If I learned one thing from my Top 10 Best Actress picks yesterday, it’s that I sincerely appreciate an actress’s ability to play a woman in peril. Similarly, the majority of my favorite Best Actor-winning performances are male characters at their most hopeless. Whether they’re battling revenge, insanity, alcoholism, or AIDS, most of the men below fought to remove themselves from situations they could not control. Some lived, some died, but they all won.
as Det. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle
Few things are more captivating that the obsessive nature of Popeye Doyle. Consider everything he does in this film to nab a perp: he threatens, intimidates, manipulates, and, most notably, puts the majority of Manhattan in harms way with some epic reckless driving. But the most telling thing about Popeye? His apartment. A one-room shithole that needs to be cleaned just as bad as its owner. Why does Popeye insist on working so hard? It’s not like he makes a lot of money. Why indeed.
9. Sean Penn – Mystic River (2003)
as Jimmy Markum
For me, Penn’s work in Mystic River is captured in one subtle look. Yes, Jimmy Markum screams and torments and kills all in the name of revenge, but there’s one moment in this film in which all of Jimmy’s motivations are revealed, before he even knows what they are. Watch the scene in which Jimmy rushes into his store to help his clerk with the morning shift. Jimmy’s daughter, Katie, was supposed to work the shift, but she didn’t show. Jimmy, the protective father he is, rushes to the phone and calls Katie’s best friend. The friend’s father answers and says, yes, Katie is in the next room. Now, watch Penn’s face when the friend’s father sets the phone down to go look. Penn raises his eyebrows, and it’s all right there. It’s the potential relief in the notion that Yes, she’s found. It’s the exaggerated worry of Where the hell is she. And it’s the promise of Yes, if something has happened, I will find out why. And by who.
8. Jack Nicholson – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
as R.P. McMurphy
One of the driving factors of Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is whether or not R.P. McMurphy is insane. Disrespectful of authority? Yes. Off-putting in his disposition? Sure. Reckless and a little… off? Certainly. But insane? I’m not sure, and I never really have been. The point is, Nicholson teeters that notion of What If so perfectly, always on the edge of too much, but never afraid to hold back. It’s an endlessly fascinating performance from an endlessly fascinating man.
7. Adrien Brody – The Pianist (2002)
as Władysław Szpilman
I’ve always likened Brody’s performance in The Pianist to Denzel Washington’s in Malcolm X (though, admittedly, to a lesser degree). But the arc is rather similar: throughout the course of The Pianist, we’re presented with three very different main characters, all played by the same man. From the initial well kempt musician, to the man on the run, to, finally, the rat in the maze. What Brody achieves in this film is nothing short of breathtaking, but what he’s able to do in the final act of the movie is simply revelatory. Thomas Kretschmann’s turn as a sympathetic Nazi captain certainly helps add weight, but The Pianist rested solely on Brody’s shoulders, and he carried it mightily.
6. Marlon Brando – On the Waterfront (1954)
as Terry Malloy
Marlon Brando redefined the acting art form when he played Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Three years later, he carried his impeccable angst over to Terry Malloy, and the rest, as the say, is history. And, considering how frequently Brando’s performance in On the Waterfront is discussed, I think that is enough said.
5. Ray Milland – The Lost Weekend (1945)
as Don Birnam
There’s never a moment in The Lost Weekend that I don’t hope Don Birnam will be okay. You just want him to make the right decision and get on with his life. Don’t go back to the bar. Don’t search for that next drink. Don’t scare away the people who care for you. I sit and I watch and I plead that Birnam will come to his senses and rise from the fog. Thing is, life ain’t like that. Billy Wilder knew it, Ray Milland knew it, and whoever the hell was running Paramount Pictures at the time certainly knew it. Wilder was given free reign to let the cynicism shine, and boy did he pick the right actor to do it.
4. Tom Hanks – Philadelphia (1993)
as Andrew Beckett
It’s no coincidence that I’ve covered specific moments from many the performances on this list in my My Favorite Scene column. I’m a big believer in the notion of one scene defining a performance, and for me, nothing captures Andrew Beckett’s torment more than when he leaves Denzel Washington’s law office after being rejected… for the tenth time. Beckett says he was fired from his hot shit law firm (where he did unanimously stellar work) because of his homosexuality. He’s seeking representation to sue his former employer, but no one will take the bait. So what’s he left with? Nothing. Not a shot in hell or a shoulder to cry on. Just a crowded sidewalk filled with people who have better things to do than pay attention. That’s devastation.
3. Nicolas Cage – Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
as Ben Sanderson
Completely opposite of my constant longing for The Lost Weekend’s Don Birnam to make the right decision, you kind of anticipate from the onset that Ben Sanderson isn’t going to be all right. Why? Well, mostly, because he doesn’t want to be, which is exactly what makes Cage’s dynamic as Ben so unique. This is a man who wants to go out his way, everything else be damned. But there’s no heroism in Sanderson’s self-imposed defeat. Not in the slightest. Instead, we’re forced to watch a man we’ve grown to care for collapse without a care. Say what you will about Cage, as a man, and/or a performer, but as far as I’m concerned, the actor earned a career pass for his work here. It never fails to break my heart.
2. Daniel Day-Lewis – There Will Be Blood (2007)
as Daniel Plainview
We all know Daniel Day-Lewis plays his characters one way, by going all in, and never looking back. For better or worse (ha, as if there’s ever been a worse) Day-Lewis inhabits the men he plays in such an alarming way, it’s virtually impossible to take your eyes off him. He’s cranked out numerous immaculate characters over the years, and in a few days time, he’ll become the first actor to ever win three Best Actor Oscars. But I cannot foresee any Day-Lewis character surpassing the depth of his Daniel Plainview. This is a man motivated solely by greed, and it is utterly thrilling to watch unfold. Now, think about Hackman’s work in The French Connection – a guy who makes little money, but works his ass off all the same. For Popeye, perhaps the work is the reward. Plainview is a guy who works his ass off, makes a shitload of money, but never once appears content. Why does he do it then? What’s the purpose of all that wealth? Answer that question, and you’ve got something figured out that many of us don’t.
1. Robert De Niro – Raging Bull (1980)
as Jake LaMotta
I’ve mentioned this before, but because I’m so indebted to this specific scene, hell, I think I’ll mention it again. Early on, after LaMotta gets into a fight with his wife (his first wife), listen as an unseen neighbor calls LaMotta an “animal” from afar. LaMotta responds by saying, “Your mother’s an animal!” before going on with his day.
It’s more than 15 years later when LaMotta is thrown in jail for introducing underage girls to grown men in his nightclub. With only a concrete wall and his rage to keep him company, LaMotta pounds away, again and again, attempting to fight the one thing he can’t beat. When he’s finished, he repeats to himself that, “They called me an animal! I’m not an animal!”
He’s been carrying that around for 15 fucking years. One throwaway insult from a neighbor. Fifteen years. Imagine what else this poor bastard is harboring.
And my 10 favorite Best Supporting Actor winners
10. Timothy Hutton (as Conrad Jarrett) – Ordinary People
9. Heath Ledger (as The Joker) – The Dark Knight
8. Javier Bardem (as Anton Chigurh) – No Country for Old Men
7. Kevin Spacey (as Verbal Kint) – The Usual Suspects
6. Denzel Washington (as Private Silas Trip) – Glory
5. Robert De Niro (as Vito Corleone) – The Godfather Part II
4. George Kennedy (as Dragline) – Cool Hand Luke
3. Joe Pesci (as Tommy DeVito) – Goodfellas
2. Benicio Del Toro (as Javier Rodriguez) – Traffic
1. Christopher Walken (as Nick Chevotarevich) – The Deer Hunter
Best Pictures: Reviews of Every Winner
Best Pictures: Ranking the Winners
Top 10 Best Actress Winners
Best Pictures: Ranking the Winners
Top 10 Best Actress Winners