American moviegoers love film actresses for different reasons. Males (and some females) obviously gravitate toward the physical beauty of these ladies on the silver screen. Film buffs admire the acting chops of those who deliver critically-acclaimed performances. And fanboys (and fangirls) adore the female characters in their favorite science-fiction, superhero, or fantasy blockbusters.
But when it comes to the people who run the movie studios, the criteria for success is bluntly simple: how much money they can
fleece bring in from the movie ticket-buying public. For studio executives, these actresses don’t have to be the prettiest, or the funniest, or even the brashiest, sexiest, or most talented. All they have to do is do their part to aid their movie in generating revenue at the box office (as well as at retailers if there are product tie ins).
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of the women in Hollywood whose films have grossed the most money in U.S. history. It’s true that the movies in which these ladies have appeared may very well have raked in just as much cash whether or not these ten actresses filled the applicable roles. Nevertheless, an actress who is associated with dollar signs is the “dream girl” in the eyes of the bottom line-driven studio executive.
Can you name the top ten highest domestic grossing actresses in Hollywood history?
10. Natalie Portman: $2.06 billion
The 33-year old actress illustrates exactly why this list values box office receipts over star power. The top-three grossing films in which Portman has appeared contained two words which are music to studio execs’ ears: Star Wars. In fact, Episodes I, III, and II respectively are responsible for over half of her total gross earnings; though her much-loved portrayal of Padmé Naberrie/Queen Amidala was but one among an ensemble cast which helped these movies become revered/hated by fans. You have to go to sixth-place on the list of Portman’s top-grossing films to get to her Oscar-winning performance as the title character Nina Sayers in Black Swan (passing by Jane Foster in the two Thor movies in the process).
9. Anne Hathaway: $2.07 billion
Earning some $9 million more in her career than Portman, Anne Hathaway‘s 21 movies is among the lowest totals on this list. But like Portman, Hathaway has a movie franchise to thank for her number-one grosser: Batman. Her turn as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in The Dark Night Rises helped the film earn more than $448 million over its lifetime. She changed her color scheme to play the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland, which earned about $334 million. Next on the list was Hathaway’s stunning portrayal of Fantine in Les Miserables, which garnered her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.
8. Sandra Bullock: $2.12 billion
This is the first widely-perceived “lead actress” to appear on this list. You could make the argument that Bullock is the best-positioned to move up in ranking, given that her most recent movie Gravity was her highest-grossing film ever at $274 million., which earned her second Best Actress Oscar. The space drama just edged out the film in which Bullock captured her first Best Actress Oscar: The Blind Side, where she played tough-but-caring mom Leigh Anne Touhy. Interestingly enough, when you adjust for ticket price inflation, Speed (from waaaay back in 1994) is the third-biggest grossing film on Bullock’s resume.
7. Cate Blanchett: $2.15 billion
Here’s another critically-acclaimed actress whose most applauded roles aren’t near the top of the list of her highest-grossing films. Her Best Supporting Actress Oscar came for her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, which is seventh on her list; Blue Jasmine, in which she took home the most recent Best Actress Oscar as the title character, is further down at 13th. The biggest moneymaker for Blanchett? The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (in which she played Galadriel) which brought in $377.8 million – or over 1000% percent more cash than Blue Jasmine did.
6. Kathy Bates: $2.16 billion
With 42 major-role movies to her credit (second only to the 44 on this list’s next entrant), Kathy Bates‘ Oscar-winning appearance doesn’t even appear in the top ten dough-making movies in her career. Misery, in which she played Annie “Axe-Wielding” Wilkes in 1990, brought in just $61.2 million. That’s less than a tenth of the total of her largest cash-crop film: Titanic, which earned $658.7 million and allowed Bates to narrate the plot as survivor Molly Brown. Many may forget that Bates played Miss Sue alongside Bullock in The Blind Side, which is the second-biggest grossing movie in Bates’ career. The bronze medalist for Bates’ box office tally? The Waterboy, where she played “Mama” to Adam Sandler‘s Bobby Boucher.
5. Sigourney Weaver: $2.18 billion
Quick – name the science-fiction film in which Weaver starred that grossed the most money! Wrong. In fact, if you add up all the box office receipts of the three Alien movies that featured the exploits of bad-ass explorer Ellen Ripley, the total is still far below the take amassed by the correct answer: Avatar. Weaver’s turn as Grace Augustine, the scientist with a Pandora mailing address, helped the sci-fi blockbuster become the highest-grossing film of all time. And get this: the penultimate box-office entry on Weaver’s list is thirty years old. Ghostbusters from 1984 brought in $238.6 million, thanks in part to Weaver’s leading lady portrayal of Dana Barrett.
4. Helena Bonham Carter: $2.54 billion
Didn’t pick her, did you? Many people have pigeonholed Carter as the eccentric actress who does only period pieces or films with Johnny Depp in them. In any case, Bonham Carter is not commonly associated with box office hits. So why is she on this list? Because three of Bonham Carter’s top four grossing films contain that “magical” name: Harry Potter. Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2 along with The Half-Blood Prince have raked in over a third of her total. Her portrayal of Bellatrix Lestrange, Voldemort’s most evil Death Eater, is just one of her many roles that will give children nightmares. The Red Queen, whom Bonham Carter played in the aforementioned Alice in Wonderland, helped that film become the actress’s second-biggest moneymaker.
3. Julia Roberts: $2.64 billion
Some people consider her the “most bankable actress in Hollywood,” and if the criteria were limited to starring roles, that might be true. But in terms of box office receipts, Roberts‘ Oscar-winning turn as Erin Brockovich wasn’t her biggest ticket-selling film. (In fact, it grossed less than both My Best Friend’s Wedding and Runaway Bride.) Nor was it the movie that rocketed her to stardom: Pretty Woman brought in $178.4 million in 1990. Roberts’ number one cash-producing film? The remade ensemble smash Oceans Eleven, in which Roberts plays Tess Ocean (and unsuccessfully tries to pass her character off as herself), which made $183.4 million.
2. Emma Watson: $2.68 billion
Oh, to be an actress whose film debut is a key character in a big-screen franchise that grosses almost two and a half billion dollars! Such is the blessed position in which the woman who played Harry Potter’s BFF Hermione Granger finds herself. The 24-year old actress has made just 14 films, over half of which were part of the Harry Potter series. And even though she’s second on this list, her non-boy wizardish films have grossed only $294.1 million combined. That said, she does have the potential to enjoy a very long Hollywood career, and her latest film Noah did haul in an impressive $101 million at the turnstiles. So there may be a pretty good chance that Watson could surpass the reigning box office queen…
1. Cameron Diaz: $2.91 billion
As many onscreen leading lady roles as Diaz has – in films from Charlie’s Angels to The Mask to Bad Teacher – her biggest assets which enabled her to top this list are her vocal cords. That’s because her face does not appear in her top four grossing films at all; rather, Diaz’s voice as Princess Fiona in the Shrek franchise is what allowed her to earn 43% of her chart-topping total. The California-born actress’s biggest box office hit that actually featured her face and body was 1998’s There’s Something About Mary, which earned $176.5 million. Look for Diaz to sell even more tickets in future films Annie (as the evil Miss Hannigan), Sex Tape (with co-star Jason Segel), and Bad Teacher 2 (reprising her title role in the sequel to the 2011 movie that topped the $100 million mark).
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