I’m running and gunning this week – out to set the record straight about the films and performances I love the most. Yesterday I ranked my favorite flicks of all time, today I tackle my favorite male performances. The ladies will be tomorrow.
Here’s how I want to play this: the first performance listed is my favorite male performance from a film. Ever. Period. The subsequent nine are listed chronologically, because my attempts to rank them were futile at best.
Hope you like the picks, and thanks to every one for your thoughtful comments yesterday!
As Stanley Kowalski
Brando’s performance in A Streetcar Named Desire changed the face of movie screen acting. That’s a notion that is inarguable, and just one of the many reasons I consider it the finest acting performance of all time.
American male movie acting up until that point consisted predominantly of the alpha male. The brooding authority figure who rarely changed his speech inflection and, even if he was doing bad, was never really doing bad. It’s a tricky argument, because if you take that statement the wrong way, then I’m essentially belittling every other acting performance before Brando’s work here. That’s not my intent, but it does skim the surface of my main point.
Brando’s Stanley Kowalski was (rather, is) a force of nature. He yelled, screamed, beat, berated, raped. But he was also gentle, and forgiving, and, perhaps most importantly, presented with a great amount of vulnerability. That simply did not happen in American movies before 1951. Brando changed the game and opened the door for genuine angst to flood in. His performance here is as important an artistic milestone as there has been.
Montgomery Clift – A Place in the Sun (1951)
As George Eastman
Now, talk about vulnerability; Clift’s role in A Place in the Sun is the epitome of male emasculation. Everything George does is done without the slightest shred of confidence or self-assurance. He’s a man literally drifting along, trying to keep his head above water.
I hadn’t seen A Place in the Sun in roughly two years, and upon watching it for this post, I was completely dumbfounded by what Clift did here. There’s a scene midway through the movie in which George’s secret lover, Alice (a flawless Shelley Winters) calls George while he’s having dinner with his public lover, Angela (Elizabeth Taylor, at her youthful best). Alice demands that George come pick her up from the bus station. If he doesn’t, she will blow his cover wide open. Now, watch Clift here. And fucking listen. His voice never gets above a genuine whisper (as opposed to a fake, loud whisper heard in movies all the time), his head is cowered down, his voice is shaky – he is a lost boy, trapped in a cage. Mesmerizing.
Anthony Perkins – Psycho (1960)
As Norman Bates
Feel free to put Perkins’ Norman Bates right next to Clift’s George Eastman as an ultimate study in understatement.
What is Bates’ angle? Why is he so interested in passerby Marion Crane? Is it attraction? Fear? Pity? Why is he so complacent with whatever ludicrous demands his mother asks of him? Essentially, why (and how) is Norman, Norman?
Those are questions I wondered the first time I watched Psycho. I knew something was coming (because everyone knows what’s coming), but I didn’t see the point of it. Not only does knowing make the film as a whole better, but it reveals just how layered Perkins’ work here is. Arguably the creepiest son of a bitch ever captured on screen.
Paul Newman – Cool Hand Luke (1967)
As Luke Jackson
There’s nothing I don’t love about “Cool Hand” Luke Jackson, and, more specifically, about the way Newman plays him. Sentenced to two years on a work farm prison for drunkenly cutting the heads off parking meters, Luke is subjected to excessive cruelty because he is a man who simply will not conform.
Everything he does is done to buck the system. Even the act of increasing productively is taken as a slight to the powers that be. It’s the ultimate Damn the Man performance; heightened with Newman’s signature bold command of the screen.
I’ve spent the space here detailing the flawless obstinance that Newman brings to Luke, but, really, the performance is taken to a new level once the character’s desperation takes hold. He’s a man at the end of his rope, and watching Newman beg and plead to not spend another night in the box is something that never fails to disturb.
That Luke, he sure was a cool hand.
Al Pacino – Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
As Sonny Wortzik
It’s all about the phone call. By the time Sonny is able to talk to his lover, Leon (Chris Sarandon) on the phone, Pacino’s acting skills have been tested and scrutinized thoroughly in Dog Day Afternoon. But during his moment on the phone with Leon, we are privy to the best that Pacino ever had to offer.
Their conversation begins as a humorous lover’s spat. Given the situation (you know, that Sonny is in the midst of robbing a bank and faces certain doom), I can’t help but laugh at Leon’s constant griping. But as the scene evolves, a sweaty, exhausted Sonny finally concedes his fear of the situation. It’s a scene of equal tenderness and angst; as fine an acting accomplishment as there is. And that is just one damn scene.
Christopher Walken – The Deer Hunter (1978)
As Nick Chevotarevich
You may have noticed that I’m particularly fond of watching excellent actors excellently portray desperation. It isn’t my intent to draw such attention to performances of the kind, but it is what I find myself taken with most often. I mention this because rarely am I as disturbed and sorrowful for a movie character as I am for Nick Chevotarevich.
Walken’s performance as Nick is the only supporting role on this list, which is an important distinction to highlight. Robert De Niro occupies most of the male screentime in Michael Cimino’s classic Vietnam War film, but every single frame in which Walken is on screen, it is utterly impossible to take yours eyes off of him. At first the loyal friend, then the scared shitless POW, to, finally, the flipped switch. No matter the distinction in character, Walken is gut wrenching here. The still I have chosen to represent Walken’s performance is one of the most haunting faces I have ever seen captured on film. I’m not quite sure it has ever escaped my mind.
Robert De Niro – Raging Bull (1980)
As Jake LaMotta
I’ve mentioned De Niro’s iconic performance as LaMotta several times before, but to reiterate my point as succinctly as possible, the scene in which LaMotta find himself face to face with a concrete prison wall is the single best-acted scene I have ever witnessed. I have yet to see power and rage executed as compellingly as De Niro achieves in that moment.
“Why? Why? Why? Why?”
We may never know.
Denzel Washington – Malcolm X (1992)
As Malcolm X
Really, there are three distinct lead performances in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. The fact that they are all executed by the same man only accentuates the power of Washington’s work here.
As an up-and-coming hustler in Boston (and later Harlem), Washington plays Malcolm as a wannabe thug, desperately trying to make good on a hustle by flexing far more power than he actually has. Once a full-fledged member of the Nation of Islam, Washington is in full orator mode, reciting Malcolm X’s most famed speeches with perfect diction and thrilling confidence. This is the performance in which Washington truly captivates. There isn’t a single misspoken word or faulted gesture.
And then there’s the post-Mecca Malcolm, in which Washington is able to express the best, most controlled remorse he has ever delivered. To be honest, any one of these performances is enough to merit inclusion on a list like this one. But the fact that there are three of them, in one film… wow.
Daniel Day-Lewis – There Will Be Blood (2007)
As Daniel Plainview
What can I say about Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Daniel Plainview that hasn’t already been said? It’s a performance that has been lauded and awarded to no end, and, upon rewatching the film a few days ago, it’s obvious as to why this is (and will forever remain) a benchmark of film screen acting.
I find myself continually pondering why Plainview does what he does. Money? Okay, sure. But what does he spend his money on? A house with a fancy bowling alley… but is he ever coherent enough to enjoy it? Power? Okay, sure. But over whom? The poor, easily persuaded souls that occupy Little Boston? But to what gain?
A man as confounding as Plainview really shouldn’t work, but with Paul Thomas Anderson’s terse script and tight direction (coupled with a go for broke Day-Lewis), “work” is the only thing this performance does. Plainview is furious, tenacious and hell bent. On what and why, I have no idea. Therein lies the beauty.
Michael Fassbender – Shame (2011)
As Brandon Sullivan
I can potentially foresee myself getting a little flack for picking a performance that is so new, but I simply cannot help myself. Brandon Sullivan is as lost, depraved and longing a soul as I have ever watched unfold on screen.
In one of the most fearless roles so far this century (or, really, ever), Michael Fassbender plays Brandon as an empty shell of a man. A guy whose sole motivation in life is seeking his next fix. We’ve all seen addiction on film countless times, but I’ve certainly never seen it played with as much restrained furor as Fassbender does here.
By now, I’ve discussed Shame and its lead performance ad nauseam – I’m not going for overkill, but rather determined praise. There’s nothing about Fassbender’s work here that fails to move me.