Last week, I completed a medium-level life goal, of seeing all 328 of the extant performances to win a competitive acting Oscar (The Way of All Flesh from 1927, one of the two films cited for Emil Jannings’s win for Best Actor at the first ceremony, is currently believed to be lost). The performance that did the honor of wrapping things up was Geraldine Page’s win for the 1985 The Trip to Bountiful, which I’d held aside for reasons relating to a particularly grand night at Oscar-themed bar trivia two years ago, feeling like I “owed” the movie privilege of place; the morbidly curious might like to know that the other films in the “Final Five” were BUtterfield 8 (Best Actress, Elizabeth Taylor), Women in Love (Best Actress, Glenda Jackson), Topkapi (Best Supporting Actor, Peter Ustinov), and The Accused (Best Actress, Jodie Foster).
The combination of blogger, Oscar enthusiast, and inveterate list-maker could really only greet this development one way, and that’s why the most natural thing in the world was for me to whip up my list of the best winners, in each category, in one giant super-post. I hope and pray you find this kind of thing as deeply fascinating as I do, because there’s a shit-ton of it. Please, please do share your own private rankings and/or how close you are to the complete set of acting Oscar winners, and we shall have merry conversations in the comments.
10. Marie Dressler, Min and Bill (1930-’31)
Defying everything you ever thought you knew about celebrity culture, this potato-shaped, granite-voiced sixtysomething was one of the biggest movie stars of the early ’30s, which makes her win on the first of two nominations seem like something of a Sandra Bullock “we love you because you make us money” gesture. Even so, Dressler’s alternately warm, heartbroken, and sarcastic turn as a dockside hotelier is exquisitely appealing, a performance that feels at every single second like it should be descending into kitschy mugging, and yet always has a rich, lived-in humanity underpinning everything.
9. Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker (1962)
A noble teacher role that should be bathetic in a stirring tale of inspiration that should be unwatchable; and, in fact, a great deal of the reason that The Miracle Worker is so much more compelling as drama and cinema than most other fact-based heartwarmers is because of Bancroft’s prickly, authoritarian embodiment of Helen Keller’s instructor Anne Sullivan. Ignoring the title and the temptation to play the role as a sad martyr, Bancroft – who had a successful Broadway run with the play to help shape the character, but whose performance possesses not a trace of stagey bigness – makes certain that Sullivan registers first as a proud, impatient, intelligent woman, and these qualities make her ultimate triumphs that much more exhilarating.
8. Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1965)
Like subtlety? Keep away. Taylor’s lumbering, shouting performance of a part that can’t legitimately be approached any other way is gigantic and show and gorgeously self-aware: at no point are we permitted to forget that we’re watching a beautiful movie star playing down to the level of a frumpy, grotesque professor’s wife, and a large part of what makes the movie so electrifying is that tension. But in among all the meta-narrative games, Taylor’s work is raw and potent, bringing the heated, hallucinatory quality of the melodrama devastatingly to life.
7. Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night (1934)
The preternaturally satisfied-looking Colbert, of the circular face and the perma-smirk, never found a better match for her estimable but frequently under-used talents than this sly, slinky romantic comedy, one of the sauciest of all screwballs. Taking the stock figure of an heiress on the run, the actress was able to make herself smug, sexually knowing, an enthusiastic life force, and a vessel for cutting sarcasm, all without being obliged to sacrifice the great truth that she is also just a normal human woman, trying to get by. Great comedy needs solid humanity underpinning it, and Colbert nailed it all.
6. Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
It says a lot about how rich 1974 was for actresses that Burstyn’s performance isn’t even my favorite of the nominees; because this is some unbelievably good screen acting. Playing a stand-in for the state of feminism in the mid-70s, Burstyn could easily have retrenched into large, symbolic gestures and grandstanding moments (flash-forward ten years, and imagine Sally Field in the same part; then balk and recoil). Certainly, she doesn’t avoid that, but she’s also grounded the role in so many tiny, detailed gestures and facial expressions, and such exquisite chemistry with the actors playing her son and coworkers, that even as Alice is a top-notch Everywoman, she’s a hell of a captivating individual as well.
5. Frances McDormand, Fargo (1996)
It is common to the films made by Joel and Ethan Coen that they rely on their actors to flesh out and humanise the weird caricatures and exaggerations that live in their worlds, and while this has worked out well more often than not, it has almost never gone better than the one time they gave frequent star McDormand a lead role, in which she transformed a bundle of accent jokes and gimmicks into a beacon of Midwestern fortitude and good sense, and whose basic decency never shades into naïveté, though the script at times wants her to. It’s this last element of her performance that manages all by itself to transform the movie into something with a warped sense of uplift.
4. Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
To be fair, Blance DuBois is one of the all-time legendary stage roles, and a far less talented actress than Leigh could have brought a great version of the character to the screen. But “great” is merely Leigh’s starting point, and her crushing, commanding embodiment of self-delusion and rage and aging sexuality is hypnotic, a marriage of the arch theatricality of her training married to the fleshy naturalism of director Elia Kazan’s customary work that brings out the best both of those very different performance styles in a way that should not possibly work. It’s the best performance Kazan ever directed in a movie, the best screen performance of Tennessee Williams, and a high water mark for a hybrid form of acting that would virtually never be seen again outside of this one monumental turn.
3. Janet Gaynor, 7th Heaven & Street Angel & Sunrise (1927-’28)
It’s a bit unfair to everyone else that Gaynor, alone out of all the other women to win an acting Oscar, was cited for a year’s body of work and not just one performance. It’s even more unfair that her year included three of the finest acting jobs in all of late-period silent filmmaking (for the record, my favorite performance is just barely 7th Heaven, followed by Street Angel – the character in Sunrise is a bit too abstract to even allow a performance at quite the same level). They, are to be fair, all earnest, melodramatic turns, given to hyper-feminine expressions of strength and dismay that are not remotely modern in tone or content. But if you can make it through any of these performances, let alone all three, without her stunningly nuanced facial acting breaking your heart in two, I cannot vouch for your humanity.
2. Holly Hunter, The Piano (1993)
Gimmick A (the character is mute because of past trauma) meets Gimmick B (but she speaks in voiceover that requires the performer to put on an accent!), but boy oh boy, is Hunter’s Ada McGrath the polar opposite of what we think of when we dismissively haul out phrases like “Oscarbait” or “acting gimmicks”. Using Ada’s muteness as an element of characterisation rather than an acting challenge to show herself off, Hunter does the kind of work with nothing but the set of her eyes and mouth, and the posture of her body (now an animal ready to take flight, now a firm ramrod refusing to give an inch), that even the best silent actors at the peak of an era when everybody was supposed to be capable of such things could hardly ever match. A titanic act of characterisation that could only be topped by one of the all-time finest performances in a Hollywood movie ever.
1. Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind (1939)
One of the all-time finest performances in a Hollywood movie ever. I do not know what magic spells David O. Selznick had to cast to luck his way into finding a virtual unknown to play the biggest role in his extravagant adaptation of the most popular novel of the decade, but they paid off gloriously, for Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most iconic figures in the history of cinema, a vicious and fire-breath monster of self-regard who is capable of melting just enough at exactly the right times to make sure that we never could even think of turning against her. Not, mind you, that she’d be inclined to permit us to turn against her. She’s one of the great unyielding forces in the movies, and the way Leigh gently, slowly shades in Scarlett’s fumbling approach to the self-awareness that undercuts that force makes this the most complex performances a heaving soap opera could ever hope for.
10. Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront (1954)
Let’s agree that this isn’t the moment for my “Marlon Brando is the most unconscionably overrated actor in all of movie history” rant, and focus on the one time he very much was not. The legendary Brando/Kazan collaboration reached its absolute pinnacle in a work that showcases Method acting at its most gloriously lived-in and natural: the celebrated moment with the glove and the flawless “I coulda been a contender” speech aren’t even the highlights that captures the flickering intelligence and steadfast inner strength of a simple man with unbelievable grace and sensitivity.
9. Clark Gable, It Happened One Night (1934)
For such an endlessly charming man, Gable always seemed just the tiniest bit unctuous, and never in his career did he turn that into a strength quite as winningly as when he played a wiseass newspaper reporter (the only kind they had in ’30s movies) as just enough of a clever cynic that we don’t quite want to take shis side, and just enough of a dashing romantic that we can’t wait for him to get over his cynicism and win the day. And he fills the role of screwball straight man with great stability and wit, helping to keep one of the funniest movies of the ’30s from flying off the rails.
8. Fredric March, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931-’32)
The best performance of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famously bipolar doctor ever committed to film, by a long way, and the last time until the 1990s that the Academy could be bothered to acknowledge the existence of horror in any of its real categories. But these are not, themselves, reasons to get all excited by the performance. The genius lies in the way that March expresses the work’s theme of duality not by stooping to obvious binaries, but (encouraged by the script) by finding the complex mixture of good and evil in Jekyll and Hyde individually, a far deeper interpretation of the material than the book itself suggests.
7. F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus (1984)
A harshly modernist performance in the midst of period trappings, this incarnation of Antonio Salieri is a considerable anachronism, if period authenticity is the only thing we’re going for (for that matter, so is co-star and fellow Best Actor nominee Tom Hulce). But it’s the self-conscious psychoanalytical angle that Abraham brings to his performance that gives Amadeus most of its considerable impact as a study of minds in conflict. His uncomfortable sophistication and intelligence that make him both the leader of his self-narrated tale and a man out of place is the best part of one of the few American film masterpieces of the ’80s.
6. Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot (1989)
If you can name a tired, Oscar-baiting trope, it’s a part of this role: the real-life story (check) of an irritable artist (check) with a physical disability (check) that also causes him to talk strangely (check). Thankfully, Day-Lewis and director Jim Sheridan, as they have demonstrated many times together and apart, are not inclined to give in to a scenario’s most obvious approach, and instead of being cloying and tacky and desperate showy, Day-Lewis’s performance – my pick for the very best of his career, and not for want of choices – makes palsy-struck painter Christy Brown a human being who is greater than the sum of his parts, not a movie role who’s the sum of his characteristics.
5. Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry (1960)
Full disclosure: I am something of a Lancaster apologist, if such a thing exists, or needs to. And a lot of that comes out of this movie, where his portrayal of a satiric broadside against holy rollers and pop-evangelists not only carries the film but is, to a huge degree, the same thing as the film itself. The grandeur and arrogance and screen-dominating presence he brings to the table are so irresistible that he’s able not merely to counterbalance, but to redeem some shaky directing and screenwriting and a fairly dodgy performance by leading lady Jean Simmons, making them seem better just by virtue of his reflected will.
4. Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1932-’33)
The venal, savage king whose sexual appetites gave birth to Protestant England could only ever be played as a garrulous cartoon by the pudgy baby-faced Laughton – but what a cartoon! The film is terrible history and Laughton’s Henry is more terrible still, but as a witty, flashy exercise in ’30s historical pageantry, he’s a perfect fit, all bellowing rage and chortling lust and refusing to let anybody even daydream about letting anybody else in the cast elbow their way into the spotlight. It’s a splashy star-making turn that is about as much fun to watch as any depiction of a historical figure has ever been, owing entirely to how fully he goes for broke.
3. Emil Jannings, The Last Command (1927-’28)
A cheat: as mentioned, Jannings also cited for The Way of All Flesh, a lost film, and this makes it impossible to accurately judge his Oscar win in its fullness. But just going on the one film that still exists, in which he plays an exiled Russian general playing a movie parody of himself in a Hollywood production under the command of one of the former revolutionaries who deposed him, it was more than earned. Jannings’s style is more an acquired taste than anything that has ever earned anyone an Academy Award, based as it is in the florid gestures and robustness of German theater, but if you’re on the right wavelength, it’s the most arresting thing going: overheated and passionate, putting the emotions right on the surface to let them seethe. Terrific, grandiose silent acting.
2. Robert De Niro, Raging Bull (1980)
Such is the performance’s reputation that I probably have to explain why it’s only #2, not why it’s on the list at all; De Niro reaches a level of scorched-earth intensity that you’d have to be blind and deaf not to notice, even if it’s not your particular cup of tea. The overt physicality and the violence of the performance come right up to going over the top without getting out of control, but what’s impressive about the part is not merely De Niro’s commitment to inhabiting the part of a self-abusive and broken boxer, but the smoldering sense of barely-contained animal rage in between the more bigger, “actorly” scenes. There’s no subtly here, only shades of menace, but the cumulative impact of that shading is enormous.
1. Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
I’m not sure that I have a favorite performance ever given in the English language, but if I did, this would be as good a candidate for that title as any. The two threads of arch-Britishness represented by Guinness’s career and director David Lean’s combined exquisitely here in a portrait of incredibly shrill stubbornness and pride mingled with self-respect and a desire to cling to dignity at the expense of everything else. It’s the perfect mixture of subtle touches and broad strokes of character to be expressive without bogging down in fussy naturalism, and Guinness’s blanched, deflated performance of his final line is among the most perfect line readings in cinema.
10. Rita Moreno, West Side Story (1961)
In a film rather plagued by dubious casting choices, somebody had to stand out, and I’ve no doubt that it was Moreno, poking fun at the “fiery Latina” tropes embedded in her part and bringing/ a spark of outrage and real passion to a film where both are in somewhat limited supply.
9. Anna Paquin, The Piano (1993)
Working a sort of adjunct to Holly Hunter in the same movie, Paquin is charged with being a symbol and a person, an extension of another character, and a fully-functioning character in her own right, and she achieves these things with a depth and ease that belie her young age.
8. Tatum O’Neal, Paper Moon (1973)
There’s no meaningful definition of the word “supporting” that includes this full-on leading role, but child actors are what they are. And mis-categorised or not, it’s a terrific comic turn, adding the tartness to a pleasantly low-key, old-fashioned romp. Much of the film’s humor and all of its attitude comes right back to the younger O’Neal, running rings around her dad.
7. Mo’Nique, Precious (2009)
Sheer magnificence: without softening the monstrosity of her character one iota, or trying to diminish the garishness of that part by pretending it’s rooted in something resembling humanity, Mo’Nique nevertheless fully manages to seem plausible and real, in a way that makes her more, not less threatening. And her late film lurch into sobbing hysterics would not work without being threaded in so carefully by such a precise actress.
6. Dianne Wiest, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
By no means the deepest or most complex female role Woody Allen ever wrote – a self-doubting woman who comes into her own and learns how to speak up – but Wiest inhabits the part of Holly so sympathetically and with such attention to how this woman would behave if she didn’t secretly know that she was in the middle of a character arc, that it’s far more involving and touching than just a well-executed stock role.
5. Eva Marie Saint, On the Waterfront (1954)
Partially in despite of herself: a quick look at the rest of the first-time film actress’s career does not suggest anything like the gritty urban realism of the film she here inhabits, and that’s exactly why she make such an impact. She stands apart from the rest of the movie, an imbalancing element that provides an appealing possible alternate world, and the actress underlines this without inappropriately relying on her glamor or elegance.
4. Celeste Holm, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
It’s hard to say if she’d be so noteworthy in a better film. But as the only source of spunky wit and lively urges happening anywhere onscreen in this grueling, embalmed message picture, Holm’s personality and vitality are thrown into that much sharper relief. She’s a thinking, living person, one of the most sparkling women in a terrific but under-appreciated career, and one of the great attention-grabbing roles of the late ’40s.
3. Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
Certainly not the deepest or most complex female role Woody Allen ever wrote, but the gaudy caricature of a tipsy actress that she was given here, Wiest got to show just how much mechanical perfection a gaudy caricature could actually withstand, turning in one of the funniest performances in any Allen film ever.
2. Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker (1962)
Yet another leading role demoted because of the age of the actress, and also to make room for a win by her older co-star. It is probably fair to say that Duke’s portrayal of Helen Keller bears more marks of her year playing the role on stage than Anne Bancroft’s role does, and there’s certainly a lot of “OHMYGOD, I’M ACTING” excess here and there, but Duke’s no-holds-barred commitment to the physicality of the part is profoundly magnetic, even when it is somewhat messy.
1. Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind (1939)
As the first non-white person to win any actor, there’s a faint aura of calculation here; but even if the motivation is suspicious as her studio-penned acceptance speech, I can’t find it in my to deny that McDaniel, in the finest performance of a career dedicated to finding the most depth and range that could possibly be mined out of one damn mammy part after another, gave exactly the kind of performance we want to see win this Oscar: creating a dominant, fully lived-in personality that augments the main characters without pulling focus from them.
10. Walter Brennan, The Westerner (1940)
The third Oscar in five years was the charm for Brennan, whose earlier Oscars do not remotely suggest what his best work as one of the great character actors of a generation could look like. But as the gregarious tyrant Judge Roy Bean, Brennan gave one of his all-time best performances, menacing and charming and colorful all in equal measure.
9. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (2008)
Coming right in the middle of this category’s weird dalliance with psychopaths, Ledger’s posthumous triumph as the comic book villain Joker is as devastating a portrayal of an outright psychopath as cinema has witnessed. There is nothing human or grounding here: just the cackling delight of savagery, a complete and unnerving plunge into the abyss.
8. Gene Hackman, Unforgiven (1992)
A very different portrait of a psycho (this category does love it some villains), as a bored, managerial type, more interested in the pursuits of a softening middle age but still ready and willing to turn pitch black at a moment’s notice. It’s evil as only a open, schlubby sort of man like Hackman could carry it off, and all the more disturbing because he’s so willing to be friendly at every turn.
7. Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
In a massive course-correction from all those killers, here comes Santa Claus. Or, at least, a dotty old man who thinks he’s Santa Claus, or a clever old man doing a flawless job of pretending to think he’s Santa Claus. The charm of Gwenn’s performance is that he never tells us which one is true, instead simply playing the embodiment of all the the things Santa had ought to be: funny, sympathetic, and deeply kind. It’s a rich portrait of all good things as focused and content as any performance of all evil things ever has been.
6. Karl Malden, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
If his Waterfront turn (his career-best) had won, would I be writing about this performance? Maybe not. But the point remains, Malden was a great fit for Elia Kazan’s directorial sensibility and that results here in one of his most effective sad-sack lugs ever, giving us our best point of identification into this hothouse of torrid feelings.
5. Van Heflin, Johnny Eager (1942)
The highlight of a truly great noir that hardly anybody talks about, Heflin plays the best friend of title character with a sort of dazed, dogged pathos, undergirded by just enough of a hint of desperate homoeroticism that you can tell it was no accident, and Heflin was being bold as hell in trotting it out right there in the ’40s. A weirdly unsettling jolt of tenderness in a genre noted for its arch-cynicism.
4. George Sanders, All About Eve (1950)
Is he doing anything significantly more challenging than reading amazing lines of dialogue in that incomparably smug, bitchy way of his? Probably not. But he did it so well, and the sneaky trick of this performance lies in how Sanders uses the overt artifice of his portrayal to indicate how his Addison DeWitt is the only person being authentic in this nest of liars and actors.
3. Ben Johnson, The Last Picture Show (1971)
Cast a man to give authority and gravitas to your elegy for a dying way of filmmaking and a long-dead frontier, and authority and gravitas is exactly what he’ll give you. The John Ford regular and all-around Western fixture was called upon by movie buff director Peter Bogdanovich to serve as a tie between this New Hollywood coming-of-age drama and the grand traditions of classic Hollywood, and Johnson did so with a world-weary strength that towers over the rest of an unnaturally well-packed cast of future stars.
2. Michael Caine, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
The role subject to the heftiest musings of Woody Allen’s densest and richest screenplay is both a gift and a curse; Caine rises to the occasion with flying colors, and manages to stand tall with the most fully-realised performance even within, top-to-bottom, the greatest ensemble cast in Allen’s filmography, or probably the filmography of any director not surnamed “Altman”. Self-absolving and self-critical, Caine’s Elliot is a shockingly complicated figure treated with unusual respect by his director and with once-in-a-lifetime focus and precision by an actor who, however delightful, isn’t prone to the kind of introspection on display here.
1. Robert De Niro, The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Yes, please, this is exactly the kind of breakthrough role we crave for all the actors who can be debatably called the best of their generation: blasting through the overwhelming spectre of Marlon Brando’s already-iconic performance of the same character as an older man two years earlier, De Niro navigates every nook and cranny of how a simple man trying to carve out a decent life can drift into the life of a grand monster. It’s the same arc completed by Al Pacino over the course of this same movie and its prequel, but De Niro has not remotely the same screentime nor a screenplay that hands him nearly as many impressive scenes, and is still able to make very nearly as much impact. Imperious and moving by turns, it is as imposing as the performances it has to live up to, and then some.