‘Iconic’ is a word that is often thrown around lightly by the LGBT’s – the other day I used it in reference to a desk. When discussing Sarah Michelle Gellar’s filmography, however, there is no other word we can use (‘slay’ also applies for obvious reasons, and ‘mother!’).
In the ’90s and early ’00s, SMG was the it girl. After winning an Emmy for her role in American soap All My Children (1993-1995), she went on to make heroine history as the lead of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), followed by roles in the horror classics I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Scream 2 (1997) and The Grudge series (2004-2006), as well as teen drama royalty Cruel Intentions (1999) and the Scooby Doo (2002-2004) blockbusters.
Following her return to television in the short-lived, yet beloved, series Ringer (2011-2012) and The Crazy Ones (2014), SMG took a hiatus. Over the past year, she’s made her long-awaited screen comeback in the instant Netflix classic Do Revenge (2022) and the supernatural drama Wolf Pack (2023-present), which became a smasher for Paramount Plus.
In celebration of the Sarah Michelle Gellarenaissance, we reflected on her fierce career with a ranking of her top five roles (so far!).
5. Karen Davis – The Grudge
SMG’s first post-Buffy horror made a mint at the worldwide box office, becoming one of the most financially successful horror films of all time (adjusted for inflation) while continuing to cement her status as the 21st century’s supreme scream queen. A remake of director Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On: The Grudge, SMG leads the death rattle-assisted spookathon as Karen Davis, an American care-worker living in Japan who encounters a deadly curse. While The Grudge’s fragmented narrative received harsh reviews, it was praised for SMG’s performance and for being, basically, shit-ye-knickers levels of terrifying. After The Ring, it also continued to provide representation for blonde cis-het women in the Japanese horror remake genre, which is so important.
4. Helen Shivers – I Know What You Did Last Summer
Twenty-six years on, I’m still wildly befuddled – befuddled! – as to why Julie received the ‘Final Girl’ treatment over Helen. No shade to Ghost Whisperer icon Jennifer Love Hewitt – “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!” is legendary – but Helen Shivers is (and this isn’t up for debate, sorry) I Know What You Did Last Summer’s best character. Although she appears to fulfil the classic beauty queen sidekick role that we often see in horror, Helen shatters expectations due to her compelling and – at times – heartbreaking arc. It’s revealed over the course of the film that Helen’s career in Hollywood failed, her family life is rather dysfunctional and that, despite what we see on the surface, she’s deeply lonely. All of these components make her a much more interesting character than Julie, who spent the entire film screeching. The reason why Helen is more iconic than her other horror film roles (The Grudge, Scream 2) is her tragic death and iconic chase sequence, which is widely regarded as the best in horror history, and because she’s remained an influential figure in horror – even more so than a majority of other ‘Final Girls’. Type ‘Helen Shivers’ into Google and you’ll see why.
3. Daphne Blake – Scooby Doo, Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed
Find me another actor who boasts iconic roles as a blonde, brunette and redhead. You simply cannot! Don’t even try! In the midst of her Buffy run, SMG memorably starred alongside Linda Cardellini, Matthew Lillard and hubby Freddie Prinze Jr in two live-action Scooby Doo blockbusters as Daphne Blake. Both films were commercially successful, but were slated by critics, who are probably boring and ugly and hopefully having a bad day. In the years since, however, both films have achieved cult status; regularly making the rounds on social media each year in tweets that praise the “perfect casting”. SMG’s signature wit and spunkiness were perfect for the role, and not a soul – past or present – can pull off the ginger/purple combo like her. For convincing audiences that she was a red-headed fashionista slash detective and not a blonde teenage vampire slayer is where acting truly peaked. Death to the Academy for snubbing her at the Oscars. Death!
2. Kathryn Merteuil – Cruel Intentions
SMG played against type in Cruel Intentions as Kathryn Merteuil, the ruthless and vindictive cocaine-addicted queen bee of the Upper East Side who makes Regina George (Mean Girls) and Courtney Shane (Jawbreaker) look like Barney the Dinosaur. The cult classic – also starring Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Phillippe, Selma Blair and Christine Baranski – has remained highly influential in the teen genre, spawning two (meh) sequels, a cancelled spin-off series and a jukebox musical, while serving as inspiration for various films including 2022’s Do Revenge, in which Gellar appeared as a Kathryn-inspired icon. As well as playing one of the teen genre’s pinnacle villains, Gellar is responsible for the lesbian smooch of the ’90s with her and Blair’s MTV Movie Award-winning strand of saliva.
1. Buffy Summers – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
No, the number-one spot doesn’t belong to Gina Vendetti, SMG’s character from The Simpsons! What an extremely shocking and left-field subversion! No but, the pole position couldn’t belong to any other character, huh? For seven seasons, SMG played Buffy Summers, a teenage girl bestowed with the strength and skill to battle the forces of darkness, from vampires to demons and hellgods, as well as (magically tainted) beer. Created to subvert the stereotypical female horror film victim, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was snubbed by all major awards ceremonies during its run, but has retrospectively been hailed as one of the greatest shows of all time with various episodes – such as ‘Hush’, ‘The Body’ and ‘Once More, with Feeling’ – being praised as some of television’s finest. Buffy made huge strides for queer representation, with resident witches Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) blazing a trail as the first long-term lesbian relationship on American television, while the seventh and final season included the first lesbian sex scene ever broadcast. Additionally, Buffy has been credited with influencing other series in the same genre, with its impact felt in supernatural dramas like Charmed, Once Upon a Time, Orphan Black, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Wynonna Earp and Wednesday – pretty much anything that followed with a strong female protagonist at the helm. Buffy isn’t just SMG’s most iconic character – she’s one of the most iconic characters ever put to screen.