July 19th, 2005

Great British Actresses

The ten greatest British actresses (according to viewers of Channel 5) are, in descending order:

10. Vanessa Redgrave
9. Deborah Kerr
8. Peggy Ashcroft
7. Elizabeth Taylor
6. Vivien Leigh
5. Maggie Smith
4. Helen Mirren
3. Audrey Hepburn
2. Julie Walters
1. Judy Dench.

Well, we all knew it was going to be Judy Dench at #1. Otherwise the list feels a bit scrappy. Is Julie Walters- a fine character actress- really that good? Isn't Liz Taylor a film star rather than an actor? And Edith Evans and Sybil Thorndike and Wendy Hiller and all the other theatrical grande dames of my youth seem to have been forgotten- largely, I suppose, because they did very little on film.

It is harder for a woman to achieve acting greatness. The big roles are few and far between. Where Anthony Hopkins (Channel 5's greatest British actor) has gone from one lead to the next, most of these women have had bitty careers. Hepburn all but retired in her 30s, Vanessa Redgrave has been ostracised for her politics (something which never happened to John Wayne) and even Dame Judy- who is never out of work- is mainly celebrated for her cameo performances- and got her Oscar for a role that amounted to 8 minutes of screen-time. Acting is a boy's game. The only area in which male dominance has been slightly eroded is TV- which explains the appearance of Helen Mirren- Prime Suspect's DCI Jane Tennison- at #3.

This was a fun exercise, but its implications have left me feeling angry, frustrated and ashamed.