100. Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
It’s sickening that we could sympathize with a self-aggrandizing, sadistic rapist, but that’s because we’re powerless under McDowell’s spell as Alex, the tender young hooligan in Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian A Clockwork Orange. The exacting director heightened McDowell’s performance through some viciousness of his own, subjecting the actor to several modes of psychological torture, including his de rigueur multiple takes but also having him repeatedly spat upon for one scene, and subjecting him to a near-drowning experience for another. “I gave [Kubrick] everything,” McDowell said to Premiere in 1999, “broke ribs and had a blood clot on the back of my ribs; had the corneas of my eyes scratched . . . I went through a lot of physical torture to get the realism that he’d wanted.”
Well, it seems to have worked. McDowell’s performance shines, and he embodies the disaffected joy of youth with such finesse that you’d have to merge James Cagney with Laurence Olivier to get something close. No need—McDowell, with his tongue placed firmly on the bottom of Kubrick’s boot, had the goods.
99. Steve Martin as Navin Johnson
The Jerk (1979)
Had a lesser comic actor been cast as Thermos-loving Navin Johnson, The Jerk might have been 94 minutes of pure torture—a barrage of bug-eyed antics. It works thanks to Martin, who transcends shtick to give an oddly sincere performance. (Just listen to him say, “I was born a poor, black child. . . .”) Infusing every scene with a gleeful, sweet-hearted stupidity is no easy task, but Martin manages it with aplomb, exploring all the nuances of jerkdom. Falstaffian fool, nouveau-riche blowhard, drunken bum—he is, without a doubt, the greatest shlemiel and shlimazl of the 20th century.
98. Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson
Double Indemnity (1944)
Stanwyck feared that Double Indemnity would ruin her career. She’d played women who were less than virtuous, but never such a hard-boiled killer as Phyllis Dietrichson. With a pantherlike slink and some very fast talking, Dietrichson convinces smitten salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) to let her buy accident insurance in her husband’s name, then devises a nearly flawless plot to cash in on the policy. The star admitted that she was no beauty, but she oozes laser-focused sensuality, eschewing extraneous movement and working what she’s got—slowly crossing her legs and massaging the words “accident insurance” with her dark red lips. No femme was ever more fatale.
97. Ben Kingsley as Don Logan
Sexy Beast (2001)
Although some may be clamoring for Kingsley’s Oscar-winning turn as Gandhi to be included on this list, for our money, it’s his role here as the sadistic gangster Don Logan that truly deserves the nod. A.O. Scott of The New York Times described Logan as “the opposite of Gandhi: He’s pure violence, a sociopath who radiates menace even while sitting perfectly still mouthing pleasantries.” Never has such violence been so neurotically personified in a character, nor delivered with such rage and resonance. Kingsley, sinews strained as he frothingly delivers Logan’s brutal poetry of coercion to a shrinking Ray Winstone, is an image that continues to leave a chilling mark on our lizard brains.
96. Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn
Born Yesterday (1950)
It always draws a smile to hear Holliday’s chorus girl–in–search–of–culture chirp to makeover handler William Holden that a magazine think piece he’s written is “the best thing I ever read. I didn’t understand a word.” But there’s more to Holliday here than bubble-headed one-liners, as she demonstrates her mastery of a role she honed on Broadway for more than three years before making the film. She may have the voice of Betty Boop—that is, when she isn’t yowling replies to brutish paramour Broderick Crawford’s bellowing summonses—but her Billie is no cartoon character. We feel for her and pull for her, a screwball whose head we couldn’t be more eager to see get screwed on straight.
95. Angela Bassett as Tina Turner
What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993)
In one of the most brutal depictions of domestic abuse ever put in a triumph-over-adversity biopic, Bassett sings, cries, crawls, and kicks her way from joyful innocence to soul-crushing misery to hard-learned self-reliance. It’s a performance as raw and pitch-perfect as a Tina Turner rendition of “Proud Mary.” Bassett ravages herself emotionally to show the pop diva’s vulnerability and grim determination. But it’s her physicality—those powerful thighs and arms, strutting across the stage and fighting for her life—that makes this fiercely honest performance truly sing.
94. Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert
The bulging eyes, the doughy face and body, the whiny, nasal voice—Lorre was never destined for leading man status. But he made an excellent heavy or sleazeball sidekick, and here, as the serial child murderer at the center of director Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, he is resplendent. From the moment he first appears, as a silhouetted shadow over the word Mörder (“murderer”), until merciless justice is meted out at the end, his Peer Gynt Suite–whistling predator is at once credibly human and sinister. In the climax, Lorre’s Hans Beckert faces a kangaroo court of underworld criminals, and moans, shrieks, and pleads in vain, trying to explain (“I must . . . I can’t”) his compulsion to kill little girls despite the torment of his guilt.
93. Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce Beragon
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Crawford’s shrewd portrayal of a hard-working single mother willing to do anything to win her daughter’s love was ahead of its time. Whether Mildred is humoring her cocky suitor, scolding her obnoxious daughter, or making a cold-blooded financial arrangement with a man she does not love, Crawford’s beautifully chilly face and iron-willed self-possession breathe powerful life into this melodramatic noir. The potent performance revived Crawford’s stagnant career and won her her only Oscar. Which the famously difficult actress, nervous and feigning illness, accepted at home. In bed.
92. Clint Eastwood as "Dirty" Harry Callahan
Dirty Harry (1971)
Who but Eastwood could calmly, convincingly walk through a shootout, deliberately chewing his lunch the whole time without breaking a sweat, and still appear gallant? And make us share his glee as he pushes down on a screaming suspect's bullet wound? It's easy to forget that Harry Callahan is a bigoted cop who enjoys torturing suspects, and instead revel in Eastwood's scorching combination of rebel cool and controlled venom. Frank Sinatra, the original choice for Harry, might have pulled off his suaveness, but no one could have matched the acidic, effortless rage that made Eastwood's Harry a film icon.
91. Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels
Bree Daniels is no stereotypical hooker with a heart of gold. Fonda, in her first Oscar-winning performance, turns her into an open emotional wound. At first the actress wasn’t sure she should play the role. After hanging out with real-life pimps and prostitutes for a week, she says, “The overwhelming feeling I got from them was that their souls had been crushed. I had the feeling if I played Bree that way nobody would care.” And when none of the pimps tried to pick her up, “that made me feel I wasn’t right for this part.” Instead, she chose to play Bree as someone slightly closer to home: an actress who turns tricks to make money on the side, someone whose “soul is still smoldering somewhere in there.”
Fonda lived in Bree’s apartment for a week of rehearsal and soon found herself improvising strange behaviors, like licking the cat spoon. “Things happen,” she says, “when you’re inhabiting the character.” Another famous moment, when Bree checks her watch while pretending to be enjoying sex, was scripted—but Fonda didn’t find it too much of a stretch: “I just remembered the times I had done it myself.” And during the climactic confrontation with the murderer, she became so overwhelmed thinking about abused women that she burst into tears. “It was unplanned and electric,” she says, “and it surprised everybody, including me.”
90. Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey “The Dude”
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Dude, His Dudeness, El Duderino. Whatever you call him, there’s no denying that it took a comic genius to breathe such roach-smoking, gutter-balling life into this former radical and full-time slacker. When a couple of thugs mistake Jeffrey Lebowski for a much richer namesake and soil his favorite rug, he stumbles into a series of misadventures. Bridges ambles along with loosey-goosey grace, and his leisurely, drawn-out vowels reek of reefer. At the start of every scene, Bridges would ask the filmmaker Coen brothers one simple question: Did the Dude burn one on the way over? They’d answer in the affirmative, and he’d rub his eyes until they were suitably red.
89. Gong Li as Juxian
Farewell My Concubine (1993)
The intense bond between two male stars of the Peking Opera, one who plays a self-sacrificing concubine and the other who plays a king, is trumped and nearly destroyed by the manipulations of a woman. And of course, she’s a *****. Gong Li, who plays the courtesan Juxian as an Asian proto-feminist, both despises and respects her husband’s gay “stage brother,” and the feeling is mutual. Their sexual triangle plays out over decades of modern Chinese history, and it is Gong’s untheatrical and startling directness that best expresses her character’s pragmatism and thwarted ambition. After her husband humiliates and betrays her during the Cultural Revolution, the sheepish half-smile she gives her male rival—in her last moments alive—says more than all her male costars’ histrionics.
88. Christopher Walken as Nick Chevotarevich
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Start with a moment very near the conclusion: Walken’s Nick, accosted in Saigon by Robert De Niro’s Michael Vronsky before a horrifying session of Russian roulette, is such a mess of hapless, addled defiance that he spits in Vronsky’s face. To know that Walken and director Michael Cimino never warned De Niro is to know how dedicated Walken was. He showed us, within the gaunt, hollow-eyed specter of Nick, the loss of youth. In his unsparing performance, Walken stood in for an entire nation’s despair over a devastating war.
87. John Wayne as Ethan Edwards
The Searchers (1956)
In a Johnny Reb coat and dusty blue jeans, seen-it-all ex-Confederate Ethan Edwards is like many John Wayne roles: stoic, rugged, and in-charge. By 1956, Wayne was the ur–Western Hero, so what makes his work here special is the bitter resignation he exudes in his hunt for the niece carried off by Comanches, and the way his steely glare imparts how deeply he knows that he himself is no white-hatted good guy, long before he’s bent over a Comanche chief’s inert form with a scalping knife. In this morally gray West of rampant hatred, Wayne skillfully shows there are no heroes, only the man who’s still alive to stagger into the sunset.
86. Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Walker was the last actor most directors envisioned as a villain; he played a lot of all-American military men, and even Johannes Brahms. But Alfred Hitchcock—who took the same subversive tack with Anthony Perkins in Psycho— knew he’d bring the perfect blend of mischief, mayhem, and mania to Bruno Anthony, the seductive psychopath who wants to trade murders with a tennis player (Farley Granger) he meets on a train. Throttling a party guest, popping a kid’s balloon with his cigarette, flamboyant Bruno is imbued by Walker with a fascinating, insinuating charm that renders us almost complicit in his evildoing.
85. Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer
Whether standing up to the studio execs bent on turning Farmer into another mindless starlet, or undergoing electroshock therapy at the hands of the white coats who would convince Farmer she was crazy, Lange captures the vulnerability of a woman grappling with her own sanity, while maintaining an aura of intractable independence that is unforgettable. Lange’s performance reverberates as a profound tribute to a woman whose freedom was a threat to those whose lives were ruled by inhibition.
84. Anjelica Huston as Lilly Dillon
The Grifters (1990)
Huston’s wired turn as an aging grifter makes us tense. As she struts across a room with an intentionally sexed-up gait, our suspicions about her character become confused with our sympathy for the actress: Is Huston really that tired? Does Lilly have to try so hard? It’s every actor’s job to con an audience, and Huston has us breathless as we watch her dry-heaving over her dying son like a wretched animal (wait, did she mean to kill him?) and then, soon after, descending in an elevator, cool as a cucumber.
83. Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
In playing a real-life Nebraska woman whose determination to live as a man led to a violent, tragic end, Swank had to be not only credible but accessible. “We auditioned all these young actresses who would butch up and act tough, but they didn’t bring you in,” says director Kimberly Peirce. “And then there were girls who could flirt and show the desire, but they didn’t pass as boys. Hilary was the only person that did both. With her, you got to feel the excitement that Brandon felt being Brandon. That was the heart and soul of the movie.”
Swank prepped by posing as a male in her own life and by listening to police audiotape of Brandon. Still, finding her character’s voice was one thing; imagining the daily morphing ritual was quite another. Swank plays it brilliantly: a hurried, reluctant glance at her towel-clad figure in the mirror, an I’m-not-here look and a wince as she inserts a tampon, and a smiling appraisal as she makes herself over in flannel and denim. The final, humiliating stripping away of that exterior—Swank’s emotionally excruciating, cracked-lip whisper admitting to a “sexual identity crisis”—was everything Peirce had hoped for. “There was a lot of possibility for going over the top, and you couldn’t have that,” she says. “The minute Brandon started pitying himself, we wouldn’t feel anything for him. That’s a big thing in acting, when the actor knows how to hold back.”
82. George C. Scott as General George S.
With his gruff voice, regal bearing, and eagle’s profile, Scott astounds with his portrait of Patton, a soldier equal parts military genius and ego-driven eccentric. We can feel in our blood how this man could inspire his troops to victory, but we also shudder at the vanity that led him to disregard orders in pursuit of personal glory. Scott, whose Patton is both larger than life and vulnerably, humorously human, sets the bar for a thrilling performance in the iconic opening scene, in which he delivers a speech culled from actual Patton quotes—standing alone, both ludicrous and awesome.
81. Kate Winslet as Clementine Kruczynski
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Director Michel Gondry didn’t run lines during rehearsals for Eternal Sunshine, because he wanted to retain a feeling of spontaneity when the cameras rolled. True to her director’s wishes, Winslet speaks every line of dialogue with raw impulsiveness, as if the rainbow-haired Clementine lacks any capacity for self-censorship. Winslet plays valiantly against type, abandoning her corseted English rose persona in favor of a drunken, motormouthed bohemian who erases her ex-boyfriend (Jim Carrey) from her memory. “She had to be really strong,” says Gondry. “Her character was bigger in color than Jim’s character on the paper.” But despite Clementine’s foibles and transgressions, Winslet keeps us swooning from start to finish.
80. Jeanne Moreau as Catherine
Jules and Jim (1962)
As Jules observes in the film, Catherine isn’t particularly beautiful or intelligent or sincere, but she’s a real woman, and that’s why all men desire her. Playing such a woman is no easy task, but Moreau does it seemingly without effort as Catherine embroils French-born Jim (Henri Serre) and Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner) in a ménage à trois for two decades. She behaves like a spoiled child craving attention—whether she’s running through the streets of Paris in drag or jumping into the Seine—but Moreau’s unbridled joy, grave eyes, and Mona Lisa smile convince us that she’s the mistress of ageless wisdom nonetheless.
79. Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of
the Black Pearl (2003)
Theme park rides shouldn’t inspire Oscar-nominated performances, but then Depp has never been one to adhere to convention. His Jack Sparrow is similarly detached, an outrageous mélange of moxie and mascara that redefined pirates as possible Timothy Leary disciples. The Keith Richards–inspired turn didn’t come easy, with Depp having gold caps put onto his teeth, which later became a point of contention with studio execs who thought the actor had gone overboard. But he never does: Depp veers on the edge and, somehow, keeps standing.
78. Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro Kuwabatake
The title of Mifune’s 13th full-on collaboration with director Akira Kurosawa’s means “bodyguard”; his Sanjuro is an out-of-work samurai in a crime-war–ridden town who offers his services in that capacity to two rival factions, restoring civic virtue and doing pretty well by himself in the bargain. It’s neither the most psychologically complex or emotionally raw of Mifune’s performances, but his every mulling-it-over squint is perfectly judged, every shrug of his shoulder impossibly droll, every sword-swipe perfect. This archetypal performance provided the inspiration for the Eastwood role in A Fistful of Dollars , and thus set a template for rough-hewn cool and murderous competence that hundreds of tough-guy actors are still trying to live up to.
77. Morgan Freeman as Leo Smalls Jr.,
a.k.a. Fast Black
Street Smart (1987)
Freeman’s alternately smooth and sinister New York pimp pretty much wiped away any memories of him as The Electric Company ’s Easy Reader. Pauline Kael, in fact, famously began her review of Street Smart by wondering, “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?” You’re inclined to shout “Yes!” as you watch him play head games with Christopher Reeve’s street-beat reporter and torment Kathy Baker’s hooker with a pair of scissors, demanding to know which eye she wants to lose. With his continuously percolating hint of menace and his flair for detail—check out the way he casually pinky-picks his teeth before threatening to cap Reeve—Freeman takes what could have been a degradingly clichéd character and transforms him into not only a scene stealer but a career maker.
76. Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Lancaster was still a matinee idol when he made this most acidic of noirish dramas, which is why he shocked audiences when he first appeared onscreen as the all-powerful gossip columnist holding court at ‘21’. A predator at rest—you can practically hear his tail thumping against the floor—Lancaster spits out his dialogue seemingly before it can corrode his gums; moving from one to the next, he coldly, brutally cuts down to pathetic size all of his tablemates. Over the next hour or so, we wait for him to show some glimmer of humanity, something besides the capacity for offhand cruelty. No dice.
75. Julie Christie as Diana Scott
“Why is life such a piss pot?” the mercurial, spoiled Diana wants to know, and though we are sporadically repulsed by her manipulations, Christie’s now breezy, now tragic antiheroine never fully loses our sympathy. Credit the despairing inwardness with which Christie shades her portrayal of a model-actress-whatever as she flirts, fibs, and fornicates through a series of relationships in London, Paris, and Capri. Her confession, “I could do without sex—don’t really like it that much,” chills us, because in it we see her almost childlike neediness. Offering herself to a near stranger with “Amuse me,” she’s almost feral; but after a regretted abortion, Christie’s trembling chin gives away an unforgettable mask of grief.
74. Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtupp
Blazing Saddles (1974)
In Mel Brooks’s western comedy, full of hilarious references to cowboy culture, Kahn’s turn as the slatternly, enunciation-impaired Germanic bar performer, billed as “The Teutonic Titwillow,” steals the show. “Almost every picture I made, I tried to get her into, by hook or by crook,” Brooks says. “She asked, ‘What am I going to be in Blazing Saddles?’ and I said ‘Marlene Dietrich. You’re going to sing wacky songs on a saloon stage.’ ” Brooks says Kahn wasn’t sold on the role until he started writing the words to “I’m Tired,” which let her show off her opera training in the lispy belting of lyrics like: “They always hound me/with one request/who can satisfy their lustful habits / I’m not a rabbit! / I need some rest!” Others on set fed off of Kahn’s manic energy, forcing them to respond to her improvisations—like her flirtations with Harvey Korman’s character, or her teetering on the edge of the proscenium while performing at the saloon. “There were two truly gifted comediennes in my life, Madeline Kahn and Gilda Radner,” Brooks says. “It was such a joy to work with her. I loved her. Yes, I loved her.”
73. John Travolta as Tony Manero
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Even though Fever has been exiled to the outer reaches of cabledom, the most jaded channel surfers are stopped dead in their tracks by Travolta’s introductory strut as Tony—but it’s knowing where he’s headed, sashaying back to a dead-end job with such cool conviction, that hooks us. Travolta’s cocky smile and dance floor flair are intoxicating, and then he melts our hearts as his narcissist Tony transforms into a sensitive gent who wears his feelings on his polyester sleeves. In the role that made him a movie star, Travolta created a character far more durable than disco.
72. Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett a.k.a.
A Star Is Born (1954)
Garland’s self-initiated comeback vehicle—and, ultimately, her last big splash—sticks in the memory first because of that fabulous voice. But in watching her portray a club singer boosted to big-screen luminescence by fading star Norman Maine (James Mason), we tend to focus as much on her exquisitely twitchy mouth as the sounds coming out of it. Whether Garland is playing fluttery-hearted as Mason first urges her to dream big, or communicating the frayed vulnerability that tinges her eventual fame, the lips have it. Behind the scenes, the star’s unsteadiness was another story entirely, prompting director George Cukor to fume, “This is the behavior of someone unhinged.” But onscreen, she wrings enormous sympathy out of her portrait of a woman who keeps her feet firmly on the ground as she’s reaching for the stars.
71. Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood
Karen Silkwood—based on a real-life whistle-blower at an unsafe nuclear plant—undergoes an ordeal that has forever linked Streep’s suffering face with our fear of nuclear power. Karen reveals her factory’s questionable safety standards and soon after finds herself so contaminated with plutonium that even her bathroom sink sets off a Geiger counter. Streep loses her patrician self entirely in the loose-limbed, radical Texan, who flashes a harassing coworker and takes bites of other people’s sandwiches. With a simple flare of her nostrils and widening of her eyes, you can feel her skin crawl at the thought of the radioactive poison in her body.
70. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Novelist Thomas Harris may have created Hannibal Lecter, the brilliant psychiatrist with a taste for human flesh, but Hopkins, wearing a prison suit as if it were a tuxedo, immortalized him. His slithery “Goood evening, Claaarriiice.” That post–fava beans “ttthhpt.” If you close your eyes, you can hear Lecter’s voice—go ahead and shiver—described by Hopkins himself as a cross between Katharine Hepburn, Truman Capote, and HAL from 2001. Just as creepy is the way that Hopkins’s eyes never change—even when his character is beating a man to death.
69. Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
As a washed-up silent-film diva, Swanson had a few unfortunate things in common with Norma Desmond by 1950—multiple ex-husbands, movie star attitude, and a ruined career. But like Norma, she also possessed the ability to say anything she wanted with her eyes, which flash and narrow with kaleidoscopic emotion as she hires a struggling writer (William Holden) to fix her unsalvageable screenplay and reduces him to a gigolo. Thanks to Swanson, a vulnerable beating heart dwells inside the monomaniacal glamour queen of 1086 Sunset Boulevard.
68. Cary Grant as Dr. David Huxley
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Before we knew him as the dashing Hitchcock hero or the Deborah Kerr–Audrey Hepburn romantic foil, Grant made his mark with an outsize comedic talent, on raucous display in this screwball classic. As Bringing Up Baby’s straitlaced, bumbling paleontologist, he stammers and cringes, walks into doors, bumps heads, sings with a dog, slips on an olive, dons a negligee, and generally makes impressive use of the acrobat training he had as a youth—all to survive run-ins with Katharine Hepburn’s disaster-prone, leopard-losing heiress. To explain the Huxley character, director Howard Hawks handed Grant a pair of round spectacles and pointed him toward the great silent comedian Harold Lloyd. But Huxley is all Cary Grant—intercostal clavicle and all.
67. Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond
Inherit the Wind (1960)
The media circus dramatized in Inherit the Wind—the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” in which a Tennessee high school instructor was accused of breaking a new law forbidding the teaching of evolution—was about a battle of ideas. And who better than gruff, decent, implacable Tracy to play the lawyer (based on Clarence Darrow) who exposes the inanity and hatred behind the law’s piety. Tracy’s star power, his sweaty shirt and leonine scowls, humanize director Stanley Kramer’s polemics and give the poetic lines of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play a clear and persuasive voice.
66. Holly Hunter as Jane Craig
Broadcast News (1987)
The only way TV news producer Jane Craig could be a more complicated mass of contradictions is if she were bipolar. Playing her must have been a kind of high-wire act, but Hunter, exuding an effervescent neurosis composed of equal parts rough edges and soft heart, never loses her balance. In one scene alone, when Jane visits Aaron (Albert Brooks) after an anchoring disaster, she veers from concerned to vulnerable to angry to shocked to lovelorn to hyperventilating in the space of ten minutes. And every emotional shift makes you ache more. As Jane famously observes, she can’t help repelling people she’s trying to attract—so it’s all the more remarkable that Hunter turns her into one of the screen’s most beloved heroines.
65. Jack Lemmon as Jerry/Daphne
Some Like It Hot (1959)
One of the most committed and comical drag performances of all time, Lemmon’s transformation from grouchy Chicago bass player to sunny Miami party girl belongs in a museum. Preferably one trimmed in marabou and adorned with maracas. It’s hard to imagine any other actor throwing himself so completely into the role of the despairing Jerry as well as the plucky Daphne, but Lemmon just sells it, whether tangoing with Joe E. Brown or squabbling with Tony Curtis. What seals it is perhaps the greatest reaction shot in the history of film, when Brown delivers his jaw-dropping final line and Lemmon just goggles, poleaxed. Repeat after us: “You’re a girl.”
64. Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson
The Hustler (1961)
Other actors with Newman’s considerable charm and good looks might have gone the matinee idol route, phoning in one pretty boy after another. Not Newman. In this gritty drama about a pool shark, he not only proved once again that he was willing to tackle a risky role, but—in making Fast Eddie, essentially a cocky perennial loser, so complex and likable—that he was also an exceptional actor. Piper Laurie, who worked with Newman on the 1957 romantic drama Until They Sail and here plays “Eddie’s girl,” as one character calls her, was in awe of her costar’s approach. “He was utterly truthful,” she says. “I just believed and trusted that he would come to me as Fast Eddie and not as Paul.”
Although Newman lost the Best Actor Oscar to Maximilian Schell (Judgment at Nuremberg ), he finally won a golden statue 25 years later for reprising his role as Fast Eddie in The Color of Money , Martin Scorsese’s sequel to The Hustler . A just reward? Absolutely. Did the Academy make a mistake in 1961? Perhaps. But what’s certain is that in the original, Newman sank the nine on the break, or in other words—Laurie’s, to be precise—gave “a hell of a performance.”
63. Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Many actors believe playing someone who is going crazy is just a matter of acting, well, weird. But Rowlands makes even the most mundane moments disturbing in this desperate-housewife classic. When Mabel’s husband (Peter Falk) unexpectedly brings coworkers home to breakfast, she tries so hard to please that the words “Want some spaghetti?” seem like a cry for help. The actress has said she took inspiration for the character from the mother of a childhood friend, but there is more than a little Rowlands in there as well. In fact, she started saying and doing things on the set that surprised even her—and began to worry her director husband, John Cassavetes, because they seemed to come from a very real place down deep inside of her.
62. Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious
Sid & Nancy (1986)
The then-unknown London stage actor Gary Oldman embodied Sex Pistol Sid Vicious—punkest of the punks—eerily onscreen, mumbling, nodding out, and deranged. Daniel Day-Lewis wanted the role, but director Alex Cox went with the 27-year-old Oldman because he was “from the same part of London, the same world as Sid, and he really understood . . . the desperate need to get out.” That desperation haunts Oldman’s every empty stare and outburst as he stumbles bandy-legged and half-conscious through fame, love, and, eventually, overdose, unpretty and vacant. Punk has long been co-opted and sanitized by wannabes, but Oldman’s work is as raw as a Pistols power chord.
61. Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth
Schindler’s List (1993)
Even though Fiennes gained weight for the role of a Nazi concentration camp commandant—which heightened the disparity between Goeth’s depraved lifestyle and the starvation in the camp—his youthful face and blanched blue eyes project the restlessness of a driven man. As Goeth orders the depopulation of Jews from Krakow or beats a servant girl he’s attracted to, Fiennes reveals the complexity of his character—not with a tortured conscience but with Goeth’s insecurity about his own greatness. When a young inmate confesses he can’t scrub the stains off of Goeth’s bathtub, the commandant excuses him with the words, “I pardon you.” Alone, he looks at himself in the mirror and repeats the line like a narcissistic Roman emperor. Moments later, he shoots the kid dead from a distance.
60. Diane Keaton as Annie Hall
Annie Hall (1977)
It’s hard to play ditzy. Though Annie Hall’s now ubiquitous “La-di-da, la-di-da, la-la” may seem like a toss-away line, there’s a self-consciousness to the way in which it’s tossed. The genius of Annie is that despite her loopy backhand, awful driving, and nervous tics, she’s also a complicated, intelligent woman. Keaton brilliantly displays this dichotomy of her character, especially when she yammers away on a first date with Alvy (Woody Allen) while the subtitle reads, “He probably thinks I’m a yo-yo.” Yo-yo? Hardly.
59. Catherine Deneuve as Séverine Sérizy
Belle de Jour (1967)
We intend no disrespect by pointing out that Deneuve began her career as an appealing but limited performer. Then, in this outrageous, surreal erotic comedy, she played an icily timid haute-bourgeois wife whose bizarrely masochistic dreams (maybe) lead her to start working afternoons at a brothel, wherein she unleashes the very bad girl that had heretofore existed only in her imagination and memory. Deneuve’s actorly intelligence here honed in on the fact that her porcelain beauty had been, up to now, both her greatest asset and her biggest liability; working from that knowledge, she transforms from appealing ingenue to great actress in one fell swoop.
58. Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley
In Ridley Scott’s Alien, Weaver portrayed Ripley as part of an ensemble; she’s a tough woman who was thrust by circumstances into a series of terrifying, otherworldly encounters. In the sequel, Weaver takes center stage, as her wiser and buff-as-all-hell Ripley fights the beasts on her own terms, becoming the most believable intergalactic badass mama ever likely to grace the screen. Moreover, she set the grueling physical standard for female—and male—action heroes to this day. As critic David Thomson wrote, “She went by sheer willpower and assertiveness from the bimbo in bikini underwear to the driven crew leader.” Now that’s girl power.
57. Max Von Sydow as Lasse Karlsson
Pelle the Conqueror (1987)
As Lasse Karlsson, a Swedish widower who emigrates to Denmark with his young son, Von Sydow is the human equivalent of a workhorse one cart away from the glue factory. You can almost hear his bones creak as he moves wearily across the stark, windswept landscape. Yet for every humiliation Lasse endures without fighting back, Von Sydow never lets him become pathetic. Even during his most crushing moments of disappointment, there are flashes of hope behind his cool blue eyes that life will be better for his beloved son. It’s a performance so quietly compelling that it earned Von Sydow a Best Actor Oscar nomination, a rarity in a foreign-language film.
56. Jodie Foster as Sarah Tobias
The Accused (1988)
Foster always rises above her material. This drama, inspired by a real gang-rape case, is anything but subtle, but she creates an authentic, multifaceted character in Sarah, a waitress with a sharp tongue and a shady reputation. You see in her the kind of understanding that comes to those who’ve seen the darkest side of human nature. During the protracted rape flashback, there is a moment when the camera focuses on her. Her tear-stained face is eerily, chillingly blank—as if Foster has left her body. You don’t think “Oscar.” You think, “My God. Why won’t someone help this poor woman?”
55. Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
It’s daunting being a racial role model, let alone a movie star. But 1967 was Poitier’s year for both, in To Sir, With Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and, most impressively, in this. He plays a Philadelphia homicide detective visiting his mom in the Deep South who ends up helping a redneck police chief (Rod Steiger) solve a murder. The secret of Poitier’s grace under pressure lies in his hands. Whether performing an autopsy or returning a slap to the face from a racist suspect (a rewrite he suggested), Poitier shook America’s collective consciousness with a mere flick of the wrist.
54. Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Without The Philadelphia Story, we might not have had Woman of the Year or any of the score of other roles Hepburn brought to life, because in 1939 her film career was all but over. It took the Philip Barry play and subsequent movie version to introduce a Hepburn no one had seen before. As regal rich girl Tracy Lord, she was radiant, mischievous, and sexy, using an iron will and ebullient spirit to spar with Cary Grant and swoon with Jimmy Stewart. Her drunken exit, blissfully curled in Stewart’s arms (“My feet are made of clay . . .”) is as absurd as it is human, and her astringent, euphoric performance is one for the ages.
53. Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill
“The Butcher” Cutting
Gangs of New York (2002)
Day-Lewis listened to Eminem to prepare for his role as the murderous overlord Bill the Butcher, instilling in him a boisterous rage that caused more than one audience member to cower. With an angry squint, Day-Lewis embodies all the hatred, passion, and self-righteousness of early Irish-Americans trying to stake a claim on a land that didn’t particularly want them. The period setting tested the actor’s work methods: While shooting during winter at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, he refused to wear anything but Bill’s ratty coat and promptly became sick. He at first resisted taking the antibiotics doctors prescribed for him because they wouldn’t be available in the 19th century, when Gangs took place.
52. Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton
The Remains of the Day (1993)
For Miss Kenton, head housekeeper of a 1930s English manor, there’s only one task more daunting than keeping the silver polished: trying to buff away the impossibly thick coating smothering the emotions of model butler Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins). Some would argue that Hopkins faced the greater acting challenge in conveying heartache through that formidable reserve. But Thompson had to both match his decorum (she took a few tips from the Windsors’ butler) and chip away at Stevens’s wall of repression. It’s the dramatic equivalent of Ginger Rogers doing all those fancy steps backwards, in heels—and Thompson manages the dance expertly, at once ever-dutiful and gracefully defiant.
51. Henry Fonda as Tom Joad
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
There is not an extraneous gesture or forced line in Fonda’s portrayal of Tom Joad, an ex-con forced to leave Oklahoma for California with his family during the Great Depression. He doesn’t show you the rage bubbling just below the surface, but you know it’s there just the same. The result—an empathetic everyman who keeps his decency while all around him are losing theirs—is as natural and effortless as the actor’s easy gait. Lee Strasberg once told Fonda’s daughter, Jane, “Don’t plan, be.” But no one needed to tell that to Henry.
50. Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Although this third screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s classic mystery novel is the most faithful and straightforward of them all, both Hollywood convention and industry censorship kept writer-director John Huston from fully plumbing the sleaziness of detective Sam Spade. The true strength of Bogart’s performance is not in the cool ways he cracks wise, acts tough, and does the right thing (sort of), but in how strongly he implies Spade’s seediness the whole time he’s presenting him as a hard case. The man you see sending Brigid O’Shaughnessy to her deserved fate near the film’s end is clearly a shell—after this moment, there’ll be nothing but death left inside him.
49. Liv Ullmann as Elisabet Vogler
To become an international movie sensation while barely uttering a word is no small feat. When Ingmar Bergman cast Ullmann as a stage star who suddenly stops speaking, she was a little-known Norwegian actress, younger than Bergman stalwart Bibi Andersson, who plays the innocent nurse who tends to her. Bergman’s infatuation with Ullmann is obvious onscreen (they began an affair during the shoot), and her visage is incandescent. Ullmann’s purely reactive performance projects terrifying power with as little as a smirk in this film, which is a radical deconstruction of role-playing and an ode to the art of acting and thus a showcase for its stars’ talents.
48. Bill Murray as Phil Connors
Groundhog Day (1993)
Romantic comedies rarely get this meta. Actors on location enact a script about a man reliving the same day in the same small town so many times he may as well be an actor on location enacting a script. Cue Bill Murray, his sarcasm and wit cut with sincerity—or is it a put-on?—and suddenly you realize you’ve spent the last 101 minutes both laughing and wanting to smack his misanthropic, Sisyphean weatherman. Murray used the repetition as a springboard for improv, to the point where no one on the set knew what he would do next. That diner scene? He actually ate that table full of food. We’d spend a never-ending day with him anytime.
47. Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The mischief in Nicholson’s raised eyebrow is pure poetry. Nicholson proved to be the perfect fit in the skullcap of McMurphy, the low-level hood who fakes mental illness to transfer out of jail into an asylum, only to find a sense of purpose leading his fellow patients against the tyrannical Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Looking back now, one might think Nicholson heading up a bunch of crazies was a walk in the park for the actor, but he truly earned his first Oscar by infusing McMurphy with a childlike wonder that underlines his misfit tendencies.
46. Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland
Cast Away (2000)
For Cast Away, Hanks underwent the kind of physical transformation that’s practically de rigueur for Oscar contenders; infinitely more impressive, though, is how he manages to hold the screen for nearly an hour with little more than a volleyball to play off of. Using just his expressions and body language—which move deftly between desperation and hope and triumph—Hanks turns the elemental task of building a fire, for instance, into moments of breathless suspense.
45. Reese Witherspoon as Tracy
Flick Election (1999)
“I went to a high school for three days, where I pretended to be a student,” recalls Witherspoon, who was 23 years old when she wowed the critics with her unflinching performance as Tracy Flick, an anal-retentive go-getter who will stop at nothing to win her student council election. She generates an onslaught of posters, buttons, and customized cupcakes all bearing her special slogan: Pick Flick. But the tightly wound physicality that Witherspoon brought to the character—the typewriter speech, ramrod-straight posture, and desperately sunny disposition—veils more nuanced undercurrents of pain. Witherspoon creates a character who is at once a riotous embodiment of a type—the geeky brownnose we all knew in high school—and a living, breathing individual, reeling with quirks, loneliness, and anger. “She clenched her teeth and jutted her jaw forward, particularly when she was angry, which was ninety-five percent of the film,” Witherspoon says. “I just remember after the movie was done, my jaw hurt so bad. I had TMJ from holding my jaw so tight!”
44. Charlie Chaplin as A Tramp
City Lights (1931)
Singling out Chaplin’s best performance is tough. His iconic Little Tramp remained a constant until late in his career. Still, City Lights is transcendent. The Tramp’s infatuation with the poor, blind flower girl and his friendship with a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire perfectly express Chaplin’s obsessions—desperate poverty, compassion, and cleverness defying all odds—and the movie, stubbornly silent four years into the sound era, showcases some of his funniest sight gags. The boxing match he submits to in order to pay the girl’s rent is the most exquisitely choreographed and least gimmicky of all his extended routines. And the last shot, a radiant close-up of Chaplin, smiling vulnerably at the no-longer-sightless flower girl and looking clown-ugly, is an utterly uncompromised vision of love.
43. James Dean as Jim Stark
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Did James Dean perfectly capture how teenagers behave, or do teenagers behave the way they do in part because of his revelatory performance in Rebel Without a Cause? Director Nicholas Ray gave the actor so much freedom to create his part that some on the crew thought Ray was getting pushed around. In fact, many of Dean’s most memorable and surprising moments were improvised—from the opening credit sequence, where he curls up in a fetal position with a toy monkey; to his unexpected giggle when he’s frisked by the police; to the way he cools his forehead with a milk bottle after returning home from seeing another kid plunge off a cliff to his death. Fifty years later, Jim’s anguished lament to his parents—“You’re tearing me apart!”—remains a teenage rallying cry.
42. Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle
Taxi Driver (1976)
How do you get people to linger over a landscape painting of an open sewer? This was, in a sense, one of the questions facing director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader as they cooked up their complex, lurid study of a loner’s growing fixation on violently cleansing New York’s mean streets. They found their solution in De Niro’s mesmerizing performance, which was informed partly by the diary of George Wallace shooter Arthur Bremer. Even in Travis Bickle’s seemingly benign moments, De Niro has an unsettling intensity that makes us—not to mention the other characters—squirm. Just the sort of chilling effect you’d expect from an actor who took the script direction “Travis speaks to himself in the mirror” and forever burned “You talkin’ to me?” into pop-culture consciousness.
41. Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Jules’s rat-a-tat-tat chatter (“ ‘What’ ain’t no country I ever heard of. Do they speak English in ‘What’?”) and biblical gunplay are the hilarious and bloody core of Pulp Fiction, and Jackson carries it off with such slick verve that we yearn for him to return every time the story swivels away from Jules. And it’s just as much about style as substance: Director Quentin Tarantino wanted him to sport a retro look with a huge afro, but Jackson knew his character, and realized that Jules wouldn’t be caught dead—literally—in anything but the modern-gangster–Jheri curl–N.W.A. look.
40. Nicole Kidman as Suzanne Stone Maretto
To Die For (1995)
When asked to describe Suzanne, her sister-in-law tries to show some restraint: “She’s a four-letter word starting with ‘c’. Yeah . . . cold.” She is indeed, but what makes Kidman’s aspiring anchorwoman so amazing to watch is that she can be frosty one minute and hot as hell the next. Kidman has never been sexier (check out that “Sweet Home Alabama” rain dance), so it makes sense that her poor dumb husband (Matt Dillon) and poor dumb lover (Joaquin Phoenix) never stand a chance.
39. Laurence Olivier as Richard III
Richard III (1955)
Olivier’s murderous royal is the most audaciously modern of his filmed Shakespeare incarnations. From the visual (Richard’s hilariously razor-sharp nose, Olivier’s interaction with sets that are only slightly less artificial than the paintings in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty) to the actorly (Richard’s asides to the audience are delivered in the tone of a very posh, very sinister music-hall master of ceremonies), this is a performance that glories in the synthetic, and actually gains emotional power as a result.
38. Carole Lombard as Maria Tura
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
We’d say that Lombard was a one-woman refutation of Steve Martin’s maxim “Comedy isn’t pretty,” except that to say that Lombard was pretty would be a terrific disservice to her. She’s nothing less than ravishing in this, playing the better half of a Warsaw acting couple whose troupe is concocting a de facto resistance to the Nazis. This is a work whose grace and humanity are still movingly resonant today, and it’s Lombard’s beguiling character who keeps the audience on its toes. Is she loyal to her self-absorbed spouse, or will she throw him over for the dashing airman? And who has time for romance when the world is ending? Conveying the depths of a very wise soul even with her crystalline laugh, Lombard provides unforgettable answers to these questions.
37. Gene Hackman as Harry Caul
The Conversation (1974)
Having made his rep embodying larger-than-life types (see Popeye Doyle in The French Connection), Hackman here went in the opposite direction, playing a quiet, repressed, intensely private man who happens to be one of the country’s best wiretappers. Caul also has a hell of a guilty conscience, and when his latest job threatens to get someone hurt, or worse, he slowly starts to unravel. In the most controlled and meticulous performance of his career, the actor communicates all of this wordlessly: All slumped shoulders, downward glances, and shuffling feet, Hackman, a robust man, seems to physically shrink into the role.
36. Faye Dunaway Evelyn Cross Mulwray
This career-defining role as one messed-up L.A. broad was a job that Dunaway almost didn’t get; she was neck-and-neck with Jane Fonda for the role, but director Roman Polanski’s first choice won out. Tensions on the set were immense—costar Jack Nicholson referred to her as “the Dread Dunaway”—but something in the atmosphere created magic.
Dunaway gives her damaged innocent not only the Raymond Chandler–esque femme fatale characteristics, but a world-weary stubbornness that propels the rest of the movie. She drove Polanski to distraction by fixing her painted-on eyebrows, cupid bow lipstick, and powdered face after every single take (the crew presented her with a mock-up of a giant container of Blistex at the end of the film). Such attention to detail only serves to make the immaculate seem more tainted: In his 1974 review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that Dunaway was “a woman too beautiful to be either good or true.” Daughter or sister? You decide.
35. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote
Hoffman disappears below layers of artifice to become the writer of In Cold Blood, using his voice, his carriage, his mannerisms—and the result lays bare the man’s core of self-loathing glossed over with vanity. As Capote burrows into the sordid truths of other people’s lives and deaths, Hoffman opens up the man’s little rages and silent torments. Utterly convincing during the peaks of Truman’s gadfly persona, Hoffman also reveals his cutting brilliance during quiet moments with Harper Lee. And when Truman goes off the grid into catatonic despair, Hoffman provokes sympathy and contempt in equal measure.
34. Buster Keaton as Johnny Gray
The General (1927)
Keaton was nicknamed “The Great Stone Face,” but we should not confuse disinclination to smile with paucity of expressiveness. In this Civil War–set story of a young man wanting to do good by his two loves—his sweetheart and the train he engineers (both of which he must rescue, as it were, from Yankee plots)—Keaton, still the screen’s greatest physical actor, brings us into his character’s yearning, panic, frustration, melancholy, pride, and scores of other emotions, all the while unblinkingly performing miraculous stunts that Jackie Chan would no doubt admit to envying.
33. Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey/
Conceived as a semiautobiographical satire of an actor’s life by Hoffman and playwright Murray Schisgal, this is, as Hoffman observes, “a movie about a man who becomes a better man by having been a woman.” In simple terms, it’s the story of an actor so frustrated that he’ll cross-dress to go from playing a tomato in ads to becoming the middle-aged cynosure of what his roommate (Bill Murray) calls “one nutty hospital” on a soap opera. Hoffman expertly shifts between a guttural-voiced, street-smart New York tough guy and a wispy-voiced steel magnolia whose walk alone is a Chaplin-esque tour de force. The actor and director Sydney Pollack had legendary battles from the outset. “But [Pollack] has wonderful taste and he wanted it real,” Hoffman says. “We came to what I called the freebie agreement, which was if I got an idea, I would get a freebie [take]. That happened a lot, and some of it [e.g., the scene in which Dorothy brusquely keeps a cab that a man tries to usurp] is in the movie.” The “long, hard shoot” produced one of cinema’s best-loved romantic comedies—thanks largely to a Hoffman performance that unerringly skates between poignancy and hilarity.
32. Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
What an awesome accomplishment: Hepburn’s regal grace, coy ditziness, and beguiling patter make a call girl’s life the stuff of romantic dreams. Although author Truman Capote thought his pal Marilyn Monroe would be perfect for the role, Hepburn makes the thought of buxom, flighty Marilyn swaggering through this film incomprehensible. Her thin build and delicate features are put to their full advantage, and her tenderness can never be confused with naïveté, as she treads an impossibly fine line between optimist and opportunist. The ladies of Sex and the City—and, really, any girl who tries on a tiara (you know, just to see how it looks)—owe it all to Audrey.
31. Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles
Where’s the line between the R&B legend and the actor playing him in Taylor Hackford’s elegiac biopic? As we witness Ray Charles go from mockingbird to artful songbird on his way to becoming one of the most unique voices in pop music, it’s hard not to see a similar process at work in Foxx. The In Living Color alum goes well beyond mimicry to capture the swinging gait and country mannerisms of the man, as well as the sensitivity and spiritual turmoil that so defined his life and music.
30. James Stewart as John “Scottie” Ferguson
Stewart rightly won audiences’ hearts embodying earnest, good Americans in idealistic Frank Capra fare (see #8). But the character of John “Scottie” Ferguson didn’t call for any trace of the “aw, shucks” boyishness of Stewart’s earlier roles. After the death of his platinum-tressed lover, Madeleine (Kim Novak), Scottie dresses up a woman named Judy (also played by Novak) in her exact image. With the subtlest tightening of his mouth, wrinkling of his forehead, and unwavering gaze, Stewart transforms himself from a national icon of decency into an obsessed fetishist. When Judy pins back her newly bleached hair into Madeleine’s signature coif, Scottie swallows a tear and stares at her like she just took off her dress. Aw, shucks, Jimmy, you’re scaring us!
29. Peter Sellers as Chance the Gardener
Being There (1979)
Near the end of a career full of classic, over-the-top comedic roles, Sellers took his talents into the realm of the sublime and truly touching by playing Chance yardstick-straight. As the illiterate gardener whose pure and simple observations about caring for plants are taken as profound maxims for the ills of the modern age, Sellers embodies the fool-sage persona with an incomparable aura of innocence and a remarkable purity of spirit. Being There was a last look (let’s just forget about The Fiendish Plot of Dr. FuManchu) at an astonishingly gifted actor who at times appeared, like Chance, to walk on water.
28. Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson
His Girl Friday (1940)
It takes a hell of a woman to go toe-to-toe with Cary Grant, and Russell plays exactly that, a whip-smart journalist trying to retire in favor of marriage and children. Her razor-sharp banter with Grant sparkles. (Legend has it that she paid a writer $200 a week to pen her retorts when she realized that Grant had all the best lines.) Both witty and warm, Russell deftly pits Hildy’s passion for her career against her longing for a family.
27. Marlon Brando as Paul
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Already renowned as the greatest practitioner of the Method, for Tango Brando took Stanislavski’s ideas to their logical extreme, mining his memories, feelings, even biographical details to put what was, essentially, a broken version of himself up on the screen. Or did he? In one key scene, he breaks his character’s own rule by revealing intimate details of his past to his anonymous lover, then, laughing, reneges on them. In another, confronting the body of his wife, a suicide, he spews grief and rage and anguish so toxic, and seemingly so real, that we almost can’t bear to watch. So which is it: An actor exorcising his demons for the world to see, or cinema’s most elaborate fakeout? Wouldn’t we like to know.
26. Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
One look at Falconetti’s wide-eyed countenance and you understand that she is the one movie actor for whom the term “iconic” has complete justification. And though director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film records only Joan’s trial and execution, Falconetti’s performance shows you the entirety of the warrior’s life—transforming from unworldly, scared, wonder-transfixed young girl into saint right before our eyes. Dreyer summed it up perfectly: “In Falconetti . . . I found what I might, with very bold expression, allow myself to call ‘the martyr’s reincarnation.’ ”
25. Greta Garbo as Ninotchka
No one has objectified feminine beauty as intensely and mysteriously as Garbo. She remained aloof to public adoration, and built her reputation on tragically romantic roles, from Camille to Anna Karenina. When she transitioned from silent to sound movies, MGM boasted “Garbo Talks!” And when she starred in this romantic comedy about a severe Soviet apparatchik who falls in love with a French count (Melvyn Douglas), MGM blared “Garbo Laughs!” Indeed she did, showing comedic timing and earthiness as never before.
24. Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Check this one out, kids: In Bogart’s hands, the descent of Fred Dobbs, from a decent, down-on-his-luck man who turns to gold mining to a creature driven by gold lust and paranoia is far deeper and scarier than that of that recently celebrated gold-digger, Gollum. Never before had Bogie’s big brown eyes, usually the epitome of cool, shown such manic anxiety. Originally, director John Huston tried to show the graphic depiction of Dobbs getting his head cut off. Thankfully, the censors cut the scene. We don’t need to see any gore to feel the weight of Dobbs’s downfall. Better the image of Bogie by the campfire, all desperation as his conscience battles his greed.
23. Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand
The Insider (1999)
Crowe was hardly a logical choice to play Wigand, the paunchy, fiftysomething tobacco executive–turned– whistle-blower; even the actor himself said that he wasn’t sure which character director Michael Mann wanted him to play. But disguised by a wispy gray wig and 48 extra pounds (Mann didn’t insist, but Crowe wanted the heft so he would move like a larger man), he channels his intense energy inward, creating an unforgettable portrait of an everyday man under extraordinary stress—prickly, withdrawn, and, at times, full of contempt and distrust for everyone around him. We feel for Wigand every step of the way, but we don’t particularly like him.
22. Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
The first and greatest of Depp’s tender freak roles, the paralyzingly shy Edward is a flawlessly funny and sad embodiment of adolescent angst. Director Tim Burton’s fantasia of a town first embraces then shuns the newcomer, but Edward remains the same damaged innocent. Scissorhands was the first film to show audiences just how gifted the former small-screen heartthrob was. Depp’s finely tuned portrayal finds its apex in the little things, such as the simple act of Edward trying to eat his peas.
21. Giulietta Masina as Cabiria
Nights of Cabiria (1957)
Masina’s genius in her two great films with husband-director Federico Fellini—this and 1954’s La Strada—is how she brings new dimension to what are essentially stock characters. Her unforced vulnerability gave La Strada’s waif a heart-destroying poignancy. And here she takes on the tough-as-nails, heart-of-gold hooker (for the second time—she played the very same character in 1952’s The White Sheik) and demythologizes the idea, creating nothing more or less than a human being. No other portrayal could have done justice to this film’s vision, which is encapsulated in its stunning ending, one of cinema’s greatest moments.
20. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Pacino’s work in the middle film of Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy is the gravest of the greatest leading performances on film. Impelled into his role as Don by his father’s aging and death, Michael Corleone is beset by his brother Fredo’s disloyalty, his wife Kay’s hatred for his compromises, and a savage war with those who would usurp his family’s power. The hollow-eyed Pacino wins our empathy even as he wreaks evil. Whether bracing a corrupt senator, consigning his brother to a fatal purgatory, or cold-bloodedly dismissing Kay, Pacino is starkly compelling. Make no mistake—this is American cinema’s prince of darkness.
19. Paul Newman as Frank Galvin
The Verdict (1982)
How easy it would have been to devour the scenery playing alcoholic Frank Galvin, an ambulance-chasing lawyer who exposes the truth in a medical malpractice suit. Instead, it’s the quiet details in Newman’s wrenching portrait of desperation and redemption that really sock you in the gut, many of them suggested by the actor himself: the breath freshener and eyedrops Galvin uses to face the day; his world-weary walk; what director Sidney Lumet has called his “whiskey voice.” And for a master class in psychological subtlety, watch the way Newman’s body language changes as Galvin, taking routine Polaroids of his comatose client, is suddenly struck by the realization that this case is anything but business as usual.
18. Emily Watson as Bess McNeill
Breaking the Waves (1996)
Watson put us through the emotional wringer in her film debut, with a beguiling and brutal turn as the wide-eyed Bess, a simple-minded woman who grows to believe that her sexual degradation will save her paralyzed husband’s life. Half saint, half fool, Bess loves as a child does—fiercely, instinctively, and without limit—and her pure, uncensored emotions are reflected in Watson’s astonishingly expressive face. It’s a performance so open and raw that we believe every moment of it.
17. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X
Malcolm X (1992)
With expectations surrounding the film running high, and public debate over the slain leader’s legacy at fever pitch, Washington quietly stepped into the role of Malcolm X and delivered a performance of profound gravitas—one that captured the man’s ever-shifting essence in a way that only Washington could. “Denzel cleared his schedule a year before the cameras started to roll,” says director Spike Lee. “He realized that if this film was gonna be a success, it was really on his back. He studied the Koran. He learned to pray in Arabic. He stopped eating pork and stopped drinking. He knew he had to have his mind, soul, and spirit in a place that would be able to receive Malcolm’s spirit.” There were several Malcolm Xs, says Lee, and onscreen, Washington comes as close as possible to capturing them all. During Malcolm’s days as a Harlem hustler, he is quintessentially smooth and ruthless. As the firebrand black nationalist and leading minister in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, he is as controlled, powerful, and convincing as the man himself. And as the post-pilgrimage Malcolm, Washington is penitent, contemplative, and nearly angelic. “There were numerous times when we were rolling, and watching Denzel, we had to pinch ourselves because we thought we were seeing . . . we knew we were seeing the reincarnation of Malcolm X before our eyes,” says Lee.
16. Cary Grant as T.R. Devlin
Grant and Ingrid Bergman, playing government agent Devlin and socialite Alicia Huberman, face off in Hitchcock’s ultimate espionage thriller. While she floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, he uses a velvet glove to deliver below-the-belt blows, implying that she is, among other things, a loose woman and a drunk. Grant’s persona—suave, sophisticated, debonair—makes Devlin’s subtle assaults on Alicia’s character seem all the more cruel, and his own lust for her unbearable. It takes a leading man with unequivocal charm—and a core of decency—to play “a fatheaded guy full of pain,” who still ends up getting the girl.
15. Tom Hanks as Josh Baskin
Hanks earned an Oscar for playing childlike in Forrest Gump, but he got only a nomination when he made us believe he was an actual teenager morphed into a toy-company executive. We would have gone the other way. Consider first the priceless physical comedy: Josh’s flailing, loose-limbed run; his party manners, which include quadruple-dipping and letting caviar fall from his mouth in disgust; the almost clinical intensity he brings to copping his very first feel. And then there’s Hanks’s sweet blend of wide-eyed innocence and confused emotions, which makes his turn as the trapped teen more than just funny—it’s the most magical performance he’s ever given.
14. Robert Duvall as Mac Sledge
Tender Mercies (1983)
Duvall’s portrayal of a broken-down ex–country music legend who finds redemption in the love of a widow and her young son is so steeped in subtleties and silences that it’s hard to believe this is the same guy who played the smooth-talking consigliere in The Godfather or the gung-ho colonel in Apocalypse Now. That, of course, is a testament to Duvall’s chameleonlike abilities: To perfect Sledge’s Lone Star accent, the San Diego–born actor traveled around East Texas making small talk with strangers to hear the real deal. And the results of his effort, much like his wounded smile and grizzled charm, feel so authentic that it’s sublime.
13. Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine
The Lion in Winter (1968)
Long past the age when many Hollywood actresses are relegated to character roles, Hepburn commanded the screen as the crafty 12th-century queen, scheming and manipulating with delicious wit and class. You completely understand why Henry II (Peter O’Toole) both loves her and feels safer with her in prison. Yet even as Eleanor pits her children against each other, Hepburn lets us see her vulnerable side as well—most powerfully in the scene where she lets her hair down late at night and stares in a mirror at the lines in her face. It’s a moment so devoid of vanity that only an actress with Hepburn’s style and confidence could have pulled it off.
12. Jack Nicholson as “Badass” Buddusky
The Last Detail (1973)
Although Nicholson earned an Oscar nod for this performance—as a Navy man trans-porting a hapless young grunt (Randy Quaid) to prison, but not before showing him the time of his life—it’s not a role likely to ring familiar with his younger fans. Yet the actor’s electrifying turn can serve as a template for all of his outsize rogues to come; the seen-it-all cynicism, the rebellious streak, the combustive mixture of danger and hilarity, the steely-eyed scowl and maniacal grin—all are in full effect. And who else but Nicholson could play a Navy lifer as antiauthority hero.
11. Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown
My Left Foot (1989)
Day-Lewis goes beyond the technically accurate portrayal of a writer afflicted with cerebral palsy to show the complicated, lusty, brilliant man trapped within a body he can’t control. He mingles acute physical deterioration with rowdy shows of mental agility, without forcibly tugging at our heartstrings, which serves to make his portrayal far more moving than the typically pious representation of the disabled. To prepare, he lived in a wheelchair, slumping so awkwardly that he broke two ribs. He refused to come out of character on set even for a visit from his agent, who left in frustration.
10. Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta
Raging Bull (1980)
It’s a tired cliché to describe an actor as “inhabiting” a role, but there’s no other way to term this level of immersion. Whether he’s the ferocious, sinewy boxer or the puffy-faced, overweight entertainer, De Niro simply is La Motta—a man operating purely on animal instinct and cunning, whose every response in human interactions is blunt and visceral. Of course, De Niro is an actor, so craft created the beast. But whether he’s stalking an opponent in the ring or directing his suspicious, beady-eyed stare at someone—often as a prelude to striking them—he sure doesn’t seem to be pretending.
9. Gene Wilder as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein
Young Frankenstein (1974)
No actor-comedian will ever quite match Wilder’s manic range, and Young Frankenstein, the absurdist horror spoof Wilder cowrote with director Mel Brooks, showcases his masterful ability to swing from childishness to sophistication in the same frantic moment. As poor, doomed Dr. Frankenstein (“That’s . . . Fronk-en-steen”), Wilder is the perfect match of man and material, performing a series of inspired bits in a variety of styles: meticulous slapstick, wild-eyed lunacy, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it deadpan, and an exasperated rage so distinctive it probably could have been trademarked. It’s a comic performance that borders on the cosmic. You’d have to have a scalpel jammed in your thigh to keep from laughing.
8. James Stewart as George Bailey
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
In Stewart’s first role after serving in World War II, the perennial good guy became truly great. We watch the slow wearing-down of a man’s dreams as his responsibilities preclude his ambitions until this Yuletide classic takes a dystopian detour into what George Bailey’s world would have been without him. It’s the despair in his wild eyes at the nightmare of Pottersville, and then his joy when he races home, hollering “Merry Christmas,” that clinch this as Stewart’s finest and most enduring portrayal—an everyman who’s at once who we are and who we would like to be.
7. Dustin Hoffman as “Ratso” Rizzo
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
What makes us tear up at the end of this ode to male friendship in the face of dying dreams is not so much Ratso’s ultimate fate, but what he represents: the perseverance of humanity in an unfathomably crummy world. It’s an achievement that rests solely on Hoffman’s slumped, filthy, convulsing shoulders. What he does in his close-up as he watches big, dumb, beautiful Joe Buck (Jon Voight) prance in front of the mirror is simply astounding—an agonizing expression both of tenderness and loss. Director John Schlesinger needed some convincing that Hoffman, best known at the time for The Graduate, could play a tubercular street hustler. But with pebbles in one shoe and a sweaty, pinched, rodentlike facial transformation, he gave us a heartbreaking portrait of a life lived wholly in the margins.
6. James Cagney as George M. Cohan
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Cagney moves effortlessly, from grand old man to young pup playing an old man to dazzling song-and-dance and back to grand old man, as the spark plug of the most exuberant biopic of all time. We know Cagney has the range to go from neighborhood tough (The Public Enemy) to romantic buffoon (The Strawberry Blonde) to psychotic thug (White Heat), but in Yankee Doodle Dandy he does it all—he sings, dances (ineffably, a marionette without strings), hustles, connives, and makes us cry, over and over. He also makes us believe, even now, in an America with limitless possibilities.
5. Bette Davis as Margo Channing
All About Eve (1950)
The brandy-and-arsenic cocktail that is Davis’s portrayal of an aging, threatened grand dame of the theater is without question the beginning and the end of witty onscreen self-parody. There is something deliciously audacious about her gleeful willingness to play such unattractive emotions as jealousy, bitterness, and neediness through a character with a reputation not unlike her own. (The original diva, Davis had inched into her forties at the time of filming.) And to make it all so side-splittingly funny? Davis’s Margo is a mass of music and fire—and we’ll fasten our seatbelts for her anytime she wants.
4. Al Pacino as Sonny Wortzik
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Playing an inept bank robber stealing money to pay for his boyfriend’s sex-change operation, Pacino turned someone only a mother could love into someone audiences did, too. Director Sidney Lumet wanted the actor to play Sonny as close to himself as possible, so that what could have been freakish doesn’t seem so outrageous at all—and Pacino, alternately tender and terrifying, strutting and nervously incompetent, remains grounded in the reality of this true-life tale. In the improvised scene where Sonny talks on the phone to the man and woman he calls his wives, Pacino’s so raw and exhausted that you feel like someone should tell him it’s only a movie.
3. Meryl Streep as Sophie Zawistowska
Sophie’s Choice (1982)
Streep puts a face on the horror of the Holocaust and the torment of survivor’s guilt in a performance so finely layered, so exquisitely accented (in English, Polish and German, no less), that she transcends her craft. Her Auschwitz inmate flowers from sickness to the hope of rebirth in a volatile love affair and the promise of America. But it’s an impossible dream, and Streep goes to excruciatingly painful depths to show, in the twitch of her face and the frailty of her touch, that Sophie can never escape her past.
2. Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy
On the Waterfront (1954)
Director Elia Kazan described Terry Malloy as “the dumb, innocent kid who’s done terrible things and wants to be redeemed.” Whatever personal echoes the characterization might have had for Kazan, Brando makes the affable young bruiser’s crusade something even deeper. His evolution from callow pawn to stoic iconoclast in that final, bloody stumble on the docks is all the more momentous because of the many shades the actor gave it: By turns playful, yearning, defiant, confused, and enraged, Malloy was the most mature and masterfully executed role of Brando’s career. We see every nuance in Malloy during the legendary cab scene when his brother Charley desperately pulls a gun on him. Brando gently, sadly pushes it away, murmuring, “Charley, Charley . . . It wasn’t him. It was you.” Acting for the screen would never be the same.
1. Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Part of the legend surrounding this mightiest and yet most intimate of epics—and surrounding O’Toole, who fearlessly and often dazzlingly dominates almost every scene—is that the role was first offered to both Marlon Brando and Albert Finney. We thank the movie gods that director David Lean spotted O’Toole “playing a silly-ass Englishman in a trout-fishing scene,” as he recalled, in the actor’s third movie, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England. The measure of what O’Toole, then 30, accomplished is that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. Whether supremely self-confident or querulous, deeply wounded or frighteningly vengeful, O’Toole manages to achieve the many shades of an unfathomable man. And when the time comes to show a shattered Lawrence (after a torture sequence in a Turkish prison, which the expanded 1989 rerelease made all the more suggestive of rape), he does so with heartbreaking frailty. Amid so much tragedy and grandeur, the dark wit in the performance is sometimes forgotten, as when he’s promoted to major by a pompous general and patiently rejoins in his plummy English accent, “I don’t think that’s a very good idea.” The shoot was a harsh test in the North African desert (though he and costar Omar Sharif often fled to Beirut for drinking bouts), and the last shots were made with O’Toole’s feet soaking in an ice bucket in a Jeep. He would say good-naturedly that the role haunted him for the rest of his life (indeed, having lost the Oscar to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, he was jinxed with six more nominations but no wins before getting an honorary statuette when he was 70). Thus he would say of the experience (during which he was knocked out twice, sprained both ankles, and dislocated his spine), “I was obsessed. . . . I spent two years and three months thinking about nothing but Lawrence. Day after day. It was bad for me. It killed my acting later on.” Whatever the cost, his pal Richard Burton rightly included him among “the odd few men and women who, once or twice in a lifetime, elevate [acting] into something odd and mystical and deeply disturbing.