothy Gale in the classic 1939 film transpired into a 40-year career. She went on to win Oscars, Grammys, and even a Tony award while facing personal troubles at the same time. Still (and because of this), Garland will always be remembered for dreaming about “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as the face of an American namesake on screen and off.
Marilyn Monroe came from humble beginnings and had a rocky childhood, from being a ward of the state of California to a short-lived marriage as a teenager. After being discovered through modeling, she raked in over $200 million (roughly $2 billion today) for her numerous films. Monroe’s name quickly became associated with all things glitz, glamour, and scandal, as her legacy surmounted the entertainment industry and into all aspects of mid-century culture.
Monroe’s presence – and notorious sex appeal at the time – turned Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953) into a classic of the later Golden Age era. She starred as Lorelei Lee, the said blonde in the movie’s title, where she showcased a multitude of talents. Cue “Diamond’s Are a Girl’s Best Friends.”
Dorothy Dandridge’s list of achievements over the course of her career are immense, but many stem from one movie in particular, Carmen Jones. Dandridge was a credited actress in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and a celebrated singer and vocalist. In 1954, she starred in the titular role of Carmen Jones, a musical movie that featured an all-Black cast. The film was a box office success, earning over $10 million and Dandridge became the first African-American woman to be nominated for Best Actress.
A year after the release of Carmen Jones, Dandridge opened at the Empire Room in New York City – and became the first Black performer to do so but certainly not the last. In 2002, Halle Barry starred in a biopic of the late actress’s life. When Barry won an Oscar for Best Actress in another role years later, she thanked Dandridge for being a pioneer for Black women in the industry.
Vivien Leigh may be well-known for her starring role in Gone With The Wind, but A Streetcar Named Desire became a much larger part of her life. From 1949 to 1951, Leigh played Blanche DuBlois both on Broadway. When the book-turned-play was brought to life on the big screen, Leigh continued in the role opposite Marlon Brando.
As a classically trained actress, Leigh had more familiarity onstage. But her portrayal in the 1951 film won Leigh an Academy Award for Best Actress – though the role, and it’s suggestive, relatable content may have also “tipped her over into madness,” as the actress later claimed.
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Ilana is a writer for Collider. Her previous work can be found on her blog, Aside from analyzing the deeper meaning of popular TV and movies, Ilana is passionate about writing in any form, doing puzzles, and exploring cities around the world.
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