Top Ten Funniest Female Performances of All Time

It’s no secret by now that I am very excited for Bridesmaids.  Not just because of its great reviews or my not-so-secret crush on Kristen Wiig, but also because the film stands for something you rarely see in Hollywood: the great comedic film actress.  Not that women haven’t given funny performances in the past, far from it.  Throughout the history of cinema, many talented actresses have made us laugh time and time again, but sadly aren’t often recognized for it.  In honor of the release of Bridesmaids, I’ve put together a list of the ten funniest female film performances ever given.  This all about the laugh factor; you will find no serio-comic or dramedy work here (otherwise Diane Keaton’s performance in Annie Hall would have been a shoo-in). So without further adieu…

10. Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Tilly in Bullets Over Broadway *tie*
I had a hard time choosing between the two Best Supporting Actress nominees of Woody Allen’s last great film, so I decided to cheat a little and single out both of them.  In this hilarious backstage comedy, the two funniest elements come from Wiest as an alcoholic prima donna and Tilly as a spoiled gangster moll who sucks at acting.  It takes serious chops to really sell these types of characters (only a great actor can truly impersonate a bad one), and though Wiest walked away with the Oscar in 1995, both of them were equally worthy of praise.

9. Jamie Lee Curtis in Freaky Friday
I felt like I had to include someone from the Aughts on this list, but it was tough figuring out who.  Though there are many amazing female performances from that decade, the one with the most comic agility and surprising depth might be Jamie Lee Curtis’ first-rate performance as the body-switched Tess Coleman in Freaky Friday.  Even in her serious roles, there always seemed to be a fun side to her, and here she grabs the opportunity to act like a kid again with a charm and wit unseen since Tom Hanks in Big.

 

8. Lily Tomlin in 9 to 5
Has cold-blooded murder ever been more adorable?  9 to 5 was a major hit in its day because even though it was about women, nearly everyone can identify with being abused by a megalomaniacal boss.  It’s a fun revenge fantasy against a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” that features three outstanding leads, but Tomlin scores the biggest laugh of the film when she daydreams of killing her boss as a Disney princess, complete with animated woodland critters as accomplices.

7. Lisa Kudrow in The Opposite of Sex
Most people know Kudrow only as the ditzy blonde Phoebe on the show Friends, so imagine the surprise of those lucky enough to have seen Don Roos’ pitch-black comedy released in 1998.  In a story full of dishonest characters, she blazes across the screen with her uptight, combative Lucia Dalury, spitting acid bombs of brutal honesty and sharp one-liners.  For sheer comic edge, very few women can match Kudrow’s most indelible character.  Frankly, it should have made her an Oscar nominee.

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6. Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain
Argh, that voice!  Widely considered the finest musical of all time, Singin’ in the Rain has a number of fabulous performances, but the scene stealer is Hagen’s idiotic silent film star who can’t transition to talkies.  Despite being a complete self-absorbed airhead with a voice that can shatter glass, we can’t help but love Lina Lamont.  Perhaps it’s because, like her, we all have trouble letting go of our best years.

5. Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday
The ultimate screwball comedy performance, Rosalind Russell assured her immortality with the (very) fast-talking reporter Hildy Johnson in the Howard Hawks classic His Girl Friday.  Part of the fun here is just trying to keep up with the film’s incredibly convoluted plot and the rapid-fire chemistry between her and the equally brilliant Cary Grant.  The pure chaos of every twist and turn is almost dizzying, and yet Russell, with seeming effortlessness, keeps up the pace without missing a beat.

 

4. Sandra Bernhard in Without You I’m Nothing
When it comes to offensiveness and pure shock laughs, no actress can compete with Sandra Bernhard’s blistering indictment of show business and American culture released in 1990.  Not really a stand-up routine so much as a virtuoso one-woman show, Bernhard sings, dances, monologues and, in a shocking finale, strips almost naked to an indifferent lounge audience.  As she personifies and pushes the envelope on nearly every cliché and archetype of performer, you start to wonder if the sick joke is on you, her, or both?  Either way, it’s a riot.

3. Reese Witherspoon in Election
Everyone knew a Tracy Flick in their lives.  That little apple polisher who gets perfect grades, is the president of every club, and thinks she’s a better than everyone else.  In Alexander Payne’s delightfully mean high school comedy, Reese Witherspoon succeeds on all counts as a character that entertains and repulses in equal measure.  Oh sure, we laugh at her psychotic determination, her hypocrisy, her failure to empathize with anyone, but we all secretly know – to our disgust – that the Tracy Flicks of the world often get exactly what they want, a fact that Payne and Witherspoon thankfully acknowledge.

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2. Madeline Kahn in Young Frankenstein
There are so many hilarious characters in Kahn’s filmography that it was tough to narrow down just one for this list.  Should I go with her floozy Trixie Delight in Paper Moon, or her tightly-wound Eunice in What’s Up, Doc?, or perhaps her most famous role impersonating Marlene Dietrich in Blazing Saddles?  A variety of outstanding comedic work, but I knew I had to go with my personal favorite – her portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein’s bossy, flamboyant and sexy fiancée who falls for the monster.  Kahn is perhaps the most respected pure comedienne in film and the standard for which all subsequent funny women are measured against.  The Awards Circuit salutes her.

1. Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve
I know, I know, it’s the obvious (read: boring) choice, but can you blame me?  Which other actress has been able to combine charm, sophistication, humor and sex appeal to more perfect effect than Stanwyck’s con artist Jean Harrington?  Who else could possibly be credited as the gold standard of all battle-of-the-sexes characters than her?  Stanwyck’s versatility and charisma were never utilized to better effect than here, but she does something even more amazing.  Slowly and subtly, through her ability to refashion her character as someone grounded amidst the breathless farce, her performance invites us to be in on the joke.  Despite all of her contradictions, she shares her sly playfulness with the audience like no other character before or since.  In doing so, she gives the funniest performance ever played by a woman, and one cinema’s flat-out best performances ever.

Obviously there are A LOT of other amazing comedic performances from other immensely talented women.  It was extremely difficult selecting just ten, and trust me, plenty of others were seriously considered.  Who would you have put on this list?  Let us know in the comments!

About Robert Hamer

Former staff writer at Awards Circuit who worked here from 2011-2016.