While movies with male leads still dominate the box office, women are beginning to challenge them, easily carrying films by themselves. From Jennifer Lawrence creating many box-office hits with “The Hunger Games” franchise to Brie Larson’s success with “Captain Marvel” in 2019, this list of the 20 highest-grossing movies with female leads showcases strong female characters with the ability to rake in the box-office bucks, including some of the top movies of all time. To gather the list, GOBankingRates drew from Box Office Mojo’s list, based on worldwide gross. And when you look at the final rankings, it’s clear that actresses can bring in big money.
Last updated: Sept. 25, 2019
- Female lead: Mandy Moore
- Worldwide gross: $591.8 million
- Domestic gross: $200.8 million
‘Tangled’ told the story of Rapunzel, and based on the box-office earnings, it told it well enough to get people to theaters. Although The Hollywood Reporter called it “a passably entertaining hodgepodge of old and new animation techniques, mixed sensibilities and hedged commercial calculations,” the Mandy Moore-led film still made Disney some good money with a production budget of $260 million and a worldwide gross of almost $600 million.
'Mamma Mia!' (2008)
- Female leads: Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried
- Worldwide gross: $609.9 million
- Domestic gross: $144.2 million
Despite mediocre reviews of this movie that shows Meryl Streep in rare musical form — and starring alongside a young Amanda Seyfried — the movie still managed to pull in significant box-office change for 2008. That’s most likely due to legions of ABBA fans, upon whose music the movie, and the original Broadway musical, is based.
- Female lead: Auli’i Cravalho
- Worldwide gross: $643.3 million
- Domestic gross: $248.8 million
At age 14, Auli’i Cravalho was the youngest actress ever to voice a Disney princess in the animated film “Moana.” The native Hawaiian also was the last to read for the role and won the part over hundreds of others who auditioned. “Moana” had the second-best Thanksgiving opening of a movie ever as of 2016, second only to “Frozen.” Now 18, Cravalho made her television debut in NBC’s “Rise” in 2018.
'The Hunger Games' (2012)
- Female lead: Jennifer Lawrence
- Worldwide gross: $694.4 million
- Domestic gross: $408 million
When “The Hunger Games” casting director Gary Ross chose Jennifer Lawrence in 2011 as Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of Suzanne Collins’ young adult book trilogy, Lawrence was on the verge of stardom. She had made her debut in the 2010 low-budget indie film “Winter’s Bone,” also based on a book, for which she received an Oscar nomination. When Ross saw her audition, he was so blown away that he knew he had found his Katniss.
- Female lead: Sandra Bullock
- Worldwide gross: $723.2 million
- Domestic gross: $274.1 million
Already a blockbuster star, Sandra Bullock took the lead role in the Alfonso Cuaron-directed film “Gravity” with no idea if the movie would be successful. Though set in space, it was not really a big, epic adventure flick. Bullock described it as “an avant-garde, existential film on loss and survival in space.” Nonetheless, the film had cosmic success at the box office.
'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1' (2014)
- Female lead: Jennifer Lawrence
- Worldwide gross: $755.4 million
- Domestic gross: $337.1 million
While Jennifer Lawrence always shines in these movies, other women help drive this film — particularly Julianne Moore in the role of a well-meaning leader with dictatorial leanings and Elizabeth Banks as the bubbly escort to the tributes.
- Female lead: Angelina Jolie
- Worldwide gross: $758.5 million
- Domestic gross: $241.4 million
Angelina Jolie has headlined so many movies that this fairy tale might not come to mind as the most likely choice for a box-office winner. Yet, not only did fans love the movie, but Jolie’s co-stars raved about working with her, calling her “a force of nature” and “otherworldly,” praising her great “aura” and “charisma.”
'Wonder Woman' (2017)
- Female lead: Gal Gadot
- Worldwide gross: $821.8 million
- Domestic gross: $412.6 million
While most people raved about the choice of relative newcomer Gal Gadot for the iconic lead role in “Wonder Woman,” some in the Arab world boycotted the film because Gadot is Israeli. However, none of that stopped the movie’s success; it was the fifth highest-grossing film of 2017. Of the success, Gadot told E! News, “It just shows that the world was ready for a female-driven action movie.”
'The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2' (2012)
- Female lead: Kristen Stewart
- Worldwide gross: $829.7 million
- Domestic gross: $292.3 million
Kristen Stewart made a name for herself playing the lead character in this series based on Stephenie Meyer’s popular young adult novels about a forbidden love between a human girl named Bella and a vampire named Edward. In this installment, criticism was reserved mostly for the twist ending that baffled fans.
'Inside Out' (2015)
- Female leads: Phyllis Smith, Amy Poehler, Kaitlyn Dias
- Worldwide gross: $857.6 million
- Domestic gross: $356.5 million
Though the protagonist of “Inside Out” — an 11-year old girl named Riley — is voiced by newcomer Kaitlyn Dias, critics agreed that the real star of the movie was Phyllis Smith, known for her roles in “The Office” and “The OA,” who gave life to the character Sadness. The movie personifies the emotions that live inside Riley’s head, and Sadness, all blue and weepy, surprised even the actress herself with her popularity. Equally popular was the character Joy, voiced by “Saturday Night Live” alum Amy Poehler, whose perky energy and eternal optimism are a great counterpoint to the moodiness that Sadness portrays.
'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' (2013)
- Female lead: Jennifer Lawrence
- Worldwide gross: $865 million
- Domestic gross: $424.7 million
Lawrence returned to her role as Katniss Everdeen in 2013, and reviewers raved about her second turn. “With each on-screen chapter, the poor girl from District 12 continues to fulfill her destiny as an inspiration and a rebel fighter. She is but one female, but she’s the perfect antidote to the surplus of male superheroes out there,” wrote one reviewer on Roger Ebert’s website.
'Finding Dory' (2016)
- Female lead: Ellen DeGeneres
- Worldwide gross: $1.03 billion
- Domestic gross: $486.3 million
The absent-minded fish, Dory — the sidekick to the star of the animated “Finding Nemo” — was voiced by Ellen DeGeneres and modeled after her unique way of flitting from one subject to another. DeGeneres, who went through three painful years after she came out publicly as gay, said that Dory’s motto, “just keep swimming,” got her through some terrible times.
'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' (2016)
- Female lead: Felicity Jones
- Worldwide gross: $1.06 billion
- Domestic gross: $532.2 million
Despite making a name for herself in quiet, British films, Felicity Jones embraced the opportunity to play Jyn Erso in an action flick in the “Star Wars” universe. When asked whether she thought it was pioneering for a woman to lead a “Star Wars” movie, she joked with the Los Angeles Times that it would be weird for a giraffe to headline a movie, but not a woman.
'Captain Marvel' (2019)
- Female lead: Brie Larson
- Worldwide gross: $1.13 billion
- Domestic gross: $426.8 million
“Captain Marvel” is Marvel Studios’ first standalone female superhero film, starring Brie Larson, and if money talks, the box office take suggests it was a hit with fans. Most fans, that is. The film received pre-release negative reviews on sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, presumably from trolls who took issue with a woman as a lead in a superhero movie, though their comments were unable to stop the movie’s success.
'Incredibles 2' (2018)
- Female lead: Holly Hunter
- Worldwide gross: $1.24 billion
- Domestic gross: $608.6 million
What makes the “Incredibles 2” animated film even better than the first is its subtly feminist storyline. Holly Hunter returns to voice Elastigirl, aka Helen Parr, whose superhero skills are in demand to fight crime while her husband, Bob “Mr. Incredible” Parr, must stay home and tackle the domestic duties of household responsibilities and child-rearing.
Pictured: Holly Hunter as Elastigirl in 2004’s “Incredibles”
'Beauty and the Beast' (2017)
- Female lead: Emma Watson
- Worldwide gross: $1.26 billion
- Domestic gross: $504 million
Emma Watson didn’t leave stardom behind with the “Harry Potter” series. She’s had a thriving career, and “Beauty and the Beast” is proof of that. Watson insisted on updating her character, Belle, in subtly feminist ways, such as not having her wear a corset, turning her into a bit of an inventor rather than just a pretty face and having the character be more proactive than passive.
- Female leads: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel
- Worldwide gross: $1.28 billion
- Domestic gross: $400.7 million
Kristen Bell is most famous for her turn as the titular girl detective on the TV show “Veronica Mars,” so many people knew she could act. But not even her co-star, Broadway veteran Idina Menzel, knew how well she could sing until they began working together. It turns out that Bell studied musical theater at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, something she apparently doesn’t bring up in casual conversation.
'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' (2017)
- Female leads: Daisy Ridley, Carrie Fisher, Laura Dern, Gwendoline Christie
- Worldwide gross: $1.33 billion
- Domestic gross: $620.2 million
If Daisy Ridley carried the 2015 release “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” she had help this time around, with strong women in leadership such as Carrie Fisher’s General Leia and Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo. This installation of the series cemented that a successful film could make money with powerful women at the helm. The Guardian called it “the most triumphantly feminist Star Wars movie yet.”
'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' (2015)
- Female leads: Daisy Ridley, Carrie Fisher
- Worldwide gross: $2.07 billion
- Domestic gross: $936.7 million
“The Force Awakens” advanced the “Star Wars” trilogy from its 1970s beginnings and was noted for bringing back fan favorites — an aging Han Solo and General (no longer just Princess) Leia — and for newcomer Rey, played with confidence and strength by English actress Daisy Ridley. Ridley’s portrayal of the woman with surprising Jedi powers is hailed as a feminist win.
- Female lead: Kate Winslet
- Worldwide gross: $2.19 billion
- Domestic gross: $659.4 million
The movie “Titanic” is almost as iconic as the accident it portrays. Although this one might be debatable when it comes to defining it as a female-led movie, it is lead actress Kate Winslet’s character who is telling the story. Winslet, who plays the love interest of Leonardo DiCaprio’s ill-fated Jack, didn’t even have to audition for the part. Director James Cameron already had her in mind for it. On the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, Winslet told The Hollywood Reporter‘s “Awards Chatter” podcast that she never knew why Cameron chose her for the role.
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