This post is going to be harder than my best actress post (LINK), for the reason that I haven’t seen a lot of the actual best actor Oscar winners. Surprisingly, as I was looking through the list, I realised that I have seen more nominees than the actual winners, but I decided not to make my life hell and just focus on the actual winners that I have seen. I mean, I can easily write a five-page essay on win-worthy performances (not saying should have won, given how I haven’t seen the actual winner in some years), like Paul Newman in Hud, The Hustler and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, or Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, or Peter O’ Toole in Lawrence Of Arabia and The Lion In Winter, or Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie and The Graduate, or Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter and on and on and on…and you get my drift. Still, my knowledge of actual winners is a bit limited, so I won’t deny this list isn’t the most insightful or original. Compiling it is far easier than my best actress winners post, and I’m sure it will change in time to come as I watch more of these performances. So for now…
10) Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune (1990)
Reversal of Fortune isn’t really my cup of tea as a movie, but there are 2 aspects of the film that I’ve always enjoyed. One aspect is my dear Glenn Close’s great (and highly underrated) performance as Sunny von Bülow, while the other is Jeremy Iron’s Oscar winning turn as Claus von Bülow. Whenever these 2 aren’t around, I find my interest in the film disappearing almost immediately. Irons’ win, from what I gather, is one of the least talked about, but I find his performance absolutely fantastic. It’s not very showy, and there aren’t any scenery-chewing, Oscar baity scenes but that’s what makes the performance such a stand-out (to me). Despite the quiet nature of the role, to say it is easy to play would be unfair. The script never makes it clear whether Claus is guilty or not, and it is really up to Irons to exploit this element of the part. And he does so magnificently. There is so much mystery in this character, and a lesser actor would have been flip-flopping between making the character guilty at one moment and then innocent next, making the performance a confusing mess. Irons treads the fine line between these 2, cunningly suggest Claus’ innocence in one moment, and then suddenly twisting things to suggest otherwise. He knows how to play with the audience as the script demanded, and that’s what his performance here so fascinating. I feel like only Philip Seymour Hoffman came close to achieving a similar feat in Doubt (2008).
9) Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Network (1976)
It’s easy to dismiss Peter Finch’s performance as one-dimensional since he is just crazy for a good 90% of his performance, and I won’t deny that fellow nominee William Holden’s performance has more character development, but I still think that Finch’s performance has a great deal in making Network the classic that it is today. He is almost like a symbol in this movie, representing the extreme influence and cruelty of the media in both ways. On one hand, his insanity is being exploited by the media cruelly and yet while I watch him ramble on and on, I cannot help but feel like one of the television viewers in the film. His presence is so magnetic, and despite his craziness, there is just something so…hypnotic about his ramblings that makes feel so drawn towards him, even if I don’t give a crap about what he says. I can understand where some of the criticisms is coming from, and some may feel that he is supporting (definitely not, imo), but I think Peter Finch gave his 200% in this part, attacking it with a fearless intensity and making the madness of this character frightening to watch. He also played a part in creating one of the most iconic scenes in film history.
8) Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs is a masterpiece in its own right. The suspenseful direction is one of the best I have seen in a thriller, and watching all the elements being pieced together is just a mind-blowing and nail-biting experience. Anthony Hopkin’s performance Dr Hannibal Lecter is iconic for a right reason. His screen-time is actually short for a best actor winner, but his presence is so strong and his character is so crucial (I can see how some actors might play it in a supporting manner) that the lead win is totally justified. Hopkins’ brought out every detail of the part, from his strange introduction to his blink-less stares, making Lecter a highly memorable character and a real force on screen. And his interactions with Jodie Foster (another honourable omission from my favourite best actress winners) is so magnificently played out, making them one of the greatest on-screen pairings ever.
7) Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007)
Nowadays it is quite common to hear people saying that There Will Be Blood should have won best picture. Personally, I am still one of those No Country For Old Men supporters and this isn’t really one of my favourite Paul Thomas Anderson films, especially as compared to The Master (yes, I’m serious) and Boogie Nights. Still, I won’t deny that this is a great film made by one of the most interesting directors today. The cinematography alone is amazing, the score is great and the story is fascinating, even if it’s not my cup of tea.
Ok sorry, I digressed. I have mentioned in my favourite best actress post that all these highly technical performances aren’t usually my personal favourites, even if I do think that they are fantastic and impressive. I know people tend to go gaga whenever an actor adopts a different voice and uses a completely different set of mannerisms, and I do too, but I just don’t find myself calling them my “ABSOLUTE FAVOURITE PERFORMANCE EVER”. Still, the amount of work, dedication and detail Day-Lewis brings to his character is incredibly impressive, and yes, I do agree that he is one of the best today, even if I am not a fan of his acting style. I think he can a bit guilty of scenery chewing sometimes though (oooo controversy!). Still, his Daniel Plainview is one of the most fascinating creations ever put on screen. He is ambitious, brutal and almost on the brink of madness, but he also has this tenderness to his son that only he himself understands. Despite all those big mannerisms and unique voice, Daniel Day-Lewis brings a quiet intensity to this part that can be easy to miss especially if you are caught up with his “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE!!!” Those killer glares and sadness in his eyes when interacting with his son proves one thing: beneath the external details is an understanding and inhibition of a very complex character that Day-Lewis has fantastically achieved.
6) Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989)
My Left Foot is a really great and inspirational film, done with minimal sentimentality, and very well-handled throughout. I’m not that crazy over Brenda Fricker’s performance (really great, just not OMG AMAZING for me), but Daniel Day-Lewis performance is on a whole different level altogether. Look, I know I have made that comment about accents and mannerisms, but like Meryl Streep, I just cannot not be impressed by this guy’s performances. You may disagree, and say that he is chewing scenery excessively (true to certain extent), but holy crap it just works. It’s his way of being honest to the character and identifying himself with it. In My Left Foot, Daniel Day-Lewis nailed the physical aspects of Christy Brown incredibly well, so much so that I had no trouble believing this guy really had cerebral palsy. However, there’s something much more than the external aspects to this performance. Day-Lewis shows how Brown is flawed in terms of character as well – his bad temper and his swearing can be off-putting, but at the same time, he also brought out the positive traits of the character, such as his determination and tenacity. A fully realised character, combined with technical perfection, makes this performance a piece of gold. I feel very bad for not putting him higher, but my top 5 are just too good for me to not put there.
5) Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather. These 2 words alone are enough to make me bow in reverence. Ok, that’s a bit much but this movie alone is the reason why I turned into a film fanatic today. I’m also one of those people who think that Al Pacino was robbed of the Oscar. Yes, Joel Grey was truly great in Cabaret but…but…but… Anyway, Marlon Brando’s performance is actually shorter than one would expect for a best actor winner, but there’s something about his presence that just makes you drawn to him. Even though his appearance is limited in the second part of the film, he commands the first part of the movie entirely. I mean, the opening scene is as iconic as it gets. His acting is really subtle actually, but the fact that his presence is so strong can really be attributed to his total inhibition of the character. You can say that he didn’t act as Don Corleone, he was Don Corleone. Every single line, every single movement and every single look comes so naturally from Brando that I have no problem buying his performance at all. He effortlessly brings out every aspect of this fascinating character; the loving father, the loyal friend, the man with principles, and even though you don’t see him killing anyone directly, the brutal killer. Just the horse head scene alone is enough to make you fear this man. And the speech he gives to the other family heads towards the end of the film could just be one of the best acted moments in film history.
4) George C. Scott as General George S. Patton Jr. in Patton (1970)
Not going to go into detail with regards to this one, since you can visit my post on Patton (LINK) to read my thoughts. Even though I am not a fan of the film, George C. Scott’s performance is still one of the best winners in the 70s. Yes, he famously rejected his Oscar, and he faced some really close competition from Jack Nicholson’s astounding work in Five Easy Pieces, but I still find it an incredibly fascinating portrayal, and a real masterpiece of acting.
3) Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (1980)
You can say that Robert De Niro is one of the greatest film actors ever and I wouldn’t even disagree. He’s probably one of the few 2 time winner whom everybody agrees with both wins (usually people just agree with one). His method acting is so intense and detailed in characterisation,yet realistic, free of scenery chewing and non-flashy at the same time. He really knows how to act with his eyes, communicating a whole bunch of emotions with a single glance. I mean, even a cameo in American Hustle altogether is enough to elevate that movie into masterpiece territory for a few minutes. Let’s just take a moment to ignore the crap that he has been appearing in recently, shall we? Although I prefer his performance in The Deer Hunter slightly more, there’s no denying how amazing his performance as Jake La Motta really is. Brutal, disturbed, flawed yet saddening at the same time. The final scene alone is worthy of the Oscar.
2) Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in Capote (2005)
Shortly after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s really unfortunate death, I mentioned in an older post that this used to be my favourite performance of all time, but now I have downgraded it to second. I feel a little bit bad for doing so, but I won’t deny that this performance is just astonishing. To some, it may be mimicry, but beneath the voice and the mannerisms is a portrait of an enigmatic character that is just so hard to read, and so fascinating at the same time. Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote’s manipulative side is something that should be used in acting class; every scene brings you a new side of the character and a new dramatic situation. Watching how he wriggles out of his way and how he calmly twists his words to get what he wants can make you gasp in shock. And then you see the final scene, where his conscience finally shows itself, followed by the saddening downwards spiral of the character. An amazing, mind-blowing and astonishing performance by a terrific actor who will be greatly missed.
1) F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri in Amadeus (1984)
At the end of the day, my vote still goes to F. Murray Abraham’s masterful work as Antonio Salieri. His performance is the least flashy and technical as compared to the others (except Jeremy Irons, maybe) but his performance just evokes all kind of emotions in me as a viewer. You really feel sorry for him as he slowly gets overshadowed by Mozart, but at the same time his immense jealousy and manipulation makes you want to punch his guts. Abraham communicates all these emotions with his eyes, and some of his scenes are plain chilling, like when he humiliates Constanze, and his final “I absolve you!” scene. Yet at the same time, you just feel so damn sorry for this pathetic guy, even though Abraham never demands your sympathy at all. Fantastic. It’s a real pity his career didn’t live up to this win afterwards…
So yes…my top ten favourite best actor winners ever. Interestingly enough, my entire list seems to be made up of dislikeable, flawed and larger-than-life personalities, but these are the performances that I feel left an indelible mark in film history (and my mind!). My 1-5 are solid, and I doubt they’ll change much, but at I continue watching more movies, and I’m pretty sure that the list will change, especially number 10 (he is still fantastic though). Here are some of my favourites that I did not include, but are still amazing works that would have been highly deserving of inclusion.
1) Jack Nicholson as R. P. McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
2) Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront (1954)
3) Jean Dujardin as George Valentin in The Artist (2011)
3) Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
And the supposedly fantastic ones that I will hopefully catch up on one day…
1) Ray Milland as Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend (1945)
2) Ronald Colman as Anthony John in A Double Life (1947)
3) Ernest Borgnine as Marty Piletti in Marty (1955)
4) Alec Guiness as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on The River Kwai (1957)
5) Sidney Poitier as Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field (1963)
6) Art Carney as Harry in Harry and Tonto (1974) – Yes, I’m aware of the hate directed towards this performance for beating Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson, but I’m still willing to give it a shot. Only 70s winner I have yet to watch.
7) Robert Duvall as Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies (1983)
8) William Hurt as Luis Molina in Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1985)
9) Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist (2002) – what happened to his career???
10) Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006) – as with Adrien Brody, what happened???