Thursday, 31 January 2019

The 25 greatest comedy performance by actresses in films

1. Carole Lombard in 20th Century (1934) - I could have chosen her performance in My Man Godfrey or Nothing Sacred, but this is the film which invented the screwball comedy heroine. In order to liberate Lombard's inner comedienne, director Howard Hawks told her a lie - that John Barrymore didn't rate her performance - then told her to go on set and give her co-star an unscripted kick up the arse:

2. Edna May Oliver (as Betsey Trotwood) in David Copperfield (1935)...

3. Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth (1937) - in what may be the greatest screwball comedy performance by any actress, Irene Dunne (in the middle) deliberately embarrasses the hell out of her soon-to-be ex-husband in front of his snooty fiancée:

4. Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion (1938)

5. Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939) - who knew the gloomy Swede had it in her?

6. Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940):

7. Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940) - her strident cynicism could be wearing, but here she gets it spot on:

8. Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier (1943) - flatmate Charles Coburn (who been locked out) is the man desperately trying to attract her attention:

9. Beatrice Lillie in On Approval (1944) - waspish perfection:

10. Judy Garland in Easter Parade (1948) - here, she tries to convince Fred Astaire that she's pretty enough to draw admiring glances from passers-by:

11. Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday (1950) - the not-so-dumb blonde gets the better of her gangster boyfriend:

12. Margaret Rutherford in The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950):

13. Marilyn Monroe in Monkey Business (1952) - her classic "dumb blonde" role was relatively small, but she was never funnier:

14. Joyce Grenfell in The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954):

15, Katie Johnson in The Ladykillers (1955):

16. Irene Handl in I'm All Right Jack (1959):

17. Liz Fraser in I'm All Right Jack (1959):

18. Elaine May in A New Leaf (1971) - she also wrote and directed this understated comedic gem:

19. Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles (1974) - some aspects of the film have dated badly, and the urban smugness grates after a while, but Madeline Kahn's performance as tone-deaf German singer Lili Von Shtupp remains as funny as ever:

20. Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein  (1974) - "Say it! Say it! He. Voss. My. BOYFRIEND!":

21. Bernadette Peters in Silent Movie (1976):

22. Julie Hagerty in Airplane! (1980):

23. Holly Hunter in Broadcast News (1987):

24. Catherine O'Hara in Beetlejuice (1988) - Geena Davis and Winona Rider were also superb, but Catherine O'Hara's turn as a selfish, humourless, pretentious, talentless virago is very special:

25. Frances McDormand in Fargo (1966) - funny and immensely touching:

And a special mention for Jamie Lee Curtis in Freaky Friday (2003) - no, honestly! I knew she could be funny (A Fish Called Wanda, Trading Places), but her performance in this age-swap comedy was a revelation:

A word of explanation about some of my surprising omissions. Rightly or wrongly, I've divided actresses who've been outstanding in comedy films into two categories - (1) those who are natural comediennes and are able to generate their own laughs, and (2) actresses who aren't naturally funny in themselves, but are expert at coaxing great comic performances out of other actors. For instance, Barbara Stanwyck isn't innately funny, but in The Lady Eve she managed to tease out a superb comedy performance from her co-star Henry Fonda (of all people!), just as she did with Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire.  The actresses I think I may have been unfair to are Myrna Loy, who appeared in some genuinely funny films - e.g. The Thin Man and  Libeled Lady - but whose main function seems to bring out the best in the naturally comedic William Powell, and Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night, Midnight and The Palm Beach Story).

I'm sure I've left out some performances that should have been on the list (I realise that my knowledge of films made in the last ten years is distinctly patchy) - please let me know if you think I have.


  1. Where would Ricky Gervais and many other comics be without Hattie Jacques.

  2. This is a great list. I'd add Madeleine Carroll, whose stocking removal while handcuffed to Robert Donat in 39 Steps managed to be both very funny and disturbingly alluring. She had been a French tutor before that and there were times at school when I found myself wondering why I had ended up with Fred Cosstick instead....

  3. Just a mention perhaps for Joan Greenwood and Fenella Fielding ["Would you like to hold my crutch?"] and Geraldine McEwan whose performance as Mrs Proudie in "The Warden" where her quivering voice goes off the radar. Although I know some of these are not strictly " moshion pitchas", but Allison Steadman was very good in "Nuts in May" and "Abigail's Party". Beryl Reid in "Sister George" and again, Irene Handl and Liz Fraser in "Two-Way Stretch" [the latter had some great lines over the years - "Is them your own teef, Stanley?" or "I don't want to lose my alloor!"].

    Although Lucille Ball is hugely famous for her TV Career in the 50's she made many films in the 30's and 40's and film buffs say some of them are very funny. I have never seen any and they don't come up on the box. I also think Mira Sorvino and the Australian Judy Davis have been very funny in some Woody Allen films.