One of the big reasons that people have always flocked to cinemas is so they can pretend that the gorgeous people they see on screens may one day throw them a look. Ever since the days of Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino, Hollywood has sold glamor and sex appeal to sell films.
I’ve lost count of how many times one actor or another has been declared “the sexiest actor ever.” I’m not even one hundred percent sure how one is awarded that label. To me, it seems very personal and not something that can be objectively agreed upon. Some people might find some overlaps, sure, but surely someone like the late Paul Bartel was sexy to somebody?
But the fact is, as long as there has been a film industry, there has been a voyeuristic component that extends beyond what happens on screen. People invent their own fantasies around their favorite actors. This has been encouraged by the number of details that we hear about their personal lives and the entire pathetic magazine industry that has sprung up about showing people all of their favorite celebrities in enticing poses.
This is something that transcends genders. Yes, it does seem to be affecting women very badly, to the point where talented actresses get shafted while those that photograph well keep getting $20 million contracts while having all the personality, charm, and talent of a seven legged black widow spider. (Looking in your direction, Cameron Diaz.)
But I figured, so long as everyone else is playing this game, I might as well give it a try. I’ve selected the actresses I consider to be the “sexiest” in cinema. I am unable to examine their male counterparts – I leave that in the hands of more qualified writers.
A couple more things – this will be presented in rough chronological order rather than ranking. I find ranking to be mean. Also, this is my list, so I’m sure I will exclude some of your personal picks. I’m sorry in advance. Oh, yes, and I also feel my picks should be people from great films. I’ve excluded a few because their body of work is just (excuse the pun) limp. So I will include at least one film from each that I consider to be great.
Paulette Goddard (As seen in: Modern Times)
Paulette Goddard’s gamin character in Modern Times was the first really great female role.
As can be expected, most female roles before this were what you would expect. The women were trophies for the menfolk, who had no aspirations of their own. They were just there to look good. Even Mae West, who at least pushed out of that mold a little bit, was ultimately just a dumb fantasy.
Goddard was a fantasy too, but one that was so much better. She spent the film helping The Tramp realize his own potential – and at least, made him realize life wasn’t so bleak. This, despite the fact that she herself was escaping from people who wanted to tear her life apart
What was most important about Goddard was strength. She realized what life was all about and seemed to make it her priority to teach everyone else. I know Nathan Rabin coined the term “manic dream pixie girl” as a derogatory statement about this type of character, but Goddard made it seem wonderful.
Finally, isn’t that hair just gorgeous?
Rita Hayworth (As seen in: Gilda)
Instead of a picture, I would like to present this video. (They won’t let me embed it here.)
These days, Hayworth is most remembered as a plot point from The Shawshank Redemption as opposed to the glamorous idol she is. She was one of the post WWII actresses who embraced the changing role of women on film.
After the war, films abandoned their perception of women as meek housewives into fuller characters who had their own desires. The backlash against this trend is what created the “femme fatale” character. Hayworth’s most famous role embraces this trend, where she plays a woman that destroys a man’s carefully laid plans.
But Hayworth had developed that aspect of her personality long before Gilda. Watch her dancing in that video. Look at the confidence she exudes, even as she’s paired with Fred Astaire. Look at how proud she appears to be at the dresses that ride up on her figure. And even though this is edited from her best clips, look at how she overshadows every other person in the scene.
That’s something that’s never been replicated since. To Hollywood’s shame, most women are directed to still remain less prominent than the menfolk. Hayworth would not have worked with those conditions. She knew she what her power was and embraced it every time she appeared on camera.
Marilyn Monroe (As seen in: Some Like it Hot)
Come on. How could I exclude her from this list?
Marilyn Monroe is still the the most famous cinematic sex symbol of all time, and she did it at a time when there should not have been any sex symbols in cinema. I got into a debate once with someone who didn’t “get” Marilyn Monroe. She was a bad actress (a fair point) who was worthless. What purpose did her movies serve?
The answer simple. The 1950s were a buttoned up time where sexuality, particularly female sexuality, was practically Victorian in its outlook. Monroe, with nothing more than a high pitched voice and a sewer grate, shattered all of that. I would go as far as to say that the next decade with its focus on human liberation – well, it at least would have been quite different without Monroe.
Plus, come on. Just look at her.
Audrey Hepburn (As seen in: Breakfast at Tiffany’s)
Hepburn came at the time when women were becoming stronger on film. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is what people keep mentioning, and it’s a fair recommendation.
Tiffany’s embraces a world of feminine glamor that has not really been repeated. Holly Golightly in not some airhead that one would expect to see in a socialite. She’s almost wearing a mask that breaks when she sings “Moon River” to herself. She always knows exactly what to say – almost as if she’s playing an elaborate game of Yuppie chess before Yuppies were a thing. And she accomplishes all of this without bedding anyone. It might seem quaint now, but back in the day it caused a firestorm for all the right reasons. There was finally a female character that could be admired as more than a sex object. I guess that means my inclusion of Hepburn on this list is inappropriate, but that sort of role has always been alluring to me. I’d rather have a conversation with Holly Golightly than temporarily bed a Bond girl.
But my favorite film that demonstrates Hepburn’s appeal is Charade. It happened completely by accident to. Costar Cary Grant felt he was too old to be openly flirting with the younger Hepburn. So, the filmmakers gave her all of the sexually suggestive dialogue.
This works because it gives her the power that many women want to have. And frankly, the results are breathtaking. There is still an almost Puritan attitude toward the female sex drive. I’m still trying to figure out why. And I’m wondering why there aren’t more women like Hepburn to destroy that notion once and for all.
Guiletta Masina (As seen in: Nights of Cabiria)
Masina was most famous as Frederico Fellini’s wife. She possesses the qualities that you would expect someone married to Fellini to possess. She has a sort of dreamlike quality that other people don’t seem to possess.
I’m surprised she doesn’t get mentioned more. She is quite glamorous, albeit in a way that could only exist in a Fellini movie. Usually, she played a downtrodden figure (as in La Strada) that made it impossible to really see her for what she is.
But then she took the lead in Nights of Cabiria, Fellini finally showed everyone exactly what drew him to her. She was a wonderful free spirit, who never let anything get the best of her. She was able to talk with the same lust to life to millionaire actors and to the post World War II Italian poor. Not only is she able to relate to them, she was able to do so with no effort. The result is that she comes across as the popular girl in high school who is still able to talk to the AV geeks and even give them hope that they’re lives will get better.
What was unusual about her in Nights of Cabiria was how Fellini surrounded Messina with women who were taller, more made up, and wearing far more glamorous clothes. But all eyes were drawn to Messina, as she wandered through her surroundings dancing, laughing, and flirting with everyone she meets.
Sophia Loren (As seen in: Marriage, Italian Style)
Sophia Loren has long been one of the most famous sex symbols of all time. There is a good reason for this, which most will be able to see in the picture below.
For those remaining, it shouldn’t take much to convince you. Loren was the first real superstar of world cinema. Most actors had to immigrate to the U.S. before anyone cared (see Greta Garbo). But Loren gave audiences a view of a rebuilt Italy only ten years after it had nearly been destroyed in World War II. She starred in a few Hollywood productions, but it was her Italian filmography that caught everyone’s attention.
What does that mean? It means that Loren was a sort of exotic window into a world that no one really knew existed. And despite Italy’s paternalistic society, Loren was able to use that world to her advantage every time. At the same time, she embraced the life she was leading and lived with a zeal that most people cannot fake. Her grace and power ensured that she would always be able to overcome whatever was put in her way.
For those who remain unconvinced, please refer again to this picture:
Anna Karina (As seen in: Band of Outsider)
During the 1960s, world cinema finally gained some attention in the U.S. I’d like to think that most of this is because of Anna Karina.
Karina has been off the radar for many years. Her last big role was in the American remake of Charade strangely retitled The Truth About Charlie. Does anyone reading this article remember that movie? Put your hands down; you are lying.
Before that, Karina was the most exciting actress in cinema. She’s stared in some of the greatest films of all time, which were really memorable because she stared in them.
Take a look at A Woman is a Woman, which is a film modeled after what seems to be the ultimate female fantasy. But A Band of Outsiders remains her most appealing film. It’s a heist film where she plays the lead. She’s the one who plans the theft and assembles the accomplices.
She’s also the most memorable character in whatever film she appears in due to her stunning eyes, her amazing presence, and her incredible charm. She has been the model for many subsequent actresses who take the center stage in their films. But none of them looked quite as good as Karina does while she dances the Madison.
Pam Grier (As seen in: The Big Bird Cage)
Pam Grier once granted an interview to the AV Club. Grier openly wondered about why actresses were getting paid $20 million just to take off their clothes. Grier pointed out she had been doing the same since the 1970s but had been paid much less.
Some people may claim this is exploitation. And to some degree it was. Grier admits she played the characters she played in order to break into film, as those were the only roles that were offered to a minority woman.
And by doing so, she broke down barriers.
Grier was famous for all of the genre pictures she starred in. Quentin Tarantino eventually showed everyone the extent of Grier’s talent in Jackie Brown. But Grier was always destined for such a role. She was a powerful figure that was not afraid to express herself and her needs on celluloid. It was a perfect representation on what some actresses still have to face. It also gave Grier a presence that has not been equaled. From her husky voice to her amazing figure, Grier dominated over everyone she shared the screen with. This article has been secretly about revolution, and how the most attractive women were the ones who shattered the sexpot role that Hollywood still demands women fulfill. Grier was someone who did when no one expected her to accomplish anything in her roles.
Faye Dunaway (As seen in: Network)
These days, Dunaway lives in infamy after Mommie Dearest destroyed her as a serious actress. But she ruled as one of the best actresses of the late 1960s and the 1970s.
She was also, to me, one of the first actresses that reflected the changing role of women in society. They were becoming equals to men, if not more important. Check out her career driven performance in Network, where she can barely stop talking about ratings long enough to complete coitus.
That’s what was so amazing about Dunaway. Her looks were somewhat unconventional, but she was still able to draw audiences in with her incredibly strong personality. She was the dominant woman of the future, and I can’t think of anyone who really replaced that role.
Natassja Kinski (As seen in: Cat People)
Granted, dating Kinski would earn you some very awkward conversations with her dad that might lead to your own demise.
It’s probably worth it.
Kinski became one of the most recognizable sex symbols of the early 1980s thanks to the famous “python” picture. Naturally, she jumped into films. Unnaturally, it was largely thanks to Roman Polanski, who I’m not entirely convinced isn’t some mutant elf from another planet.
To me though, the film that really cemented her in my mind was the unfairly maligned One from the Heart. The film was about people exploring their own fantasies after becoming bored with their lives. It sounds like it would collapse, but at least Kinski prevented that. She embraced that role, offering everyone a husky voiced pixie that was impossible not love. Then she turned around and mocked this in Cat People, stating that she should NOT be just a fantasy because of the quirks that come with every human being. It was pretty daring for someone who had been a Vogue cover girl.
Many people are going to notice that I keep mentioning about the fantasy aspects of these actresses. They are correct – as I stated above, this is part of the appeal of cinema. Kinski represented that in a way that has never been captured. Coppola’s One from the Heart embraced that aspect of her public persona, while Cat People turned up that persona to almost gratuitous levels. Then again, there certainly is something appeal about “unleashing the beast inside” Kinski.
Scarlett Johansson (As seen in: Under the Skin/Her)
With Scarlett Johansson, we’re getting into actresses that I didn’t retroactively discover. I remember going to see Eight Legged Freaks in theaters, which is a film that probably doesn’t show up during Johansson’s Oscar clips. One scene featured her wearing nothing but a towel, the way every actress in a B-movie must.
Thankfully though, she didn’t succumb to those temptations of wearing towels for her paychecks. No, Johansson managed to become a very classy actress of the highest caliber, who simultaneously exudes endless sex appeal and class. It’s sort of like how I imagine a date with Kate Middleton might go, without all the ramblings about her in laws.
What’s incredible is she’s even able to do this without being seen. This is why I included Her in my examples. She creates such an alluring character that everyone would find desirable. And she does it through her vocal inflections and her seemingly limitless intelligence.
It captures Johansson’s spirit well. She’s become almost a sort of royal figure, exuding grace no matter what role she’s in.
Lily Cole (As seen in: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)
Cole is another actress who never seems to get mentioned. Actually, I understand why. Her filmography leaves something to be desired. Indeed, her break out role has not been replicated.
But what a break out role! Cole’s performance in Dr. Parnassus was good enough to allow her to be included on this list. She was someone who was forced to play the sort of little girl character that many women have been forced to play. But she stood up against it, evolving throughout the film and refusing to be used as a Faustian pawn.
What stood out for me is her unconventional appearance. By all accounts, Cole does not look like the symmetrical models that dominate all media. She also knows that and uses it to her advantage. Doctor Parnassus required all actors to go through the fantasies of their “customers.” (As in, actual dream fantasies that they would remember, like living in a Salvador Dali painting.) Cole is like a chameleon in each of her personas.
It’s amazing that her filmography afterwards consists of an appearance in Snow White and the Huntsman and a guest role on Doctor Who. I only hope she does bigger roles soon.
Jennifer Lawrence (As seen in: Silver Linings Playbook)
It seems that many people would mention Ms. Lawrence based on her role in The Hunger Games. But to me, her draw has always been her independent films that allow her to really develop her public persona.
Jennifer Lawrence has become famous for acting like the people who go see her movies. This is important for the 2010s. In an era where everyone has their picture on the internet, we expect celebrities to live the same lives that we do. Or, we at least expect them to be approachable.
This is where Lawrence separates herself from people like, say, Angelina Jolie. Lawrence still acts like the girl next door every time she gives an interview – someone who seems to know all about the Hollywood lifestyle and why it’s something to be avoided.
That comes across on screen as well. She’s never played a character who’s really meant to be a sexual being. The closest she’s come is American Hustle, who’s portrayed as a degenerate that only exists to cause disasters. Her other roles may seem like she’s trying to improve the men in her life, but even that is not entirely correct. The Hunger Games focuses on her and her alone, while Silver Linings Playbook depicts her as an equally damaged person who is searching for a cure to her afflictions.
To me, this is important. She is not an angel, but someone who is still capable of living a better life and helping you live yours.