The ’80s were a pivotal time for actresses. Equity feminism began to take force, and the basis for what would become third-wave feminism in the ’90s slowly took root. Hollywood saw the return of studio-driven films and blockbuster tentpoles after the auteur-focused New Hollywood era of the 1970s. Teen movies achieved their peak, both critically and commercially, and some of the most enduring and beloved franchises made their big-screen debuts.
The decade gave audiences an embarrassment of riches in terms of cinematic content, and several high-profile actresses were at the center of it all. These women ruled the ’80s, carving out screen personas that would stand the test of time and turning them into cinematic icons.
10 Sigourney Weaver
After her breakthrough role in 1979’s Alien, Sigourney Weaver went on to dominate the ’80s. The first half of the decade saw her play leading roles in critically acclaimed films, like The Year of Living Dangerously, and blockbusters, like Ghostbusters.
She would climb to the peak of her success in the decade’s second half, receiving Academy Award nominations for three of her most successful films: 1986’s Aliens and 1988’s Gorillas in the Mist and Working Girl. Weaver would say goodbye to the decade by reprising her role as Dana Barrett in 1989’s Ghostbusters II.
9 Jamie Lee Curtis
Curtis made her film debut as the ultimate final girl, Laurie Strode, in John Carpenter’s seminal slasher Halloween. Establishing herself as a scream queen, Curtis played leading roles in several other slashers, including Prom Night, Terror Train, and Halloween II.
The 1983 comedy, Trading Places, earned her a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actress and provided some much-needed diversity to her resume. In 1988, she’d receive further critical acclaim and a BAFTA nomination for her role in the beloved heist comedy, A Fish Called Wanda.
8 Carrie Fisher
Carrie Fisher became an instant star thanks to her role in George Lucas’ 1977 space opera Star Wars. As Leia Organa, Fisher redefined the role of the female lead in action-adventure movies. She quickly became an ’80s icon, thanks to her instantly memorable fashion and hairstyle, active role in the story, and influence on other female characters of the decade and cinema as a whole.
Fisher’s career post-Star Wars consisted of supporting roles in numerous films, like Hannah and her Sisters and When Harry Met Sally. She also became a successful author, screenwriter, and script doctor.
7 Whoopi Goldberg
In 1985, Whoopi Goldberg received her breakthrough thanks to her performance as Celie in Steven Spielberg’s period drama The Color Purple. Her performance earned her an Academy Award nomination, and to this day, many film lovers believe she should’ve won.
Between 1985 and 1988, Goldberg made seven films, including Penny Marshall’s directorial debut, Jumpin’ Jack Flash. A gifted comedian, Goldberg also hosted multiple HBO Comic Relief specials alongside fellow comedians Robin Williams and Billy Crystal.
6 Jessica Lange
One of the most lauded actresses of her generation, Jessica Lange had her breakthrough in the 1976 King Kong remake. However, her most successful year would be 1983, thanks to her roles in Tootsie and Frances. She received Oscar nominations for both and won Best Supporting Actress for the former.
Lange would go on to receive another two nominations during the ’80s for Country and Sweet Dreams. And while her filmography during the second half of the decade included mostly low-budget films that underperformed at the box office, her performances were always highly praised.
5 Molly Ringwald
To this day, Molly Ringwald remains the undisputed queen of teen films. Thanks to the consecutive triple act of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink, Ringwald established herself as a teen movie star and an icon for the entire ’80s generation.
Ringwald’s later films, including The Pick-Up Artist and For Keeps, were commercially successful, cementing her place as one of the biggest box-office draws of the decade. Her career waned in the ’90s, after infamously turning down the lead roles in Pretty Woman and Ghost, but she will forever be one of the actresses that defined the ’80s.
4 Kathleen Turner
Kathleen Turner rose to prominence at the beginning of the decade, thanks to her performance in Lawrence Kasdan’s neo-noir, Body Heat. What followed was a string of commercial and critical successes, including Romancing the Stone, Prizzi’s Honor, The Accidental Tourist, The War of the Roses, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
For her performance in the 1986 comedy Peggy Sue Got Married, Turner received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Despite a slight career slow down in the ’90s after her rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, Turner has been a steady presence on TV and in the occasional film ever since and is perhaps best known more recently for her role in The Kominsky Method.
3 Michelle Pfeiffer
Often considered one of the most beautiful faces to ever grace the silver screen, Michelle Pfeiffer’s filmography proves she’s also a versatile and eclectic performer. She received her first major role in Brian de Palma’s 1983 crime film Scarface and received critical acclaim for her role in Jonathan Demme’s 1988 comedy Married to the Mob.
Pfeiffer would go on to receive two consecutive Oscar nominations for her supporting role in 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons and her leading turn in 1989’s The Fabulous Baker Boys. Her career would carry on through the ’90s, and despite a short break in the middle of the 2000s, she came back stronger than ever, recently receiving a Golden Globe nomination for her leading role in the 2020 dark comedy, French Exit.
2 Glenn Close
Glenn Close had one of the most successful and critically acclaimed filmographies of any actress in the ’80s. After a successful run on Broadway, Close made her film debut in 1982’s The World According to Garp, receiving a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. She’d receive two more, for The Big Chill and The Natural, before making a successful transition into leading lady status.
Two of Close’s most memorable roles, Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction and the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, earned her two Lead Actress Oscar nominations. Close would go on with her successful career but has yet to win an Oscar, despite eight nominations.
1 Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep stands as Hollywood’s most acclaimed actress. She holds the record for most Academy Award nominations, a staggering 21, winning three. It all began in the 1980s when she established herself as the best actress of her generation. Her films during this decade include her Oscar-nominated turns in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, for which she won, Silkwood, Out of Africa, Ironweed, and A Cry in the Dark.
Streep’s career is still as strong, if not stronger than it was back in the ’80s. And looking back at her career, it’s undeniable that she was the greatest and most prominent actress of the decade.
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