Women’s Top Three Oscar-Winning Roles Will Surprise You

by Gil Mansergh

There were ten nominees in the race for last year’s Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars. Two played characters who were sexually assaulted onscreen, (Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs and Rooney Mara as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and another played a serial adulterer (Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn).  This continues a long-standing pattern, for since 1958, the roles that most frequently earn a Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination are those of prostitute, adulterer, or rape victim.

I was admittedly generous with my categories. For example, before becoming a lounge singer in The Fabulous Baker Boys, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character worked as a “paid escort,” which I reclassified as a prostitute. And in the middle of the confirmation process to become the Vice President of the United States in “The Contender,” Joan Allen’s character is only accused of being paid for sex.

I was equally broad with the rape victim category, including spousal rape in “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” and statutory rape in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” because Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek) got married when she was only 13-years-old.

So here are the surprising results:

26 nominations were for playing prostitutes.

15 of the Oscar-winning roles were prostitutes.

1. Susan Hayward —I Want to Live! (1958)

2. Shirley Jones—Elmer Gantry (1960)

3. Elizabeth Taylor—BUtterfield 8 (1960)

4. Shirley Jones—Elmer Gantry (1960)

5. Shirley MacLaine—Irma La Douce (1963)

6. Shelley Winters—A Patch of Blue (1965)

7. Jane Fonda—Klute (1971)

8. Liza Minnelli—Cabaret (1972)

9. Glenda Jackson—A Touch of Class (1973)

10. Marsha Mason—Cinderella Liberty (1973)

11. Madeline Kahn—Blazing Saddles (1974)

12. Mira Sorvino—Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

13. Elizabeth Shue—Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

14. Kim Basinger—L.A. Confidential (1997)

15. Charlize Theron—Monster (2003)

83 nominations were for playing Adulterers.

14 of the Oscar-winning roles were Adulterers.

1. Wendy Hiller—Separate Tables (1958)

2. Simone Signoret—Room at the Top (1959)

4. Julie Christie—Darling (1965)

5. Goldie Hawn—Cactus Flower (1968)

6. Glenda Jackson—Women In Love (1970)

7. Cloris Leachman—The Last Picture Show (1971)

8. Ellen Burstyn— Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

9. Lee Grant—Shampoo (1975)

10. Jane Fonda—Coming Home (1978)

11. Meryl Streep—Sophie’s Choice (1982)

12. Shirley MacLaine—Terms of Endearment (1983)

13. Cher—Moonstruck (1987)

14. Julie Christie—Afterglow (1997)

23 nominations are for playing Rape Victims.
4 Oscar-winning roles were Rape Victims.

  1. Sophia Loren—Two Women (1961)
  2. Patricia Neal—Hud (1963)
  3. Sissy Spacek Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
  4. Jodie Foster—The Accused (1988)


I hope these numbers will make you stop to consider the choice of roles made available to women who work in movies—because there are thousands of additional prostitutes, adulterers and rape victims in the over 15,000 other films released during the last five decades.

And then take a minute to ponder why so many of us—male and female alike—have such a distorted view about the role of women in our culture.


Gil Mansergh has been writing a movie column for newspapers, and the web since 1995. You can read his syndicated Cinema Toast mini reviews here.  Gil’s first YA novel, The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill, has just been released with high praise from critics and readers alike.













Last 5 posts by Guest Writer