Then And Now: A Look At 40 Iconic Women From TV and FilmBy John P.
Whether in front of the camera or behind, women have been an essential part of TV and cinema history since the medium’s invention. Sadly, it’s not well-known that the idea of using a motion picture to tell a story was the invention of Alice Guy Blanché—the first-ever female director—who pioneered the idea way back in 1896. Before her emergence on the scene, films were mainly known for being a simple novelty.
Since then, women from all parts of the industry have been carrying movies to greatness—from directors, producers, set designers, caterers, gaffers, and of course, actors. Here we’ve rounded up some of the most iconic female actresses ever to appear on screen in a celebration of women’s contribution to our beloved art form for you to enjoy.
She’s probably most well-known for her performance as MJ in Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy, but Dunst is a seasoned player in the movie business. Dunst cut her teeth in the 1994 Ann Rice adaptation of Interview With A Vampire, co-starring alongside Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise.
Her performance got her nominated for her first Golden Globe award—impressive, given that she was only 12 during shooting. Since then, she has proven her talent in critically acclaimed films such as The Power of the Dog and Melancholia and the uniquely twisted TV show Fargo.
Although she got her start in Mexican telenovelas, this actress worked her way into Hollywood by taking supporting roles in the 90s classics Wild Wild West, Desperados, and Dogma. She played a starring role in the visually striking biopic Frida, in 2002.
Hayek has earned four Emmy nominations and critical acclaim throughout her career. From action to comedy and from acting, producing, or directing, she’s one of the most recognizable and influential Latin players in the industry today.
From playing a sophisticated reporter in Jean-Luc Godard’s scathing Tout Va Bien to being an international sex symbol in Roger Vadim’s pulp sci-fi classic Barbarella, Fonda might be one of the most versatile and talented actresses in the business.
Having tried out a little bit of everything—modeling, activism, writing—it seems Jane Fonda has never been content with sitting still. She was blacklisted from Hollywood for a time for her visit to Vietnam while the war was still hot—a stunt that earned her the nickname “Hanoi Jane.”
One of the breakout stars from The Cosby Show, she managed to carry her spin-off show, A Different World, for six whole seasons. She’s been recognized for her comedy chops in multiple award nominations, including Outstanding Support Actress and a Primetime Emmy.
After The Cosby Show, Bonet surrounded herself with talent, both on set and at home. She was once married to Lenny Kravitz and Jason Momoa. She has three children, including Zoe Kravitz—now also a breakout star thanks to the success of 2022’s The Batman.
Little Kim Richards got her start in the movie business early—well, not quite. She first starred in a carpet commercial as a baby. She went on to act in several Disney flicks, the titles of which seem to have a running theme: Escape To Witch Mountain, No Deposit, No Return, and Return From Witch Mountain.
She then appeared in several American classics, including The Dukes of Hazzard, Magnum, PI, and CHiPs, as well as scare-fests such as Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell. More recently, she’s been dipping into the world of celebrity-focused reality TV.
This French-American actress has starred in a number of iconic and important films of this era, including playing a character in one of the most romantic film trilogies of all time—Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, and Before Midnight.
If you haven’t had a chance to see them for yourself, do yourself a favor—get yourself a mug of hot chocolate and a box of tissues and watch them under the blanket. Delpy has, of course, starred in, directed, and written other soulful titles, such as 2 Days In Paris and Three Colors: White.
Sophia Loren is Hollywood royalty through and through. During her prime, she won an Academy Award for Best Actress—the first actor to get one for a non-English speaking film. But she was not born into glamor and luxury.
Loren faced many hardships growing up, including a long brush with poverty and depression. After taking on several supporting roles in her home country of Italy, she worked her way up, eventually snagging a five-picture deal with Paramount, which rocketed her career.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on this planet who wouldn’t recognize Pamela Anderson, especially not after Hulu’s eight-part series Pam & Tommy hit the internet. This Canadian is probably most well-known for her part in Baywatch and for being unceremoniously thrown into a marriage sack in Borat.
It probably comes as no surprise that Anderson has had a long career as a model. In addition to being an international icon and sex symbol, she is also a prolific animal rights activist.
Christina Ricci is instantly recognizable as the edgy Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family movies and for her subsequent roles as spooky teen outsiders, including a part in the live-action Casper.
Over the course of her career, Ricco has taken on mature, challenging projects, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Monster, Black Snake Moan, and Buffalo ‘66. Fans of Christina Ricci might be excited to learn that she will be making an appearance on a TV show about Wednesday, directed by Tim Burton.
Selma Blair embodies tenacity. With a childhood dream of becoming an actor, Blair experienced 75 failed auditions before finally getting her break on the 76th. After taking a series of small parts, she finally landed the lead role in the film adaptation of James Ellroy’s Brown’s Requiem.
From then on, Blair consistently landed parts in major films, including Legally Blonde and Cruel Intentions, often appearing as seductive or twisted characters. Sadly, she announced that she had multiple sclerosis in 2018—but it doesn’t seem to have even slowed her down.
Marina Sirtis is best known for her portrayal of ship’s counselor Deanna Troi in the 1980s follow-up to the hit sci-fi space-western, Star Trek in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Her character’s inclusion gave the show’s writers more room to explore interpersonal and psychological themes, such as parental responsibility and what it means to live with trauma.
Throughout all seven seasons, Sirtis pulled off her role masterfully. However, during the show’s first few seasons, she voiced concerns that her character was being written off as passive eye candy. As a result, her character, Deanna, underwent a story arc that toughened her up into a lean, effective Starfleet officer.
Arguably best known for her parts in The Karate Kid and Back To The Future, Elisabeth Shue has received accolades for her performances in Leaving Las Vegas and the British anthropological thriller Link. Shue reprised her role as Alli Mills in Karate Kid’s 2018 TV sequel, Cobra Kai.
Shue is a Harvard graduate who began her studies in 1985 and graduated in 2000. No, she wasn’t studying for 15 years straight—she left her political science BA a semester before graduating to pursue acting, only to return more than a decade later.
As an iconic figure of the 90s, Winona Ryder has seen a resurgence of fame and popularity with the success of Netflix’s 80s nostalgia-fest, Stranger Things, in which she plays Joyce Byers, an erratic but sharp-witted divorcee.
After a run-in with legal troubles and mental health issues, Ryder took some time out of acting early in the 2000s. Thankfully, she made a triumphant return. She may technically be wedded to Keannu Reeves (at least in the eyes of God), as the two were “married” by bonafide Romanian priests during the filming of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992.
Christina Applegate entered the limelight at a young age on the hit sitcom Married… With Children as a child actor. She later earned herself an Emmy and several Golden Globe nominations for another unusually punctuated sitcom, Samantha Who?
This highly talented actress is also famous for appearing opposite Will Ferrill as Veronica Corningstone in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. She later went on to work with Ferrill in his Netflix dark comedy, Dead To Me.
Often cited as one of the best on-screen representations of a US marine officer, Catherine Bell is famous for her portrayal of Major Sarah MacKenzie in the military legal drama JAG. She’s well known for her work in TV movies, especially in Hallmark films, such as The Good Witch series.
On top of having a long and varied acting career, Bell is something of an adrenaline junkie. As a self-described tomboy, Bell enjoyed skateboarding and soccer as a kid. She’s a big fan of American football and is pretty handy in the cockpit of a plane.
She’s known as a prolific voice actor today, but Olivia Hussey’s acting career was kicked into high gear after she was hand-picked for one of the leading roles in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. She was, of course, well trained before she took the part, having studied at London’s Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts for five years beforehand.
Following Romeo and Juliet’s success, she went on to star in what many consider to be one of the greatest horror movies ever made: Black Christmas. She’s also known for having moved into the home Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family in, weeks after it happened. That’s quite the storied house!
She was probably one of the most famous child actresses in television history, and since her days in The Brady Bunch, she’s led quite an interesting life, even if she stepped out of the TV limelight, having been a radio host and animal rights activist.
In 2019 she returned to the Brady house as part of a documented renovation of the classic sitcom house, which actually has an address and postcode. Her other acting credits include Mama Claus, Deck The Hall With Guts, which seems like a slight departure from the wholesome role for which she’s known.
Best known for her portrayal of Janet Wood in the hilarious sitcom Three’s Company, Joyce DeWitt has been busy since then, having graced such productions as Peter Pan, Dracula: An Original Rock Music, The Crucible, Gypsy, and The Vagina Monologues.
DeWitt isn’t just a talented comedian and actress—she spends her spare time trying to solve world hunger and tackling homelessness. She’s even lent her voice to Street Signs: Homeless But Not Hopeless, a documentary that raises awareness of the issue.
Growing up, Margot Kidder lived in a remote mining town until the age of 12. She and her mother flew to New York to see a movie—something that she had never seen before—when she realized that she had to be an actor. She used acting as a way to cope with the many mental illnesses which plagued her throughout her life.
The American-Canadian actress was known for her work alongside Christopher Reeves in the Superman movie series and was iconic to millions worldwide. As well as being a three-time Canadian Screen and Daytime Emmy award winner, she was also a passionate environmental and anti-war activist. Sadly she passed away in 2018.
Mary Tyler Moore
Here’s another prolific all-rounder. Mary Tyler Moore is best remembered for her work on The Dick Van Dyke show, as well as her sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This fearless icon has been known as the “Queen of Brooklyn,” technically making her TV royalty.
Throughout her life, Mary Tyler Moore has wowed audiences with musicals, films, and talk shows. Moore has also given back through her philanthropic work, animal rights activism, and diabetes awareness-raising campaigns.
Crowned “Miss Nevada” in 1959, Dawn Wells had a hurricane of success on film and television through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. She’s best remembered for playing the wholesome Mary Ann Summers in Gilligan’s Island, reprising her role in its spin-off cartoon and various TV movies.
Wells was a great believer in helping people. She founded and ran Wishing Wells Collections, a fashion company that specialized in designing clothing for people with limited mobility. She would also lend her name and energy to charities that strove to help the disabled and disadvantaged. Sadly, Wells passed away in 2020 at 82.
Next up is the highly talented Justine Batemen, most well known for her early work in Family Ties throughout the 80s. She’s since proven herself to be a renaissance woman, being a licensed pilot, certified scuba diver, computer science specialist, as well as a director, producer, writer, and mother of two.
As well as Family Ties, you might know her from her appearances on Desperate Housewives, Men In Trees, Easy To Assemble, and in an oddly-familiarly titled episode of Arrested Development, in which she guest-starred alongside Jason Bateman, her real-life brother.
TV veterans might remember Lisa Whelchel for her acting debut as a Mouseketeer in The Mickey Mouse Club, but most viewers will know her as Blair Warner in The Facts Of Life. She’s also proven to be quite the musician and writer.
Additionally, she’s known for her speaking and writing work promoting Christianity, which has always influenced her, even from an early age. She recently explained in an interview that her faith had evolved into a love-based practice instead of a fear-and-punishment-based practice, which we think is beautiful.
Yvonne De Carlo
An international film star in the 40s and 50s, Margaret Yvonne Middleton—professionally known as Yvonne De Carlo—had a long and star-studded career in film and television, beginning in 1945’s Salome, Where She Danced.
While the film wasn’t well received, it was a commercial success and launched her into stardom. A decade later, she starred in the hugely successful The Ten Commandments. Of course, she was also the iconic face behind the vampire wife, Lily, in The Munsters. Yvonne De Carlo passed away in 2007, aged 84.
This actress saw the hugely popular Dallas from beginning to end as Sue Ellen Ewing, in a role that saw her nominated for various awards. Linda Gray is a prolific actor behind the camera and on stage.
She gave a sensational performance as the fairy godmother in the Cinderella stage play in 2014. She picked up multiple awards throughout her career, including Woman of the Year in 1982.
For being born in 1922—that’s right, a hundred years ago—Betty White earned the Guinness World Record for being the woman with the longest career in entertainment history. She’s another fine example of women pioneering the industry.
As well as having an enormous list of television, game show, big screen, and radio credits to her name, white was also an advocate for LGBT rights, animal welfare, and opposing racial injustice. She passed away in 2021 at the age of 99 and left a legacy that will be felt by many for years to come.
Sarah Michelle Geller
Almost the embodiment of the 90s, Sarah Michelle Geller still stands as one of the greatest female role models of all time. At a time when damsels in distress were standard fare, her performances in Buffy The Vampire Slayer inspired women everywhere to slay their own demons (or in this case, vampires) and reach for greatness.
Between her charity work, Geller has made a few cameos and guest appearances on TV and has played a few main roles over the last few years, most notably, The Crazy Ones in 2014. She is also a master businesswoman and is currently in the business of selling baking kits. She created her own cookbook, “Stirring Up Fun With Food,” in 2017.
British actress Hayley Mills began her career young, winning the hearts of millions for her performance as the lead character in 1960’s Pollyanna. The next year, she was nominated for a British Film Award (BAFTA) for her work in Whistle Down The Road. See it if you get the chance!
After a few years working with Disney, she worked on and off in stage productions. Her memoir, Forever Young, the enchanting story of a child actor growing up in the spotlight during her rise to stardom, was released in 2021 to great acclaim.
Somers is a Step by Step and Three’s Company alumni, alongside fellow actress Joyce DeWitt. Before and after her television career, she was known for her live-entertainment acts and fitness lifestyle equipment promotion.
While Somers fought the good fight in trying to win a pay increase to match that of her male peers of the day in Three’s Company, she was ultimately denied by the producers. However, she has since become involved in advocating questionable and (some would consider) dangerous alternative cancer treatments.
First appearing in Hawaii Five-O, Loretta Swit is best known for her portrayal of Major Maggie “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the classic wartime comedy-drama, M*A*S*H, for which she was awarded two Emmy Awards.
Afterward, she made appearances on game shows such as Hollywood Squares, Win, Lose Or Draw, Password, and Pyramid. She also made many appearances in TV shows and movies throughout the years, even hosting a documentary about the Korean war (the setting of the TV show that made her famous).
As another former cast member of Three’s Company, Priscilla Barnes has made several iconic appearances in film and television throughout the years, including cult-classic Mallrats, The Devil’s Rejects, and the 007 spy thriller, Licence to Kill.
After growing up on many military bases around the country, Barnes made her way to San Diago to pursue a life of acting. After years of work, it looks as though she’s finally taking a break from the industry.
This rose sure isn’t made of paper. Marie Osmond lit up television screens across the country as a talk-show host, along with her brother, in Donny & Marie. She also found success as an actress in several TV movies and TV shows.
Of course, she’s more well known for her music career. She covered a real earworm in the 80s, Paper Roses, getting her international fame, and she made a welcome return to the charts in 2016 with her Music Is Medicine album, which reached the tenth spot on the US country albums chart.
Although she began her career as a teenage talk show host, Penélope Cruz began her journey to stardom after starring in the racy TV show Softly In Paris. Before finally breaking through and gaining a wider US audience, she appeared in several films such as Hi-Lo Country and Woman On Top.
Her work in 2001’s Vanilla Sky finally pushed her into the limelight, eventually allowing her to become an established name and internationally recognized and multi-award-winning star. In 2011 she starred in Pirates Of The Caribbean: Stranger Tides alongside Johnny Depp.
It’s amazing how Julie Benz’s looks have changed over the years—just kidding. That’s Benz as Darla from her time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, because her character was so popular with the fans, Angel, its spinoff show.
When she was 15, an agent told her that she would never find success in the business, but with three decades worth of TV and movie credits to her name and a huge fan following, she showed him.
With an incredibly long list of accolades and awards preceding her, Tilda Swinton is probably recognizable to most Americans for her uniquely androgynous look, even if they don’t know her name. 2001’s The Deep End and 2005’s Constantine catapulted her to fame.
The Scottish actress made an appearance in Marvel’s Doctor Strange in 2015, which likely revitalized public interest in her name. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone else with the same level of talent and style with as many credits to her name as Tilda Swinton.
With a surname that even sounds like a euphemism (if you squint), it seems Ursula Andress was the perfect choice for the first-ever Bond girl. Since emerging from the sea in 1962’s Doctor No as Honey Ryder, she has captivated the imaginations of audiences for many decades after the film left movie theaters.
After Doctor No, she played opposite Elvis in 1963’s musical, Fun in Acapulco. She capped off a long career with the award-winning historical drama Peter the Great and a few other projects before entering semi-retirement in the 90s.
Melissa Sue Anderson
After briefly appearing on an episode of The Brady Bunch and Bewitched, Melissa Sue Anderson got her big break when she was cast as Mary Ingalls in Little House On The Prairie, a hugely popular TV show which ran for nine seasons throughout the 70s and 80s.
Little House On The Prairie wasn’t just popular in the US—she picked up Spain’s most important television award for Best Foreign Actress. She worked on other popular shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Murder She Wrote until the advent of the 90s when she stepped out of the spotlight for more of a quiet life.
Fans of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off will, of course, know her as Ferris’ long-suffering older sister, Jeannie. 1987’s Dirty Dancing elevated this actress to international stardom and fame—and additionally won her a Golden Globe nomination.
But her passion for dancing didn’t end with that movie—she made several appearances in Strictly Come Dancing as well as Dancing With The Stars, even winning in Dancing With The Stars’ tenth season. Nobody puts Baby in the corner!
A fashion and a film icon, Marrion Cotillard is known and loved for her “arthouse” projects as much as she is for her Hollywood hits—Public Enemies, Inception, Contagion, and The Dark Knight Rises—just to name a few. As well as being the spitting image of Coco, she’s been the face of Chanel’s No. 5 fragrance since 2020.
In addition to having won pretty much every award under the sun and been made a Chevalier—what is essentially French knighthood—Cotillard is also known for her musical talents, environmental activism, and theater work.
Jennifer Love Hewitt
Propelled by the success of “Party of Five,” Jennifer Love Hewitt was thrust into the public consciousness as a teen idol after the release of 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer. From there, she went on to The Ghost Whisperer to even more acclaim.
Since then, she’s been more into writing—dating advice guides and music—a passion she’s had ever since her childhood. In fact, she was considered to be a major pop star in Japan when she was only 12 years old, thanks to her first-ever album, Love Songs. Incredible!