Interestingly, the same names appeared on list after list, if not always for the same performance, a good indication that there is a certain amount of agreement as to what constitutes good acting and who the best are. There was, however, some disagreement as to the distinction between creating a character and projecting a persona. Sam's colleague at WitD, the very knowledgeable Allan Fish, objected to a couple of Sam's choices by saying that "one may as well include W. C. Fields or Groucho Marx for one of their comedies. They’re great, but it isn’t acting." I had already started my own list by the time Allan's comment was posted, and the first two names on it were Groucho Marx and W. C. Fields! Clearly there was some disagreement among those who responded at least on the definition of acting.
My own view is that many great actors are neglected because they seem to maintain pretty much the same persona from role to role, so it doesn't always seem as though they're acting so much as applying their own personality to a new set of circumstances. We think of Groucho Marx, for instance, as Groucho. But take a look at a rerun of his fifties quiz show You Bet Your Life or his interview with Dick Cavett, and it is clear that the "Groucho" of the Marx Brothers movies was an invented character sustained from one film to the next. The same is true to some extent of other actor-personalities. Consider Chaplin and his Little Tramp or my two favorite screen actors, Cary Grant and James Stewart. In the cases where an actor was associated with a certain type of character or with a persona carried over from film to film, I chose the performance which most stood out for me.
Mick La Salle, the movie critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, has made the distinction between what he calls "essence" performances and "chameleon" performances. In the former type of performance, actors express the essence of their personality through a character; in the latter, actors transform into someone totally different from themselves or from their usual screen image. It's usually this latter type of performance that gets the attention and the awards. As Elia Kazan observed, "It's the role that gets the Oscar, not the actor." Beautiful actresses like Grace Kelly transform themselves into frumps and win Oscars; great comic actors like Jack Lemmon take on a heavy dramatic role and get praised for their dramatic skills (and win Oscars too). The Myrna Loys don't get Oscar nominations, and the Cary Grants get them only for the infrequent role that calls for heavy emoting. It was hard to construct a list of great performances without slighting the "essence" and comic actors, even though I tried not to. And because I limited myself to one performance per actor, it was difficult not to gravitate toward the chameleonic and the more serious performances in an actor's body of work.
What I tried to concentrate on while compiling my list was not so much technical skill as the ability to create a character that makes a lasting impression, an identifiable personality with facial expressions, a way of speaking, behavioral traits and mannerisms so clearly defined that the memory of that character is indelible. This is the kind of performance so vivid that simply to hear the name of the character conjures up an image—a look, a gesture, a vocal inflection, an unforgettable line of dialogue. I think about the name Cody Jarrett, Margo Channing, Annie Hall, or Travis Bickle, and I instantly see and hear them: Top o' the world! Fasten your seat belts. La-di-da. You talkin' to ME? These people tend to be larger-than-life, extra colorful without unintentionally going over the top.
That there are not only so many great performances but also so many great movies on my list underscores the symbiosis between good acting and good movies. Occasionally a great performance is better than the movie it's found in and makes the movie more worth watching, but in general masterful acting is found in outstanding pictures. Maybe this goes to show the extent to which good screenwriting and good direction contribute to or at least support good acting, how a great performance is really a convergence of the actor, the role, and the setting. We people who write about film like to talk about auteurs and stars and the ability of skillful editing to shape our responses to what we see on the screen, but in truth filmmaking is a process whose collaborative nature we often oversimplify to make it easier to write about movies.
Finally, if my list of the great performances seems heavy on those by Americans, it's not because I think Americans are better actors, but because I've seen so many more American movies, and also because the studio pictures that figure so prominently in this list emphasized star power to a far greater degree than foreign or more modern films.
Sam encouraged his readers to submit their own lists of the greatest performances by an actor, and I'd like to do the same. If anyone wants to compile such a list, please leave it in a comment. Take your time. I'll be checking in during this week to see if anyone accepts the challenge. Or alternatively, you might want to post it at your own site. This week Sam is posting his choices for the greatest performances of all time by actresses. (Click here to read Sam's post.) I'm already working on my own list to have ready in time to post here next week.
Groucho Marx, Duck Soup
W. C. Fields, It's a Gift
James Cagney, White Heat
Edward G. Robinson, Little Caesar
William Powell, The Thin Man
Fredric March, A Star Is Born
Cary Grant, North by Northwest
Henry Fonda, The Grapes of Wrath
Humphrey Bogart, The Maltese Falcon
Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Robert Mitchum, Night of the Hunter
James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause
Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire
John Wayne, The Searchers
Anthony Perkins, Psycho
Paul Newman, The Hustler
Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady
Peter O'Toole, Lawrence of Arabia
James Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life
Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate
Kirk Douglas, Lust for Life
Albert Finney, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
Tom Courtenay, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Robert de Niro, Taxi Driver
Joel McCrea, Sullivan's Travels
Gene Hackman, The Conversation
Jean Gabin, Le Jour se Lève
Jean-Louis Barrault, Les Enfants du Paradis
Anton Walbrook, The Red Shoes
Jacques Tati, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday
Maurice Ronet, The Fire Within
Takashi Shimura, Ikiru
Toshiro Mifune, Yojimbo
Carlo Battisti, Umberto D.
Marcello Mastroianni, La Dolce Vita
Victor Sjöström, Wild Strawberries
Per Oscarsson, Hunger
Max von Sydow, Shame
Peter Lorre, M
Anatoli Solonitsyn, Andrei Rublev
Nikolai Cherkasov, Ivan the Terrible
Soumitra Chatterjee, The World of Apu
Chhabi Biswas, The Music Room
Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII
Anthony Quinn, Zorba the Greek
Alistair Sim, Scrooge
Ralph Richardson, The Fallen Idol
Laurence Olivier, Hamlet
Alec Guinness, Oliver Twist
Buster Keaton, Sherlock, Jr.
Harold Lloyd, The Freshman
Charles Chaplin, City Lights
Peter Sellers, Being There
Chishu Ryu, An Autumn Afternoon
Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot