John picks the greatest leading performances of all time

Posted by · 10:41 am · July 10th, 2008

As a film critic, the questions most often put to me concern performance, especially when folks find out I have a background in acting.  I was a terrible performer, but I think I can spot talent, which has helped me in my work as a stage director.

However, film was where my heart was and all I really wanted to do was write about the silver screen.  And performances make the greatest impact on me — always have.

So with that, I thought I’d offer up my picks for the greatest lead performances of all time:

1. Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”
2. Robert Duvall in “The Apostle”
3. Marlon Brando in “Last Tango in Paris”
4. Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
5. Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie”
6. Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront”
7. Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull”
8. John Wayne in “The Searchers”
9. Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X”
10. George C. Scott in “Patton”

1. Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice”
2. Jane Fonda in “Klute”
3. Katherine Hepburn in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”
4. Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind”
5. Holly Hunter in “The Piano”
6. Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard”
7. Charlize Theron in “Monster”
8. Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
9. Anjelica Huston in “The Grifters”
10. Ellen Burstyn in “Requiem for a Dream”

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28 responses so far

  • 1 7-10-2008 at 10:52 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Strong words putting Day-Lewis at the top.

  • 2 7-10-2008 at 10:57 am

    John Foote said...

    I know, I know…but best I’ve ever seen in twenty years of reviewing and more than thirty five as film obsessed…

  • 3 7-10-2008 at 11:05 am

    Joseph said...

    Pretty good, but I honestly would do Day-Lewis for “Gangs of New York” instead, although they’re incredibly close.

    Also I would include (for the females) Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter” and Ingrid Bergman in “Autumn Sonata.” Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves” would be pretty high for me too, but if it’s not Top 10 I can understand.

    For the guys I would include Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia,” Paul Newman in “The Hustler,” and Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” or “The Godfather” (although I see you already have two very deserving Brando performances up there, so it’s alright).

  • 4 7-10-2008 at 11:06 am

    Proman said...

    No Jack Lemmon? I think his performance in “Glengarry Glen Ross” is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

  • 5 7-10-2008 at 11:27 am

    Brian Kinsley said...

    LOVE the John Wayne inclusion.

    My left-field inclusion would be Christian Bale for “Empire of the Sun”. Still his finest work, and that’s no criticism of what’s come after.

  • 6 7-10-2008 at 11:54 am

    Agent69 said...

    Some of my favorites that haven’t been mentioned:
    – James Dean – East of Eden (The greatest male performance of all time IMO)
    – Robert De Niro – The King of Comedy (my favorite De Niro performance)
    – Bill Murray – Groundhog Day
    – Anthony Perkins – Psycho
    – Nick Nolte – The Thin Red Line
    – Ian Holm – Alien

    – Faye Dunaway – Chinatown
    – Marilyn Monroe – The Misfits (she was so painfully fragile and melancholic)
    – Nicole Kidman – To Die For
    – Sigourney Weaver – Aliens
    – Sissy Spacek – Carrie
    – Louise Fletcher – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

  • 7 7-10-2008 at 12:38 pm

    Ivan Hernandez said...

    I go like Joseph for Day Lewis in “Gangs of NY”.
    Bill the Butcher drinks easily Plainview´s milkshake .

  • 8 7-10-2008 at 12:52 pm

    Bing147 said...

    Only one male performance before 1970? Nothing before 1956? Where’s anything Chaplin? Bogart (specifically in Treasure of the Sierra Madre), Cary Grant, James Stewart, James Cagney, Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, anyone in a foreign film, not one of them gets a mention?

    The actress list is better rounded, but that none of Bette Davis, Olivia De Havilland, Deborah Kerr, Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur, Joan Fontaine, early Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Giulietta Masiina made the list is also a bit odd.

  • 9 7-10-2008 at 2:55 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    James Stewart in Rear Window is the only one I might add onto that list.

  • 10 7-10-2008 at 3:25 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I think Day-Lewis is magnificent in There Will Be Blood, but it’s too soon for me to consider putting him in lists.

    I cheated a bit by only including one performance per actor; some names could easily occupy multiple spots.

    1. Marlon Brando, “A Streetcar Named Desire”
    2. Richard Burton, “Look Back in Anger”
    3. Jack Lemmon, “Some Like It Hot”
    4. Robert De Niro, “Taxi Driver”
    5. Jean-Louis Trintignant, “Three Colours: Red”
    6. Dirk Bogarde, “Death in Venice”
    7. Paul Newman, “Hud”
    8. Harry Dean Stanton, “Paris, Texas”
    9. John Garfield, “The Postman Always Rings Twice”
    10. Albert Finney, “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”

    1. Bibi Andersson, “Persona”
    2. Vivien Leigh, “Gone With the Wind”
    3. Juliette Binoche, “Three Colours: Blue”
    4. Cate Blanchett, “Heaven”
    5. Liv Ullmann, “Face to Face”
    6. Meryl Streep, “Sophie’s Choice”
    7. Simone Signoret, “Room at the Top”
    8. Bjork, “Dancer in the Dark”
    9. Glenda Jackson, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”
    10. Jennifer Aniston, “The Good Girl”

    I make no apologies for the last name there.

  • 11 7-10-2008 at 4:03 pm

    Joel said...

    No love for Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump”? Man, that’s cruel. Best performance I’ve ever seen. The other four:

    Brando, “The Godfather”
    Day-Lewis, “There Will Be Blood” (most intense piece of acting this decade)
    Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas”
    Tom Cruise, “Minority Report” (this perf. was underrated)

  • 12 7-10-2008 at 4:18 pm

    Chad said...

    Throw these into the mix.

    Giulietta Masina – Nights of Cabiria
    Zooey Deschanel – All the Real Girls
    Mia Farrow – Rosemary’s Baby
    Maria Falconetti – The Passion of Joan of Arc
    Kate Winslet – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
    Katharine Hepburn – Alice Adams
    Audrey Hepburn – Breakfast at Tiffany’s

    George C. Scott – The Hospital
    Anthony Hopkins – Meet Joe Black
    Andy Griffith – A Face in the Crowd
    Elliott Gould – California Split
    Dustin Hoffman – Midnight Cowboy
    Mark Ruffalo – You Can Count on Me
    Al Pacino – Dog Day Afternoon
    Malcolm McDowell- A Clockwork Orange
    Sylvester Stallone – Rocky

  • 13 7-10-2008 at 4:43 pm

    David said...

    Mia Farrow – Rosemary’s Baby
    Ellen Burstyn – Resurrection
    Katharine Hepburn – The Lion in Winter
    Ruth Gordon – Harold and Maude
    Marion Cotillard – La Vie En Rose
    Jane Fonda – They Shoot Horses Dont They?

    Peter O’Toole – Lawrence of Arabia
    Dustin Hoffman – Midnight Cowboy
    Heath Ledger – Brokeback Mounain
    Gregory Peck – To Kill A Mockingbird
    Daniel Day Lewis – My Left Foot

  • 14 7-10-2008 at 4:54 pm

    J said...

    I think Pacino in the first Godfather film is the greatest performance ever. DDL is great in nearly everything, but he has never topped My left Foot.

    Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain and DeNiro in Taxi Driver should also be up there, or they would be if I made the list that is.

  • 15 7-10-2008 at 9:31 pm

    jake said...

    What a great list — but I would have to include — Warren Beatty and Annette Bening in Bugsy — both performances that were so powerful.
    And Edward Norton in Primal Fear.

  • 16 7-11-2008 at 5:36 am

    John Foote said...

    About the mention of no performances before ’56. Acting went through an evolution when Brando exploded onto the forefront bringing a new realism to screen acting that had never been there before. I did include a runners-up list that contained Chaplin in “City Lights” and “The Great Dictator” and Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” among others. Let’s face it…movie acting got better post-Brando…and about the lack of James Dean?? I believe he was among the most over rated actors of all time and had he lived he would have become just another ordinary performer…proof in the pudding is his work late in “Giant” where he looks like a high school kid portraying an older character. Electrifying in the first hal as Jett, but falls to pieces as the older character. He was immortalized in death; had he lived, would we be having this discussion? And yes I love Tom Hanks in “Forrest Fump” he makes the film in fact, but I thought he was stronger in “Cast Away” and “Saving Private Ryan” for that matter. Agin gang let’s not forget we all have an opinion…right?

  • 17 7-11-2008 at 5:48 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Just realised I unaccountably forgot Ana Torrent from my actresses list – for either “The Spirit of the Beehive” or “Cria Cuervos.” Greatest child performer of all time, IMO.

  • 18 7-11-2008 at 11:12 am

    Silencio said...

    This was a supporting role, but Armin Mueller-Stahl as the father in Shine…that’s gotta be up there somewhere.

  • 19 7-11-2008 at 12:53 pm

    Xavi Rodriguez said...


    1. Daniel Day-Lewis, “My left foot”
    2. Marlon Brando, “A Streetcar Named Desire”
    3. Heath Ledger, “Brokeback Mountain”
    4. Robert De Niro, “Ranging Bull”
    5. Laurence Olivier, “Wuthering Heights”
    6. Robert De Niro, “Taxi Driver”
    7. Tony Leung, “in the Mood of Love” / “2046” -I can’t decide wich one is better
    8. Marlon Brando, “The Godfather”
    9. Jean Louis Trintignant, “Z”
    10. Johnny Depp, “Pirates of the Caribbean”- The movie is meh but he steals the show

    1. Vivien Leigh, “A Streetcar named Desire”
    2. Holly Hunter, “The Piano”
    3. Marion Cotillard, “La vie en Rose”
    4. Ingrid Bergman, “Autumn Sonata”
    5. Meryl Streep, “Sophie’s Choice”
    6. Juliette Binoche, “Three Colors: Blue”
    7. Faye Dunaway, “Network”
    8. Meryl Streep, “the French Liuternaut’s Wife”
    9. Jodie Foster, “the Silence of the Lambs”
    10. Norma Aleandro, “The Official Story”

  • 20 7-11-2008 at 5:32 pm

    Neel Mehta said...

    Not a criticism in any way, but when you try to see where something new fits in an all-time pantheon, it helps to force yourself to adopt a Hall of Fame rule.

    Much like baseball players have to wait 5 years after retirement to become eligible for the Hall of Fame, I find it sensible to make a new movie or performance or TV show or song or album wait a predefined period before even thinking about where it would rank in history.

    Generally, I use 2 years.

  • 21 7-11-2008 at 7:33 pm

    Bing147 said...

    Your assertion that acting got better after DeNiro, is an opinion, not a fact. In fact, many continue to think that the method destroyed screen acting and that its never really recovered. I wouldn’t go that far, but I certainly don’t think that acting got better, it changed. Yes, acting got more realistic post Brando, but that doesn’t make it better. My favorite quote on the matter goes something like “A method actor will show you a photograph while an actor from before it will paint you a picture.” Realism does not always mean better, in fact, it often doesn’t, and the two styles are different but neither is better just because of that.

    If I was making a list, I’d probably go: (and this is sticking to leading)


    1. Al Pacino-Dog Day Afternoon
    2. Charles Chaplin-City Lights
    3. Humphrey Bogart-The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
    4. Paul Newman-The Hustler
    5. Robert Donat-The Count of Monte Cristo (1934)
    6. Groucho Marx-Duck Soup
    7. Cary Grant-Notorious
    8. Robert De Niro-The King of Comedy
    9. Jack Lemmon-Days of Wine and Roses
    10. Marlon Brando-Last Tango in Paris


    1. Liv Ullmann-Face to Face
    2. Ingrid Bergman-Notorious
    3. Katharine Hepburn-Bringing Up Baby
    4. Jean Arthur-The More the Merrier
    5. Bette Davis-Now Voyager
    6. Joan Fontaine-Rebecca
    7. Elizabeth Taylor-Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf
    8. Faye Dunaway-Chinatown
    9. Gloria Swanson-Sunset Boulevard
    10. Naomi Watts-Mulholland Dr

  • 22 7-12-2008 at 12:25 pm

    witt said...

    So, the greatest performances of all time are only english speaking (and mostly americans) ones ? Come on…Do you ever heard about ethnocentrism ?

  • 23 7-12-2008 at 1:16 pm

    Robert Wills said...

    Some of these choices are hilarious. I am sad that so many of the great pre-50’s performances were ignored. In fact, hardly any notice at all was taken by most selectors. I hope I’m wrong but I have the feeling many of these voters haven’t even watched a black and white film. Kudos to the voter who picked Christian Bale in Empire Of The Sun. Along the same lines I would give a vote to Jamie Bell in Billy Elliot.

  • 24 7-12-2008 at 4:17 pm

    John Foote said...

    I would far rather watch a realist performance than anything by Olivier. The rolling of the eyes, the “acting” to the top seat in the house (forgetting the film camera??)…My God..and at one point people thought this sort of emoting was actually great acting??? Thank God, THANK GOD for Brando and Method Acting. If nothing else Method at the very least brought truth to acting, and at the end of the day, Method actor or not (Streep, Duvall to name a couple are not) truth is what great acting is all about. Again to end the hits about not naming performances pre 1956, I had a substantiallist of runners-up that did not make the site…too many names. Many of them, for record, were pre-1956…but yes, I did stick with English speaking performance. Indeed there have been great foreign language performances, but the number of folks out there who have seen them I think may be limited. Giancarlo Giannini in “Seven Beauties”, Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman in “Autumun Sonata”, Max Von Sydow in anything he did for Bergman…a long, long list. However I made the choice to include English speaking performances as I thought more people would have seen the performances…not all of us are film junkies, seeing everything released in theatres or on DVD. Was trying to be fair.

  • 25 7-12-2008 at 4:34 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Much respect for your opinions, John, but that’s an overly narrow assessment of Olivier’s work – he actually did adapt his style with changing trends in film and theatre, best represented by his quite modern (and brilliant) realist turn in Osborne’s “The Entertainer.”

    I also don’t think that Method is the only means of bringing truth to acting – it can exist in heightened, stylised performance too – look at Julianne Moore in “Far From Heaven” or even “Savage Grace.”

    Always a pleasure reading your views – I look forward to your Eastwood book.

  • 26 7-14-2008 at 10:09 am

    Bing147 said...

    Truth and realism don’t go hand and hand. There are many very over the top performances that are far more true than any subtle realistic one.

    And what does being commonly seen have to do with being the greatest? The greatest performance ever could be in a film 2 people alive have seen.

  • 27 7-14-2008 at 11:41 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    If a performance (or film for that matter) is really that good. More than 2 people will see it.

  • 28 7-14-2008 at 4:59 pm

    John Foote said...

    Bing147 has a point — how many have seen Morgan Freeman in “Street Smart” one of the most terrifying movie characters ever created. Enough saw it to get him an Oscar nod and several critics awards, but an actual paying audience??? Doubtful.