The greatest female comedic performances in film

The oft-used (and oft-misused) quote says, comedy’s hard, dying is easy – George Bernard Shaw, Edmund Gwenn and Oscar Wilde were all credited with coming up with that pithy one-liner that best describes the difficulties of making audiences laugh. When intereviewed, most actors will say that doing comedy well is much harder than wringing tears from a tragic melodrama. Oscar-winning Actor Gig Young (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) said, “Comedy is harder to do than drama, since comedy roles involve the offbeat, not merely the basic emotions. I like to play both comedy and drama.”

But comedic actors tend to be less respected than their dramatic colleagues: think about it – who’s better respected Jim Carrey or Marlon Brando? Part of the reason why comedies and comedians tend to be less-respected is because of examples like Adam Sandler or Tyler Perry – hugely popular artists whose work is of questionable value. But there are exceptions; comedic auteurs who have earned laudits and praise like Woody Allen, Judd Apatow or Mel Brooks.

If a performer is on more than once, his/her performances will be added together. Feel free to comment, add, criticize and enjoy!

Amy Adams, Enchanted
Jean Arthur, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It with You
Lauren Bacall, Designing Woman, The Mirror Has Two Faces
Anne Bancroft, The Graduate
Drew Barrymore, The Wedding Singer
Annette Bening, American Beauty
Candice Bergen, Starting Over
Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada
Cher, Moonstruck
Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night, The Egg and I, The Palm Beach Story
Pauline Collins, Shirley Valentine
Penelope Cruz, Volver; Vicki Christina Barcelona
Jamie Lee Curtis, A Fish Called Wanda, Trading Places, Freaky Friday
Joan Cusack, Working Girl
Bette Davis, All About Eve
Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love
Cameron Diaz, There’s Something About Mary, My Best Friend’s Wedding
Marie Dressler, Dinner at Eight
Olympia Dukakis, Moonstruck, Steel Magnolias
Margaret Dumont, A Night at the Opera, Duck Soup, A Day at the Races
Irene Dunne, The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife
Mia Farrow, Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose
Sally Field, Soap Dish
Jane Fonda, 9 to 5
Greta Garbo, Ninotcha
Terri Garr, Tootsie
Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost
Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
Jean Hagen, Singin’ in the Rain
Jean Harlow, Dinner at Eight
Goldie Hawn, Cactus Flower, Private Benjamin, Death Becomes Her, The First Wives Club
Eileen Heckart, Butterflies Are Free
Katherine Hepburn, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike, Desk Set
Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
Celeste Holm, All About Eve
Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
Madeline Kahn, What’s Up Doc?, Blazing Saddles, Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein, Clue, Judy Berlin
Diane Keaton, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Baby Boom, Something’s Gotta Give
Sally Kellerman, MASH
Nicole Kidman, To Die For
Lisa Kudrow, The Opposite of Sex, Clockwatchers, Analyze This
Jessica Lange, Tootsie
Carole Lombard, Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, To Be or Not to Be
Myrna Loy, The Thin Man, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House
Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment, Steel Magnolias
Marjorie Main, The Women, The Egg and I
Rachel McAdams, Mean Girls, Wedding Crashers
Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind
Bette Midler, Ruthless People
Marilyn Monroe, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch, The Prince and the Showgirl, Some Like It Hot
Catherine O’Hara, Heartburn, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration
Dolly Parton, 9 to 5
Sarah Jessica Parker, The First Wives Club
Michelle Pfeiffer, Married to the Mob
Parker Posey, Party Girl, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show
Christina Ricci, The Opposite of Sex
Thelma Ritter, All About Eve
Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
Maya Rudolph, Away We Go
Rosalind Russell, The Women, His Girl Friday, My Sister Eileen, Auntie Mame, The Trouble with Angels
Meg Ryan, When Harry Met Sally…
Alicia Silverstone, Clueless
Maggie Smith, The California Suite, Sister Act, Gosford Park
Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite
Barbara Stanwyck, Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve
Emma Stone, Easy A
Meryl Streep, She-Devil, Postcards from the Edge, Death Becomes Her, Prime, The Devil Wears Prada, Julie & Julia
Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl, What’s Up Doc?, The Owl and the Pussycat
Emma Thompson, Much Ado About Nothing, Sense and Sensibility, Primary Colors, Love Actually, Stranger Than Fiction
Jennifer Tilly, Bullets Over Broadway
Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny
Lily Tomlin, 9 to 5
Kathleen Turner, Peggy Sue Got Married, Prizzi’s Honor, Serial Mom, The War of the Roses
Tracy Ullman, Small Time Crooks
Julie Walters, Educating Rita
Mae West, She Done Him Wrong, My Little Chickadee
Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway
Reese Witherspoon, Election
Renee Zellwegger, Nurse Betty, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Cold Mountain
Sigourney Weaver, Working Girl




Filed under Celeb, Comedy, movie, movie review

3 responses to “The greatest female comedic performances in film

  1. I’m working on a companion piece with the best performances by actors…

  2. dadjmi

    I wonder if there are more really great performances by actresses who aren’t white other than Whoopi. It’s a great list, but a little pasty.

    • thecrowdedbookshelf

      It’s true – black comediennes don’t get a fair shake in the industry, and if a black female comic is portrayed on film, it’s usually in some kind of offensive, vaudevillian kind of way. I’d love to know if you know of any great women of color who gave great comedic performances….

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