TOP 10 FEMME FATALES OF ALL TIME
Translated in French as “Fatal Woman,” the FEMME FATALE is a character archetype that has been used in cinema for decades. Often defined as a seductress or man-eater, the Femme Fatale role, which began in the early 1940s during the Film noir period, is that of a woman who uses her charm, her sexual appeal to entice men to do what she desires while often leading her to taking drastic measures to get what she wants.
As the evolution of film continued through the years, the Femme Fatale character went beyond just a desirable woman with devious interests to a character who is more villainous and whose presence is enhanced by their psychological behavior.
Whether they are playing mind games with a man or trying to get away with murder, of all the representations of characters in cinema, the Femme Fatale role is the most appealing to me. We have seen dozens of iconic performances by actresses over the years who have taken on the role of a Femme Fatale which can often be the most difficult as it encompasses so many elements that are beyond the limits of what some actresses feel they are capable of. Many stars have reaped the benefits of taking on such a role, winning Oscars or receiving critical acclaim. While others have made a place for themselves in pop culture.
In studying this character, I decided to put together a list of my Top 10 all time favorite performances by actresses who have taken on the role of the Femme Fatale.
Lana Turner as Cora Smith
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Already labeled as one of the silver screen’s most alluring young stars, Lana Turner created one of her most iconic roles in this Film noir thriller that had her playing a glamourous and seductive housewife who has an affair with a drifter, played by John Garfield, who she then conspires with to murder her husband and cover it up. This is the type of Femme Fatale character that was very prevalent during the Film noir period, but Lana Turner set the bar high with a role that is widely regarded as her greatest performance.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle
Batman Returns (1992)
Growing up during the Tim Burton era of Batman films, the very first female character I ever remember gravitating to on screen was Selina Kyle in Batman Returns. Her persona has always intrigued me because Selina is not what one would consider to be a Femme Fatale at first glance. She is very introverted and uncomfortable around men in power. Until she puts on a mask and throws on a tail and becomes this ferocious feline villain who demands respect through fear and entrapment. As her alter ego, Catwoman evolves, so does Selina as she undergoes a sexual awakening that stops men dead in their tracks both in and out of costume. For me, Selina Kyle will always be one of my favorite characters in cinema and no one plays Catwoman more convincingly than Michelle Pfeiffer.
Rita Hayworth as Gilda Mundson Farrell
In what has since become her signature role, as Gilda, a cabaret singer who winds up in a love triangle between her husband and his business partner (her ex-lover), Rita Hayworth leaves her mark as a seductive screen siren. One of the most iconic moments of Hayworth’s career is in this film when her husband Ballin (played by George Macready) introduces his friend Johnny (played by Glenn Ford) to Gilda. Ballin opens the door asking Gilda, “Are you decent?” Then, we get three of the most illuminating moments in film as Gilda throws her head back, her hair landing perfectly on her shoulders as she replies, “Me?”
Nicole Kidman as Suzanne Stone-Maretto
To Die For (1995)
Suzanne Stone is walking machine, always working on her next move, her next story. She is determined to become a famous news anchor. She is narcissistic and will steal the spotlight the minute she feels the attention is no longer on her. With a perfect combination of satire and impulse, Kidman’s portrayal of Suzanne is a glorified example of a woman who uses her beauty not to get ahead, but to twist the minds of those around her so she will leave knowing she has gotten exactly what she asked for. And even when things don’t go as planned, she is so self-obsessed that in her mind, she is famous and admired.
Kim Novak as Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster
Alfred Hitchcock had a knack for finding beautiful actresses who could play women that were enticing to the eye but devious in their actions. This was never more evident than in Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Vertigo in which Kim Novak plays two different characters, one that is seductive and secretive, and the other being more authentic. Both characters intrigue her leading man, James Stewart. With her sultry physicality and mystique, Kim Novak delivers a performance that is hypnotizing to the viewer.
Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne
Gone Girl (2014)
It’s always the quiet ones. As “Amazing Amy,” Rosamund Pike delivers one of the most memorable screen performances of the past twenty years. As a wife out for revenge on her cheating husband, Amy Dunne comes up with some of the most twisted ideas imaginable and what’s crazy is that nothing is elaborate. Simplicity is her weapon and, in the end, when the whole world is rooting for her, you can see it in her eyes that she has you all fooled. Amy Dunne is either the most deranged woman on this list, or the smartest.
Glenn Close as Alex Forrest
Fatal Attraction (1987)
Of all the films in this list, Fatal Attraction is the one I revisit the most, as I think it is one of the most influential films of the 1980s because it was the first film to address marital affairs and also because I think Alex Forrest is one of the most fascinating character studies one can undergo. Although she is portrayed as this terrifying seductress, every time I watch Fatal Attraction, I never view Alex as the villain in this film. Early on in the film, shortly after sleeping with Dan, a happily married lawyer, she asks him “Why is it that all the interesting guys are married?” Dan (Played by Michael Douglas) replies, “Well, maybe that's why you find them interesting because you can't have them.” That is the moment everything changes for Alex. She knows she can’t have Dan so she is willing to do whatever it takes to get him, even if that means going to such extremes as boiling a rabbit.
Kathleen Turner as Matty Walker
Body Heat (1981)
In her very first on-screen role, Kathleen Turner really turned up the “heat” in this erotic thriller formulated to revisit the extravagance of the Film noir genre of the 1940s. Turner plays Matty Walker, a seductive temptress who begins an affair with Ned, a Lawyer during a heat-wave in Florida. Using her body and scheming mind as a weapon, she convinces Ned to murder her husband so that she can inherit his money and they can share the wealth and be together. Once the deed is done, we come to find that Matty has a few devious intentions of her own. And she is one of the few Femme Fatales to commit a crime and get away with it. The film is loaded with iconic scenes of sexual ferocity and launched the career of Kathleen Turner and labeled her as one of cinema’s most seductive screen sirens.
Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell
Basic Instinct (1992)
In a performance that harkens back to a Hitchcockian film, Sharon Stone portrays one of cinema’s most seductive, alluring, and deadly characters in the neo-noir thriller Basic Instinct. Stone plays Catherine Tramell, a novelist who is under investigation after her lover has been murdered with an ice pick during sex, a scene she had also written in one of her novels. Despite a clear alibi, she is followed by a detective, played by Michael Douglas. He becomes obsessed with her and the two develop a heated sexual relationship. Catherine is oddly calm, very neutral in her tones which seems almost more suspicious than if she were defensive. When approached with a question, she answers so quickly and surely as if she has everything planned out. The very controversial interrogation scene gives us the implication that not only is Catherine a woman who uses her sexual wilds to entice men but that she is also a very intelligent woman who knows how to follow the rules.
Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson
Double Indemnity (1944)
The one that started it all. While Barbara Stanwyck’s portrayal of Phyllis Dietrichson may not be the first Femme Fatale role displayed on screen, it certainly was the most impactful and sparked an interest in adding the female element to the Film noir genre. Double Indemnity remains one of the most influential films ever made because it really was the first of its kind. Stanwyck plays an alluring housewife who seduces an insurance salesman and convinces him to murder her husband and make it look like an accident, so she can reap the benefits of his life insurance. As the film progresses, we as the viewer aren’t sure if we can trust Phyllis’s intentions whatsoever. What adds to the phenomenal credibility of Stanwyck’s performance is that the dialogue throughout the film is so complimentary to her character’s motive. Phyllis was unlike any character that Stanwyck had played before but her performance as a deceptive seductress really set the tone for the Femme Fatale roles that would follow in her footsteps.
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