The Greatest Performances by an Actor or Actress on Film

These performances are my choices for the best performances, by actors and actresses, from every era of the last 100 years in film history. It’s the hardest thing to evaluate acting in movies. There is so much more that goes into the making of a film than a stage play, that it all can distract an audience from the astonishing acting performance, happening right before their eyes. Sometimes, all of the other elements in the film, from the direction to the sound design can help accentuate a performance better than any other median. This can also be used to distract an audience from a terrible performance.

Take Tom Hanks’s performance in Cast Away as a performance that transcends the setting and filmmaking techniques. Not only does Tom Hanks alone, keep the film alive, but his character of Chuck Nolan brings us all the more closer to understanding the psyche of loneliness. Everyone might scoff at the presence of Chuck’s volleyball friend, Wilson. But, it is his relationship with that sports toy that becomes the most powerful bond in the film. It becomes all the more clear, when Nolan loses Wilson to the sea and we see a thinned-out, weak and desperate Tom Hanks, curled up, shivering and grieving.

What did it take to get to this point? How much suffering does a man have to endure to go through such intense pain for the loss of a personally that he has created himself? The film jumps from Nolan, just after he crash lands on this island to 4 years later. We don’t see Chuck Nolan’s evolution or in this case, his de-evolution. But, that doesn’t matter. Tom Hanks is so good in this film, as this character, that he answers all of our questions with his performance. He was nominated by the Academy for good reason.

Just as Tom transformed his body to show Nolan’s de-evolution, losing a lot of weight to help the illusion that he’s been on that island for 4 years, there are plenty of other, more impressive transformations in the history of acting on film. For one, Dustin Hoffman’s transformation into an autistic, card-shark of a man in Rain Man is one of the best – if not the best in recent film history. By the time the characters of Raymond and Daniel Babbit, drive off to Vegas to make some big money, fast, you’ll be hard-pressed to recognize the same man that would later play Captain Hook in Hook. The man who was the 21-year-old, self-conscious graduate in The Graduate. Dustin Hoffman literally ceased to exist before our eyes, replaced by this friendly, yet dangerously incompetent autistic man. Tom Hanks would later continue that transition in Forrest Gump, breathing real life into a character so different from himself, that he’s one of the most recognizable fictional people in history.

Emoting is another big role in creating a great performance. This is a vital element in the acting process that fewer and fewer actors in Hollywood seem to understand these days. When they deliver a line, there has to be an emotion behind it. They can’t just walk in front of the camera and read the line from a script or teleprompter and expect that to fly with audiences. Two perfect examples of great emotionally charged performances, are the top acting performances on my list.

The first is Vivien Leigh’s powerful take on the role of Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlet O’Hara. She is the wealthy daughter of an Irish plantation owner around the time of the Civil War. She is sassy, self-confident, self-made, spoiled, stubborn and vulnerable woman. In 4 hours, an audience will get to know and understand Scarlett so well, they will feel like she’s part of the family. And, Vivien Leigh is in 95% of the entire film, working her butt off to turn out the best performance in film history as far as I’m concerned. When she raises a fist to the sky and proclaims, “As God as my witness, I will never go hungry again,” I would defy anyone to not feel a twinge of something down their spine. That is what emoting and the delivery of a line is all about. That one line-reading would transcend acting on stage just as much as it has on-screen.

The next acting performance on my list comes from the man most critics have deemed, the “most important actor” in film, Marlon Brando. I don’t particularly agree with that statement. I think that’s a very risky thing to say, considering all of the film actors that have came and went over the years. But, I can’t deny how extraordinary Brando’s performance is as the head of the Corleone crime family, Vito Corleone in The Godfather. The man went so far as to put cotten in his cheeks to suggest that his character is physically disabled in the jaw for some reason.. And yet, this does not distract audiences from feeling the power in each line-reading. Brando delivers every line with such emotion and passion, it’s hard not to see this man who once played an ex-boxer in On The Waterfront and a card-playing loser in A Streetcar Named Desire, transform into this protective, tyrannical, old-school father of such great actors as Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert Duvall.

More great actors and performances, represented in this article include the awesome performance of Robert DeNiro as the abusive and self-hating real life character, Jake LaMotta. Another truly mesmerizing transformation that will make audiences hard-pressed not to associate DeNiro with that character for the rest of their movie-viewing experience. Meryl Streep deservedly won Best Actress as Sophie in the holocaust-based film, Sophie’s Choice, delivering a performance of purity and power that could easily rival Vivien Leigh’s in Gone With The Wind. Streep hasn’t been nominated by the Academy over 10 times for no reason.

Two very unusual performances that I personally feel deserve such a high spot on my list, are Anthony Hopkins’s chilling and utterly convincing performance as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter in Silence of The Lambs and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, delivering the greatest on-screen heroine since Leigh. Unlike Vivien, Sigourney’s Ellen Ripley must face off against the ultimate nightmare, save a little girl and keep an arrogantly stupidified group of marines together. She emotes and transforms herself so well, it’s easy to forget that Sigourney is a big anti-gun advocate, during a film that features Ellen Ripley, shooting the hell out of a bunch of ugly, scary and disgusting monsters. Choosing Anthony Hopkins’s performance as the sinister Hannibal Lecter probably doesn’t even need an explanation. A very classy actor, who once played alongside old greats like Katharine Hepburn in costume dramas, transforms himself entirely into the monster-esque psychiatric genius that could strike fear into Satan himself. He plays it cool, one minute and truly scary, the next. This makes Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter, the greatest on-screen villain, for a lot of people and a lot of reasons.

And, look for Bette Davis, Al Pacino, Orson Welles, Spencer Tracy, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, listed for the best performances throughout their careers.

On a side note, I’m not sure how to evaluate the acting in many foreign language films. There’s only a handful I’ve chosen. One is Max Sydow for his subtle, yet gripping performance in The Seventh Seal.

1. Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind

2. Marlon Brando as Vito Andolini / Corleone in The Godfather

3. Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbit in The Rain Man

4. Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull

5. Meryl Streep as Sophie in Sophie’s Choice

6. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

7. Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Aliens

8. Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird

9. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part 2

10. Bette Davis as Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

11. Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane

12. Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in The Christmas Carol (1951)

13. Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump

14. Spencer Tracy as Manuel Fidello in Captains Courageous

15. Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.

16. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho

17. Laurence Olivier as Hamlet in Hamlet (1948)

18. Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

19. Renee Falconetti as Jeanne d’Arc in The Passion of Joan of Arc

20. Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story

21. James Cagney as Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces

22. Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz

23. Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire

24. Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca

25. Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind

26. Kate Winslet as Rose DeWitt Bukater in Titanic

27. Charles Chaplin as The Tramp in City Lights

28. Bette Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve

29. Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver

30. Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs

31. Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby

32. Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day

33. George C. Scott as Gen. George Patton in Patton

34. Charleton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur

35. Paul Newman as Eddie Felson in The Hustler

36. Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name or “Blondie” in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

37. Harriett Anderson as Agnes in Cries & Whispers

38. Max von Sydow as Antonius Block in The Seventh Seal

39. James Stewart as John Ferguson in Vertigo

40. Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott in Shine

41. Mel Gibson as William Wallace in Braveheart

42. Peter O’Toole as T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia

43. Cary Grant as T. R. Devlin in Notorious

44. Morgan Freeman as “Red” in The Shawshank Redemption

45. Katharine Hepburn as Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond

46. Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes in Chinatown

47. Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot

48. Boris Karloff as The Monster in Bride of Frankenstein

49. Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight

50. Charles Laughton as William Bligh in Mutiny on The Bounty

51. John Wayne as Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man

52. Brigette Helm as The Creative Man / The Machine Man / Death / The Seven Deadly Sins / Maria in Metropolis

53. Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator in The Terminator

54. Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray

55. Ingrid Bergman as Anna Koreff in Anastasia

56. Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady

57. Robert Mitchum as Max Cady in Cape Fear

58. Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest

59. Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson in Titanic

60. Gene Hackman as Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven

61. Patty Duke as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker

62. Clint Eastwood as Will Munny in Unforgiven

63. Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich

64. Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady

65. Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

66. James Dean as Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause

67. Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist

68. Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker

69. John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

70. Kirk Douglas as Col. Dax in The Paths of Glory

71. Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath

72. Sean Connery as James Bond in From Russia With Love

73. Gene Hackman as Jimmy Doyle in The French Connection

74. Kathy Bates as Anne Wilkes in Misery

75. Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on The Bounty

76. Bruce Willis as John McClane in Die Hard

77. Diane Keaton as Annie Hall in Annie Hall

78. Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon

79. Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

80. Jack Lemmon as Jerry in Some Like It Hot

81. Russell Crowe as Maximus in Gladiator

82. Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey / Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie

83. Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

84. Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins

85. Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia

86. Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham in American Beauty

87. Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley, Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove in Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

88. Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan in Boy’s Town

89. Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront

90. James Stewart as George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life

91. Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction

92. Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in Rocky

93. Ellen Burstyn as Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream

94. Kirk Douglas as Spartacus in Spartacus

95. Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz

96. Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds

97. Denzel Washington as Trip in Glory

98. Robin Williams as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting

99. Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster

100. Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood

More honorable mentions:

Jim Caviezel as Jesus Christ in The Passion of the Christ

Cary Grant as Dr. David Huxley in Bringing Up Baby

Jack Nicholson as Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Nicholas Cage as Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas

Tom Hanks as Josh Baskin in Big

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men

Meg Ryan as Sally Albright in When Harry Met Sally

Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire in Jerry Maguire

Johnny Depp as George Jung in Blow

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in Fight Club

Julia Roberts as Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman

Michael Caine as Dr. Wilbur Larch in The Cider House Rules

Natalie Wood as Wilma Dean Loomis in Splendor in the Grass

Harrison Ford as Henry Jones Jr. / Indiana Jones in Raiders of The Lost Ark

Sean Connery as Jim Malone in The Untouchables

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List

Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List

Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights

Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate

John Travolta as Vincent Vegga in Pulp Fiction

Robert Shaw as Quint in Jaws

Paul Newman as Luke in Cool Hand Luke

Robert Redford as The Sundance Kid in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity

Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco in Key Largo

James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey

Tommy Lee Jones as Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive

Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose

Clark Gable as Peter Warren in It Happened One Night

Claudette Colbert as Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night

Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now

Jamie Lee Curtis as Helen Tasker in True Lies

Kevin Costner as John Dunbar / Dances With Wolves in Dances With Wolves

Jodie Foster as Sara Tobias in The Accused

Sidney Poitier as Detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of The Night

Glenn Close as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction

Tom Hanks as Chuck Nolan in Cast Away

Zoe Saldana as Neytiri in Avatar

Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate

Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas

Harrison Ford as John Book in Witness

Susan Sarandon as Louise Sawyer in Thelma & Louise

Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands in Edward Ecissorhands

Mel Gibson as Max in The Road Warrior

Tony Curtis as John “The Joker” Jackson in The Defiant Ones

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in Psycho

Christopher Walken as Nick in The Deer Hunter

Ed Harris as Virgil “Bud” Brigman in The Abyss

Geena Davis as Thelma Yvonne Dickinson in Thelma & Louise

Andy Serkis as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind

Kevin Spacey as Verbil Kint in The Usual Suspects

Katharine Hepburn as Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby

Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby

Robin Williams as Daniel Hillard / Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire in Mrs. Doubtfire

Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer

Meryl Streep as Joanna Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer

Woody Allen as Alvy Singer in Annie Hall

Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men

Mel Gibson as Lt. Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon

Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive

Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in Man On The Moon

Sidney Poitier as Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field

Eddie Murphy as Professor Sherman Klump, Buddy Love, Mama Klump, Papa Klump, Ernie Klump, Grandma Klump and Lance Perkins in The Nutty Professor

Edward Furlong as John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Harry Tasker in True Lies

Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein

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