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.
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The decade gave audiences an embarrassment of riches in terms of cinematic content, and several high-profile actresses were at the center. These women ruled the ’80s, carving out screen personas that would stand the test of time and turning them into cinematic icons.
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Updated on April 14th, 2022, by David Caballero: The 1980s are the gift that keeps on giving when talking about gifted and versatile actresses. The decade offered audiences many incredible performances by several actresses, many of whom remain as beloved and in-demand as they were during the 80s. It’s always a pleasure to look back to the decade of neon lights and shoulder pads and marvel at the careers of some of its best actresses.
Joan Chen began her career in China during the late 1970s. She rose to international prominence with her performance in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 epic The Last Emperor, a massive critical success that won all of its nine nominations at the 60th Academy Awards.
Chen would co-star in another Hollywood production, 1989’s The Blood of Heroes, cementing herself as a familiar actress for Western audiences. Chen’s success would continue into the 1990s and 2000s, combining movies in Hollywood and China.
Nowadays, Oprah Winfrey might be best known as the queen of television and one of the most powerful women in Hollywood. Indeed, she’s one of the longest-running television hosts, with her talk show lasting 25 years, from 1986 to 2011.
Oprah rose to prominence during the mid-80s, earning an Oscar nomination for her supporting turn in The Color Purple. She mainly focused on television afterward, but her name quickly became synonymous with the ’80s, cementing her as one of the decade’s undeniable icons.
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, She later 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, paving the way for her to become one of the most popular 80s actresses. In 1988, she’d receive further critical acclaim and a BAFTA nomination for her role in the beloved heist comedy, A Fish Called Wanda.
Maggie Cheung was one of China’s most famous ’80s actresses. After placing second at the 1983 Miss Hong Kong Pageant, she began her acting career, moving on to movies shortly after. Cheung achieved critical acclaim in the late 1980s with the films Full Moon in New York and Red Dust.
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Cheung was a frequent co-star of Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat, appearing in Police Story and its sequel with the former and The Seventh Curse and The Romancing Star with the latter. Cheung’s career continued thriving well into the 2000s, eventually retiring in 2013.
Despite critics considering her one of the most versatile and accomplished ’80s actresses, Alfre Woodard remains unjustly underrated. Woodard earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for 1983’s Cross Creek and won the Primetime Emmy for her role in Hill Street Blues.
Woodard spent most of the decade as a highly acclaimed television actress and had notable roles in films like 1988’s Scrooged and 1989’s Miss Firecracker. Woodard remains acting today, recently attracting acclaim for her leading role in 2019’s Clemency.
After her breakthrough role in 1979’s Alien, Sigourney Weaver dominated 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, cementing her place as one of the most iconic ’80s actresses.
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.
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.
Although she didn’t act in many major movies, Jennifer Beals remains one of the most well-known ’80s actresses. Beals made her debut in 1980’s My Bodyguard before achieving international fame with 1983’s Flashdance. The film received negative reviews from critics but was a surprising box office success, earning Beals a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress – Musical or Comedy.
Beales appeared opposite Sting in 1985’s The Bride and played a leading role in 1989’s Vampire’s Kiss, one of Nicolas Cage’s most underrated movies. And while she never replicated Flashdance’s success, the film was enough to cement her reputation as one of the most beloved 80s actresses.
In 1985, Whoopi Goldberg received her breakthrough thanks to her performance as Celie in Steven Spielberg’s period drama The Color Purple. Goldberg’s work earned her an Oscar nomination, making her the only Black woman to earn a Lead Actress nod during the ’80s; 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.
One of the most lauded 80s actresses, 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.
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Lange would 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.
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 an entire 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 most iconic ’80s actresses.
Kathleen Turner rose to prominence at the beginning of the decade thanks to her performance in Lawrence Kasdan’s neo-noir, Body Heat. A string of commercial and critical successes followed, including Romancing the Stone, Prizzi’s Honor, The Accidental Tourist, The War of the Roses, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
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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.
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 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.
Glenn Close had one of the most successful and critically acclaimed filmographies of any ’80s actress. 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.
Of course, 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.
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 Streep 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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About The Author
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David is a twenty-eight-year-old Mexican writer and reader. Having studied Marketing in school, he spent three years working a nine-to-five desk job before deciding to pursue a writing career. He now works as a Senior Writer in ScreenRant and does some more freelancing job, talking about the entertainment business he so loves. Currently, he’s also writing his second novel while actively working to get his first one published.
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