Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence "Part of the legend surrounding this mightiest and yet most intimate of epics -- and surrounding O'Toole, who fearlessly and often dazzlingly dominates almost every scene -- is that the role was first offered to both Marlon Brando and Albert Finney. We thank the movie gods that director David Lean spotted O'Toole "playing a silly-ass Englishman in a trout-fishing scene," as he recalled, in the actor's third movie, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England. The measure of what O'Toole, then 30, accomplished is that it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. Whether supremely self-confident or querulous, deeply wounded or frighteningly vengeful, O'Toole manages to achieve the many shades of an unfathomable man. And when the time comes to show a shattered Lawrence (after a torture sequence in a Turkish prison, which the expanded 1989 rerelease made all the more suggestive of rape), he does so with heartbreaking frailty. Amid so much tragedy and grandeur, the dark wit in the performance is sometimes forgotten, as when he's promoted to major by a pompous general and patiently rejoins in his plummy English accent, "I don't think that's a very good idea." The shoot was a harsh test in the North African desert (though he and costar Omar Sharif often fled to Beirut for drinking bouts), and the last shots were made with O'Toole's feet soaking in an ice bucket in a Jeep. He would say good-naturedly that the role haunted him for the rest of his life (indeed, having lost the Oscar to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, he was jinxed with six more nominations but no wins before getting an honorary statuette when he was 70). Thus he would say of the experience (during which he was knocked out twice, sprained both ankles, and dislocated his spine), "I was obsessed. . . . I spent two years and three months thinking about nothing but Lawrence. Day after day. It was bad for me. It killed my acting later on." Whatever the cost, his pal Richard Burton rightly included him among "the odd few men and women who, once or twice in a lifetime, elevate [acting] into something odd and mystical and deeply disturbing."
Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy "Director Elia Kazan described Terry Malloy as "the dumb, innocent kid who's done terrible things and wants to be redeemed." Whatever personal echoes the characterization might have had for Kazan, Brando makes the affable young bruiser's crusade something even deeper. His evolution from callow pawn to stoic iconoclast in that final, bloody stumble on the docks is all the more momentous because of the many shades the actor gave it: By turns playful, yearning, defiant, confused, and enraged, Malloy was the most mature and masterfully executed role of Brando's career. We see every nuance in Malloy during the legendary cab scene when his brother Charley desperately pulls a gun on him. Brando gently, sadly pushes it away, murmuring, "Charley, Charley . . . It wasn't him. It was you." Acting for the screen would never be the same."
Meryl Streep as Sophie Zawistowska "Streep puts a face on the horror of the Holocaust and the torment of survivor's guilt in a performance so finely layered, so exquisitely accented (in English, Polish and German, no less), that she transcends her craft. Her Auschwitz inmate flowers from sickness to the hope of rebirth in a volatile love affair and the promise of America. But it's an impossible dream, and Streep goes to excruciatingly painful depths to show, in the twitch of her face and the frailty of her touch, that Sophie can never escape her past."
Al Pacino as Sonny Wortzik "Playing an inept bank robber stealing money to pay for his boyfriend's sex-change operation, Pacino turned someone only a mother could love into someone audiences did, too. Director Sidney Lumet wanted the actor to play Sonny as close to himself as possible, so that what could have been freakish doesn't seem so outrageous at all -- and Pacino, alternately tender and terrifying, strutting and nervously incompetent, remains grounded in the reality of this true-life tale. In the improvised scene where Sonny talks on the phone to the man and woman he calls his wives, Pacino's so raw and exhausted that you feel like someone should tell him it's only a movie."
Bette Davis as Margo Channing "The brandy-and-arsenic cocktail that is Davis's portrayal of an aging, threatened grand dame of the theater is without question the beginning and the end of witty onscreen self-parody. There is something deliciously audacious about her gleeful willingness to play such unattractive emotions as jealousy, bitterness, and neediness through a character with a reputation not unlike her own. (The original diva, Davis had inched into her forties at the time of filming.) And to make it all so side-splittingly funny? Davis's Margo is a mass of music and fire -- and we'll fasten our seatbelts for her anytime she wants."
James Cagney as George M. Cohan "Cagney moves effortlessly, from grand old man to young pup playing an old man to dazzling song-and-dance and back to grand old man, as the spark plug of the most exuberant biopic of all time. We know Cagney has the range to go from neighborhood tough (The Public Enemy) to romantic buffoon (The Strawberry Blonde) to psychotic thug (White Heat), but in Yankee Doodle Dandy he does it all -- he sings, dances (ineffably, a marionette without strings), hustles, connives, and makes us cry, over and over. He also makes us believe, even now, in an America with limitless possibilities."
Dustin Hoffman as "Ratso" Rizzo "What makes us tear up at the end of this ode to male friendship in the face of dying dreams is not so much Ratso's ultimate fate, but what he represents: the perseverance of humanity in an unfathomably crummy world. It's an achievement that rests solely on Hoffman's slumped, filthy, convulsing shoulders. What he does in his close-up as he watches big, dumb, beautiful Joe Buck (Jon Voight) prance in front of the mirror is simply astounding -- an agonizing expression both of tenderness and loss. Director John Schlesinger needed some convincing that Hoffman, best known at the time for The Graduate, could play a tubercular street hustler. But with pebbles in one shoe and a sweaty, pinched, rodentlike facial transformation, he gave us a heartbreaking portrait of a life lived wholly in the margins."
James Stewart as George Bailey "In Stewart's first role after serving in World War II, the perennial good guy became truly great. We watch the slow wearing-down of a man's dreams as his responsibilities preclude his ambitions until this Yuletide classic takes a dystopian detour into what George Bailey's world would have been without him. It's the despair in his wild eyes at the nightmare of Pottersville, and then his joy when he races home, hollering "Merry Christmas," that clinch this as Stewart's finest and most enduring portrayal -- an everyman who's at once who we are and who we would like to be."
Gene Wilder as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein "No actor-comedian will ever quite match Wilder's manic range, and Young Frankenstein, the absurdist horror spoof Wilder cowrote with director Mel Brooks, showcases his masterful ability to swing from childishness to sophistication in the same frantic moment. As poor, doomed Dr. Frankenstein ("That's . . . Fronk-en-steen"), Wilder is the perfect match of man and material, performing a series of inspired bits in a variety of styles: meticulous slapstick, wild-eyed lunacy, blink-and-you'll-miss-it deadpan, and an exasperated rage so distinctive it probably could have been trademarked. It's a comic performance that borders on the cosmic. You'd have to have a scalpel jammed in your thigh to keep from laughing."
Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta "It's a tired cliché to describe an actor as "inhabiting" a role, but there's no other way to term this level of immersion. Whether he's the ferocious, sinewy boxer or the puffy-faced, overweight entertainer, De Niro simply is La Motta -- a man operating purely on animal instinct and cunning, whose every response in human interactions is blunt and visceral. Of course, De Niro is an actor, so craft created the beast. But whether he's stalking an opponent in the ring or directing his suspicious, beady-eyed stare at someone -- often as a prelude to striking them -- he sure doesn't seem to be pretending."
Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown "Day-Lewis goes beyond the technically accurate portrayal of a writer afflicted with cerebral palsy to show the complicated, lusty, brilliant man trapped within a body he can't control. He mingles acute physical deterioration with rowdy shows of mental agility, without forcibly tugging at our heartstrings, which serves to make his portrayal far more moving than the typically pious representation of the disabled. To prepare, he lived in a wheelchair, slumping so awkwardly that he broke two ribs. He refused to come out of character on set even for a visit from his agent, who left in frustration."
Jack Nicholson as "Badass" Buddusky "Although Nicholson earned an Oscar nod for this performance -- as a Navy man trans-porting a hapless young grunt (Randy Quaid) to prison, but not before showing him the time of his life -- it's not a role likely to ring familiar with his younger fans. Yet the actor's electrifying turn can serve as a template for all of his outsize rogues to come; the seen-it-all cynicism, the rebellious streak, the combustive mixture of danger and hilarity, the steely-eyed scowl and maniacal grin -- all are in full effect. And who else but Nicholson could play a Navy lifer as antiauthority hero."
Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine "Long past the age when many Hollywood actresses are relegated to character roles, Hepburn commanded the screen as the crafty 12th-century queen, scheming and manipulating with delicious wit and class. You completely understand why Henry II (Peter O'Toole) both loves her and feels safer with her in prison. Yet even as Eleanor pits her children against each other, Hepburn lets us see her vulnerable side as well -- most powerfully in the scene where she lets her hair down late at night and stares in a mirror at the lines in her face. It's a moment so devoid of vanity that only an actress with Hepburn's style and confidence could have pulled it off."
Robert Duvall as Mac Sledge "Duvall's portrayal of a broken-down ex-country music legend who finds redemption in the love of a widow and her young son is so steeped in subtleties and silences that it's hard to believe this is the same guy who played the smooth-talking consigliere in The Godfather or the gung-ho colonel in Apocalypse Now. That, of course, is a testament to Duvall's chameleonlike abilities: To perfect Sledge's Lone Star accent, the San Diego-born actor traveled around East Texas making small talk with strangers to hear the real deal. And the results of his effort, much like his wounded smile and grizzled charm, feel so authentic that it's sublime."
Tom Hanks as Josh Baskin "Hanks earned an Oscar for playing childlike in Forrest Gump, but he got only a nomination when he made us believe he was an actual teenager morphed into a toy-company executive. We would have gone the other way. Consider first the priceless physical comedy: Josh's flailing, loose-limbed run; his party manners, which include quadruple-dipping and letting caviar fall from his mouth in disgust; the almost clinical intensity he brings to copping his very first feel. And then there's Hanks's sweet blend of wide-eyed innocence and confused emotions, which makes his turn as the trapped teen more than just funny -- it's the most magical performance he's ever given."
Cary Grant as T.R. Devlin "Grant and Ingrid Bergman, playing government agent Devlin and socialite Alicia Huberman, face off in Hitchcock's ultimate espionage thriller. While she floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, he uses a velvet glove to deliver below-the-belt blows, implying that she is, among other things, a loose woman and a drunk. Grant's persona -- suave, sophisticated, debonair -- makes Devlin's subtle assaults on Alicia's character seem all the more cruel, and his own lust for her unbearable. It takes a leading man with unequivocal charm -- and a core of decency -- to play "a fatheaded guy full of pain," who still ends up getting the girl."
Denzel Washington as Malcolm X "With expectations surrounding the film running high, and public debate over the slain leader's legacy at fever pitch, Washington quietly stepped into the role of Malcolm X and delivered a performance of profound gravitas -- one that captured the man's ever-shifting essence in a way that only Washington could. "Denzel cleared his schedule a year before the cameras started to roll," says director Spike Lee. "He realized that if this film was gonna be a success, it was really on his back. He studied the Koran. He learned to pray in Arabic. He stopped eating pork and stopped drinking. He knew he had to have his mind, soul, and spirit in a place that would be able to receive Malcolm's spirit." There were several Malcolm Xs, says Lee, and onscreen, Washington comes as close as possible to capturing them all. During Malcolm's days as a Harlem hustler, he is quintessentially smooth and ruthless. As the firebrand black nationalist and leading minister in Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, he is as controlled, powerful, and convincing as the man himself. And as the post-pilgrimage Malcolm, Washington is penitent, contemplative, and nearly angelic. "There were numerous times when we were rolling, and watching Denzel, we had to pinch ourselves because we thought we were seeing . . . we knew we were seeing the reincarnation of Malcolm X before our eyes," says Lee."
Emily Watson as Bess McNeill "Watson put us through the emotional wringer in her film debut, with a beguiling and brutal turn as the wide-eyed Bess, a simple-minded woman who grows to believe that her sexual degradation will save her paralyzed husband's life. Half saint, half fool, Bess loves as a child does -- fiercely, instinctively, and without limit -- and her pure, uncensored emotions are reflected in Watson's astonishingly expressive face. It's a performance so open and raw that we believe every moment of it."
Paul Newman as Frank Galvin "How easy it would have been to devour the scenery playing alcoholic Frank Galvin, an ambulance-chasing lawyer who exposes the truth in a medical malpractice suit. Instead, it's the quiet details in Newman's wrenching portrait of desperation and redemption that really sock you in the gut, many of them suggested by the actor himself: the breath freshener and eyedrops Galvin uses to face the day; his world-weary walk; what director Sidney Lumet has called his "whiskey voice." And for a master class in psychological subtlety, watch the way Newman's body language changes as Galvin, taking routine Polaroids of his comatose client, is suddenly struck by the realization that this case is anything but business as usual."
Al Pacino as Michael Corleone "Pacino's work in the middle film of Francis Ford Coppola's trilogy is the gravest of the greatest leading performances on film. Impelled into his role as Don by his father's aging and death, Michael Corleone is beset by his brother Fredo's disloyalty, his wife Kay's hatred for his compromises, and a savage war with those who would usurp his family's power. The hollow-eyed Pacino wins our empathy even as he wreaks evil. Whether bracing a corrupt senator, consigning his brother to a fatal purgatory, or cold-bloodedly dismissing Kay, Pacino is starkly compelling. Make no mistake -- this is American cinema's prince of darkness."
Giulietta Masina as Cabiria "Masina's genius in her two great films with husband-director Federico Fellini -- this and 1954's La Strada -- is how she brings new dimension to what are essentially stock characters. Her unforced vulnerability gave La Strada's waif a heart-destroying poignancy. And here she takes on the tough-as-nails, heart-of-gold hooker (for the second time -- she played the very same character in 1952's The White Sheik) and demythologizes the idea, creating nothing more or less than a human being. No other portrayal could have done justice to this film's vision, which is encapsulated in its stunning ending, one of cinema's greatest moments."
Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands "The first and greatest of Depp's tender freak roles, the paralyzingly shy Edward is a flawlessly funny and sad embodiment of adolescent angst. Director Tim Burton's fantasia of a town first embraces then shuns the newcomer, but Edward remains the same damaged innocent. Scissorhands was the first film to show audiences just how gifted the former small-screen heartthrob was. Depp's finely tuned portrayal finds its apex in the little things, such as the simple act of Edward trying to eat his peas."
Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand "Crowe was hardly a logical choice to play Wigand, the paunchy, fiftysomething tobacco executive-turned-whistle-blower; even the actor himself said that he wasn't sure which character director Michael Mann wanted him to play. But disguised by a wispy gray wig and 48 extra pounds (Mann didn't insist, but Crowe wanted the heft so he would move like a larger man), he channels his intense energy inward, creating an unforgettable portrait of an everyday man under extraordinary stress -- prickly, withdrawn, and, at times, full of contempt and distrust for everyone around him. We feel for Wigand every step of the way, but we don't particularly like him."
Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs "Check this one out, kids: In Bogart's hands, the descent of Fred Dobbs, from a decent, down-on-his-luck man who turns to gold mining to a creature driven by gold lust and paranoia is far deeper and scarier than that of that recently celebrated gold-digger, Gollum. Never before had Bogie's big brown eyes, usually the epitome of cool, shown such manic anxiety. Originally, director John Huston tried to show the graphic depiction of Dobbs getting his head cut off. Thankfully, the censors cut the scene. We don't need to see any gore to feel the weight of Dobbs's downfall. Better the image of Bogie by the campfire, all desperation as his conscience battles his greed."
Greta Garbo as Ninotchka "No one has objectified feminine beauty as intensely and mysteriously as Garbo. She remained aloof to public adoration, and built her reputation on tragically romantic roles, from Camille to Anna Karenina. When she transitioned from silent to sound movies, MGM boasted "Garbo Talks!" And when she starred in this romantic comedy about a severe Soviet apparatchik who falls in love with a French count (Melvyn Douglas), MGM blared "Garbo Laughs!" Indeed she did, showing comedic timing and earthiness as never before."
Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc "One look at Falconetti's wide-eyed countenance and you understand that she is the one movie actor for whom the term "iconic" has complete justification. And though director Carl Theodor Dreyer's film records only Joan's trial and execution, Falconetti's performance shows you the entirety of the warrior's life -- transforming from unworldly, scared, wonder-transfixed young girl into saint right before our eyes. Dreyer summed it up perfectly: "In Falconetti . . . I found what I might, with very bold expression, allow myself to call "the martyr's reincarnation.' "
Marlon Brando as Paul "Already renowned as the greatest practitioner of the Method, for Tango Brando took Stanislavski's ideas to their logical extreme, mining his memories, feelings, even biographical details to put what was, essentially, a broken version of himself up on the screen. Or did he? In one key scene, he breaks his character's own rule by revealing intimate details of his past to his anonymous lover, then, laughing, reneges on them. In another, confronting the body of his wife, a suicide, he spews grief and rage and anguish so toxic, and seemingly so real, that we almost can't bear to watch. So which is it: An actor exorcising his demons for the world to see, or cinema's most elaborate fakeout? Wouldn't we like to know."
Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson "It takes a hell of a woman to go toe-to-toe with Cary Grant, and Russell plays exactly that, a whip-smart journalist trying to retire in favor of marriage and children. Her razor-sharp banter with Grant sparkles. (Legend has it that she paid a writer $200 a week to pen her retorts when she realized that Grant had all the best lines.) Both witty and warm, Russell deftly pits Hildy's passion for her career against her longing for a family."
Peter Sellers as Chance the Gardener "Near the end of a career full of classic, over-the-top comedic roles, Sellers took his talents into the realm of the sublime and truly touching by playing Chance yardstick-straight. As the illiterate gardener whose pure and simple observations about caring for plants are taken as profound maxims for the ills of the modern age, Sellers embodies the fool-sage persona with an incomparable aura of innocence and a remarkable purity of spirit. Being There was a last look (let's just forget about The Fiendish Plot of Dr. FuManchu) at an astonishingly gifted actor who at times appeared, like Chance, to walk on water."
James Stewart as John "Scottie" Ferguson "Stewart rightly won audiences' hearts embodying earnest, good Americans in idealistic Frank Capra fare (see #8). But the character of John "Scottie" Ferguson didn't call for any trace of the "aw, shucks" boyishness of Stewart's earlier roles. After the death of his platinum-tressed lover, Madeleine (Kim Novak), Scottie dresses up a woman named Judy (also played by Novak) in her exact image. With the subtlest tightening of his mouth, wrinkling of his forehead, and unwavering gaze, Stewart transforms himself from a national icon of decency into an obsessed fetishist. When Judy pins back her newly bleached hair into Madeleine's signature coif, Scottie swallows a tear and stares at her like she just took off her dress. Aw, shucks, Jimmy, you're scaring us!"
Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles "Where's the line between the R&B legend and the actor playing him in Taylor Hackford's elegiac biopic? As we witness Ray Charles go from mockingbird to artful songbird on his way to becoming one of the most unique voices in pop music, it's hard not to see a similar process at work in Foxx. The In Living Color alum goes well beyond mimicry to capture the swinging gait and country mannerisms of the man, as well as the sensitivity and spiritual turmoil that so defined his life and music."
Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly "What an awesome accomplishment: Hepburn's regal grace, coy ditziness, and beguiling patter make a call girl's life the stuff of romantic dreams. Although author Truman Capote thought his pal Marilyn Monroe would be perfect for the role, Hepburn makes the thought of buxom, flighty Marilyn swaggering through this film incomprehensible. Her thin build and delicate features are put to their full advantage, and her tenderness can never be confused with naïveté, as she treads an impossibly fine line between optimist and opportunist. The ladies of Sex and the City -- and, really, any girl who tries on a tiara (you know, just to see how it looks) -- owe it all to Audrey."
Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels "Conceived as a semiautobiographical satire of an actor's life by Hoffman and playwright Murray Schisgal, this is, as Hoffman observes, "a movie about a man who becomes a better man by having been a woman." In simple terms, it's the story of an actor so frustrated that he'll cross-dress to go from playing a tomato in ads to becoming the middle-aged cynosure of what his roommate (Bill Murray) calls "one nutty hospital" on a soap opera. Hoffman expertly shifts between a guttural-voiced, street-smart New York tough guy and a wispy-voiced steel magnolia whose walk alone is a Chaplin-esque tour de force. The actor and director Sydney Pollack had legendary battles from the outset. "But [Pollack] has wonderful taste and he wanted it real," Hoffman says. "We came to what I called the freebie agreement, which was if I got an idea, I would get a freebie [take]. That happened a lot, and some of it [e.g., the scene in which Dorothy brusquely keeps a cab that a man tries to usurp] is in the movie." The "long, hard shoot" produced one of cinema's best-loved romantic comedies -- thanks largely to a Hoffman performance that unerringly skates between poignancy and hilarity."
Buster Keaton as Johnny Gray "Keaton was nicknamed "The Great Stone Face," but we should not confuse disinclination to smile with paucity of expressiveness. In this Civil War-set story of a young man wanting to do good by his two loves -- his sweetheart and the train he engineers (both of which he must rescue, as it were, from Yankee plots) -- Keaton, still the screen's greatest physical actor, brings us into his character's yearning, panic, frustration, melancholy, pride, and scores of other emotions, all the while unblinkingly performing miraculous stunts that Jackie Chan would no doubt admit to envying."
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote "Hoffman disappears below layers of artifice to become the writer of In Cold Blood, using his voice, his carriage, his mannerisms -- and the result lays bare the man's core of self-loathing glossed over with vanity. As Capote burrows into the sordid truths of other people's lives and deaths, Hoffman opens up the man's little rages and silent torments. Utterly convincing during the peaks of Truman's gadfly persona, Hoffman also reveals his cutting brilliance during quiet moments with Harper Lee. And when Truman goes off the grid into catatonic despair, Hoffman provokes sympathy and contempt in equal measure."
Faye Dunaway Evelyn Cross Mulwray "This career-defining role as one messed-up L.A. broad was a job that Dunaway almost didn't get; she was neck-and-neck with Jane Fonda for the role, but director Roman Polanski's first choice won out. Tensions on the set were immense -- costar Jack Nicholson referred to her as "the Dread Dunaway" -- but something in the atmosphere created magic.
Dunaway gives her damaged innocent not only the Raymond Chandler-esque femme fatale characteristics, but a world-weary stubbornness that propels the rest of the movie. She drove Polanski to distraction by fixing her painted-on eyebrows, cupid bow lipstick, and powdered face after every single take (the crew presented her with a mock-up of a giant container of Blistex at the end of the film). Such attention to detail only serves to make the immaculate seem more tainted: In his 1974 review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that Dunaway was "a woman too beautiful to be either good or true." Daughter or sister? You decide."
Gene Hackman as Harry Caul "Having made his rep embodying larger-than-life types (see Popeye Doyle in The French Connection), Hackman here went in the opposite direction, playing a quiet, repressed, intensely private man who happens to be one of the country's best wiretappers. Caul also has a hell of a guilty conscience, and when his latest job threatens to get someone hurt, or worse, he slowly starts to unravel. In the most controlled and meticulous performance of his career, the actor communicates all of this wordlessly: All slumped shoulders, downward glances, and shuffling feet, Hackman, a robust man, seems to physically shrink into the role."
Carole Lombard as Maria Tura "We'd say that Lombard was a one-woman refutation of Steve Martin's maxim "Comedy isn't pretty," except that to say that Lombard was pretty would be a terrific disservice to her. She's nothing less than ravishing in this, playing the better half of a Warsaw acting couple whose troupe is concocting a de facto resistance to the Nazis. This is a work whose grace and humanity are still movingly resonant today, and it's Lombard's beguiling character who keeps the audience on its toes. Is she loyal to her self-absorbed spouse, or will she throw him over for the dashing airman? And who has time for romance when the world is ending? Conveying the depths of a very wise soul even with her crystalline laugh, Lombard provides unforgettable answers to these questions."
Laurence Olivier as Richard III "Olivier's murderous royal is the most audaciously modern of his filmed Shakespeare incarnations. From the visual (Richard's hilariously razor-sharp nose, Olivier's interaction with sets that are only slightly less artificial than the paintings in Disney's Sleeping Beauty) to the actorly (Richard's asides to the audience are delivered in the tone of a very posh, very sinister music-hall master of ceremonies), this is a performance that glories in the synthetic, and actually gains emotional power as a result."
Nicole Kidman as Suzanne Stone Maretto "When asked to describe Suzanne, her sister-in-law tries to show some restraint: "She's a four-letter word starting with ‘c'. Yeah . . . cold." She is indeed, but what makes Kidman's aspiring anchorwoman so amazing to watch is that she can be frosty one minute and hot as hell the next. Kidman has never been sexier (check out that "Sweet Home Alabama" rain dance), so it makes sense that her poor dumb husband (Matt Dillon) and poor dumb lover (Joaquin Phoenix) never stand a chance."
Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield "Jules's rat-a-tat-tat chatter ("'What' ain't no country I ever heard of. Do they speak English in 'What'?") and biblical gunplay are the hilarious and bloody core of Pulp Fiction, and Jackson carries it off with such slick verve that we yearn for him to return every time the story swivels away from Jules. And it's just as much about style as substance: Director Quentin Tarantino wanted him to sport a retro look with a huge afro, but Jackson knew his character, and realized that Jules wouldn't be caught dead -- literally -- in anything but the modern-gangster-Jheri curl-N.W.A. look."
Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle "How do you get people to linger over a landscape painting of an open sewer? This was, in a sense, one of the questions facing director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader as they cooked up their complex, lurid study of a loner's growing fixation on violently cleansing New York's mean streets. They found their solution in De Niro's mesmerizing performance, which was informed partly by the diary of George Wallace shooter Arthur Bremer. Even in Travis Bickle's seemingly benign moments, De Niro has an unsettling intensity that makes us -- not to mention the other characters -- squirm. Just the sort of chilling effect you'd expect from an actor who took the script direction "Travis speaks to himself in the mirror" and forever burned "You talkin' to me?" into pop-culture consciousness."
James Dean as Jim Stark "Did James Dean perfectly capture how teenagers behave, or do teenagers behave the way they do in part because of his revelatory performance in Rebel Without a Cause? Director Nicholas Ray gave the actor so much freedom to create his part that some on the crew thought Ray was getting pushed around. In fact, many of Dean's most memorable and surprising moments were improvised -- from the opening credit sequence, where he curls up in a fetal position with a toy monkey; to his unexpected giggle when he's frisked by the police; to the way he cools his forehead with a milk bottle after returning home from seeing another kid plunge off a cliff to his death. Fifty years later, Jim's anguished lament to his parents -- "You're tearing me apart!" -- remains a teenage rallying cry."
Charlie Chaplin as A Tramp "Singling out Chaplin's best performance is tough. His iconic Little Tramp remained a constant until late in his career. Still, City Lights is transcendent. The Tramp's infatuation with the poor, blind flower girl and his friendship with a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire perfectly express Chaplin's obsessions -- desperate poverty, compassion, and cleverness defying all odds -- and the movie, stubbornly silent four years into the sound era, showcases some of his funniest sight gags. The boxing match he submits to in order to pay the girl's rent is the most exquisitely choreographed and least gimmicky of all his extended routines. And the last shot, a radiant close-up of Chaplin, smiling vulnerably at the no-longer-sightless flower girl and looking clown-ugly, is an utterly uncompromised vision of love."
Reese Witherspoon as Tracy '"I went to a high school for three days, where I pretended to be a student," recalls Witherspoon, who was 23 years old when she wowed the critics with her unflinching performance as Tracy Flick, an anal-retentive go-getter who will stop at nothing to win her student council election. She generates an onslaught of posters, buttons, and customized cupcakes all bearing her special slogan: Pick Flick. But the tightly wound physicality that Witherspoon brought to the character -- the typewriter speech, ramrod-straight posture, and desperately sunny disposition -- veils more nuanced undercurrents of pain. Witherspoon creates a character who is at once a riotous embodiment of a type -- the geeky brownnose we all knew in high school -- and a living, breathing individual, reeling with quirks, loneliness, and anger. "She clenched her teeth and jutted her jaw forward, particularly when she was angry, which was ninety-five percent of the film," Witherspoon says. "I just remember after the movie was done, my jaw hurt so bad. I had TMJ from holding my jaw so tight!"'
Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland "For Cast Away, Hanks underwent the kind of physical transformation that's practically de rigueur for Oscar contenders; infinitely more impressive, though, is how he manages to hold the screen for nearly an hour with little more than a volleyball to play off of. Using just his expressions and body language -- which move deftly between desperation and hope and triumph -- Hanks turns the elemental task of building a fire, for instance, into moments of breathless suspense."
Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy "The mischief in Nicholson's raised eyebrow is pure poetry. Nicholson proved to be the perfect fit in the skullcap of McMurphy, the low-level hood who fakes mental illness to transfer out of jail into an asylum, only to find a sense of purpose leading his fellow patients against the tyrannical Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Looking back now, one might think Nicholson heading up a bunch of crazies was a walk in the park for the actor, but he truly earned his first Oscar by infusing McMurphy with a childlike wonder that underlines his misfit tendencies."
Bill Murray as Phil Connors "Romantic comedies rarely get this meta. Actors on location enact a script about a man reliving the same day in the same small town so many times he may as well be an actor on location enacting a script. Cue Bill Murray, his sarcasm and wit cut with sincerity -- or is it a put-on? -- and suddenly you realize you've spent the last 101 minutes both laughing and wanting to smack his misanthropic, Sisyphean weatherman. Murray used the repetition as a springboard for improv, to the point where no one on the set knew what he would do next. That diner scene? He actually ate that table full of food. We'd spend a never-ending day with him anytime."
Liv Ullmann as Elisabet Vogler "To become an international movie sensation while barely uttering a word is no small feat. When Ingmar Bergman cast Ullmann as a stage star who suddenly stops speaking, she was a little-known Norwegian actress, younger than Bergman stalwart Bibi Andersson, who plays the innocent nurse who tends to her. Bergman's infatuation with Ullmann is obvious onscreen (they began an affair during the shoot), and her visage is incandescent. Ullmann's purely reactive performance projects terrifying power with as little as a smirk in this film, which is a radical deconstruction of role-playing and an ode to the art of acting and thus a showcase for its stars' talents."
Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade "Although this third screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's classic mystery novel is the most faithful and straightforward of them all, both Hollywood convention and industry censorship kept writer-director John Huston from fully plumbing the sleaziness of detective Sam Spade. The true strength of Bogart's performance is not in the cool ways he cracks wise, acts tough, and does the right thing (sort of), but in how strongly he implies Spade's seediness the whole time he's presenting him as a hard case. The man you see sending Brigid O'Shaughnessy to her deserved fate near the film's end is clearly a shell -- after this moment, there'll be nothing but death left inside him."
PREMIERE ranks the best performances in movie history and talks to some of the actors and directors who made those performances possible.
We love great movies for everything they've got going for them—propulsive plots, scintillating style, ravishing visuals, and so much more. But we love great movies the most—we feel the most electric connection to them—when the actors look out from that big screen and hook into us. They make us believe that they're the people they're playing and often—although it's certainly happened more than one hundred times. These are our hundred.