Westerns aren’t the most common genre at the moment, but that wasn’t always the case. They reached their peak during the late 1960s and are still a nostalgic part of Americana. While some may look back at the heroic male protagonists in Western films and TV shows, it would be a disservice to not mention the fierce female Western stars. These women proved that Westerns shouldn’t only be focused on the rugged, strong-willed males as they delivered some of the greatest performances in cinematic history. Now, get to know Western’s most iconic leading ladies.
Dale Evans Was More Than Roy Rogers’ Wife
Roy Rogers most likely wouldn’t have been as successful as he was without his frequent collaborations with wife Dale Evans. She starred alongside Rogers in several films and television shows including The Roy Rogers Show, Home in Oklahoma, and Utah (pictured).
Evans is also the mind behind The Roy Rogers Show theme song “Happy Trails.” She went on to record several solo albums of religious music and hosted her own religious television show. Some of her distinct honors include a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a place in the Western Performers Hall of Fame.
Why 1969 Was A Good Year For Katharine Ross
While Katharine Ross is married to another prominent Western star, Sam Elliott, she made her own name in the genre, too. In 1969 Ross starred in two of the year’s most popular Westerns, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.
She garnered worldwide acclaim for her roles by winning the BAFTA Award for Best Actress for both of the films. Costars such as Paul Newman and Robert Redford had to keep up with Ross’ fierce performances.
Barbara Stanwyck Performed In Western TV Shows And Movies
Barbara Stanwyck loved Westerns so much that she acted in both Western movies and television shows. Her most famous Western movie role was as Vance in 1950’s The Furies. She played an heiress to a father who was up to no good.
Her movie career started to dwindle during the 1950s, so she made her way to TV. She starred in small Western roles until she became the widowed matriarch Victoria Barkley on ABC’s The Big Valley. Her performance on The Big Valley earned her an Emmy Award and made her a household name.
Raquel Welch Brought Her Icon Status To Westerns
One of the most famous female icons of the 60s and 70s was Raquel Welch. Millions of people started to take notice of her after an appearance in One Million Years B.C. wearing a doe-skin bikini. Then, she soon became a pin-up girl.
Her massive success led to more film roles including her work in several Westerns such as Bandolero!, 100 Rifles (pictured), and Hannie Caulder. Many of her costars including James Stewart, Dean Martin, and Burt Reynolds thought she was able to bring something refreshing to the genre that hadn’t been done before.
Betty Hutton Replaced Judy Garland In This Famous Movie
Those who are fans of musicals may remember Betty Hutton’s stand-out performance in the 1950 musical Western Annie Get Your Gun. Hutton was hired to replace an overworked Judy Garland in the starring role.
It was a highly fictionalized version of the life of Annie Oakley and had an underlying message about how much a woman should give up in order to please a man. Although her film career didn’t last that long, she was able to work with some of the greats including Fred Astaire and Cecil B. DeMille.
Jane Fonda Brought Box Office Success To Multiple Westerns
Although Jane Fonda isn’t usually associated with the Western genre, many of her most popular roles stemmed from them. Her breakout role was in the 1965 Western, Cat Ballou, as a school teacher turned outlaw. The film earned five Oscar nominations and was a top 10 movie at the box office that year.
In 1978 she starred alongside James Caan, Alan J. Pakula, and more in the Western drama Comes a Horseman. The following year she worked with frequent collaborator Robert Redford in the high-grossing Western adventure-romance movie The Electric Horseman.
Doris Day’s Song In This Western Earned An Oscar
Movie musicals were a memorable part of the Golden Age of Hollywood and someone who made her mark in them was Doris Day. In 1953 she played the titular role in the Western musical Calamity Jane, a fictionalized movie about the romance between Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.
The film was made after the rapid success of Annie Get Your Gun a few years prior. One of the songs from the movie called “Secret Love” won the Academy Award in 1954 for Best Original Song. Day went on to star in several award-winning films and even had her own television show.
Amanda Blake Spent 20 Years On This Western Show
Amanda Blake had one of the longest careers in Western television. She was best known as saloon-keeper Miss Kitty Russell on Gunsmoke and played the role for almost two decades.
Gunsmoke aired from September 10, 1955 to March 31, 1975 for a total of 635 episodes, which made it the longest-running primetime live-action series of the 20th century. When the show was over, Blake went into semi-retirement in Phoenix, Arizona to breed cheetahs in captivity with her husband.
Jane Russell Halted The Release Of This Film By Five Years
The list of pin-up girls of the 1940s and 1950s wouldn’t have been complete without Jane Russell. Her first film launched her to stardom as Rio McDonald in the 1943 Western The Outlaw.
It took half a decade for the movie to get a general release date because her cleavage was prominently shown throughout the promotion of the film. Russell went on to make about 20 other movies including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opposite Marilyn Monroe.
Marlene Dietrich Didn’t Let Her Accent Get In The Way Of Her Work
It may sound a bit funny to cast someone with a heavy German accent in an American Western. That didn’t stop Marlene Dietrich from nailing her scenes in films such as Destry Rides Again (pictured), Rancho Notorious, and The Spoilers.
Her elaborate costumes heightened her performances and she became a style icon who inspired dozens of designers. Dietrich’s work during the Golden Age of Hollywood caused her to become the American Film Institute’s ninth greatest female screen legend of classic Hollywood cinema.
Joan Crawford Knew Westerns Shouldn’t Always Revolve Around Men
An actress who could perform well in any genre thrown at her was the legendary Joan Crawford. One of her best Western roles was the strong-willed saloon keeper in Johnny Guitar.
Audiences thought her love story with Sterling Hayden’s character was just as compelling as her harsh conflicts with the local landowner played by Mercedes McCambridge. Crawford’s performance in the film gave a deeper look into the ideals of “proper femininity.” Her career in entertainment spanned over six decades and led to numerous awards and honors.
Katy Jurado Paved The Way For Latin American Actresses
Katy Jurado got her start as an actress in Mexico and was discovered by an American filmmaker. This launched her Hollywood career to become one of the top Western film actresses of the 50s and 60s.
Cinephiles may remember her performances in films such as High Noon, Broken Lance, Man from Del Rio, and Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. Jurado was the first Latin American actress to be nominated for an Oscar and was the first to win a Golden Globe.
Claire Trevor Helped Launch John Wayne’s Career
John Wayne’s breakthrough role was in the John Ford-directed film, Stagecoach, opposite Claire Trevor. Throughout the movie, the two ride a stagecoach through dangerous Apache territory over panoramic shots of Monument Valley.
Stagecoach is considered to be one of the most influential films of the 20th century and Orson Welles watched it over 40 times during his preparation for Citizen Kane. At the time Trevor was a bigger star than Wayne, so her name was billed first. Trevor’s legacy lives on as the namesake for the drama school at the University of California, Irvine.
Shirley MacLaine Held Her Own Against Clint Eastwood
Shirley MacLaine is one of the last surviving stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood with quite an impressive acting career. From comedy, drama, musical, and Western, MacLaine has practically done it all.
Her most famous role in a Western was opposite Clint Eastwood in 1970’s Two Mules for Sister Sara. MacLaine received top billing in this whimsical Western about a mercenary who meets a nun. As the nun, MacLaine led a group of rebels through Mexico. MacLaine took what it meant to be a nun and completely turned it on its head.
Julie Christie Got An Oscar Nomination For This Role
Director Robert Altman referred to 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller as an “anti-Western film” because it neglects to use many conventional Western stylistic tools. Julie Christie as Constance Miller earned an Oscar nomination for her performance. One scene that got everyone’s attention was the ending where Christie’s character couldn’t help save Beatty’s character from danger.
The movie was also the first of several collaborations between Christie and Warren Beatty. Her list of awards and nominations seem endless with four Academy Award nominations, a Golden Globe win, and several more.
Sharon Stone Excelled In This Western Film
Sharon Stone rose to fame during the 1980s and 1990s working with directors such as Martin Scorsese and Wes Craven. While she may not be known for Westerns, she gave a memorable performance in 1995’s The Quick and the Dead.
Stone played a gunfighter who travels back to a frontier town in order to avenge her father’s untimely demise. She received a Saturn Award nomination for Best Actress in the role of Ellen “The Lady.”
Michelle Williams Takes The Lead In Meek’s Cutoff
Meek’s Cutoff is loosely based on the historical Oregon Trail incident of 1845 and starred Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, and more. One critic wrote, “Moving at a contemplative speed unseen in most Westerns, Meek’s Cutoff is an effective, intense journey of terror and survival in the untamed frontier.”
Throughout the film, the husbands and wives on the journey often are in disagreement about whether they should go on or turn back. Williams’ character is the only one who takes the lead and shows mercy toward a Native American the others captured.
Quentin Tarantino Knew Kerry Washington Was Perfect For This Role
Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s highest-grossing film of all time, mainly due to the incredible performances by the cast. It is classified as a revisionist Western, which means that the themes and characters are much darker than early Westerns of the 20th century.
Kerry Washington plays a slave named Broomhilda “Hildi” von Shaft and is the catalyst of the film, with her character guiding almost the entire plot. She was subsequently asked to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and won a NAACP and BET award for Best Actress.
Elsa Martinelli’s Groundbreaking Spaghetti Western Role
During the 1950s and 1960s Italian actress Elsa Martinelli starred in a fair share of Westerns. One of the most notable movies was 1968’s The Belle Starr Story. It was directed by the first woman nominated for a directing Oscar, Lina Wertmüller.
The Belle Starr Story was the only spaghetti Western directed by a woman and one of the few with a female protagonist. Before becoming an actress, Martinelli was a model who was discovered by Kirk Douglas. He cast her in The Indian Fighter after seeing her on a magazine cover.
Suzy Amis’ Deep Character Study In The Ballad Of Little Jo
While most people have probably heard of her husband, director James Cameron, Suzy Amis is one of the top Western actresses of all time. In 1993 she starred as Josephine “Jo” Monaghan in The Ballad of Little Jo.
The film was based on the true story of a woman who tries to escape the societal pressures of having a child out of wedlock. She escapes to the West and disguises herself as a man. The New York Times praised Amis’ performance, “Radiating a profound watchfulness, wide-eyed and tight-lipped, her Little Jo is a riveting study of self-discipline, courage, and emotional suppression.”
Molly Parker Gives A Versatile Performance In This Modern Classic
Although it’s rather rare to see a Western TV show made in the 21st century, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some good ones to check out. HBO’s award-winning Western, Deadwood, was based on real people who lived in the West during the 1870s.
Molly Parker played Alma Garret, a widow of a claim seeker who is left in a new town all alone. Instead of letting it get the best of her, she stays and accepts what is to come. Her performance on Deadwood was both commanding and versatile.
Hilary Swank’s Impressive Role In A “Feminist Western”
When it came time to critique 2014’s The Homesman, Hilary Swank’s performance was all that critics could discuss. Even though she acted alongside numerous talented female actresses such as Meryl Streep and Hailee Steinfeld, Swank was able to authentically portray a spinster taking on a stereotypically male job.
For this reason, The Homesman has been referred to as a “feminist Western.” Women’s lives during this period in history have rarely been explored and a lot of their struggles can be compared to what women still go through today.
Diane Lane Helped Reignite The Western Genre For TV
Lonesome Dove was a TV miniseries released in 1989 that starred Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Diane Lane, and more. It drew in millions of viewers, earned numerous awards, and is thought to have revived the Western genre for television.
Although Diane Lane’s character, Lorena Wood, wasn’t anywhere near wholesome, she was able to bring some heartwarming emotions and humor to the role. Some of her best scenes were opposite Duvall, which included poignant dialogue and great on-screen chemistry.
Betty Compson Was One Of The First Female Western Stars
Released in 1919, Terror of the Range was one of the earliest Western films to date and starred a young silent film star, Betty Compson. The frontier era was only a few decades old when the film was made.
Terror of the Range was more of a collection of short films, but Compson also had a role as the glamorous Belle Starr in 1928’s Court-Martial. Even though men eventually dominated the Western genre, Compson proved that she had what it took to play a complex heroine.
Claudia Cardinale Didn’t Want To Become A Hollywood Cliché
It isn’t hard to understand why Italian Tunisian actress Claudia Cardinale became a successful actress after winning the “Most Beautiful Italian Girl in Tunisia” award at 19-years-old. She soon became the best-known actress in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, which led to her fame in the United States.
She starred in several iconic Westerns including Once Upon a Time in the West, The Professionals, The Legend of Frenchie King, and more. As she grew older, she grew tired of the Hollywood film industry and returned to Italian and French cinema.
Chelo Alonso Didn’t Have Any Lines In This Classic Western
Chelo Alonso was best known for playing the femme fatale in various movies throughout the 1960s. She was married to a production supervisor named Aldo Pomilia who happened to be working on 1966’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Her role was very brief but very memorable. She didn’t have any lines because her anguished look after losing everything said it all. Alonso thought she would retire from acting, but this film role led her to make a couple more Westerns (Run, Man, Run and Nest of Vipers).
Annie Galipeau Brings The Drama To The Western Genre
While some may consider Pierce Brosnan to be the star of 1999 Western, Grey Owl, his performance wouldn’t have sufficed without Annie Galipeau. The movie centers on a Canadian fur trapper (Brosnan) who becomes an environmentalist after meeting a Native American who cares for orphaned beavers (Galipeau).
One of the most dramatic scenes of the movie has Galipeau crossing a frozen lake only to plunge down deep into the water. Brosnan’s character saves her and the two fall in love.
Haley Bennett Is Tough As Nails In The Magnificent Seven
Most of the cast in 2016’s The Magnificent Seven, including Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, and Haley Bennett, were praised for their performances. Haley Bennett played Emma Cullen, a young widow who hires a team of bounty hunters to liberate their frontier town.
Her character ends up becoming one of the “seven” and the entire story is told through her eyes. Many critics thought it was very similar to an action-thriller and attributed its success at the box office to the large production budget of $90 million.
Cate Blanchett Learned A New Language For Her Role
Cate Blanchett is front and center in the Ron Howard-directed Western The Missing. The film is based on Thomas Eidson’s novel The Last Ride and was set in 1885 New Mexico.
Many of the actors had to learn the Apache language for their roles. Blanchett was praised for her expert acting skills as Tommy Lee Jones’ adult daughter Magdalena “Maggie” Gilkeson. She has become one of Australia’s most accomplished actresses with two Academy Awards, three Golden Globes, and three BAFTA awards.