The Most Surprising Female Performance of All Time

Judy Garland in The Clock

Judy Garland in The Clock

Two blogs have sparked a fascinating dialogue around the art of the movie actress. Alexandra Billings of Stilettos and Sneakers and Sheila O’Malley of The Sheila Variations have each issued their own list of “The 20 Most Surprising Female Performances of All Time.” It’s an interesting distinction to make from “The 20 Best Performances;” as Billings writes in her introduction to her list, “These are performances that, for me, were either the first time I saw a side of these actors that truly surprised me, or the first time something connected with me on a very visceral level.” Here’s Parts One and Two from Billings’ list, and One and Two from O’Malley’s.

The lists have their share of familiar, iconic performances (Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby; Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest; Charlize Theron in Monster; Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball), but there are some well-called surprises as well. I’m most surprised by Sheila’s pick of Maggie Cheung for Center Stage and Drew Barrymore for Scream (“Barrymore has about 15 minutes where her Tempo goes from an easy High School Girl medium, to ultra Hyperspeed panic.”) Perhaps not surprisingly, four actresses show up on both lists: Hepburn, Faye Dunaway, Meryl Streep and Judy Garland. But credit Billings and O’Malley for picking some off-beat picks for these stars: Arizona Dream for Dunaway; Death Becomes Her and Postcards from the Edge for Streep; The Clock and Judgment at Nuremberg for Garland.
But the biggest surprise may be the one performance that appears on both lists: Marilyn Monroe, in Don’t Bother To Knock, one of her earliest starring roles, as a mentally disturbed babysitter who develops an unhealthy fixation on Richard Widmark. O’Malley gives a great testimonial to this underrated turn:

Don’t Bother to Knock stands alone in her career, in terms of the emotions that Marilyn Monroe was asked to convey: confusion, hurt, fear, danger, and rage. She often played lost souls and waifs, showgirls who managed to keep their innocence, big-eyed goddesses who seemed confused at times of the fuss men made over her. But she was never again (until the very end, with The Misfits) so damaged. And even in The Misfits, it wasn’t quite the same kind of damage. Nell is barely a woman at all. She is a little girl, beaten and bludgeoned by the world around her, in a state of arrested development, trapped in the body of a pinup model. There are times when she is almost in a state of “fatal attraction”, and you want to tell Widmark to run for his life, and to certainly take away the child she is caring for. She seems completely unsafe. And yet Monroe manages, with subtle glances and flickers in the eyes, to show how … strange it is for this character, how outside of reality she feels … how much she yearns to get on the inside. If you have not seen Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock, then all I can do is reiterate the words of Elia Kazan: “Relieve your mind now of the images you have of this person.” They’re all wrong.

What are some performances by actresses you remember best for coming out of nowhere to surprise you? Share some in the comments section…

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