Although to call contemporary film a gender-neutral industry is a stretch, gone are the days when women in movies were mere arm candy to male heroes. Over the past century actresses have been inventing a new breed of women on screen, a far cry from any distressed damsels of the past.

Of all the valiant ladies who have graced the screen, selecting the very fiercest is a tough job. The list of fourteen below, while not exhaustive, represents a diverse spectrum—women of various ages, settings, classes and personalities.

14. Girl, Interrupted-1999

Director: James Mangold

Producer: Douglas Wick and Winona Ryder

Writer: James Mangold, Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton (based on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir)

Leading Lady: Winona Ryder (playing Susanna)

Winona Ryder’s Susanna is not the typical strong heroine—but what makes these women fierce is that they defeat stereotypes. Susanna is a clever and rebellious leader. In the institution where she resides, she opens the minds of the authorities and helps the other young women find their voices and regain their own strength.

13. The Scarlet Empress-1934

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Producer: Emanuel Cohen and Josef von Sternberg

Writer: Eleanor McGeary (based on Catherine II’s diary, arranged by Manuel Komroff)

Leading Lady: Marlene Dietrich (playing Sofia, i.e. Catherine the Great)

In The Scarlet Empress Dietrich, as the Austrian princess Sofia who became Catherine the Great, transforms from a pampered and naïve little girl to the most powerful figure in all the Russian empire. Catherine makes the best of a bad situation and supplants the country’s incompetent patriarch, her husband Peter, subverting the traditional gendered power structure. She learns the ruling ways from her cold mother-in-law and improves them until, as Peter is told near the film’s end, “there is no emperor—there is only an empress.”

12. V for Vendetta-2005

Director: James McTeigue

Producer: Joel Silver, Larry Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Grant Hill

Writer: Larry and Andy Wachowski

Leading Lady: Natalie Portman (playing Evey)

V may rescue Evey (Portman) from an attempted rape at the opening of V for Vendetta, but soon enough Evey is the rescuer—she protects V the first night they meet and during her imprisonment declares she would rather die than betray V. Loyal and observant, Evey mediates between the old government and the rebels, promoting V’s empowerment of the everyman even after his death.

11. The Philadelphia Story-1940

Director: George Cukor

Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Writer: Donald Ogden Stewart

Leading Lady: Katherine Hepburn (playing Tracy Samantha Lord Haven)

Katherine Hepburn is an actress who injected her own spunk into any role she played in an era when women were largely confined to careers as wives and mothers. She not only played dominant women, but she also was the dominating force behind her own career, managing her films and building her own financial success. In The Philadelphia Story Hepburn plays the headstrong divorcée, Tracy, who compromises just enough to remarry her former less-than-ideal husband, and realizes sometimes a women’s greatest power has a soft edge.

10. Kill Bill: Volume 1-2003

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Producer: Lawrence Bender

Writer: Quentin Tarantino

Leading Lady: Uma Thurman (playing Beatrix Kiddo)

In the action-packed samurai flick Kill Bill, Beatrix Kiddo (Thurman) swings swords on a revenge mission against Bill, her former lover and employer. Kiddo is the “deadliest woman alive,” and together with rivals fellow assassin Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) and Japanese mafia leader O-Ren (Lucy Liu), the three make quite the lethal group of fear-inspiring females.

9. Gone With the Wind-1939

Director: Victor Fleming

Producer: David O. Selznick

Writer: Sidney Howard (based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell)

Leading Lady: Vivien Leigh (playing Scarlett O’Hara)

Although she eventually breaks through the rigid confines of masculocentric Southern society in rural, Civil War-era Georgia, Scarlett O’Hara (Leigh) is not entirely unaffected by her antiquated culture’s expectations for women. Still, she takes charge and rebuilds her family’s pillaged farm. Alone after a few short-term marriages, she optimistically looks to the future, realizing she does not live for any man, but for herself.

8. Frida-2002

Director: Julie Taymor

Producer: Sarah Green, Salma Hayek and Jay Polstein

Writer: Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas

Leading Lady: Salma Hayek (playing Frida)

Frida, a biopic featuring Salma Hayek in the Academy Award nominated titular role, blends the professional art career with the private life of Frida Kahlo—a woman who lived to defy conventions. Hayek portrays the true Frida, a feisty, independent woman who in her art and in the world crossed lines that even many men did not dare to pass.

7. Mona Lisa Smile-2003

Director: Mike Newell

Producer: Fredward Johanson

Writer: Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal

Leading Lady: Julia Roberts (playing Katherine Watson)

For 25 million, the highest pay ever for an actress, Julia Roberts starred as renegade professor Katherine Watson at Wellesley College (a conservative women’s school) in Mona Lisa Smile. Teaching beyond the book, Watson encourages students—including ambitious Joan (Julia Stiles) and liberal Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal)—to think for themselves and achieve what they want for their lives. With spirited debates, she unlocks the minds of conservative students like Betty (Kirsten Dunst) to see a world where marriage is not the only option, and they, not society, define who they become.

6. Aliens-1986

Director: James Cameron

Producer: Gale Anne Hurd, Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill

Writer: James Cameron

Leading Lady: Sigourney Weaver (playing Ellen Ripley)

Popularly known as “The Sci-Fi Queen,” in her life and cinematic career Weaver has challenged gender roles and brought attention to the women’s empowerment movement. In the sequel to the 1979 film Alien, Weaver gives an Academy Award nominated performance of Ellen Ripley, who battles her employer’s skepticism and leads an investigative expedition to destroy aliens. Due in large to Weaver’s portrayal of the indefatigable Ripley, sci-fi and horror genres gained widespread respect.

5. The Terminator-1984

Director: James Cameron

Producer: Gale Anne Hurd

Writer: James Cameron, Gale2222 Anne Hurd and William Wisher, Jr.

Leading Lady: Linda Hamilton (playing Sarah Connor)

In The Terminator, Sarah Connor, the sole target of a robot’s time-travelling death mission, is a legend. At the outset Connor believes herself quite ordinary and even goes to the police for protection. By the end, though, she has defeated the seemingly invincible drone, and is pregnant with the son she will single-handedly train to lead a coming resistance movement.

4. G.I. Jane-1997

Director: Ridley Scott

Producer: Ridley Scott, Roger Birnbaum, Demi Moore and Suzanne Todd

Writer: Danielle Alexandra and David Twohy

Leading Lady: Demi Moore (playing Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil)

In G.I. Jane Lieutenant O’Neill (Moore) proves not all tough women are dykes, and women can survive grueling military training better than many men, without any extra accommodations. O’Neill wants to be treated no differently than her male colleagues, garnering respect, not pity, in one of society’s most patronizing careers.

3. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo-2011

Director: David Fincher

Producer: Soren Staermose, Ole Sondberg, Scott Rudin and Cean Chaffin

Writer: Stevenn Zaillian (based on the novel by Stieg Larson)

Leading Lady: Rooney Mara (playing Lisbeth Salander)

Rooney Mara’s breakout performance as Lisbeth Salander in the recent thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo brings a modern-age mold-busting woman to the screen. Mysterious and tech-savvy, Salander is the best investigator around, and the most indomitable.

2. Nothing But the Truth-2008

Director: Rod Lurie

Producer: Rod Lurie, Bob Yari and Marc Frydman

Writer: Rod Lurie

Leading Lady: Kate Beckinsale (playing Rachel Armstrong)

Inspired by the true case of Judith Miller, Nothing But the Truth follows prominent journalist Rachel Armstrong through a series of legal proceedings demanding she give-up the identity of her source for a story on a CIA operative. She resists far longer than the CIA ever imagined, even when she is jailed and beaten and her marriage is ruined. Steadfast, Rachel Armstrong protects her source, sacrificing herself, refusing to compromise her principles.

1. Million Dollar Baby-2004

Director: Clint Eastwood

Producer: Clint Eastwood, Albert S. Rudy, Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi

Writer: Paul Haggis (based on F. X. Toole’s short stories)

Leading Lady: Hillary Swank (playing Maggie Fitzgerald)

With a track record of roles as fiery women carving their own place in the world, Hillary Swank embraces characters that fight against all odds and never back down. In Million Dollar Baby, she literally fights. With persistence she convinces renowned manager Frankie (Eastwood) to train her, cares for her unappreciative family and, even after a bad blow leaves her physically incapacitated, forges her own destiny.
Fade Out:

What does the next evolution of cinema’s most powerful ladies look like? Which not-to-be-reckoned-with movie heroines are your favorites? As Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett says at the end of Gone with the Wind, “tomorrow is another day”—and one sure to bring many more individualistic, butt-kicking women to rule the screen.

{GT:clbw1}Your Comments Please{/GT}

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HI!

I work on one version a woman could act in near future…

and its only one of 100billon versions it should be…

MIKE

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I think it should go without saying really… “David Fincher’s” Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? Please. Why not just list the original; everyone knows of it, its much better, and the girl with the dragon tattoo is alot fiercer.

Also whilst on the subject; who thinks Trent Reznor should start doing heroin again? His music might revert back to when it was … good. Maybe David Fincher should join him.

Make an old man happy and put this on your website… No? Fair enough I guess.

Cheers

H Grant

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As for strong female leads don’t forget animated heroines.

‘Emily’ beat a cannibalistic hag using her brains and… er… a chainsaw.

See what she did here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHNiG8ffQ4A

Clive

PS – here’s the tagline.

Emily was daddy’s little girl

Emily was well behaved and cute

Emily cut someone to pieces…

…with a chainsaw!

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