Our obsessive need to constantly rank and compare things in this world help us contrive value from effectively obscure and inconsequential aspects of life. Yeah, that’s pretty deep. I fancy myself a fan of movies, or cinema if you’re annoying, and I too feel the need to rank them because I desperately crave understanding of the randomness of life. So, having said that, here are my 100% objective, totally unbiased Top 10 Acting Performances of All-Time. If you disagree, good for you. You deserve a cookie. I made these picks under my own criteria for greatness, and considering there are literally thousands of performances in film throughout history, I’m willing to bet my mortgage I got this one down perfectly.
Certain factors resonate with me more than others when making these judgements: does the performance leave a legacy; was the performance unique; could anyone else have done this at the time…? These are primarily the factors I considered to filter out the great from the legendary. So, hold onto your butts, because here we go!
10. Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara (“Gone with the Wind”)
Yeah, I didn’t expect me to go to a pro-Confederacy movie for any of my picks but here we are. Is the content something I love? No. Glorifying the Confederacy as a lost way of life is a tasteless interpretation of history, especially through the lens of today’s social standards. But I will not hold Vivien Leigh responsible for that and judge her solely on her performance.
I first saw this film in my High School English class, so you can imagine how enthused I was about the experience. It was long. It was old. But it meant that for 3 days I didn’t have to do any real work so I was all in. And not only was I pleasantly surprised by the film’s ability to keep me awake during my de-facto “free days”, I was also amazed how such a long film could be carried by the performance of the lead, Scarlett O’Hara.
O’Hara broke the mold of a female protagonist, especially for a film from 1939. She was layered and complex, which really stands out in contrast with the world she lives in that willfully tries to simplify women. “Gone with the Wind” is full of all sorts of symbolism, but essentially it is a narrative that is burdened on the shoulders of Vivien Leigh, and there is a reason it is still remembered fondly 80 years later.
9. Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass (“The Revenant”)
This might be the most controversial pick on my list. Not because it isn’t great, but because is it really legendary? You could say “no”, and I’ll tell you that your opinion is wrong and you should seek help. But you could say “yes” and make yourself feel a little bit smarter. I say take the deal.
DiCaprio is, without question, one of the top actors of any generation with a plethora of amazing performances. So why does this one top the ones in “The Aviator”, “Blood Diamond”, “The Departed”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “Catch Me if You Can”, “Django: Unchained”, and the colossally underrated “Shutter Island”? This one is the only one that I believe no one else could have pulled off to the extent he did.
His role as Hugh Glass is not prototypical of most of his work. There is no flashy monologue to steal the spotlight. This is probably beyond acting. Leo is legitimately surviving on camera. If at any point during the making of this film, Leo died, I don’t think a single human being on the face of the planet would be shocked.
He portrayed so much emotion, purpose, and drive without speaking, it almost seems shameful how much other performances rely on verbal communication as a crutch. I guess my point is that while he was exceptional in all of his other roles, someone else could have pulled them off with similar performances. But this one? This one required one of the finest actors ever to use a skillset that is, more-or-less, unprecedented, and he succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
8. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates (“Psycho”)
Fair warning: there are a lot of crazy people on this list beyond this point. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in “Psycho” is the stuff of legends. Considering this role is not a typical drama, his performance is more unique than most others with this sort of mainstream recognition.
Bates is a horror film icon and perhaps the most memorable character in the entire filmography of the immortal Alfred Hitchcock. Perkins plays the psychotic side and the friendly outer façade of Bates flawlessly.
This role has impact and was a trailblazer for the horror genre. Portraying psychosis, but also as a sympathetic antagonist who is a victim of his own life, is very difficult to do. Often in order to sell one of those you must overcommit to that aspect and the other suffers. With Perkins’ portrayal, there is balance. AND this performance came at a time when many of the themes explored were groundbreaking. I mean, he was an onscreen murderer who was abused by his mother at a time when flushing a toilet and having a man and woman share a bed (NO NOT SEX, I MEAN SHARING A BED) was still taboo. It takes a special performance to pull that off.
7. Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley (“Aliens”)
Ellen Ripley is royalty in the science fiction genre. Sigourney Weaver has honored us with a character that, not only is a blessing in one film, but the lead for an entire franchise. But there are all types of franchise leads that do a great job, why is this so good that it is in the elite performances of all time?
If you take a look at franchises today, most struggle to create believable, strong female leads. Maybe this is more of a knock against other franchises, but the fact that it isn’t easy to do just makes this all the more important and amazing. For example, the recently Disney-afied Star Wars movies can’t help but make its female lead perfect without any real explanation for her lack of faults. Ellen Ripley is the antithesis of that.
She is strong, not because she can do know wrong, but because in a movie about large, spaceship-destroying monsters with two mouths, Sigourney Weaver makes Ellen Ripley a real person. Now that doesn’t sound too hard to do, right? Well, it is. Portraying overwhelming fear while still exhibiting courage is an extraordinarily difficult thing to achieve. Depicting a protagonist who is constantly in danger while still giving her a realistic ability to overcome her adversary is rare. You could give credit to the writers, but what is most impressive is the actor’s ability to translate the screenplay into a reality. I know this performance is revered, but I maintain that it is an overall underrated performance because we really don’t appreciate it for its difficulty. Although not the standard I am really considering, the fact that she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for a role in a sci-fi movie should tell you all you need to know.
6. Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge (“A Clockwork Orange”)
Here comes another crazy guy! Malcolm McDowell plays an absolute psychopath in “A Clockwork Orange”. The character of Alex is a remorseless rapist and an enthusiastic, violent brute. He revels in the dangerous taboos of society, being driven by the primal urges most people have learned to suppress and work around.
But simply being a deranged brute and violent sexual deviant isn’t what makes this performance so special. Yes, it probably pushed the boundaries of common decency more than any role prior or since. But Alex has depth. Maybe he doesn’t exhibit the standard redemptive character arc we look for, but McDowell portrays an exceptionally intelligent character that makes you wonder just how detached from reality he really is.
The scene that stands out to me beyond the violence and torture is the moment Alex feels threatened by the free thought of his goons. He manipulates them into believing they were equals and then he ruthlessly beats them to reestablish his dominance. This is a character that not only lives for violence, but expertly knows the correct ways to utilize coercion to get his way. Then the tortured method of treatment he must undergo forces him to be sickened by the very impulses that drove him is an interesting twist. He is not exactly sympathetic, but it is really amazing how a character that is unadulterated evil can get an audience to root for his overcoming of his reconditioning into society.
5. Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos (“Monster”)
You thought I wouldn’t include any mentally unstable women on this list? Well you were GODDAMN WRONG. Charlize Theron, without question, belongs on this list for her 2004 performance in “Monster”.
A lot of mid-twenties fanboys, such as myself, go nuts for the hardcore method acting of juggernauts such as Christian Bale, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Leonardo DiCaprio, but most of us admittedly aren’t even aware of this film’s existence, sadly. And that’s a real shame because it shows that Charlize Theron can method act better than our frat boy man-crushes. Luckily, I’m sure there are circles outside of my own where this film gets the praise it deserves.
Her performance here is genuinely disturbing. Theron utterly transforms into Aileen, both physically and mentally, and even though I only saw this film 10 years after it was released, I still fear for the well-being of Charlize. Aileen is a very disturbed street prostitute who commits a string of murders in Florida (I know, so cliché). Experts in the field verify that her performance accurately portrayed the struggles of antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. I am no expert, but she sells crazy QUITE convincingly. Also, Theron underwent a ridiculous physical transformation. Since normally she is objectively a very attractive woman, you’d be excused if you thought she actually wasn’t the one staring in the film. She gained roughly 30 pounds, wore fake teeth for the entire shoot, and even shaved off her eyebrows.
I actually have remorse that this performance isn’t higher on the list because 5 just seems too low for what it actually is. Even famed film critic Roger Ebert says that “[It] is one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.”
4. Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes (“Misery”)
We are going back-to-back! That’s right. We have got our second batshit crazy woman in a row! I’ll call that a streak at this point. Kathy Bates’s performance is one of legends. Not because of any ridiculous method acting, but simply because of how effective she was as an antagonist.
Annie Wilkes still makes me shiver whenever I see her on screen. She is the ultimate Stan (Stan is an overly obsessive fan. Listen to the song by Eminem) and is totally unhinged. She rescues her favorite author, Paul Sheldon, after a car accident and holds his life hostage until he writes her favorite character back to life. She claims she loves Paul but she brutalizes him on camera. On top of all of that, she is a serial killer. Fun! Paul discovers that she has committed a series of murders throughout the years but got away with them, which just makes her presence so suspense-inducing.
The scenes that stand out the most is when she savagely breaks Paul’s legs with a sledgehammer because she found him snooping around her house for that information, and when she drugs Paul and murders a state trooper. For a woman that looks so innocent on the outside, she is so cold and ruthless. I am very happy that this performance is appreciated even in my generation because she is genuinely one of the most intimidating antagonists in film history.
3. Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview (“There Will Be Blood”)
DDL is arguably the greatest actor of all time, so of course he’s on this list. I had a literal metric ton of performances to choose from but honestly it had to be his turn as Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood”.
Plainview is a ruthless oil tycoon around the turn of the 20th century, and while he isn’t the typical lunatic that I’ve been praising in previous entries, he is psychotic in his own way. First off, his voice. Just wow. Day-Lewis obviously is a master of his craft but he could not have constructed a voice more appropriate for the character. It is deep, scratchy, yet oh so slimy. It’s like he breaths petroleum.
As a protagonist, you root for his success, but you’re utterly amazed how a person could be so violently detached from humanity all together. He claims he has a competition in him, that he wants no one else to succeed but him, but as you watch him from start to finish in the movie, you realize just how deep he feels that. His complicated utilitarian relationship with his adopted son displays this fully. He initially uses his son as a marketing tool to appear like a family operation, but he abandons him when he is deafened in an explosion. Then when he is publicly shamed by his rival Eli for his actions, he reunites with him just to win over the townspeople. When his son grows up and wants to start his own oil company, Daniel disowns him claiming he was nothing more than “a bastard from a basket”. Those words echoing through his giant, lonely home as his son leaves him for good.
But the last scene of the film, where he finally claims victory of his internal competition, is where he really shows just what a madman he is. He savagely beats Eli to death with a bowling pin after he tells him that he had already gotten all of his oil years ago. The words “I drink your milkshake” have never been more deranged. With that, Daniel wins his competition with Eli and completely cuts himself off from the last link to humanity he still had. I think it’s a magical moment honestly.
2. Meryl Streep as Zofia “Sophie” Zawistowski (“Sophie’s Choice”)
I was so, so, so close to putting Meryl Streep at number 1. Honestly, if you put her there, I don’t blame you at all. She is a living legend and this performance in “Sophie’s Choice” is her magnum opus.
Streep plays the title character, Sophie, who recounts her experiences as a Polish immigrant and prisoner at Auschwitz. I hate to say that alone isn’t anything special in film, but it kind of is. In fact, the film itself isn’t amazing. But Streep stands out emphatically. She is tortured by her past and present, haunted by her decisions and her reality. She literally had to make a choice between which of her two children will live and which will die in a death camp. Yet Streep manages to convey the trauma without appearing too fragile, or too strong. It’s exceptionally nuanced and avoids coming off as a hackneyed “female survivor” character and becomes unique.
It was a tough order to fill, yet what makes this performance so damn exceptional is how much work Streep put into perfecting her character. She actually spent 6 months learning Polish, specifically in a genuine Polish accent. To anyone who says that’s reasonable, you’re a madman. This is the epitome of “no one else could this but her”. Her acting saves a rather underwhelming film and makes it exceptional.
The material alone is ripe for a standout performance and accolades, but Meryl proves why she is in the upper echelon of acting legends. For what it’s worth, Premier Magazine ranked this as the 3rd greatest performance of all time. They were so close to being right.
1. Heath Ledger as The Joker (“The Dark Knight”)
If anyone knows me, this one was pretty obvious. I am mildly obsessed with this performance, both as a comic book nerd and just a fan of film. I showed this performance to my mother, who thinks I get shoved into lockers and get wedgies, even as an adult, and even she, with her out-of-touch thinking, was blown away. That should be telling.
Ledger is immortalized with his performance as The Joker in the acting community. But before he took the role, fans thought he was a bad casting by Christopher Nolan. Congratulations, nerds. You. Were. Wrong. Ledger took a character that was portrayed dozens of different times in all sorts of mediums, and created something unexpected and unique. Oh yes, we’ve had plenty of psychopaths in film before. Hell, we’ve had a lot on this list alone. But goddamn is The Joker special.
For those who haven’t seen the film, The Joker is a mix of Alex DeLarge (see entry 6) and Verbal Kint from “The Usual Suspects”. The kind of chaos that is under control. Throughout the film, The Joker keeps insisting he is not crazy and he very well might not be. He’s definitely a violent sociopath but he’s so calculating and has legitimate worldviews. He is well aware of what he is doing and sees a good reason for doing it. “Do I look like a guy with a plan”? Yes! Yes, you do!
Well that is just how the character is written, and Ledger has taken that Herculean task and ran with it. He created all the weird little ticks that make The Joker so unsettling. He directed and filmed the ransom video himself. He designed the makeup himself. He created the voice after a month of being alone in a hotel room and keeping a journal of what The Joker would think. Every time he asks you if you want to know how he got his scars, you’re convinced that The Joker himself doesn’t even know or even care. He loves that you can’t understand him. He is the unstoppable force, making the perfect antagonist to the immovable object that is Christian Bale’s Batman. He doesn’t undergo a character arc, he is the character arc for everybody in the film. He is the change in Commissioner Gordon, Bruce Wayne, Alfred, and especially Harvey Dent. That could easily be confused with what any antagonist does, but no. The change is not because of The Joker, it is The Joker. I could go on and on about all the subtleties of his portrayal but I don’t intend on doubling the size of this post.
His legacy is forever tied to this performance, which won him a posthumous Oscar as a comic book character, a genre that typically is ignored by the elitists of the academy. Many people believe his sudden death was brought on by his experience playing The Joker. It’s and unfortunate and haunting aspect of the legend of this performance.