Leading ladies - the actresses who won our hearts over the decades

Meg Ryan. Picture: CHANNEL FIVE

Meg Ryan. Picture: CHANNEL FIVE - Credit: five

rom silent screen goddesses like Greta Garbo to current stars like Emma Stone, actresses have held audiences spellbound over the decades. But which stars are your favourites?

From the silent era, Greta Garbo has remained beloved where many others have faded - although she is probably now better-known for her later talkies, including the tragic Camille and Ninotchka, where she finally laughed.

Moving forward to the 1930s, there are many actresses who not only won the hearts of audiences at the time, but are still beloved now.

It's hard to say just who is more popular out of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, whose rivalry is still as fascinating as ever many years after their deaths - and indeed was the subject of a recent hit mini-series.

They both played strong women, dominating a long series of films and regularly being billed above their male co-stars.

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Katharine Hepburn was another enduring star who had her first starring roles in that era. She had an amazingly varied career, covering everything from The Philadelphia Story, opposite Cary Grant, to all the comedies she made with Spencer Tracy and late-career hit On Golden Pond with Henry Fonda. She is another actress who is named as a favourite by many people - with her way of speaking still being instantly recognisable.

Marilyn Monroe. Picture: PA ARCHIVE/PA IMAGES

Marilyn Monroe. Picture: PA ARCHIVE/PA IMAGES - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

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Dietrich and Stanwyck

Judy Rimmer from Ipswich writes: 'There are many wonderful actresses from the Golden Years of Hollywood, but my favourite has to be Marlene Dietrich.

'I first saw her on the big screen when I was a student, in a restored copy of The Blue Angel, the German film which made her a star. She is absolutely riveting to watch in that, and also in the series of films she went on to make in Hollywood with the same director, Josef von Sternberg.

'There is always a humorous, slightly self-mocking edge to her performances, and of course her unique singing voice.

'I also really like Barbara Stanwyck, with classic films like Baby Face, though I think I probably first saw her as an old lady in TV mini-series The Thornbirds, where she was still so passionate and able to steal a scene from her younger co-stars!

'From later eras, Julie Christie is an actress who I grew up watching and still think is wonderful. She was great in period dramas like Far from the Madding Crowd and the original film of Dr Zhivago.

Meryl Streep. Picture: Ian West/PA Wire

Meryl Streep. Picture: Ian West/PA Wire - Credit: PA

'Keira Knightley was also great in the TV mini-series remake of Dr Zhivago, as well as films like Bend It Like Beckham, Atonement and Pride and Prejudice.

'And Kristin Scott Thomas is yet another favourite - I loved her in The English Patient and Four Weddings and a Funeral, where she completely outshone Andie MacDowell for my money. Also in a TV series called Body and Soul, which nobody else seems to remember.'

Stars of 1950s Hollywood

David Bale from Sprowston writes: 'My favourite is American actress Kim Novak. She was a huge star in the 1950s and starred in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. I think she's incredibly under-rated.

'She was also in Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid, Pal Joey with Frank Sinatra and the Man with the Golden Arm, also with Sinatra.'

Judi Dench and Bill Nighy in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Picture: PA Photo/Laurie Sparham

Judi Dench and Bill Nighy in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Picture: PA Photo/Laurie Sparham/Twentieth Century Fox - Credit: PA

Audrey Hepburn was another star who really made her name in the 1950s. Roman Holiday, where she played a young princess romanced by newsman Gregory Peck, turned her into a star and won her an Oscar, and she was equally magical in Sabrina.

Then came Breakfast at Tiffany's, where she had a cat as one of her co-stars, and of course My Fair Lady, another smash hit even though her singing voice was dubbed. Hepburn's face still features on countless posters and calendars, underlining just how popular she still is.

Marilyn Monroe is yet another iconic favourite from the 1950s and 60s. Her looks and personality have been much copied, but never equalled.

And increasingly over the decades it has become recognised that she was anything but a dumb blonde, as her performance in the Billy Wilder classic Some Like It Hot showed. The Timeless exhibition of photos of her at Moyses Hall in Bury St Edmunds, running until the end of September, is a testament to her enduring fascination.

Halle Berry. Picture: John Shearer/Invision/AP

Halle Berry. Picture: John Shearer/Invision/AP - Credit: PA

Living legends

So what about today's living legends? Meryl Streep certainly fits the bill, with her amazing list of 21 Oscar nominations and three wins. She has played a range of roles to rival those of Bette Davis (who was an admirer of her work) or Katharine Hepburn.

She has impressed generations of film goers with her roles, ranging from early successes like Kramer versus Kramer and The French Lieutenant's Woman to more recent ones like The Post. She also proved she could sing in Mamma Mia, only to sing hilariously badly in Florence Foster Jenkins.

Of course, it isn't just screen actresses who can win our hearts. Lynne Mortimer from Ipswich wrote: 'I was lucky enough to see Judi Dench on stage with the RSC at Stratford Upon Avon in 1976. She was Beatrice to Donald Sinden's Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. She was then in her early 40s and Sinden was in his early 50s and sporting a ginger wig… which, by rights, should have had its own listing as a member of the cast.

Dame Helen Mirren. Picture: Ian West/PA Wire

Dame Helen Mirren. Picture: Ian West/PA Wire - Credit: PA

'Dench was captivating and I fell in love with her delicious, warm voice. Petite and with the energy that only the very best actors can infuse into their performances, Dench seemed to me to be the actor to aspire to. If I (a frustrated thespian, largely due to lack of talent) wanted to be anyone, it was Judi Dench. Her diction is superb, you never miss a word of what she says and somehow, she makes every thing she says important.

'To me, she is a stage actor first although for someone so steeped in the theatre she has managed to unfalteringly translate her talent on to the small and big screens. She has a best supporting actor Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love, playing Queen Elizabeth I, a role that had around eight minutes of screen time but delivered maximum impact.

'Speaking last year, Dame Judi Dench (she was made a dame in 1988) has also said that pursuing a healthy sex life should not be neglected by her fellow octogenarians. How can you not adore her?

It has often been hard for actresses to go on winning lead roles once they hit middle age, but stars like Dench, as well as her fellow Dames Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren, have shown the way to many others.

Mirren broke the mould of TV cops with her performance in Prime Suspect, but is perhaps even better loved now for her performances as the Queen on both stage and screen, while Maggie Smith won a whole new generation of fans in Downton Abbey.

Marlene Dietrich. Picture: AP Photo/File

Marlene Dietrich. Picture: AP Photo/File - Credit: AP

Another current star over 50 who has shown her versatility is Halle Berry. The first black woman to win an Oscar with her acclaimed performance in Monster's Ball, she has also won herself an army of fans with her role as Storm in the X-Men films, as well as appearing in a Bond movie.

Julia Roberts, who was 50 last year, has also played a wide range of roles, from comedies like Notting Hill, where she starred opposite Hugh Grant, to her Oscar-winning performance in Erin Brockovich, and is a favourite with many film-goers.

Great British actresses

Paul Geater from Ipswich has chosen two respected British actresses as his favourites. He writes: 'For millions of fans of Call the Midwife, Jenny Agutter is Sister Julienne – the firm but caring nun in charge of Renatus House in the East End.

'But for earlier generations, she was an English rose actress who blossomed from the lead role in the Railway Children (TV series 1968, film 1970) to showing her acting skill in some of the great popular films of the 1970s and 80s. Who can forget her performances in Logan's Run, Equus, The Eagle Has Landed and An American Werewolf in London?

'Dame Emma Thompson is one of those timeless stars who looks to be enjoying a spectacular (and Oscar-bedecked) career. Moving from romantic lead roles, Shakespearean roles, and comic family roles she has proved herself totally versatile and massively watchable.

'Anyone who can hold Howards End together, camp it up in outrageously in the Harry Potter films, and make the role of Nanny McPhee her own is worth watching on screen!'

Meg and Alicia

Romantic comedy star Meg Ryan is yet another favourite actress in this age bracket.

Nicky Barrell from Norwich writes: 'I love Meg Ryan – I relate to her as the girl next door and quirky actress, and she starred in some classics, When Harry Met Sally for example.'

Bethany Whymark from Norwich also says: 'I like Meg Ryan. She may not have played the most diverse range of roles, but I like the way she plays her typified character in films like You've Got Mail – spunky, a bit indignant but ultimately, reluctantly, vulnerable. Also she was great in City of Angels!'

Bethany also chose to spotlight a younger actress, writing: 'Alicia Vikander is one of my favourite newcomers – although she's played second fiddle to big names in big roles (e.g. Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl) she holds her own, and strikes a great balance between the necessary restraint and uncontrollable outpourings of emotion in her roles.

'She's great to watch – another good one with her in is Testament of Youth, an adaptation of Vera Brittain's memoir.'

First woman in the Tardis

So who are the favourites of today who will still be watched decades in the future? It's hard to say, but Jodie Whittaker is one actress who is very much in the public eye at the moment, as the first woman to take over the Tardis in Doctor Who. Her Broadchurch co-star, Norfolk actress Olivia Colman, is also about to take over playing the Queen in The Crown, which again should win her many new fans.

Emma Stone and Jennifer Lawrence are among the most popular younger Hollywood stars, while Sonequa Martin-Green could be another name to watch, as Star Trek's newest starship captain. And the list goes on!

Who are your favourite actresses? Send us an email.

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