The 50 Greatest Female Sex Symbols in Film History

By Kate Hakala

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.

 

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