It's not always a man's world in the Wild West. Women had to fight even harder to survive in the days of the American frontier, holding their own in a land of outlaws and criminals, stuck in a time that prioritized men above everyone else. As Hollywood started popularizing the western genre, female characters were slowly given the chance to shine alongside the men over the years, doing more than just wearing pretty dresses and supporting the cowboys from the sidelines.
The women on this list have brought to life some of the most iconic female characters in the history of westerns, showing that sometimes in the world of the west, you should be betting on the women. Here are the 20 best performances by a female in the history of western films and TV shows.
Kelly Reilly as Beth Dutton in Yellowstone
Kelly Reilly gives a captivating performance as the only daughter of modern-day rancher John Dutton on the popular series Yellowstone. She's a woman who you wouldn't want to mess with. Raised on a ranch full of men, she isn't necessarily warm and fuzzy. But like any good layered performance, she does have a soft side reserved for the love of her life, Rip Wheeler. Despite being a complicated and, at times, mean character, she's become one of the most popular in the entire series, which is really something. Not to mention the fact that many of Beth's fans had no idea that Reilly was actually British because she does such a good job of effortlessly blending into the Dutton family's Montana ranch empire.
Laura San Giacomo as Crazy Cora in Quigley Down Under
Tom Selleck gives a memorable performance as the cowboy Quigley in this Australian western but it's impossible to look away from Laura San Giacomo as his love interest, Crazy Cora. At first glance, Cora just seems eccentric, but over the course of the film, you realize that it's actually all a front to deal with the horrific tragedy she endured back in the United States. It's a beautiful performance and one of the most memorable in the entire film, which is saying something because it boasted a really impressive cast.
Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in True Grit
Longtime fans of John Wayne's Oscar-winning performance in True Grit weren't sure what to think when news came out that the Coen Brothers would be remaking the story of Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn. Not only did Jeff Bridges give the performance of a lifetime as Cogburn, but Steinfeld shines as Mattie, a young girl seeking justice for her father's killer. The film was her big break and she showed up in a big way, holding her own against three of the most celebrated actors today -- Josh Brolin, Bridges and Matt Damon. She even snagged a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Shirley MacLaine as Sister Sarah in Two Mules for Sister Sarah
This isn't necessarily one of the best westerns of all time, but it's a fun story, and the performances are next level. MacLaine, who is always good, is perfect as the prostitute posing as a nun, Sara, who teams up with a mercenary played by Eastwood. Together they help a group of rebels fighting an evil emperor's reign during the French intervention in Mexico. The role was initially offered to Elizabeth Taylor but went to MacLaine who actually received top billing above Eastwood.
Elizabeth Taylor as Leslie Lynnton in Giant
Elizabeth Taylor was already a Hollywood legend, but Giant ended up becoming of the most iconic southern films ever made. Starring opposite Rock Hudson and James Dean, she gives a stunning performance as Leslie Lynnton, a socialite who marries a wealthy rancher and finds herself in a complicated love triangle.
Barbara Stanwyck as Victoria Barkley in The Big Valley
One of the most memorable female TV characters of all time is the matriarch Victoria Barkley. Stanwyck won an Emmy for playing the wealthy ranch owner who maintains the Barkley ranch after her husband's death. Not only was her performance absolute perfection, but it was an important time for women as this was one of the first times a woman was able to lead a western series.
Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke
Amanda Blake is another actress who gave a memorable performance in a classic western TV series. Blake spent 19 years playing saloon-keeper Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke, one of the longest-running westerns of all time.
Katharine Ross as Etta Place in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not only one of the best westerns ever made but the best movies, period. It did an amazing job of capturing the final days of the two legendary outlaws who have managed to become folklore heroes since their presumed deaths in Bolivia. It's hard to hold your own with the likes of Robert Redford and Paul Newman, but Katharine Ross does just that as Sundance's love interest, Etta Place. She was a real person who traveled with the duo and was well aware of their life of crime. Ross makes Etta's story important and memorable in this historic film.
Kerry Washington as Broomhilda von Shaft in Django Unchained
Django Unchained is a lot of things. It has nods to the spaghetti westerns of the '50s and '60s that have heavily influenced writer/director Quentin Tarantino's work over the years, but it's also a harsh reminder of the horrors that defined the Antebellum South. Kerry Washington is absolutely stunning as Broomhilda, the wife of Django, who has come to rescue her from evil slave owner Mr. Candie.
Diane Lane as Lorena Wood in Lonesome Dove
Lonesome Dove is full of some of the biggest western stars of all time -- Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover. The miniseries is highly regarded as one of the best westerns ever to hit the screen and that's really because the flawless cast did justice to Larry McMurtry's incredible story. Life was hard for women in the Old West, and Lane's performance as the prostitute Lorena Wood honors their difficulties, doing whatever they had to do to survive.
Jodie Foster as Annabelle Bransford in Maverick
There's just something really fun about Maverick, based on the popular James Garner TV series. As charming as Gibson is as the title character, Foster is perfect as Annabelle Bransford, a con artist joining Bret on his adventures. They have amazing chemistry, and Foster shows that men weren't the only ones who could have a little fun on the edge of the law.
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight
Jennifer Jason Leigh is one of the only women in Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, but she's one of the best parts of the entire film...probably the reason she earned an Oscar nomination. She is equally hilarious and terrifying as the criminal Daisy Domergue, who is being escorted to her hanging by a bounty hunter.
Michelle Williams as Emily Tetherow in Meek's Cutoff
Meek's Cutoff is one of those films that is popular among western fans because it's that good. Based on the real story of a group of settlers on the Oregon Trail led by a man named Stephen Meek, Williams is strong and resilient as Emily, a testament to real women who did whatever it took to survive on the frontier.
Annette Bening as Sue Barlow in Open Range
The beauty of Annette Bening in Open Range is its a quiet but strong performance. She's not slinging guns or running from outlaws but does exactly what she's supposed to do. She's perfect as Sue Barlow, a middle-aged woman on the frontier who finds love with Kevin Costner.
Madeleine Stowe as Cora Munro in Last of the Mohicans
Last of the Mohicans is one of the most incredible films I've ever seen, and honestly, that's mostly because Daniel Day-Lewis is a chameleon who can morph into whatever character he takes on fully. It's not easy to star opposite one of the most legendary actors of all time, but Madeleine Stowe is perfect as his love interest Cora, a colonel's daughter who gets a real culture shock as she finds herself in the middle of the French and Indian War.
Isabel May as Elsa Dutton in 1883
If you love Yellowstone, you'll also love its prequel series 1883, which tells the story of how the Dutton family came to settle down on their Montana land. Isabel May is captivating as the teenage Elsa Dutton, who couldn't feel more at home on the dangerous trail Out West. She lives life the way she sees fit and isn't afraid to die young. It's a moving performance that will bring you to tears by the end of the season and one that will most likely be career-making for the young actress.
Sharon Stone as Ellen in The Quick and the Dead
Talk about someone you wouldn't expect to see in a western, but this is actually one of Sharon Stone's best roles. She was so excited about the film she signed on to produce as well and actually paid for Leo DiCaprio's salary herself since the studio wasn't sure about his casting. She stars as Ellen, a female gunslinger of the Old West who agrees to a shooting tournament in a town run by outlaws. She does a really great job making you believe she is Ellen and successfully blends into the fictional Old West world.
Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane in Deadwood
Calamity Jane has been portrayed on the screen many times over the years, but Robin Weigert's performance on the HBO series Deadwood couldn't be any more different from the musical rendition of Doris Day. She is rough, captivating, and exactly how you'd picture a woman holding her own in the Wild West to be. Fans of the series know that this is just a really special performance...if you haven't seen the show, let this be the push you need.
Michelle Dockery as Alice Fletcher in Godless
Michelle Dockery is best known for starring in the British period drama Downton Abbey, but she couldn't be farther from that role as Alice Fletcher. She's a mother, and a widow twice over, who defends her family in a western town primarily run by women after a mining accident wipes out the men. Dockery went to "cowboy camp" with the cast to get comfortable slinging guns and looking at home on the ranch and her performance ended up being so convincing that she earned an Emmy nomination.
Anjelica Huston as Calamity Jane in Buffalo Girls
It's another portrayal of Calamity Jane! Huston makes the Wild West legend her own in a moving performance about her friendships with notable western characters. Based on the novel by Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry, Buffalo Girls allows Huston to show us a different side of Jane and her relationship with her daughter. Huston earned an Emmy nomination for the role, which was definitely well-deserved.
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