Female villains across film and TV often have three things in common: a killer wardrobe, a dramatic beauty look and an arsenal of memorable one-liners that help to ensure the spotlight remains firmly on them. Little wonder, then, that Hollywood’s hottest stars have long been lining up to play the most amoral characters in cinema.
First there are the comic book and Marvel bad girls, like Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn. Just because they’re bad on the inside, doesn’t mean they can’t be glamorous on the outside – think Angelina Jolie in Disney’s Maleficent with her signature blood-red pout. Next come the seductresses and killers, like Sharon Stone as the manipulative Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct or Jodie Comer’s well-dressed assassin Villanelle in Killing Eve.
Then there’s another category: the conflicted villainess. These women can’t quite decide which side they’re on and will occasionally use their powers for good – especially if there’s something in it for them. Here, British Vogue revisits some of the best portrayals of female villains in Hollywood history.
Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls
Is there a more malevolent presence in the annals of high school cinema than Regina George, the ice-cold queen bee embodied by Rachel McAdams in Mark Waters’s cult classic? From her skin-tight, baby pink-heavy wardrobe to her scathing asides and propensity for scheduling secret three-way calling attacks, everything about her is lethal.
Stephanie Hsu in Everything Everywhere All At Once
In Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s mind-bending, multiverse-spanning blockbuster, Joy, the misunderstood daughter of Michelle Yeoh’s beleaguered laundromat owner Evelyn, morphs into Jobu Tupaki, a force powerful enough to destroy all mankind. Despite the outlandish outfits she dons as Jobu’s various iterations – an Elvis-inspired jumpsuit, an Elizabethan ruff, a retina-searing sweatshirt with teddy bears stitched to the sleeves – Stephanie Hsu imbues her with humanity, showing the audience why this weary misanthrope was drawn to the dark side.
Rosamund Pike in I Care A Lot
Marla Grayson, the sharply-dressed, shameless con artist at the heart of J Blakeson’s barbed satire, is easily one of the best female villains ever to grace the screen. Played with relish and unrelenting charisma by Rosamund Pike, she’s a shrewd businesswoman who exploits the elderly and vulnerable, manipulating the legal system to gain guardianship over them. In short, she’s pure evil, and yet, when she meets her match in Dianne Wiest’s Jennifer Peterson, a retiree who refuses to go quietly, and her scheme begins to unravel, you almost find yourself rooting for her.
Helena Bonham Carter in Harry Potter
As the frizzy-haired, hollow-eyed and utterly ruthless Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange, Helena Bonham Carter’s high-pitched cackles are enough to chill the blood. Even when she’s surrounded by Voldemort’s most nefarious supporters, from the ominous Lucius Malfoy to the cruel Antonin Dolohov and the bloodthirsty werewolf Fenrir Greyback, she remains the most terrifying.
Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Alabama-born Louise Fletcher won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mildred Ratched, the sadistic, tyrannical nurse who presides over the hospital ward which houses Jack Nicholson’s Randle Patrick McMurphy in Miloš Forman’s moving tragicomedy. Thanks to her perfectly calibrated performance, the character became a byword for institutional abuses of power, not to mention one of the most memorable movie villains of all time.
Angelina Jolie in Maleficent
With twisted horns, razor-sharp cheekbones, piercing eyes and a billowing black cloak, Angelina Jolie becomes the titular mistress of evil in Robert Stromberg’s fantasy epic Maleficent, and its subsequent, Joachim Rønning-directed sequel – the misunderstood sorceress whose steely exterior belies a heart of gold. But, you underestimate her at your peril.
Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her
They say revenge is a dish best served cold, and as Helen Sharp, Goldie Hawn waits seven years to wreak vengeance on her love rival Madeline Ashton, played by Meryl Streep. She also drinks a potion that promises eternal youth in order to seduce the ex Meryl stole from her, and persuades him to bump off her former friend. It ends badly for all concerned, but still, 10 out of 10 for commitment.
Jodie Comer in Killing Eve
Dressed in a froth of sugary pink Molly Goddard tulle (or The Vampire’s Wife florals, or blood-red Lanvin, or vintage Alexander McQueen), Villanelle, the Russian psychopath who steals every scene in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s continent-hopping thriller, is as stylish as she is deadly. As played by Jodie Comer across four deliciously deranged seasons, she dons disguises, rides motorbikes and murders men in cold blood, while also showing us her softer side through her infatuation with Sandra Oh’s Eve Polastri.
Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad
Margot Robbie underwent a dramatic transformation to depict Harley Quinn, the former psychiatrist who becomes the Joker’s partner in crime in David Ayer’s rip-roaring romp, adopting pink and blue-tipped platinum pigtails, deathly pale skin, frayed fishnets and ripped T-shirts. And her weapon of choice for beating her enemies to a pulp? A baseball bat, of course.
Lena Headey in Game of Thrones
Whether she’s gliding through the Red Keep with her flowing locks and intricately-embroidered robes in the HBO sensation’s early episodes or clinging to power as the iron-fisted queen in the final season, Cersei Lannister is a force to be reckoned with – and Lena Headey’s frosty, imperious, utterly assured portrayal is guaranteed to send shivers down your spine.
Grace Jones in A View To A Kill
A sleek wardrobe of Azzedine Alaïa separates, sky-high cheekbones and a talent for lifting grown men high above her head make Grace Jones’s May Day, the bodyguard and lover of the psychopathic Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) in John Glen’s ’80s classic, one of the most formidable Bond women in history as well as one of the greatest female villains in cinema.
Cate Blanchett in Mrs America
Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative attorney and anti-feminist who tirelessly campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment, is the simpering antagonist of Dahvi Waller’s 1970s-set ensemble piece. In Cate Blanchett’s hands, she’s a brittle and increasingly menacing presence – a canny political operator whose ruthless ambition is carefully concealed beneath pastel-colored skirt suits, pussy-bow blouses and a facade of dutiful domesticity.
Lucy Liu in Kill Bill: Volume I
Decapitation has never been so graceful as when performed by Lucy Liu’s impossibly elegant, sword-wielding O-Ren Ishii in Quentin Tarantino’s blood-soaked revenge thriller. Uma Thurman’s ferocious, unnamed bride faces a host of worthy adversaries in the course of the film’s almost two hour-long runtime – Daryl Hannah’s icy blonde, eyepatch-wearing Elle Driver, Chiaki Kuriyama’s dead-eyed, meteor hammer-swinging Gogo – but the resilient, meticulous O-Ren trumps them all.
Emma Stone in Cruella
For Craig Gillespie’s raucous origin story about Cruella de Vil, the legendary dog-napping Disney super villain, Emma Stone dons two-toned hair, a devilish smirk, and an array of unforgettable outfits: a motorcycle jacket paired with sequined trousers; a dress with a 40-foot-long train made of trash; a white cape which bursts into flames to reveal a dark red, Charles James-inspired ballgown underneath.
Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct
A little white dress, stilettos and, famously, nothing else made Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell go down in history as one of cinema’s deadliest femme fatales. Paul Verhoeven’s era-defining erotic thriller sees her become the prime suspect in the murder of a retired rock star, but with her cocksure confidence and sizzling sex appeal, she manages to run circles around Michael Douglas’s detective Nick Curran and come out on top.
Natalie Portman in Black Swan
As Natalie Portman’s delicate swan queen Nina Sayers loses her grip on reality in Darren Aronofsky’s hair-raising psychological chiller, she transforms into the sinister Odile from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – her eyes grow bloodshot, she sprouts feathers, and she suddenly finds that she has an uncontrollable urge to destroy her rivals, no matter the consequences.
Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry’s disturbing family drama, an adaptation of Christina Crawford’s harrowing memoir which paints her adoptive mother Joan as an abusive alcoholic, casts Faye Dunaway in the part of the unhinged Hollywood icon. She polices her daughter’s behavior from a young age, frequently flies off the handle, and, in one truly horrifying scene, vehemently objects to her use of wire hangers.
Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction
Delivering a tour de force as Alex Forrest – the seductive publishing executive-turned-bunny boiler who terrorizes Michael Douglas’s happily-married lawyer in Adrian Lyne’s masterful psychological thriller – Glenn Close deterred a generation of philandering men from committing adultery out of fear for their safety, and that of their family pets, too.
Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy & Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus
After being hanged as witches in Salem in the 17th century, the all-powerful Sanderson sisters – Bette Midler’s skilled ringleader Winifred, Sarah Jessica Parker’s hapless Sarah, and Kathy Najimy’s cackling Mary – are inadvertently resurrected in Kenny Ortega’s campy comedy horror. As they wreak havoc, prepare for kitschy special effects, battles on broomsticks and a hilarious musical performance.
Faye Dunaway in Bonnie And Clyde
Bonnie Parker may have been a notorious bank robber, but Arthur Penn’s influential crime saga starring Faye Dunaway turned her into a gun-totting, cigar-smoking fashion icon with a wardrobe of berets, louche knits, printed scarves and checked trenches. Alongside Warren Beatty’s suave Clyde Barrow, they leave a trail of destruction in their wake.
Winona Ryder, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk & Shannen Doherty in Heathers
Winona Ryder’s crew of power-shouldered, croquet mallet-swinging mean girls – played by Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk and Kim Walker, and all, hilariously, named Heather – rule Westerburg High School with an iron fist in Michael Lehmann’s irresistible pitch-black comedy. Three decades on from the film’s release, their withering put-downs are more quotable than ever.
Anjelica Huston in The Witches
Playing the monstrous Grand High Witch in Nicolas Roeg’s inventive take on the Roald Dahl novel of the same name, Anjelica Huston is both a scenery-chewing delight and utterly terrifying. The scene in which she takes the stage in a black ballgown and razor-sharp bob, before peeling off her mask to reveal a bulbous face and bulging purple eyes, is sure to give you nightmares.
Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions
Roger Kumble’s delicious reimagining of Dangerous Liaisons transplants the action from the French court of the late 18th century to ’90s New York, as the slinky, slippery Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) dares the sadistic Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) to seduce the virginal Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon). Cue scheming, double crossing and unbearable sexual tension.
Originally published in Vogue.co.uk