The 100 Greatest Performances of All Time: 100 - 75
PREMIERE ranks the best performances in movie history and talks to some of the actors and directors who made those performances possible.
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 Mürder ("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" Lebowski
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 whore. 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.