The 100 Greatest Performances of All Time: 24 - 1
PREMIERE ranks the best performances in movie history and talks to some of the actors and directors who made those performances possible.
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his intense energy inward, creating an unforgettable portrait of an everyday man under extraordinary stress -- prickly, withdrawn, and, at times, full of contempt and distrust for everyone around him.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.