Most Iconic Female Performances in 80s Movies

Most Iconic Female Performances in 80s Movies
The Women Leading The Way In 1980's Cinema

The 1980s were a transformative decade for cinema, offering us a treasure trove of unforgettable characters. While we all know and appreciate the badassery of characters like Sarah Connor from The Terminator or Ripley from Aliens, this article shines a spotlight on some equally iconic yet perhaps less-discussed performances of iconic female characters from the 1980s. Sometimes, it's the softer or more nuanced portrayals that truly leave their mark.

Whoopi Goldberg as Celie in The Color Purple (1982)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Whoopi Goldberg portraying Celie in The Color Purple from 1982.

What made her character iconic:
Whoopi Goldberg's portrayal of Celie in The Color Purple was revolutionary. Set in early 20th century Georgia, Celie endures unspeakable hardships. Goldberg's emotional depth and nuanced performance earned her an Oscar nomination. Celie's transformation from a timid woman to a resilient individual showcases Goldberg's immense talent.

Meryl Streep as Sophie in Sophie's Choice (1982)

Directed by: Alan J. Pakula

Meryl Streep playing Sophie in Sophie's Choice from 1982.

What made her character iconic:
Meryl Streep's Oscar-winning performance as Sophie is hauntingly beautiful. As a Holocaust survivor living in Brooklyn, Sophie's complex emotions are portrayed with subtlety and power. Streep's ability to convey Sophie's guilt, suffering, and resilience is unparalleled.

"Acting is not about being someone different. It's finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there."
Meryl Streep

Meg Ryan as Sally Albright in When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Directed by: Rob Reiner

Meg Ryan as Sally Albright in When Harry Met Sally from 1989.

What made her character iconic:
Meg Ryan's Sally Albright is the epitome of charm and wit. Throughout the film, Sally's vulnerability and growth resonate with audiences. Ryan's comedic timing and authentic portrayal make Sally a memorable rom-com heroine.

On a personal note, Meg Ryan's portrayal of Sally Albright has always been a favourite rom-com of mine. Her witty banter with Harry and her heartfelt vulnerability make her feel like a friend I've known for years. Find out where Sally Albright ranks in our Ranking article for Meg Ryan: Meg Ryan's Top 10 Movies Ranked

Dolly Parton as Doralee Rhodes in 9 to 5 (1980)

Directed by: Colin Higgins

Dolly Parton portraying Doralee Rhodes in 9 to 5 from 1980.

What made her character iconic:
Dolly Parton shines as Doralee, a secretary standing up against workplace sexism. Parton's charisma and comedic talent make Doralee an inspiring and likeable character. This was a groundbreaking step in film-making, one that highlighted a specific plight amongst women. It also lead to the single by Parton, "Working 9 to 5"

Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Directed by: Wes Craven

Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street from 1984.

What made her character iconic:
Heather Langenkamp's Nancy Thompson is the ultimate "final girl," facing Freddy Krueger with courage and resourcefulness. Langenkamp's portrayal of Nancy's transformation into a warrior is both captivating and empowering.

Geena Davis and Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice (1988)

Directed by: Tim Burton

Geena Davis and Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice from 1988.

What made their characters iconic:
Geena Davis as Barbara Maitland and Winona Ryder as Lydia Deetz each bring something special to Beetlejuice. Barbara's resilience and humanity shine through in a world of supernatural chaos, while Lydia's unique personality and openness to the supernatural make her a cult favourite.

Tim Burton's Beetlejuice is a classic horror-comedy that still delights audiences today. If you're curious about why this film remains a fan favourite,favourite. check out our detailed review: Beetlejuice: A Classic Horror-Comedy That Still Delights

Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark from 1981.

What made her character iconic:
Karen Allen's Marion Ravenwood is the tough-as-nails ex-lover of Indiana Jones. Her independence and wit make her an iconic counterpart to Indy.

"I never, ever, ever had a character who was this brave, this tough, this independent."
Karen Allen on her role as Marion

Michelle Pfeiffer as Elvira Hancock in Scarface (1983)

Directed by: Brian De Palma

Michelle Pfeiffer portraying Elvira Hancock in Scarface from 1983.

What made her character iconic:
Michelle Pfeiffer's Elvira Hancock is a complex character navigating a world of crime. Her gradual transformation into a formidable woman is captivating to watch.

"I don't necessarily want to play characters that are likable or redeemable or role models."
Michelle Pfeiffer

Michelle Pfeiffer's performance as Elvira Hancock is undeniably iconic. Her portrayal of the character's journey and evolution in Scarface is a testament to her acting prowess. Curious about where this role stands among Pfeiffer's best? Check out our Ranking article: The 15 Best Michelle Pfeiffer Movies Ranked

Elizabeth Hartman as Mrs. Brisby in The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Directed by: Don Bluth

Elizabeth Hartman as Mrs. Brisby in The Secret of NIMH from 1982.

What made her character iconic:
Elizabeth Hartman's Mrs. Brisby is a gentle yet brave mouse on a quest to save her family. Her maternal devotion and courage make her an inspiring protagonist. Yes, I am aware that this is an animation! Every so often, you get an actor or actress that is able to infuse their self so deeply into the heart of a character, this was such a moment.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Wanda Gerschwitz in A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Directed by: Charles Crichton & John Cleese

Jamie Lee Curtis as Wanda Gerschwitz in A Fish Called Wanda from 1988.

What made her character iconic:

Jamie Lee Curtis' Wanda Gerschwitz is a cunning con artist with a flair for seduction. Her audacity and wit make her a memorable femme fatale.


If our list allowed for 21 entries, Jodie Foster's portrayal of Sarah Tobias from The Accused would have been in for sure! Check out where we rank it on Jodie Foster's Top 10 List

Adrienne Shelly as Audrey in The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

Directed by: Hal Hartley

Adrienne Shelly as Audrey in The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

What made her character iconic:
Adrienne Shelly's Audrey is a refreshingly authentic heroine. Her emotional honesty and sarcasm set her apart from typical rom-com characters.

Winona Ryder as Veronica Sawyer in Heathers (1989)

Directed by: Michael Lehmann

Winona Ryder portraying Veronica Sawyer in Heathers from 1989.

What made her character iconic:
Winona Ryder's Veronica Sawyer rebels against high school cliques in this dark comedy. Her journey from conformist to rebel is both entertaining and empowering.

Winona Ryder's breakout role in Heathers showcased her early talent and set the stage for her illustrious career. But did you know her first film was another gem worth revisiting? Dive into our review of her debut in Lucas (1986): A Forgotten Gem of a Movie to see where it all began.

Jenny Wright as Mae in Near Dark (1987)

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

Jenny Wright as Mae in Near Dark from 1987.

What made her character iconic:
Jenny Wright's Mae is a seductive vampire with a wild streak. Her mix of sensuality and ferocity makes her a captivating antagonist.

Jenny Wright's portrayal of Mae in Near Dark is hauntingly mesmerizing. The film itself has left a lasting impression as a unique take on the vampire genre. If you're intrigued by this cult classic, don't miss our detailed review: Review of Near Dark (1987)

Kathleen Turner as Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone (1984)

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Kathleen Turner as Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone from 1984.

What made her character iconic:
Kathleen Turner's Joan Wilder is a romance novelist turned adventurer. Her transformation into a brave heroine is both humorous and inspiring.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Susie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

Directed by: Steve Kloves

Michelle Pfeiffer portraying Susie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys from 1989.

What made her character iconic:
Michelle Pfeiffer's Susie Diamond is a smoky-voiced lounge singer with a troubled past. Her sultry performance and emotional depth elevate the film's romantic tension.


The 15 Best Michelle Pfeiffer Movies, Ranked
Let’s count down Michelle Pfeiffer’s 15 greatest films, from her early supporting roles up to her most recent return to film.

Sandahl Bergman as Valeria in Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Directed by: John Milius

Sandahl Bergman as Valeria in Conan the Barbarian (1982)

What made her character iconic:
Sandahl Bergman's Valeria is a fierce warrior and Conan's ally. Her physical prowess and intense presence make her a memorable action heroine.

Grace Jones as May Day in A View to a Kill (1985)

Directed by: John Glen

Grace Jones as May Day in A View to a Kill from 1985.

What made her character iconic:
Grace Jones' May Day is a deadly henchwoman with killer instincts. Her athleticism and unique look make her an intimidating Bond villain.

Brigitte Nielsen as Red Sonja in Red Sonja (1985)

Directed by: Richard Fleischer

Brigitte Nielsen as Red Sonja in Red Sonja (1985)

What made her character iconic:
Brigitte Nielsen's Red Sonja is a fiery warrior seeking vengeance. Her fierce combat skills and determination make her an iconic action heroine.

Kathleen Turner as Matty Walker in Body Heat (1981)

Directed by: Lawrence Kasdan

Kathleen Turner as Matty Walker in Body Heat in 1981

What made her character iconic:
Kathleen Turner's Matty Walker is a seductive temptress plotting a deadly scheme. Her confidence and allure make her a classic femme fatale.


These powerhouse performances by female actors in the 1980s have left an indelible mark on cinema, showcasing the depth, range, and resilience of women characters on the big screen. From the emotional depth of Whoopi Goldberg's Celie to the audacious wit of Jamie Lee Curtis' Wanda, each portrayal stands as a testament to the strength and complexity of women-led narratives in film.

The 1980s were not just a decade of iconic movies but also a period that challenged and expanded the roles available to women in cinema. Whether they were fighting supernatural evils, navigating complex relationships, or standing up against societal injustices, these characters proved that women could be the heart, soul, and driving force behind some of the most memorable films of the era.

So, the next time you revisit these classics or discover them for the first time, take a moment to appreciate the incredible performances that have made these films timeless. Their impact continues to resonate, inspiring new generations of filmmakers and audiences alike.



About the Author

Hello, I'm Richard Wells, and I am the creator and writer for Rewind Zone, a haven for movie nostalgia enthusiasts. At Rewind Zone, we dive deep into the world of cinema, celebrating movies that have shaped our culture and left a lasting mark on our hearts, from the 60s and beyond. If you're passionate about reliving the magic of classic films from various decades, be sure to visit www.rewindzone.com. Join me on a journey through time as we explore the movies that continue to captivate audiences generation after generation.


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