April 11, 2011

10 The Greatest (Classic) Performances by an Actor

Last week Sam Juliano at Wonders in the Dark came out with a surprise post, "The 43 Greatest performances of all-time by an actor in a leading role" (click here to read the post), and invited his readers to submit their own lists. Like a large number of WitD's regular readers, I couldn't resist taking Sam up on his invitation and sent him my own list of the 50+ greatest performances. Because I consider sound films of 1930-1980 my area of knowledge, I stopped at 1980 and for silent performances included only the three great American silent comics. I also limited myself to one performance for each actor, and it was often hard to choose which one. How do you pick just one performance by Keaton, Bogart, Nicholson, or Gabin?

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


  1. Several of these performances would make it onto my own personal list (Powell! Mitchum! Wayne! Perkins! McCrea!), and some of these actors, too, albeit in different roles than you have listed here. There are so many ways a list like this could go. It's an interesting concept; I think I may do one of my own sometime this week. Looking forward to seeing your actresses list, too--I have a feeling we'll have several in common there, also. :)

  2. Brandie, thanks for leaving a comment, and I'll be checking The ABCs to see if you do post a list. I was hoping that some of the CMBA bloggers might pick up on this as an impromptu meme.

    I look on these lists not just as an outlet for list mania (which I confess to) and a good indicator of the listmaker's tastes and preferences. They motivate me to do something about those movies I've always intended to watch but never got around to. Also I always find movies I wasn't really aware of and need to add to my must-see list, so they're a good way to spread the word about films that should be better known.

  3. Great list! I personally think Brando was best in On The Waterfront, but tomato, tomato. I'm glad to see Anton Walbrook's performance as Boris Lermontov on this list. It's so great! Well, I think he's great in just about every film.



  4. Kendra, thanks for your comment. In the case of Brando, it was definitely a toss-up between "Streetcar" and "Waterfront." In the end I went with "Streetcar" because of the occasional humor in the role. (The scene where he's greedily contemplating the family jewels always cracks me up.) As with Brando, Walbrook was an easy choice, but the hard part was which performance to choose. He was always good and is also especially great in "The Queen of Spades" and "La Ronde." (I could name a bunch of others as well.) But his Lermontov was the ROLE that stuck with me. As with so many of these actors, on another day I might choose a different performance, but I'm willing to stick with these for now.

    By the way, your site looks simply fantastic. I'm sure that those of us who simply tweak templates are green with envy!

  5. R.D., your list is most intriguing. I don't think I could compile a list of great performances. It's too hard to separate the character from the performer. For example, I thought Errol Flynn gave a great performance in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, although many folks will counter that he simply played a variation of himself. (I actually think he gave a "performance" for the public...Flynn the author was a much more serious person).

  6. Rick, I absolutely agree about the difficulty of separating the character from the actor, as I touched on in the lead-in to the list. Then there's the screenwriting and the film direction to factor in. Plus lists like this always walk a fine line between the objective and the subjective. It was easier with actors who have a record of doing outstanding work, in which case it became a question of choosing one performance over the others, which in itself can become a dilemma. Of course, it helps to have a lister's mindset as I do! In the end, I guess I went above all with the performances that made such a strong impression that they just never faded from my memory.

  7. R.D., I apologize for getting over here so late, but this has been a hectic week for me, and I haven't been attending the sites like usual. I am deeply flattered at this incredibly kind posting, and the links to WONDERS IN THE DARK! Yes, my list of actors and actresses was a 'sudden idea' and rather than sit on it I went with it while my enthusiasm was at a peak. As I stated at WitD your contibustion was magisterial, and selections in keeping with a long and authoritative eye for quality here at THE MOVIE PROJECTOR. I quite agree too that it's tough to pick a single actor, and I was unable to seal that bargain when I approached the actresses. Your own list is magnificent, and you have embraced the widest parameters of world cinema. Bravo and thanks again!

    P.S. Yep, Allan and I remain at odds as to what constitutes acting in some specific instances, but there's really no right answer, just perception.

  8. Sam, your comments are always welcome. Your post was an inspiration, something that's always appreciated when you've been blogging for a while and need something new to reinvigorate you. Also, for me this was a subject that was just plain fun! After the fun came the challenge of analyzing what my choices said about my conception of film performance. I don't leave comments at WitD as frequently as I once did (your site generates an enviable amount of comment and discussion without me), but I assure you I read it regularly and always find it a great stimulator of thought. Once the film noir countdown is over, I'll probably have something to say about it in a post here.

  9. Many thanks R.D.! God, you've been a loyal supporter for over two years at WitD, and have logged hundreds of comments, which have been exceedingly appreciated. And I know well you are lurking there at all times too. This actor's round-up has really been a lot of fun I must say!

  10. R.D., just wanted to record that I much enjoyed reading your lists of both actors and actresses, and will be hoping to track down the performances on your lists that I haven't yet seen in the future. I haven't managed to make lists myself and find it very hard to pick a favourite performance by either Cagney or Bogart, but 'White Heat' and 'The Maltese Falcon' are certainly among their respective bests - and I also love many of the other roles you have listed here, such as James Stewart, Edward G Robinson, Fredric March and Paul Newman. (I also like Newman's reprisal of that role in 'The Color of Money'.)