Here’s a list of the best on-screen versions of the most compelling female characters in literature, brought to life by a series of great actresses that just seemed to get the parts.
Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, The Grapes of Wrath
Henry Fonda gained the most attention of the performances in John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel, but Jane Darwell’s role as family matriarch Ma Joad also won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
While Tom Joad is the heroic figure of the novel and the movie, Ma Joad is really the one that does all the work. She’s stuck holding the family together after they’re kicked out of their Dust Bowl home and arrive in California to find it not as hospitable as the flyers had promised. Ma Joad rides in the truck next to the dead grandmother for hours, helps Rose of Sharon through her miscarriage and abandonment by her fiancee, and listens to Tom’s big final speech before he’s forced to abandon the family completely in her hands. The moment when she holds a pair of earrings up to her ears in a dusty mirror before the family vacates their home for their long journey west is completely heartbreaking.