Great performers at their best

Posted by · 7:50 am · August 21st, 2009

Tom Cruise in MagnoliaAfter spending some time this summer watching some excellent films on DVD, I was inspired to write this piece about the great actors’ (living, with one exception) greatest performances.

Narrowing it down to one each (brutal, believe me), I think have come up with a list of actors, young and old, that represents some of the finest talent working in film over the last 40 years, and selected the performance I believe each will be remembered for. This is obviously a subjective endeavor, so if you feel different, tell us why.

Let’s dive in…

Jack Nicholson
Jack is not often given the credit for being the brilliant actor he is because we far too often expect him to be “just Jack.” But when he puts his actor’s hat on there simply may not be a greater actor in film history. For me he was never better than he was as Randall Patrick McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which is a breathtaking piece of work. Watch him when he’s not speaking and see the emotion he packs into this astonishing piece of acting.

Meryl Streep
There is no question here for me. As concentration camp survivor Sophie in “Sophie’s Choice,” Streep gave not only her best performance, but the single finest performance ever given by a woman, in my view. That terrifying silent scream paralyzes the viewer with heartache and dare I say, shame. Sophie may have survived the camp, but she walks through her life more dead than alive because her soul was left behind and somehow Streep conveys that to the audience.

Robert Duvall
This is a tough call because Duvall was so good in “Apocalypse Now,” but I think his best work was in “The Apostle” as a preacher challenged by his own flaws and forced to atone for his sins. A volcanic performance in which Duvall never seems to stop moving or speaking.

Gene Hackman
Though he got his first Oscar for “The French Connection,” I do not think Hackman was ever better than he was as a twisted old rascal Royal in “The Royal Tenenbaums.”  He’s a liar, a crook, a thief, but also a man trying to be a father and husband because he knows he can, and wants to prove it to himself more than anyone else. It’s a wonderful piece of work that the Globes recognized but the Academy missed.

Sean Penn
Again, so many to choose from, but I think the most recent performance is the best. Penn won his second Oscar for “Milk” and was brilliant in the film, giving himself over to the character in every way. Never has the actor been so open, so loving, so decent on screen before and touched so many. Just a brilliant piece of work that richly deserved that Oscar.

Johnny Depp
For me, Depp’s best work came before the acclaim, way back in “Edward Scissorhands.”  He gave a performance that called up the style and humanity of the best of Chaplin. Using his body and eyes he captured our hearts in a superbly visual performance.

Jane Fonda
Having always loved Jane Fonda, this too proved to be a rather tough choice.  She has been brilliant many times. However, her edgy work in “Klute” remains the performance I think of first. As a tough hooker struggling with a predator on her trail, she is a wonder, diving in to give a fearless performance. She proved women could be as realistic as the men.

Ellen Burstyn
Another that broke down so many boundaries for women in the 1970s actually gave her best performance later in her career. As the addicted Sarah in “Requiem for a Dream,” Burstyn is astounding and heartbreaking. The final shot of her is terrifying and a moment every teenager in high school should see.

Al Pacino
Pacino has not given a great performance for a long, long time. He has not been consistent since the 1970s when he gave his finest performance as cold-blooded Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part II.” Nearly silent, he radiates danger in every scene he’s in, proving this ranting he calls acting these days is but a pale imitation of when the man could perform.

Dustin Hoffman
There is a moment in “Tootsie” when we lose sight of the fact we are watching a man in a woman’s clothing playing a role, and give ourselves over to the fact Dorothy Michaels is real. As an out-of-work actor who pretends to be a woman and lands a job, Hoffman is a miracle, finding himself a better man as a woman than he ever was as a man…you know, in a nutshell.  Just incredible.

Holly Hunter
Hunter was astounding in “The Piano” and deservedly won the Oscar for her work. No question this was a major performance from the tiny Texan. It seems she could have easily been a silent screen actress because her performance here requires her to act with her body and face a great deal.

Daniel Day-Lewis
Many believe him to be the finest actor working today and if so, his finest work is without question “There Will Be Blood,” in which he plays a monster devoid of any human traits or compassion. Driven by greed and hatred, Day-Lewis creates a portrait of a man we despise, but cannot take our eyes off of.

Emma Thomson
While she won her Oscar for “Howards End” and was nominated for “The Remains of the Day” and “Sense and Sensibility,” for me Thompson’s finest work was in HBO’s “Wit” as an academic dying of cancer and forced to confront her worst fears. Her great mind cannot find an answer for why and Thomson brings that confusion and terror to us in a brilliant performance.

Leonardo DiCaprio
I am sure that the attacks will come but “Revolutionary Road” was DiCaprio’s finest hour and it is shameful so few have seen the film. As a young husband and father trapped in a marriage, unable to leave, unable to make anyone happy, his life unravels towards a terrible tragedy that we know will haunt him until his dying day.

Morgan Freeman
As Red in “The Shawshank Redemption,” Freeman is sublime, giving a performance that anchors the film and slowly gives way for hope and goodness in a life spent behind bars.  The slow dawning throughout the film as Red learns so much from his friend Andy is a joy to behold, and that final moment together on a beach far away from the cage is a thing of beauty.

Denzel Washington
God I love his work. Washington was never as good as he was in Spkie Lee’s superb film “Malcolm X,” in which he gives less a performance than channel the spirit of Malcolm into his work and inhabit the character with every fiber of his soul. How did Oscar…? Nope, not going there.

Tom Hanks
Again, an actor with so many choices, under-appreciated by many but among the best we have. For me his best work came in “Cast Away” as Chuck, a Fed-Ex employee who lives and dies by time until he is stranded on a desert island after a horrific plane crash. For him time stops. For the rest of the world, which he will re-join many years later, it marches on. Hanks should have won the Oscar for this one.

Brad Pitt
Not a tough call at all, but certainly not what one might expect. As a haunted outlaw in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Pitt gave a performance of unexpected depth and beauty as a man who seems to know his death is approaching. He captures the paranoia of Jesse, the deep love he had for his wife and children, his recklessness and his cold-blooded streak that made him a dangerous man.

Tom Cruise
With the right director, in the right role, Cruise is as good as they get. Paul Thomas Anderson wrote him the role of several lifetimes in “Magnolia” as a twisted, macho, deeply insecure sex therapist hiding many secrets that haunt him. Never has Cruise been so electrifying.

Kate Winslet
So many great performances, and though I was tempted to say her best is “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” I have never bee able to shake off her tortured, desperate young wife-mother in “Revolutionary Road,” which was barely noticed beyond the Golden Globes. She breaks your heart.

Julianne Moore
Moore is among the best working and was never better than she was in Todd Haynes’s “Far from Heaven” as the 1950s housewife who discovers her husband is gay and that her own desires lie elsewhere. Talk about a scandal in the making. How she handles all of this is the strength of the film and Moore deserved the Oscar.

Cate Blanchett
Destined to become for the next generation what Streep was for ours, and already a multiple Oscar nominee, Blanchett still gave her finest performance straight out of the gate.  As a young monarch-to-be in “Elizabeth,” Blanchett was frightened, unsure, growing to confident and ruthless.  She dominated the film with a superb performance that announced the arrival of a major talent.

Benicio Del Toro
While he won an Oscar for “Traffic,” Del Toro’s finest work, for me, was last year in Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour epic “Che.”  The actor gave less a performance than an inhabitation of a role as the slain revolutionary. Just a sublime performance that sadly so few people have seen.

Heath Ledger
Yes, he was brilliant and diabolical as the Joker but his best work ever was as Ennis Del Marr in “Brokeback Mountain.”  As a cowboy who finds that his soul mate happens to be a man he is heartbreaking because he knows to show his love for this man is to destroy his life. Forever to be missed.

Viggo Mortensen
Though I suspect his best work is ahead of him, Mortensen has given some great performances recently. For me he was never so noble or regal or brilliant as he was as Aragorn, turning to Gandalf and whispering “For Frodo” and becoming the King we knew he could, rushing into battle, his mind with his fallen friends (he thinks) in “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

Agree?  Disagree?  Have at it in the comments section below!

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38 responses so far

  • 1 8-21-2009 at 8:06 am

    Chris said...

    Congrats for choosing Ledger’s Ennis del Mar. Absolutely brilliant and moving performance.

  • 2 8-21-2009 at 8:13 am

    Richard Vialet said...

    I totally agree about the choices for Leonardo (my favorite actor constantly working now) and Kate.

    I think Revolutionary Road was a horribly under-seen and under-appreciated masterpiece and I think it will become a classic in the years to come.

  • 3 8-21-2009 at 8:14 am

    Cameron said...

    Couldn’t agree more with Hackman

  • 4 8-21-2009 at 8:16 am

    leonardo said...

    I’m completly agree with you in almost the entire list, especially with Meryl Streep performance in Sophie’s Choice, by far the best female performance of all time, and maybe the guilty one that she can’t get a third oscar, because every time she is nominated, everybody compares the role with her Sophie’s choice performance.
    I’m only desagree with Viggo Mortensen for TLOTR: The return of the king. Really?. I think he was a lot better in Eastern Promises.
    I only want to mention two great performances that personally put in my list:
    Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin, and Kevin Spacey in American Beauty ( the moment i saw the film i was 100% sure the oscar was his that year ).

  • 5 8-21-2009 at 8:17 am

    Mike_M said...

    I agree with many and love how you mentioned Pitt, Viggo and Del Toro and agree with all the performances chosen.

    But no mention of DeNiro surely he would be classified like Pacino?

  • 6 8-21-2009 at 8:24 am

    voland said...

    Quite a few names missing, all of them gave many great performances…

    Robert de Niro, Ed Harris, Jeff Bridges, Faye Dunaway, Christopher Walken, Kevin Spacey, Javier Bardem, Liam Neeson, Kevin Bacon, Michael Caine, Ralph Fiennes, Vincent Cassel etc

  • 7 8-21-2009 at 8:36 am

    Shed said...

    I still think Al Pacino best performance is Dog Day Afternoon followed closely by Godfather II., but then again he won for Scent of a Woman. AMPAS was like “Awe my Bad hear you go” Denzel already won so why not….. Ugh.

  • 8 8-21-2009 at 8:58 am

    Ivan said...

    JEFF BRIDGES/ the door in the floor, the fisher king, american heart, the last picture show, fearless, arlington road… THE BIG LEBOWSKI

    NICOLE KIDMAN/birth, the hours, dogville, the others, eyes wide shut, moulin rouge, the portrait of a lady…TO DIE FOR

    RALPH FIENNES/the constant gardener, strange days, the english patient, in bruges… SCHINDLER´S LIST

    SARAH POLLEY/my life without me, go, exotica, the secret life of words…THE SWEET HEREAFTER

    HARVEY KEITEL/reservoir dogs, the piano, bugsy, thelma & louise… BAD LIEUTENANT

    UMA THURMAN/pulp fiction, hysterical blindness, prime, the golden bowl, KILL BILL

    RYAN GOSLING/the believer, lars and the real girl, the notebook, murder by numbers… HALF NELSON

    JULIA ROBERTS/pretty woman, closer, erin brocovich, my berst friend´s wedding…MARY REILLY

    RUSSELL CROWE/ l.a. confidential, american gangster, gladiator, 3:10 to yuma, the sum of us… THE INSIDER

    JODIE FOSTER/taxi driver, the accused, contact, nell, panic room, the brave one… THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

    PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN/happiness, capote, doubt, almost famous, punch-drunk love, the savages…BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU´RE DEAD

    NAOMI WATTS/king kong, the painted veil, 21 grams, we don´t live here anymore… MULHOLLAND DRIVE

    CHRISTIAN BALE/ batman begins, the machinist, rescue dawn, empire of the sun, the prestige, the new world… AMERICAN PSYCHO

    MICHELLE PFEIFFER/the fabulous baker boys, the age of innocence, cheri, frankie and johnny…BATMAN RETURNS

    EDWARD NORTON/25th hour, fight club, the painted veil, primal fear, the people vs. larry flynt… AMERICAN HISTORY X

    TILDA SWINTON/michael clayton, orlando, the war zone, adaptation…THE DEEP END

    CLIVE OWEN/children of men, gosford park, duplicity… CLOSER

    LAURA LINNEY/the savages, kinsey, the squid and the whale, mystic river… YOU CAN COUNT ON ME

    BILLY BOB THORNTON/sling blade, monster´s ball, a simple plan, bad santa…THE MAN WHO WASN´T THERE

    SAMANTHA MORTON/jesus´ son, in america, minority report, synecdoche new york, morvern callar…SWEET AND LOWDOWN

    FOREST WHITAKER/the last king of scotland, the crying game, bird… GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI

    GLENN CLOSE/dangerous liaisons, heights, the house of spirits…FATAL ATTRACTION

    JIM CARREY/eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, man on the moon…THE TRUMAN SHOW

    MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL/secretary, stranger than fiction…SHERRYBABY

    ROBERT DOWNEY JR./iron man, chaplin, natural born killers, zodiac, one night stand, fur…LESS THAN ZERO

  • 9 8-21-2009 at 9:02 am

    Silencio said...

    Reading your descriptions, it sounds like your affection for some performances lies more with the story of the character than the actual acting. At any rate can the actual acting get more description, like you do with Jack’s portrayal of McMurphy and Hunter in “The Piano”?

  • 10 8-21-2009 at 9:02 am

    twinzin said...

    Agree with Denzel Washington and his Malcom X perfromance he reaches and achives so much with that amazing performance. It’s my favorite performance of all-time.

  • 11 8-21-2009 at 9:07 am

    Encore Entertainment said...

    Oh this is a good list. Definitely feeling the choices for Jane Fonda, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt. For me though Sean Penn’s will always be Dead Man Walking. I know she’s not a current/recent film star, but what would you say is the best Katharine Hepburn performance?

  • 12 8-21-2009 at 9:15 am

    Melissa said...

    Strange you didn’t mention De Niro.

    I always thought that Kate’s best performance was Heavenly Creatures.

  • 13 8-21-2009 at 9:24 am

    Tab said...

    Susan Sarandon in BULL DURHAM

  • 14 8-21-2009 at 9:26 am

    Zan said...

    Some good choices but definitely a lot I disagree with.

    I don’t see any argument for DDL in “There Will Be Blood” versus “My Left Foot.” The sheer physical difficult of “My Left Foot” was more impressive than anything he’s ever done.

    As for Penn, he’s mediocre in “Milk,” but I definitely thought he shook the ground in “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” where he does a better Travis Bickle than DeNiro.

  • 15 8-21-2009 at 9:28 am

    Lance said...

    Great Article!

    As far as woman go, I’d take Julianne Moore off the list completley and put Anjelica Houston on it for “The Grifters” The scene at the end where she will do anything to get that money is a study in how to create objectives and raise your stakes. The choices she makes are so creative and unexpected while completely being real. This performance is my second favorite performance of all time, right behind Streep in “Sophie’s Choice.”

  • 16 8-21-2009 at 9:59 am

    James D. said...

    Some disagreements:

    Blanchett was great in Elizabeth, but nothing tops her performance in I’m Not There. She became Bob Dylan more than any of the men did.

    For me, Pacino’s performance in Dog Day Afternoon tops the Godfather Part II, but just by a hair.

    Kate Winslet’s best was Little Children. As great as she is, she too often picks characters far beyond her understanding (girl on the Titanic, Nazi guard, 1950’s housewife), and although she is good, they still feel like dress-up.

    I agree with you on Daniel-Day Lewis, but I didn’t hate Daniel Plainview. I thought he was pretty right about things, but maybe I am just as crazy.

  • 17 8-21-2009 at 10:17 am

    Derek 8-Track said...

    What you wrote for Viggo read like poetry.

    how about a supporting actor list?… or something that would include John Goodman… I really want to see him on a list that recognizes his acting.

  • 18 8-21-2009 at 10:21 am

    Jesse said...

    No DeNiro??!!

    However, for the actors on your list, I thought the choices were quite good, especially Rev. Road for DiCapprio and Winslet. Pacino’s finest performance may have been Godfather II, but to me, no role exemplifies him as an actor better than Dog Day Afternoon.

  • 19 8-21-2009 at 10:31 am

    Dillon said...

    What about Bill Murray in Lost in Translation?

  • 20 8-21-2009 at 10:43 am

    Marshall1 said...

    Wow, I’m in complete agreement with your list, and we are absolutely in sync when you mention Emma Thompson (such an underrated actress) in “Wit”. Everytime I watch this movie, I will sob like sh*t. I think if this was relased as a film not tv movie, she could definitely be a contender, and even win. It’s truly heartbreaking. Also, Cate Blanchett in “Elizabeth” is heartbreaking as well, especially her transformation from innocent girl to regal queen. But just one thing, I think Viggo is great in “History of Violence”, so understated, but also very menacing at the same time, it’s like peeling an onion with so many layers.

  • 21 8-21-2009 at 10:46 am

    Marshall1 said...

    Does anyone know what is happening to the Emily Watson new movie about the Russian concentration camp?

    Her performance in Breaking the Waves has to be one of the best female performances. So raw, and painful to watch. If Lars von Trier hates women so much, why does he always coax such great performances out of them? (i.e. Bjork, Nicole Kidman, and maybe Charlotte Ginsburg?)

  • 22 8-21-2009 at 10:59 am

    Chris138 said...

    Nice list, I’m with you on your thoughts about Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, and of course Heath Ledger. Such a shame, but he will be remembered for a long while.

  • 23 8-21-2009 at 12:15 pm

    IMJ said...

    I’ve never bothered posting a comment here before but I felt compelled to mention Bruce Willis’s excellent work in “12 Monkeys” – while he’s generally known for his more blockbuster-oriented acting, his performance as a man struggling to avoid a time-travel-induced mental breakdown was subtle, complex, and in my opinion completely deserving of an Oscar nomination. Just look at the scene where he is listening to “Blueberry Hill” on the car stereo and starts to cry – it’s practically heartbreaking. Unfortunately it was only Brad Pitt’s much showier work in the same film that got the Academy’s attention, which I have always felt to be a huge shame…

  • 24 8-21-2009 at 12:19 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    So glad to see someone else agrees with me on Hackman.

  • 25 8-21-2009 at 2:28 pm

    Marshall said...

    Thank you for all the “Revolutionary Road” love! Although I think for Winslet, her best performance might be “Little Children.” Perhaps more nuanced and definitely less flashy.

  • 26 8-21-2009 at 3:23 pm

    De'Garryan said...


  • 27 8-21-2009 at 4:06 pm

    David said...

    Ellen Burstyn is one of my favorite actresses of all time – and never was she more open and remarkable than in the little seen – though Oscar nominated – performance in RESURRECTION – making the hokey minefield of a story (woman returns from a near death experience with the gift of healing) an absolute haunting and moving reality. Watch for a young Sam Shepard here…

  • 28 8-21-2009 at 5:56 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***If Lars von Trier hates women so much, why does he always coax such great performances out of them?***

    Um, because he mentally abuses them? This is well documented.


    Julianne Moore was better in “The Hours” that same year

    Gene Hackman’s best has to be “Unforgiven”

    Daniel Day-Lewis gives the best performance of the decade in “Gangs of New York”

    Dustin Hoffman is totally all about “Lenny” – talk about under-seen

    With Jane Fonda I’d go with “Julia”

  • 29 8-21-2009 at 7:24 pm

    voland said...

    Watched “The Assassination of Jesse James” again this day, it’s not only Pitt’s very best performance, but also one of the greatest performances of the decade, subtle and absolutely stunning.

  • 30 8-21-2009 at 7:26 pm

    Douglas said...

    TOTALLY agree with Viggo Mortensen there for LOTR.

    -Marion Cotilliard in “La Vie En Rose”

    -Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”

    -I have to agree with you John on “Milk” but in my opinion another Sean Penn great performance was in “I Am Sam”.

    -Kristen Scott Thomas in “I’ve Loved You So Long”

    -Greg Kinnear in “Little Miss Sunshine”: this is one of my favourite performances of all time. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t recieve much achknowledgement for this role because he was so brilliant in every way. Go and see Little Miss Sunshine again and watch his every facial expression and every awkward line that he delivers, it is just simply brilliant.

    -And of course I can’t go past Jim Carrey in either “The Truman Show” but of course “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. I mean what a performance… breathtaking.

  • 31 8-21-2009 at 7:45 pm

    al b. said...

    TOTALLY disagree on Daniel Day-Lewis! My Left Foot was a film that affected me strongly! His performance was incredible in that film! It was so hard to see this man who had sooooo much creativity and he was only able to move his left foot! Saddening, and much deserving of an Oscar!

  • 32 8-21-2009 at 7:51 pm

    GreenDoberman said...

    Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai Luzhin is to him in the Lord of the Rings as Michael Jordan playing basketball is to Spud Webb.

  • 33 8-22-2009 at 12:02 pm

    Chris said...

    This is a great list and most of the mentions I either agree with or would put as one of their top 3 performances.

    Dustin Hoffman is wonderful in Tootsie, but I would say that his performances in both ‘Lenny’ and ‘Straight Time’ are some of the most intense characters I’ve ever seen.

    I would also say that as wonderful as Morgan Freeman is, he plays that good-natured heart-of-gold man too often. If there was ever a more terrifying on-screen pimp than Fast Black in ‘Street Smart,’ I haven’t seen it yet.

    I think most of the people on the list are among the best actors working today, though I find it odd to include Pacino who really hasn’t delivered a good performance since ‘Donnie Brasco.’ Personally, I would include;

    Jeff Bridges – Fearless
    Robert DeNiro – Raging Bull
    Laura Linney – You Can Count on Me
    Michael Douglas – Wonder Boys

  • 34 8-22-2009 at 12:06 pm

    intermezzo said...

    I don’t get this “Streep’s Sophie is the greatest performance on film!” She’s my favorite working actress, but I don’t even consider this her personal best. She was better in Plenty, A Cry in the Dark, Silkwood, and The Bridges of Madison County.

    Greatest performance ever: Renee Maria Falconetti -The Passion of Joan of Arc

  • 35 8-22-2009 at 4:12 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Sean Penn’s best work is Sweet and Lowdown. Hands down. And Hanks will never surpass Big.

  • 36 8-22-2009 at 11:00 pm

    decs said...

    My favourite DDL performance has always been in My Beautiful Laundromat

    Agee compltely with your choices for Duvall, Cruise, Ledger etc.

    I thought Julianne Moore was at her best in Boogie Nights….

  • 37 8-23-2009 at 12:58 am

    Fernando said...

    Sure there are many other actors worth mentioning. But I differ a little with your choice of Kate Winslet’s finest for me and as a lover of Revolutionary road, I gotta say, her best to date is her role in LITTLE CHILDREN.

  • 38 10-11-2009 at 2:53 pm

    Zodiac said...

    Thats a very cool list! But I do disagree with you on…
    Kate Winslet has never been better as she was in Heavenly Creatures.
    Julianne Moore is beyond good in The Hours
    Daniel Day-Lewis is my fav and did his best in My Left Foot for me
    Viggo Mortensen is terrific in A History of Violence but I do agree with you that there will come better ones from him in the future

    What about:
    Liv Ullmann in Scenes of a marriage
    Charlotte Rampling in Under The Sand
    Ralph Fiennes in Schindlers List
    Nicole Kidman in Dogville
    Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves
    Tilda Swinton in Julia

    Heath Ledger as Ennis is already legendary