Monday, March 22, 2004

The Best Performances Of All Time

Yesterday my friend Mike asked me one of those questions that are so wonderful they cause you to stew and percolate and debate for days. Well, they cause me to stew and percolate and debate. They might cause you to shrug.

Here it is: Mike wanted to know what I thought were the five best film performances of all time. The gist of his question was that he essentially wanted to "calibrate" his appreciation of film acting, by knowing what performances he could call a "10." I hemmed and hawed. There is just no good or immediate answer, because sometimes it is so hard to distinguish the performance from the rest of the movie. For instance, sometimes a great performance can be attributed to a great script. And because film acting can be cut together from multiple takes, the director has a strong hand in the result. But most importantly, there is no good or immediate answer to what constitutes "the best" in acting.

I decided to offer several lists, but I refuse to offer exclusivity. There's no way to rank this stuff.

First, we're talking about a single performance. But if Mike had asked, I would say that the following actors have demonstrated true greatness through the breadth and quality of their work, even if none of the individual performances were quite good enough to be among the top five of all time:

Robert Duvall (The Apostle, Tender Mercies, The Great Santini, Godfather I and II, Sling Blade, Days of Thunder)
Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie, Midnight Cowboy, Wag the Dog, Rain Man, Kramer vs. Kramer, Sleepers)
Robert DeNiro (Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Godfather II, Meet the Parents, A Bronx Tale, Wag the Dog)
Chris Cooper (Adaptation, Lone Star, Great Expectations, American Beauty)
Meryl Streep (Ironweed, The River Wild, Postcards from the Edge, Kramer vs. Kramer, Adaptation, Silkwood, Manhattan)

Of course, I have left out performances from the above list. Don't point out my oversights, just go to the Internet Movie Database and watch every film that these actors have done -- or at least all of their films from their "glory days."

Second, there are certain performances that achieve some of their greatness because the Casting Gods shone down upon the casting director on the day that the actor was signed. These performances are truly great, but some of that greatness comes from the actor imbuing the role with his or her distinct personality. That is, the actor displayed little or no "range," but still managed to come up with a great performance. I don't knock these performances for that, but I think they should be given their own category. They include:

John Wayne in The Searchers
Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird
Diane Keaton in Annie Hall
Paul Scofield in A Man For All Seasons
Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot

Third, there are certain performances that are excellent examples of a distinct style of performance. Though these performances may seem dated in some ways, or may seem limited to a certain genre, they are really wonderful examples of an actor understanding the demands of his or her genre and making the most of it.

Peter O'Toole, playing the Epic Hero in Lawrence of Arabia
Anthony Hopkins, playing the Villain in Silence of the Lambs
Buster Keaton, playing Silent Comedy in The General
Harrison Ford, playing the Action Hero in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Donald O'Connor, playing Musical Comedy in Singin' In The Rain

Fourth, there are the performances where an actor makes the Brave Choice to play someone who is (1) physically challenged, (2) mentally challenged, or (3) addicted. I see these performances as often overrated, because these roles often call for less on the part of the actor than more subtle roles. Nevertheless, they deserve a category of their own, because even if it is a stunt, it's an impressive stunt:

Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot
Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?
I can't think of more than two that deserve mention. I hate Brave Choice movies.

But finally, I come down to a few performances that I think exemplify the very height of film acting -- no asterisks, no explanations, no nothing. These are performances that turn the amp to 11.

Al Pacino in The Godfather I and II
Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot
Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves
Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies
Halle Berry in Monster's Ball

Bonus Question: I named few actresses. Why is that? Discuss. Be sure to mention (1) the dearth of good roles for women, (2) the entrenched power structure that requires actresses to begin as sexy ingenues before moving (if they can) to "meaty" roles, (3) my own sexism, (4) girls just don't act good.

 5:50 PM

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