Judy Garland – 1939

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In a period when Hollywood was still trying to figure out what it really wanted to be, The Wizard of Oz was revolutionary, setting the standard for decades to come. Its star, Judy Garland, couldn’t have been better cast. As a result, she became the first true bankable Hollywood leading lady, even if she was only 17 years old when it was released in 1939.

Lauren Bacall – 1942

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While Judy Garland fit and somewhat created the role of the sweet ‘girl-next-door,’ Lauren Bacall certainly spearheaded the leading lady as a sex symbol. Back-to-back roles in film noir staples such as To Have And Have Not, The Big Sleep and Key Largo, cemented her status as a definitive actress of the 1940s, with the help of her husband and co-star Humphrey Bogart.

Rita Hayworth - 1944

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Rita Hayworth came onto the scene in The Strawberry Blonde in 1941, though she’s best known for Gilda. Hayworth’s influence extended beyond mere acting. Her image alone, in particular a 1944 photograph in Life magazine, became a pin-up photo for American soldiers overseas during the Second World War.

Ava Gardner - 1946

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MGM officially signed in Ava Gardner in 1941 but they didn’t quite know what to do with her until 1946’s The Killers, which shot her to instant fame. She landed better roles in The Hucksters, Show Boat and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. A later role in 1953’s Mogambo earned her one and only Oscar nomination.

Marilyn Monroe – 1955

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Though there were more leading ladies in ’50s Hollywood than you could shake a stick at, it’s hard to associate any other with the era as much we do Marilyn Monroe. Her roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Some Like It Hot and How To Marry a Millionaire made a global sensation. Yet this level of celebrity never sat well with the troubled Monroe, who died in 1962 at the age of just 36.

Audrey Hepburn - 1961

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The timid actress turned philanthropist Audrey Hepburn was 24 years old when she made a mark on Hollywood in 1953’s Roman Holiday opposite Gregory Peck. Largely overshadowed by the legion of other starlets of the decade, Hepburn didn’t truly cement her place in film history until 1961’s hugely successful Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Elizabeth Taylor – 1963

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Elizabeth Taylor is one of the few child actors who is never really remembered as such. This is thanks to one or two hugely iconic films she made on the cusp of middle age. First there was Cleopatra, at the time (1963) the most expensive film ever made. And then Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1965, alongside her then and future husband Richard Burton.

Sophia Loren – 1964

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Born into poverty, Sophia Loren’s rise to fame is remarkable. In lots of ways American audience’s first taste of European sensibilities, Loren’s role in 1961’s Two Women won her the Oscar for Best Actress. Following that was Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow as well as Marriage, Italian Style. Loren more or less retired from the bright lights after her 60s heyday but her image endures to this day.

Brigitte Bardot – 1967

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As the tide turned, and European films caught attention for their daring storylines and imagery (free from the conservative restraints of Hollywood), more and more leading ladies emerged across the pond. The most popular of these was Brigitte Bardot, who, unlike Marilyn Monroe, had the Sexual Revolution on her side. The French star quit acting to focus on animal rights activism in 1973.

Raquel Welch – 1969

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With all due respect to Miss Welch, she was never considered a great actress, but you don’t really need when you have pure star power – something she had in spades. Famous for her roles in One Million Years B.C., Bedazzled, Fathom and even 2001’s Legally Blonde, Welch won the hearts of many movie-goers. Mostly teenage boys.

Jane Fonda – 1971

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Jane Fonda, fitness videos aside, is mostly remembered as a fierce civil rights and anti-war activist during her early years in Hollywood back in the late 1960s and 1970s, strongly opposing the United States role in the Vietnam War. But she was also churning out top performances in top films, notably Klute and Coming Home, winning Oscars for both.

Pam Grier – 1973

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Pam Grier became a femme fatale for a highly underrepresented minority in America with a series of blaxploitation films in the early to mid-1970s. The Big Bird Cage, Coffy, Foxy Brown and Sheba Baby were equally beloved as they were reviled by stuffy critics who refused to take her popularity seriously. Quentin Tarantino later revived her career in 1997’s Jackie Brown.

Faye Dunaway – 1974

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Though Faye Dunaway’s breakthrough role was in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, it was in the 1970s that she really took a hold of the film industry, starring in Chinatown, The Towering Inferno and Network all within a two-year frame. Dunaway ruled the roost and was rewarded with an Academy Award for her efforts in 1977.

Barbara Streisand – 1976

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After a decade on stage in musical theatre, Barbara Streisand finally combined love of film and song in 1973 with The Way We Were. It earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Three years later, she produced and starred in A Star is Born which ended up winning six Golden Globe awards.

Olivia Newton-John – 1978

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Olivia Newton-John may not have had the most eclectic and impressive acting CV, but one role was enough to secure her spot in pop cultural history. In 1978, she starred as the diffident and charming Sandy in the film adaptation of the musical Grease. 1980’s Xanadu was less of a success but from it she launched a very successful music career.

Meryl Streep - 1979

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Meryl Streep was fairly happy on the stage in the 1960s. It wasn’t until the 1970s that she made the jump over to film, and boy did it pay off. The Deer Hunter, Manhattan, Kramer vs Kramer and Sophie’s Choice all within the space of three years. Casting Streep was like printing money.

Sigourney Weaver - 1980

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Sigourney Weaver never saw herself as a leading lady, or just anyone capable of starring in films for that matter. Regardless, she was cast in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi-horror epic Alien and the rest is history. She went on to star in Aliens, Ghostbusters and Working Girl. Recently, she’s more known for her role in Avatar.

Michelle Pfeiffer – 1983

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To say she started the 1980s in the critically-panned Grease 2, it’s amazing that Michelle Pfeiffer ended up defining the era. In 1983, she starred opposite Al Pacino in Scarface as the drug-addicted trophy wife of Tony Montana. She ended the decade with The Fabulous Baker Boys for which she received a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress.

Molly Ringwald – 1985

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Molly Ringwald may have fallen out of favour since her peak in the 1980s but what a peak it was. Her role in Sixteen Candles kicked things off in 1984 as the lovably awkward Samantha Baker. John Hughes then cast her again the next year in The Breakfast Club which grossed over $5 million in its first weekend.

Demi Moore - 1990

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Demi Moore had her first taste of fame when she squeezed herself onto the soap opera General Hospital in her teenage years. She later starred among the brat pack ensemble cast in St Elmo’s Fire. But her stand-out role was something she had to wait another few years for. In 1990, Ghost put Moore on the map, cementing her status as an A-lister.

Sharon Stone - 1992

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Total Recall was arguably Sharon Stone’s first big role in film, though 1992’s Basic Instinct shot her up to dizzying heights. A few years later, Martin Scorsese cast her opposite Robert De Niro in his Las Vegas epic Casino, for which Stone earned an Oscar and Golden Globe nomination.

Whoopi Goldberg - 1993

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Whoopi Goldberg is an EGOT. A winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award. If that doesn’t make producers’ eyes turn into dollar signs, nothing will. Goldberg broke out in The Colour Purple but her most cherished role is probably in Sister Act, which was released almost a decade later!

Sandra Bullock - 1994

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Sandra Bullock is still a helpful companion of the box office what with fairly recent turns in smash hits Gravity and Bird Box. But her big break came in 1994, starring alongside Keanu Reeves in Speed. While You Were Sleeping and A Time To Kill were released shortly after, both of which made a huge profits and a household name out of Bullock.

Gwyneth Paltrow – 1995

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Most audiences were introduced to Gwyneth Paltrow - who’d been working as an actor since childhood - in the David Fincher thriller Se7en in 1995. The rest of the decade saw her earn acclaim in Emma, Great Expectations, A Perfect Murder and finally Shakespeare in Love, for which she (if controversially) won the Best Actress Oscar.

Kate Winslet – 1997

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When Kate Winslet starred in Keneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996, it’s strange to think she was virtually unknown. Then within a year, starring as Rose DeWitt in James Cameron’s hugely successful blockbuster Titanic, you couldn’t pick up any celebrity magazine or channel without seeing her face. She earned an Oscar nomination for the role and an immediate spot on the Hollywood A-list.

Julia Roberts – 1999

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Julia Roberts is synonymous with the 1990s. Her first major role was opposite Richard Gere as a prostitute in the critically acclaimed Pretty Woman. After that, came rom-com classics My Best Friend’s Wedding and Notting Hill. She kicked off the new millennium on a high with Erin Brockovich, for which she was paid a whopping $20 million; it also bagged Roberts an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Cameron Diaz - 2000

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Cameron Diaz worked as a model for Calvin Klein before wowing audiences with her iconic performance in The Mask opposite Jim Carrey. Black comedy Being John Malkovich came calling next, and then the silver screen Charlie’s Angels reboot. She also holds a special place in many people’s hearts for providing the voice of Princess Fiona in the Shrek films.

Halle Berry – 2001

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Halle Berry is a former beauty queen turned actress. She became the first African American woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in 2001’s Monster Ball. The following year she starred in Bond film Die Another Day and the horror Gothika. Berry continues to land great, challenging roles to this day, though she isn’t the blockbusting household name she was back in the Noughties.

Natalie Portman - 2002

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In 2004, Portman starred in the romantic comedy Garden State and delivered a Golden Globe-winning performance in Closer, directed by Mike Nichols and co-starring Clive Owen, Roberts and Jude Law. Portman also won critical praise for her role in 2006’s dystopian fantasy V for Vendetta. That’s not even mentioning her turn in the global smash hit Star Wars prequel trilogy, which dented her reputation but still brought home the bacon.

Keira Knightley - 2003

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No disrespect to Bend It Like Beckham, but Disney taking a punt on Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean remains her career highlight. That isn’t to say Keira didn’t star in anything of worth after. Her performances in Atonement and Anna Karenina garnered much praise, and she even earned an Oscar nomination for The Imitation Game, starring as Alan Turing’s one-time fiancée and fellow mathematician Joan Clarke.

Angelina Jolie – 2005

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By the time the millennium rolled around, the idea of the leading lady was pretty much redundant. Times were changing, attitudes were improving. Female actors were no longer comfortable with just being the beguiling beauty. They wanted to use guns and kill bad guys. Enter Angelina Jolie, whose turn in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider ushered in a new era of leading ladies.

Anne Hathaway – 2006

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The Princess Diaries was Anne Hathaway’s first big film, but the success of 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada cannot be overstated. The following year she starred in Becoming Jane, a biopic of Jane Austen. Her role in Les Miserables, in which she followed in her mother’s footsteps by playing Fantine, won her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and a succession of highly-paid roles across her career, including a turn as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.

Jennifer Aniston - 2007

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Most stars of a sitcom find it hard to break free from their character and embark on a convincing movie career. Jennifer Aniston is maybe the greatest to ever do it, even if there have been a few stinkers along the way. She remains one of the highest-paid actresses working thanks to her turns in Bruce Almighty, Along Came Polly, Rumour Has It and Horrible Bosses.

Kristen Stewart - 2008

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Kristen Stewart proved her acting chops as a kid opposite Jodie Foster in 2002’s Panic Room, but it wasn’t until the release of vampire love story Twilight in 2008 that she went stratospheric. Reluctant to be seen as a “Hollywood star” Stewart became just as famous for her distant, curt personality as for her A-list status.

Emma Stone - 2011

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The late noughties were very good to Emma Stone. First she starred opposite Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in 2007’s Superbad. Then she starred opposite Woody Harrelson in 2009’s cult zombie favourite Zombieland. Critics praised her performances in Easy A, The Help, and Crazy, Stupid, Love, which were all released within a year. Now that’s box office domination.

Margot Robbie – 2013

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Margot Robbie was primarily known as an Aussie soap star when she burst onto the scene in 2013 as the ball-busting wife of crooked trader Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. Her portrayal of figure skater Tonya Harding in 2017 won the Academy Award for Best Actress. But with roles in Tarzan and The Suicide Sqaud, Robbie made it clear she was just as effective in lucrative blockbusters as she was in serious dramas.

Jennifer Lawrence – 2014

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Jennifer Lawrence slid onto the scene with the humble likes of Winter’s Bone before dipping all of her toes into the blockbuster scene with X-Men: First Class. But when she took the role of Katniss Everdeen in the adaptation of The Hunger Games books, she became a household name. Not tied down by popcorn movies, she then won an Academy Award for her role in Silver Linings Playbook in 2012.

Scarlett Johansson - 2017

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Scarlett Johansson began acting from a super young age, with a core role in Home Alone 3, and was making acclaimed cinema with the likes of Lost In Translation in her late teens. But in terms of being a bankable actor, she had to wait until 2012’s The Avengers in which she played Black Widow. After that, came Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame… basically most blockbusters released in the last decade.

Zendaya – 2020

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Zendaya landed her first acting role on the Disney Channel comedy series Shake It Up back in 2010. She made another with the company, K.C. Undercover, as well as a self-titled album in 2013 before breaking free and getting into film. At the end of the 2010s, she starred in Spider-Man: Homecoming and The Greatest Showman. Right now, you can find her on Euphoria.

Ana De Armas – 2023

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It may be a little early to call given that the year isn’t over yet, but by the looks of things, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate for leading lady of the year than Ana de Armas. This Cuban actress is perhaps best known for her role as Bond girl Paloma in No Time To Die. She’s also the only entry on this list to have played another historic leading lady, bringing to life the controversial career of Marilyn Monroe in Netflix’s Blonde.