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The 50 Greatest Female Sex Symbols in Film History

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A style icon is one thing; a great actress another. A sex symbol can be neither, though our favorites are both. The women on this list inflamed the lusts of entire generations. Many of them changed the cultural history of sex itself. Ranking them was not easy, but we can't say it wasn't fun. Expect more fun next week, when we get intimate with Paul Newman and forty-nine other male sex symbols; in the meantime, read on.

50. Cameron Diaz

An accomplished goofball, Cameron Diaz fits snugly between the "dippy blonde" and "flirtatious spitfire" tropes that define most sex symbols. Her blue eyes and long legs meet sex-symbol prerequisites, but it's her remarkable capacity for playing innocent in the face of overwhelming innuendo that secure her the spot.

 

49. Helen Mirren

A highly-lauded and wise English actress like Helen Mirren should hardly be diffident, but when today asked about her notoriety as a '60s and '70s sex symbol, she blushes. Demure as she may be now, looking at her in Age of Consent, we have to think that she knew exactly what she was doing.

 

48. Melanie Griffith

When a baby voice emerged from a barely-clothed Melanie Griffith in films like The Drowning Pool and Night Moves, the world paused.

 

47. Jane Russell

Jane Russell's oxygen-depriving turn in 1943's The Outlaw earned her a place on this (or any) list of female sex symbols. The iconic image of her lounging in a bed of hay with an intimidating snarl on her face caused a stir with the censors, thanks to the work of a widely-publicized brassiere.

46. Marlene Dietrich

Dietrich's high cheekbones and exotic stare in Shanghai Express and Desire pummeled audiences into aroused submission without her ever having to say a word. Taking on iconic and sexually provocative roles was second nature to Dietrich, and though she was often bathed in stark butterfly lighting, her haunting leer needed no cinematic tricks to do its work.

 

45. Daryl Hannah

The '80s belonged to Daryl Hannah. No one could ever forget the torn fishnets and precocious sexuality of "basic pleasure model" Pris in Blade Runner (far from basic, to our eyes), to say nothing of how she managed to make a fish tail sexy in Splash.

 

44. Rose McGowan

If Jessica Rabbit were not a cartoon character, she would have made this list. The closest available human is Rose McGowan.

 

43. Brooke Shields

Winking under her legendary thick eyebrows, Brooke Shields purred at us in the famous jean ad: "You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing." That and her nudity in Blue Lagoon made her a uniquely discomfiting jailbait sex symbol.

 

42. Gina Gershon

With her pouting mouth, upturned brow, and long, dark hair, Gina Gershon appeals to men, women, and anyone in between. She's made her mark on contemporary sexual iconography with memorable roles as sexual chameleons, taking both gay and bisexual roles in Bound and Showgirls.

 

41. Dolores Del Rio

Dolores Del Rio's natural beauty hit the screen at a time in the 1930s when makeup and coy mugging were the dominant flavors. As the first Mexican actress to ascend to critical acclaim, Del Rio was an alternative (and for the time, exotic) reprieve from the band of blonde bombshells crowding the sex-symbol market.

 

40. Charlize Theron

The versatile Theron was as comfortable in the absurd universe of Arrested Development as she was in the gritty North Country, proving that true beauty lies in adaptability. And also in incredible bone structure.

 

39. Megan Fox

An icon for our time, Megan Fox's parted full lips and sloping eyebrows evoke the image of Elizabeth Taylor on a stripper pole.

 

38. Monica Vitti

As Michaelangelo Antonioni's muse and the star of Red Desert, Italian actress Monica Vitti feasted on the public's gaze like a wolf. With her long, fawnlike lashes and impeccably structured face, Vitti inspired a sense of adventure and longing that somehow made lust feel like high art.

 

37. Eva Mendes

If Eva Mendes' ass is not insured, it should be. It first came to prominence via a brief turn in Training Day, before occupying a more prominant role in Once Upon A Time In Mexico. But in that later film, audiences came to appreciate more about Mendes than just her curves — she was able to match Johnny Depp's smoky sex appeal without breaking a sweat.

 

36. Lucy Liu

There's something ominous and commanding about Lucy Liu's sexuality, whether she's in full business wear or a kimono. Her piercing glances and cutting line readings started commanding attention and libidos in Charlie's Angels and Kill Bill, proving that you don't need whips or chains to be every inch the dominatrix.

 

35. Anita Ekberg

You could argue that Fellini made Anita Ekberg a sex symbol with her frolic through the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita. But with a perfect pin-up physique and purposely staged wardrobe malfunctions, the Swedish-American, wide-mouthed blonde probably would've done it on her own.

 

34. Aishwarya Rai

Aishwarya Rai is an unreal, uncommon beauty worthy of the title Miss World, which she took home in 1994. That she remains an international sexual dynamo despite her reserved M.O. and absence of American film credits only speaks to the potency of her heavy-lidded green eyes and caramel-toned skin.

 

33. Michelle Pfeiffer

Michelle Pfeiffer clad in a plunging red dress, legs spread across a grand piano, growling out "Makin' Whoopee" in The Fabulous Baker Boys seems like a play from a sex-symbol how-to guide.

 

32. Ava Gardner

Though this classic screen actress was often flanked by giants like Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, and third husband Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner's incomparable grace needed no foundation to lean on.Often cited as the most beautiful woman in film history, she deployed a less-overt sexuality that often placed her in direct opposition to the conspicuous eroticism of Marilyn Monroe. Talk about a clash of the titans.

 

31. Kim Basinger

One of the many model-turned-actresses to grace this list, Kim Basinger suggests a sharper-edged Brigitte Bardot. There was something for everyone in this Bond girl; she aggregated quite an eclectic group of lovers, from Alec Baldwin to Prince.

30. Sharon Stone

Sharon Stone's canniness sets her apart from the dumb-blonde stereotype. By flashing her crotch in Basic Instinct, she earned herself a permanent place in sex-symbol infamy.

 

29. Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johansson is Marilyn Monroe nouveau for the more learned, David Foster Wallace-toting man. With a throaty voice that can carry a Tom Waits tune, her mystique is a marriage of classic and contemporary.

 

28. Jacqueline Bisset

Jacqueline Bisset's breasts, glimpsed through a soaking wet white t-shirt, are pretty much all anyone remembers about The Deep.

 

27. Penelope Cruz

Watching Penelope Cruz requires nearly all five senses just to keep up with the lilt of her Spanish accent, the gleam of her hair, and the intensity of her sex appeal.

 

26. Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie's tattooed, I'll-either-kick-your-ass-or-get-you-to-sponsor-a-starving-orphan approach to sensuality is the envy of the girl next door. Her black-widow vibe places her in a grand tradition of vampy sex symbols stretching back to Theda Bara.

 

25. Bo Derek

Some of the women on this list overcame almost insurmountable odds to hold their title as sex symbols. Bo Derek overcame cornrows. In 1979's 10, Derek jogged straight from the beaches of Mexico into the nation's wet dreams.

 

24. Demi Moore

With a sleek curtain of black hair framing a sharp, take-no-prisoners face, Demi Moore resembles no one else on this list. Her fierce, aggressive performances made her a unique sex icon for the '80s and '90s.

 

23. Betty Grable

Thanks to one widely distributed photo, Grable became the predominant pin-up girl for soldiers in World War II. Her legacy is lasting: Hugh Hefner has cited Grable as the sole impetus for his decision to launch Playboy magazine.

 

22. Catherine Deneuve

The star of Luis Bunuel's provocative classic Belle de Jour remains a sex symbol for the ages. In 1985, the French government hired Catherine Deneuve — already famous as an actress and Playboy model — to pose as national emblem Marianne, proving once again that sex appeal is high on their list of national virtues.

 

21. Monica Bellucci

Monica Bellucci has the kind of objectively undeniable beauty and genetics-defying figure that make you a sex symbol; that she happens to be a great actress is a considerable bonus.

20. Salma Hayek

Salma's gorgeous face and probably award-winning breasts would be enough to unzip the collective flies of straight men globally. But her daring performances, from serious takes in Frida to outright zaniness in 30 Rock, make Salma Hayek the preferred choice of the thinking sex enthusiast.

 

19. Jane Fonda

With Barbarella, Jane Fonda launched herself into the collective wet dream of the 1960s, in a performance that remains a marvel of coy daffiness and playful lust.

 

18. Joan Crawford

The regal Joan Crawford may be entitled to a position on this list solely based on the maybe-fact that she and Marilyn Monroe once shared a bed. Though her striking features made her a sex symbol, her epically dense list of Golden Age sex partners — Glenn Ford, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, John Wayne, et al. — made her a sex symbol.

 

17. Clara Bow

Clara Bow's wide-set, smoky, and knowing stare was anything but demure. Heart-shaped lips, a flapper bob, and a flirtatious glance made her a 1920s "it girl;" to this day, she punctures our naive fantasies of an innocent past.

 

16. Ursula Andress

Arguably the entire Bond franchise was built on the libidinal charge of one image: Ursula Andress rising out of the Caribbean in a tiny white bikini.

 

15. Halle Berry

Even Catwoman and Berry's other non-Oscar turns contain a leggy elegance that collapses latency periods.

 

14. Ann-Margret

Ann-Margret had an innocent face, but then you'd notice the tight figure and winking demeanor that made her a sex kitten for the ages.

 

13. Farrah Fawcett

One clear way to secure a place on lists like this is to get a red one-piece swimsuit placed in the Smithsonian. Pre-Farrah, masturbation fantasies had never been so golden-hued and feathered.

 

12. Jayne Mansfield

Maybe she's been publicized as the watered-down version of Marilyn Monroe, but her hourglass figure could hold its own in a centerfold, and she was a pioneer of the "whoopsi-daisy, did little old me just fall out of my dress?" school of self-promotion. This notorious picture of Mansfield and Sophia Loren more or less tells the whole story.

 

11. Sophia Loren

Her aquiline nose, wide-set eyes, and curvaceous form made the talented Sophia Loren a bedside name. There was something grand, profound, and subtly charged about her performances that hinted at underlying sexual expansiveness.

10. Anna Karina

Giving Brigitte Bardot a run for her fine-ass money, Anna Karina was the enduring muse of the French New Wave. She had a casual, cat-eyed liquid sexuality, under a thick line of bangs that would put Zooey Deschanel to shame.

 

9. Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall was the type of sex symbol you dreamed about meeting in a darkened corner of a smoked-filled, oaken bar. With her trademark husky drawl and inquisitive eyebrows, Bacall seemed to emerge full-formed from Raymond Chandler's whiskey-soaked noir. The world — and future husband Humphrey Bogart — was collectively laid low by Bacall in a satin black gown in To Have and Have Not.

 

8. Raquel Welch

The bikini might as well never have been stitched before Raquel Welch wore the fur variety in One Million Years B.C. Welch embodied the dicks-out approach of many '70s sex symbols: gravelly, tan, and unapologetic.

 

7. Mae West

An incorrigible source of innuendo and the author of a play called, simply, Sex, Mae West almost singlehandedly inspired the censorship codes that afflicted Hollywood for decades. World War II life-vests were nicknamed in tribute to her bosom. That's serious influence.

 

6. Jean Harlow

Known as the original Blonde Bombshell, and certainly a prototype for Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow was a formidable figure in sex-symbol history. With her high-penciled brows, wide grin, and wandering beauty mark, she practically invented the trope of the playful vamp.

 

5. Rita Hayworth

The 1941 Life magazine pin-up of Rita Hayworth kneeling on satin sheets had military men everywhere excusing themselves to the restroom, and left her with an indelible spot on this list.

 

4. Pam Grier

In 1974, one fine slit in a red dress in Foxy Brown introduced the world to Pam Grier's majestic decolletage — and we're still thinking about it. With audacity, bodaciousness, and abdominal muscles, she was an action superhero and an incomparable sex symbol.

 

3. Elizabeth Taylor

When she wasn't getting married, Elizabeth Taylor earned her fundamental place in the sexual revolution by being one of the first huge stars to dirty up her name and bare her fair limbs for the big screen. Paired with her intense performances, her bedroom eyes gave her an enigmatic and mesmerizing sexual presence that seemed almost extraterrestrial.

 

2. Brigitte Bardot

We owe this icon of the French New Wave for more than just her staggering loveliness. She may have also given us the Beatles — the young Paul McCartney and John Lennon bonded over their Bardot-lust. And Bob Dylan once confessed that the first song he ever wrote was to her. The greatest popular music ever recorded was basically inspired by this one bombshell, and if you look at pictures of her, it's easy to understand why.

 

1. Marilyn Monroe

The platinum curls. The red, ready-to-suck lips. The fatal shape. And a voice like a mid-thrust moan. Who could take the top spot but Marilyn Monroe, the foremost figure in American sexual iconography?