Emerging from the traveling Wild West shows of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Western genre of film has stood the test of time as one of the most prolific and memorable cornerstones of American cinema. Primarily set within the American frontier, many Western films depict life and culture during this tumultuous period of westward expansion and manifest destiny. The Western genre would skyrocket and reach its peak during the 1950s, when iconic figures such as John Wayne and prolific directors like John Ford became household names.
Despite their decline in popularity in recent years, Western films have made an identifiable impact on American culture. The films are often noted as “American epics,” according to The Guardian, and have transformed the historical ideals and mindsets of American citizens. Over the years, the Western genre has been full of equally renowned and underrated performances that have skewed in favor of men. However, there have been countless performances by women in Western films that deserve equal recognition. So, here are 11 of the best women performances in Western films.
11 Barbara Stanwyck as Jessica Drummond – Forty Guns (1957)
The 1957 film Forty Guns, which was directed, written, and produced by Samuel Fuller, is a standout film in the Western genre due to its central character, Jessica Drummond. Drummond, who is played by Barbara Stanwyck, is a rancher and landowner in the film, and she runs the land with a powerful force. She is a tough-natured woman who enforces her control over Cochise County, Arizona, with the presence of her 40 hired gunslingers.
Drummond is an intense and unafraid-to-kill villain whose overwhelming control takes center stage in Forty Guns. Her stone-cold demeanor, along with her antagonistic nature, made Fuller’s Western film pivotal for female characters in the genre. Stanwyck excellently portrays the complexities of the dramatic and villainous character; and along with performing her own stunts, Stanwyck helps elevate Jessica Drummond as one of Western’s greatest female performances.
10 Joan Crawford as Vienna – Johnny Guitar (1954)
The roaring ’20s and 1930s were prolific decades for Joan Crawford, who became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars during the period. Despite being known for her motivational performances that resonated with the women of the post-Depression era of film, Crawford’s star quality fluctuated before her career resurgence in the 1940s.
Joan Crawford ventured into the Western genre with the release of Johnny Guitar in 1954. The revisionist Western sees Crawford as Vienna, the aggressively headstrong owner of a saloon near the border of Arizona. Her relationship with nearby cattlemen, already strained, becomes a point of contention once her saloon is held responsible for a robbery at a local bank.
Vienna’s tough nature remains a pinnacle of conflicting views towards Westerns of its kind during the era of its release, as the film was critiqued with mixed reviews upon release. Since then, Johnny Guitar has been re-evaluated in a new light, and Crawford’s stern performance has been heavily respected.
9 Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone is heavily influential in the Western film genre, as his unique approach to directing led to the emergence of the spaghetti Western genre in cinema. His 1968 epic Once Upon a Time in the West, is not only the start of an unofficial trilogy of similar films, but also a strong entry in Leone’s iconic legacy of spaghetti Western films.
Once Upon a Time in the West follows a mysterious gunslinger (Charles Bronson), only distinctively known by his harmonica playing, as he seeks revenge for the death of his brother. Along the journey, the character is introduced to Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), the heir to the Sweetwater ranch.
Claudia Cardinale subjects the typical tropes of a stock character in Once Upon a Time in the West, by bringing nuance to the character of Jill McBain. She is determined to become well-regarded in her goal of becoming wealthy, and prides herself on becoming a sense of morality for the characters in the film. Cardinale’s portrayal adds depth to a usually unimportant character in Western films, and it makes her one of Western’s best female performances.
8 Elizabeth Taylor as Leslie Benedict – Giant (1956)
The 1956 George Stevens directed epic Western film Giant sees James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in lead roles. The film, which is based on a 1952 novel by Edna Ferber, follows the newlywed couple Bick (Hudson) and Leslie Benedict (Taylor) and their lives at their cattle ranch in Texas. The couple’s lives become complicated once Jett Rink (Dean) comes into the picture.
Giant offers Elizabeth Taylor the perfect opportunity to convey the variations of Leslie’s character, who is both a wealthy socialite and at the center of a devastating love triangle. Despite the overwhelming presence of James Dean’s star power in his final film role, Taylor effortlessly conveys the reasoning behind her top-billing in Giant. She offers a moving performance of the grounded Leslie in an overwhelmingly beloved, classic Western.
7 Jane Fonda as Catherine “Cat” Ballou – Cat Ballou (1965)
Jane Fonda leads one of the best Westerns of all time in the 1965 film Cat Ballou. The film sees Fonda as the titular school teacher who becomes a ruthless outlaw after hiring a gunman to avenge and protect her father’s ranch. Cat soon discovers that the gunman, Kid Shelleen (Lee Marvin), has more layers to him in the Academy Award-winning role.
Cat Ballou became a box office hit upon its release, earning $20.6 million at the box office and becoming the seventh-highest-grossing film in 1965. Jane Fonda’s performance was highly respected, and her charismatic portrayal of the eccentric outlaw earned her many accolades.
6 Michelle Williams as Emily Tetherow – Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Known for its subversion of toxic masculinity in Westerns, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff is a minimalist approach to survivalist Westerns that is based on diaries of women on the Oregon Trail. The film depicts the routine lives of the women during Stephen Meek’s (Bruce Greenwood) frontier-guided, doomed wagon voyage on an alternative Oregon Trail path known as the titular film.
Michelle Williams stars as Emily Tetherow in the film, and plays the role of the strong-minded and determined wife of Solomon Tetherow. The role is effortlessly portrayed by the multiple Academy Award nominee, as Emily’s steady mistrust of Stephen Meeks leads to the catalyst of mistrust in the film. Emily’s role as the essential antithesis to Stephen Meeks is perfectly captured in Williams’ quiet and observant performance of the film’s central female character.
5 Doris Day as Calamity Jane – Calamity Jane (1953)
Doris Day stars as the titular Calamity Jane in the technicolor musical Western Calamity Jane in 1953. The musical’s screenplay is loosely based on the actual life of the American frontierswoman Martha Jane Canary. However, the film also explores the apparent relationship between Jane and James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (Howard Keel).
In the lead role, Doris Day is able to captivate audiences with her choreographed numbers, soothing voice, and comedic prowess in an attempt to win over the affection of Wild Bill. Jane’s loyalty and heavy-drinking nature proved to be a joy for viewers and critics to witness, leading to the film’s Academy Award win in Best Original Song for “Secret Love.” The whimsy film is also critically lauded by the American Film Institute, including four entries in the organization’s film lists, such as the best 100 heroes and villains list in 2003, and is often regarded for its queer and lesbian subtext.
4 Kerry Washington as Broomhilda “Hildi” von Shaft – Django Unchained (2012)
Quentin Tarantino’s love for Western films shined in the making of 2012’s Django Unchained. The highly revisionist Western is a love letter to Tarantino’s favorite film genre of spaghetti Westerns and the Italian Western Django, co-written and directed by Sergio Corbucci. The film follows Jamie Foxx as Django Freeman, a slave who becomes separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), as he trains under bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to reunite with his wife.
Kerry Washington’s performance in the film is authentically grounded, as she insisted on bringing raw authenticity into her performance, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“The actor playing her overseer used a fake whip, but Washington insisted the lashings really hit her back. And to dramatize her punishment inside an underground, coffin-size metal container, she and Tarantino agreed she would spend time barely clothed in the “hot box” before the filming began, so the feeling of confinement would be as realistic as possible.”
3 Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross – True Grit (2010)
Despite being the youngest entry on this list, Hailee Steinfeld manages to hold her own when discussed among some of the best female performances in Western films. Steinfeld makes her breakthrough feature film debut, after starring in a series of short films, as Mattie Ross in the 2010 film True Grit. The film follows Steinfeld in her first lead feature role, as her character, Mattie Ross, embarks on a mission to avenge the death of her father. Along the journey, Mattie is accompanied by the trigger-happy Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger.
True Grit is often described as one of Hailee Steinfeld’s best performances, and the then-13-year-old actress manages to captivate audiences through her powerful portrayal of the tough hearted Mattie Ross. Steinfeld became critically acclaimed for her monumental performance, earning numerous accolades, including a Best Actress in a Supporting Role nomination at the 83rd Academy Awards. The role also initiated Steinfeld’s career in the entertainment industry, leading to her becoming a crucial player in modern franchises such as Spider-Man, Arcane and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
2 Betty Hutton as Annie Oakley – Annie Get Your Gun (1950)
Another Technicolor Western musical makes this list, this time in the form of 1950’s Annie Get Your Gun. Despite the troubled and rocky production history of the film, which resulted in the iconic Judy Garland being fired from the lead role, the comedy Western was made and centers on the life of sharpshooter Annie Oakley. The film plays out in a cheeky romantic comedy as Annie (Betty Hutton) and Frank Butler (Howard Keel) flirt while performing as part of the traveling show headlined by Buffalo Bill (Louis Calhern).
Betty Hutton sells the charismatic Annie Oakley despite behind-the-scenes troubles, and even earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. The film was a profitable success as well, earning $7.756 million at the box office on a budget of $3.734 million.
1 Sharon Stone as Ellen “The Lady” – The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Known for his Spider-Man and campy films, Sam Raimi tapped into the genre of Western films in 1995 with the revisionist Western The Quick and the Dead. The film sees Sharon Stone as Ellen “The Lady,” a gunslinger who stumbles into the John Herod (Gene Hackman)-controlled town of Redemption, as she seeks revenge on her father’s death.
Despite receiving mixed reviews from critics and the time of its release, The Quick and the Dead has been reevaluated in recent years and is considered an underrated entry in Raimi’s catalog and an iconic, modern Western. Stone’s performance as the heroic “The Lady” centers the film in an excellent manner, as Stone delivers a memorable performance of Raimi’s strong-willed heroine.