Thursday, February 21, 2013

Oscar Week: Top 10 Best Actor Winners

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.

10. Gene Hackman – The French Connection (1971)
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

More Oscar Posts from And So it Begins...


  1. I've seen even less than the previous list. Brando, Milland (even though I wasn't that fond of The Lost Weekend) and Nicholson are very much deserving of being on this list. My favorite Brando performance though remains Last Tango In Paris.

    1. Brando is So. Good. in Last Tango. Truly a fearless performance. Glad you like the picks you've seen, I recommend the other flicks highly as well!

  2. Well, Brody for The Pianist is my favourite Oscar win of all time. I also love De Niro, Day Lewis, Brando and Nicholson.
    Sean Penn's biggest rival in that year's Oscars, Bill Murray for Lost in Translation is in my top 10 male performances of all time, so as good as Penn was, I would have preferred Murray to take the statue.

    1. Same here. My favorite Oscar win of all time is Brody. No question. But to me, there's a difference between the actual win, and the actual performance, if that makes sense.

      I think a lot of people preferred Murray to win, just like I would've preferred Rourke to beat Penn in '08. Oh well!

  3. OK, for my 10 Best Actor Winners:

    1. Daniel Day-Lewis-There Will Be Blood
    2. Robert de Niro-Raging Bull
    3. Marlon Brando-On the Waterfront
    4. Adrien Brody-The Pianist
    5. Jon Voight-Coming Home
    6. William Hurt-Kiss of the Spider Woman
    7. Philip Seymour Hoffman-Capote
    8. Michael Douglas-Wall Street
    9. Paul Newman-The Color of Money
    10. F. Murray Abraham-Amadeus

    That Oscar should've gone to Bill Murray, not Sean Penn. Fuck him!

    10 Best Supporting Actors

    1. Javier Bardem-No Country for Old Men
    2. Christopher Walken-The Deer Hunter
    3. Kevin Kline-A Fish Called Wanda
    4. Heath Ledger-The Dark Knight
    5. Benicio del Toro-Traffic
    6. Gene Hackman-Unforgiven
    7. George Kennedy-Cool Hand Luke
    8. Christoph Waltz-Inglourious Basterds
    9. Timothy Hutton-Ordinary People
    10. Christian Bale-The Fighter

    1. Awesome picks. LOVE Hurt in Spider Woman. Great performance. Likewise for all the others you listed that I did not. Also great to see Walken high on your Supp Actor list.

      Per Penn/Murray... I knew we couldn't agree on everything! It's alllll good.

  4. There's a different scene in Mystic River that has always stuck with me. It's when Jimmy and Dave are sitting on the porch, just talking about Katie. You can just see when the weight of everything has finally collapsed on Jimmy. (I also love Dave's gentle remark: "'re crying now.")

    I love how both Brody and De Niro pushed themselves to their physical (and maybe even mental) limits with their roles (albeit on different sides of the scale). Sure, it seems like a cliche nowadays, but that shows how devoted an actor is to their work.

    And man, I really did not know what I'd be expecting from Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. I do know this now: anyone who says he can't act clearly hasn't seen that film.

    All in all, damn good list. Mine would include Maximilian Schell (Judgment at Nuremberg), Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry) and F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus).

    1. I love the way Penn says, "I loved her... the most," almost as if he's timid about saying it. Such a tender moment there.

      It's funny, whenever people are REALLY critical of Cage, I'm like, "Leaving Las Vegas....?"

      "What's that?"


  5. Love the list, as always man. I'm glad you put Cage so high up there because it's one of the best performances of the 90's, and definitely shows why the guy is still an actor we all have faith in, still after all of these years of bomb-after-bomb. No love for Hopkins though? I know he's only in the movie for at least 15 minutes but he was startling the whole time.

    1. Thanks Dan! Cage's LLV performance is definitely my favorite of the '90s. I love what he did there.

      Hopkins was 11th. Tough to leave him off the list, because I loooove that performance.

  6. Only 1 I haven't seen - Leaving Las Vegas. Happy to see DDL so high - my all time favourite.
    Love your Philadelphia screen cap. That is a hell of a moment in movie. I just saw The French Connection for this month's Blind Spot and I have to agree with that as well. Great List as always !!

    1. Gotta do LLV, man. Gotta do it.

      Hanks (and Denzel, actually) is amazing in that scene. Such an oddly tender moment there.

      Glad you dug The French Connection!

  7. Your beautiful writing is what makes these lists so awesome. Among these choices, I've only seen #4,#7, & #8. #3 is sitting on my shelf -- haven't gotten to it yet.

    1. (sigh) Your comments humble and inspire me beyond words. Truly. Thank you for always lending such kind words about my writing.

      You will really like Leaving Las Vegas. Or appreciate... that's a better word.

    2. Yes ... the movie doesn't sound like a fun romp. :-) But it's a tribute to how much I think I'll appreciate it that I bought it (even on clearance) when I have always loathed Nicolas Cage.

      I only speak the truth. I'm a writing teacher ... I never bullshit about writing. ;-)

    3. I like the truth! Cut right to the heart of things.

      You could actually have a fascinating discussion following LLV. About the notions of pre-determined suicide. And/or the helplessness of dependency. As in, are some people beyond saving? Hmm...

    4. Truth is definitely a good thing. As time goes on I have less and less time and energy for bullshit.

      LLV is actually on my list of movies to discuss in relation to existentialism, oddly enough. I don't remember exactly what the gist of the discussion was going to be, but it might be something along the lines of (Absence Of) Meaning In Life .

      One day I'll get caught up on those philosophy posts. And actually finish doing the "curriculum." Hah!

      Love your discussion ideas -- I'll make a note of them now.

    5. Can't wait to read the philosophy posts. SUCH a good idea.

  8. Great list! Adrian Brody's performance in The Pianist is the perfect example of one actor carrying an entire film. He just owned it. That scene after he escapes from getting sent to the camps and is just walking down the street crying, that's so bloody powerful. And of course, Daniel Day-Lewis for yelling "I drink your milkshake!" One of my favorite movie lines ever.

    1. Oh I completely agree that Brody carried that film. Everything about his performance (including the moment you mentioned) is just perfect. And DDL... how can you NOT love that performance?!

  9. Great picks man. We've got 5 of the same, but there's a lot to love here. Should've guessed Cage, Hanks, and Milland would make it. They're all fine performances, even if I'm not as enthusiastic on DDL's. (He would make my top 10 Best Actor picks of 2007 though.)

    1. Thanks dude. Told you our lists were pretty similar! Need to scope yours out again though.

  10. All of these are wonderful picks even though I haven't seen "The Lost Weekend" out of this bunch (this will soon change thanks to your small review here).
    A few contenders on my list that you didn't include would be: Murray Abraham for Amadeus, Peter Finch in Network, Brando in The Godfather and George C. Scott for Patton.
    I totally agree with your words about Nic Cage. I don't care what he does, how he is and what he's done because I have the utmost respect for the man's skills for his role in Leaving Las Vegas. It's haunting stuff

    1. I'm so glad I was able to push you to see The Lost Weekend. That's truly awesome. Hope you like it!

      Love your three picks. Among them, Finch was the closest to making the cut here. He did a hell of a job there.

  11. Glad to see Penn's work here, I wouldn't chose it as one of the greatest but there is so much unjustified hate for his win and performance out there, same as for Milk. I think both of those are great performances.

    Hanks in Philadelphia is a wonderful choice, I myself don't think he deserved the win for FG but definitely did so with Philadelphia. His performance grounded that whole movie in cold reality, even with some of ridiculous things that were in it.

    I must say I have yet to discover what's so great about DDL in TWWB. I think he is a good actor but I never been taken by his performances. For me Clooney in Clayton was much better. It bothers me that he doesn't have leading actor win yet, he is the leading man and yet all they gave him is supporting Oscar.

    1. I'm not the biggest fan of Hanks' work in Gump either, but yeah, there's no arguing that he didn't deserve that Philadelphia win. I love him in that.

      I had no idea you were so averse to DDL's acting. Another instance that I shall respectfully disagree with you. His work in TWBB is some of the finest acting I've ever seen. BUT I agree that Clooney is sensational in Michael Clayton. That's definitely my favorite Clooney performance to date.

    2. I was a fan of DDL's work in There Will Be Blood but I do think people praise him far too much. I don't think one really good movie/performance in 15 years should qualify you as "Greatest living actor" status.

    3. I see where you're coming from. I definitely think he's churned out more than one good performance in 15 years, but, again, to each our own!

  12. Great list! I agree with most of the choices here. I also like the fact that you only did one performance per actor for both this list and the Best Actress list. Here are my personal rankings:

    Best Actor:

    1. Robert De Niro, Raging Bull
    2. Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot
    3. Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront
    4. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
    5. Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs
    6. Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird
    7. Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
    8. Marlon Brando, The Godfather
    9. Sean Penn, Milk
    10. F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus

    (I know there are two DDL and Brando performances, but it's not my fault they were both so perfect).

    Best Supporting Actor:

    1. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
    2. Joe Pesci, Goodfellas
    3. Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter
    4. Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
    5. Benicio Del Toro, Traffic
    6. Robert De Niro, The Godfather
    7. John Gielgud, Arthur
    8. Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda
    9. Kevin Spacey, The Usual Suspects
    10. George Kennedy, Cool Hand Luke

    1. GREAT comment here, Aditya. Seriously, I loved your picks. You gotta love that De Niro topped both of our lists. There's simply no denying the power of that performance.

      Also really pleased by your Supporting Actor list as well. Love that Walken ranked so high. And Heath... just thinking about his marvelous work in that film makes me miss him that much more. What a raw, unique talent.

    2. Yeah, what a career Heath had, and unfortunately he left us too soon. It's incredibly eerie to think that both him and PSH garnered their first nominations in the same year, and now they are both gone.

      Also, for my Supporting Actor list, I forgot the Part II for DeNiro :P

    3. That is incredibly eerie and very, very sad. Gotta make room for De Niro! What a great performance.

  13. I lie Sean Penn's work in both Mystic River and Milk but I think he shouldn't got the Oscar for either of those. I would reward Johnny Depp/Mickey Rourke because their performances were much better.

    1. 2003 is tough. I honestly liked Penn's performance in 21 Grams better, even though he wasn't nominated for it. 2008 would be Rourke all the way, no question.

  14. Timothy Hutton (as Conrad Jarrett) – Ordinary People

    Love your choices! If you are so inclined go to Ruthless Reviews for a scathing, but oh! so prophetic analysis of "Ordinary People."

    I think you'll appreciate it.