Best Actress Oscar Winners - 1930s

The 1930s marked the first full decade for Oscar and with it established the beginning of the classic Hollywood era. Silent films were a thing of the past with the transition to talkies in the late 1920s, which gave rise to stars like Norma Shearer, Irene Dunne, and Bette Davis.

The decade saw numerous great performances, including a revelatory turn from unlikely star Marie Dressler, and ended with Vivian Leigh’s iconic portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara. With one great performance after another, the 1930s remains one of the greatest decades for Best Actress in Oscar history.

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1929/30 Best Actress Norma Shearer in The Divorcee=

Divorcee
MGM

Nominated twice in the same category that year – the other was for the melodrama Their Own Desire – Shearer won for her performance in this Pre-Code marriage drama about adultery. Shearer played Jerry, a blissfully married woman whose discovery of her husband’s infidelity leads to her own journey down a path of meaningless affairs. Her performance beat out the likes of Nancy Carroll in The Devil’s Holiday, Ruther Chatterton in Sarah and Son, Greta Garbo in Anna Christie and Gloria Swanson in The Trespasser.

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1930/31 Best Actress Marie Dressler in Min and Bill

Min and BIll
Warner Bros.

An unlikely star, Marie Dressler delivered a tour-de-force performance in Min and Bill, one of the biggest and most popular hits of the year. Dressler plays the titular Min, the owner of a waterfront inn who protects her adopted daughter (Dorothy Jordan) from truant officers while waging battle with a drunken fisherman (Wallace Beery) who lives in the hotel. Dressler was nothing short of a revelation, as she won the Oscar over Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, Irene Dunne in Cimarron, Ann Harding in Holiday and Norma Shearer in A Free Soul.

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1931/32 Best Actress Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet

The Sin of Madelon Claudet
Warner Bros.

One of the great stage actresses of the 20th century, Helen Hayes earned Best Actress honors for her feature debut in the decades-spanning melodrama The Sin of Madelon Claudet. Her performance elevated otherwise schmaltzy material with her turn as a wrongfully imprisoned woman who turns to prostitution and theft to support her illegitimate son. Hayes’ extraordinary performance won the Oscar over Marie Dressler in Emma and Lynn Fontanne in The Guardsman.

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1932/33 Best Actress Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory

Morning Glory
Turner Home Entertainment

Katharine Hepburn earned her first of four Academy Awards – a record for any actor male or female – with her first-ever nomination for this showbiz drama directed by Lowell Sherman. Hepburn played Eva Lovelace, a naïve small-town community theater actress who faces a quick downfall after a rapid rise to the top. Her performance won the Oscar over May Robson in Lady for a Day and Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade.

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1934 Best Actress Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Claudette Colbert cemented her legacy as the queen of screwball comedies with her seminal performance in Frank Capra’s classic It Happened One Night. She played a spoiled socialite who uses her wit and determination – not to mention a little leg – to escape from marrying against her wishes, only to eventually fall for an out-of-work reporter (Clark Gable) she meets while on the run. Colbert’s iconic performance easily triumphed over Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage, Grace Moore in One Night of Love and Norma Shearer in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

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1935 Best Actress Bette Davis in Dangerous

Dangerous
Warner Bros.

One of Classic Hollywood’s most celebrated actresses, Bette Davis won the first of her two Academy Awards for her performance in Dangerous, a film she initially turned down. Davis was mesmerizing as the alcoholic Joyce Heath, a once promising Broadway star given new life by a prominent architect (Franchot Tone) whose self-destructive nature nearly gets in the way of a comeback. Though denied for Of Human Bondage the year before, Davis won the Oscar over Elizabeth Bergner in Escape Me Never, Claudette Colbert in Private Worlds, Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams, Miriam Hopkins in Becky Sharp and Merle Oberon in The Dark Angel.

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1936 Best Actress – Luise Rainer in ‘The Great Ziegfeld’

The Great Ziegfeld
MGM Home Entertainment

Luise Rainer became the first actress to win two Academy Awards – and the first to win them consecutively – for her performance as real-life stage actress Anna Held opposite William Powell as Florenz Ziegfeld. Rainer shined as Held, winning the award over the likes of Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild, Gladys George in Valiant Is the Word for Carrie, Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey and Norma Shearer in Romeo and Juliet.

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1937 Best Actress Luise Rainer in The Good Earth

The Good Earth
Warner Home Video

Hot on the heels of her first Oscar win, Rainer repeated the feat the following year for subdued and practically wordless performance as a Chinese peasant subservient to her farmer husband (Paul Muni). But her win turned into something of a curse, as she found it difficult to live up to expectations and ultimately left Hollywood in 1938. Rainer won the Oscar over Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, Greta Garbo in Camille, Janet Graynor in A Star Is Born and Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas.

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1938 Best Actress Bette Davis in Jezebel

Jezebel
MGM Home Entertainment

After failing to win the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, Bette Davis played another strong-willed Southern belle, Julie Marsden, in William Wyler’s Jezebel opposite Henry Fonda. Davis made the most of her not-unlike-Scarlett performance to win her second Oscar, beating out the likes of Fay Bainter in White Banners, Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion, oft-nominated Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette and Margaret Sullivan in Three Comrades.

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1939 Best Actress Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind

MGM Home Entertainment

A relatively unknown Vivian Leigh managed to win the role of Scarlett O’Hara over a laundry list of Hollywood’s top actress and earned her place in cinema history with one of the most iconic performances ever put on celluloid. Her turn as the tempestuous Scarlett opposite Clark Gable’s roughish Rhett Butler won the Oscar over stiff competition that included Bette Davis in Dark Victory, Irene Dunne in Love Affair, Greta Garbo in Ninotchka and Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips.