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Top Ten Performances: Actors
by Andy York

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Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca

Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
This is Out of the Past! In this week's edition you're getting part two of my series of "the best performances of all time". The reason I separated the performances of the men from the women would be because performances from the two sexes are almost a different medium. You expect different qualities from a female performance than a male one, and vice versa. Therefore, I spilt the idea into two columns. So, sitting here watching Sin City, I think now is as good of a time as any to complete the series.

10. Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai

You could call The Bridge on the River Kwai the greatest action movie of all time and not be wrong. You will not find an action/adventure movie with any more quality. Director David Lean creates one of the most entertaining movies you will ever see, but perhaps the most special part of the movie is Alec Guinness' performance as the manic captive British officer who crosses line after line of what is considered collusion with the enemy in an attempt to create the perfect bridge for the Japanese army in WWII. You watch a man who has followed the code of perfection his whole life embark on a journey that eventually leads him to madness. While Alec is easily most famous for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars series, his greatest moment came in his Oscar winning performance as Colonel Nicholson, the most stubborn man in movie history.

9. Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca

This might have been the toughest selection on the list. Bogart has been called the greatest movie star of all time, and obviously what goes with that is a long list of great performances. Bogie's performance in Treasure of the Sierra Madre may very well be his best display of acting, but I just couldn't pick that one. The ultimate Bogie is Rick from Casablanca. It's a minimal performance, but Humphrey Bogart creates a character that is as iconic as any character ever. Rick is tough, decisive, smart, but deep down, he's a rank sentimentalist. In Casablanca, Bogart creates the ultimate anti-hero. When an actor can give a performance that becomes legend, that definitely merits being placed on a top ten list.

8. Charles Chaplin, City Lights

Most people tend to think of Charlie Chaplin as a funny goof. Well, those people have only seen him on montages. Charlie Chaplin was the first world-wide movie star, and without doubt, the brightest light of the silent era. With that, his greatest moment came about three years after sound began to take over the film world. In City Lights, Chaplin is "the tramp" as usual. In this tale the tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl. Unfortunately for the tramp, the blind girl gets the impression that he is rich when she hears the door of a rich man's car close after the tramp buys a flower from her. What's the tramp to do? To win her love he must be rich, right? There's your movie. We follow the tramp as he tries to find money in many hilarious ways (including the funniest boxing match ever). In his quest Chaplin is ultimately endearing to his audience, but is he to the flower girl? Those who have seen the movie know.

7. Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan

Everyone and their mother's favorite Tom Hanks performance is in Forrest Gump. Well, I can't disagree with that myself. Every time I think of Forrest Gump a
Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan

Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
smile does dawn on my face, but it's not Tom Hanks' best. As Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks gives the rawest performance of his career. We see the horror of war through his eyes. He's a simple school teacher who serves his country in the biggest war of all time. Being an educated man, he's an officer in the army. Captain Miller must lead men into the gravest of situations and do so without a hint of uncertainty, despite being anything but certain. There's a scene in which when Miller's sitting by himself he begins to breakdown into tears. It may be the most moving scene of the last twenty years. Tom Hanks is the actor of our generation, and in Saving Private Ryan he gives us his greatest performance.

6. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II

Al Pacino is one of the greatest actors ever, but he will always be remembered for his first big role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather. In the first Godfather Michael is brought into the world of organized crime when his father becomes too ill to run the business himself. Pacino is great in the first film as a young man who must take over a business filled with death. Yet, it's the second of the Godfather trilogy in which Pacino gives his greatest performance. In The Godfather Part One Michael becomes a man. In The Godfather Part Two we see Michael destroying himself and his family. Pacino plays a tyrant calmly, but seething with arrogance. While he orders the deaths of people close to him, along with the audience, he always believes he's doing the right thing. It's not until the last few minutes all of us, including Michael, realize the tragic course he's taken. It's morbidly beautiful to watch.

5. Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke

How do you pick the best performance from Paul Newman? Has there ever been an actor with as many great performances? Actually, it's pretty easy to pick Newman's best performance. Paul's amazing in The Hustler and brilliant in Hud, but Cool Hand Luke is his best. "I have never planned a thing in my life!" That line from the movie describes the title character as well as anything. He's in prison for a nothing crime and he will be out in two years. So, why does he try escape at every turn? Because, why not? Cool Hand Luke is the coolest character ever that was not played by Steve McQueen. Cool Hand Luke is the man all men would like to be. Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke is a caged animal and he's determined to break free. Newman is ever so cool in the process. Being cool is a lot harder than simply breaking down and crying. Just ask Dustin Hoffman.

4. Henry Fonda, Once Upon a Time in the West

Henry Fonda, the poor man's Jimmy Stewart? I tend to look at him as such, but there's no doubt Hank Fonda was a great actor in his own right. Fonda always played the good guy, well, almost always. In Once Upon a Time in the West Henry Fonda may be the coldest man ever. When he's sent to scare a family out of their land for an expanding railroad, he exceeds his mission. As the character simply known as Frank, he kills the entire family, including the children. When his boss berates him for going beyond his order of just to frighten the family Frank offers "People are a lot more scared when they're dying!" From an actor who made his career as the good guy, it's a brilliant turn. Henry Fonda in West is
Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver
terrifying and it's his best performance. Anywhere else you will probably see Fonda's performance in The Grapes of Wrath selected as his best. While great, I'll take the hard edge Frank any day.

3. James Stewart, Vertigo

James Stewart is my favorite movie star ever! I don't think there's ever been an actor that had so much talent and movie star appeal at the same time. He was capable of being as entertaining as anyone and at the same time giving a brilliant performance. Imagine him as a mix of Tom Hanks and Sean Penn. Well, he's not as dark as Sean Penn, but you get to the point. In Vertigo, Stewart is his most brilliant as a retired police officer who has his affliction of vertigo used against him in a murderess plot. Never do you see James Stewart as raw and aggressive as when he's interrogating Kim Novak about the plot he was victimized by. In Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock unleashes James Stewart the actor. Stewart himself brings along Jimmy Stewart the movie star, and it's a brilliant concoction to witness!

2. Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver

When I wrote my past column, A Guide to the Greatest Living Director, Robert De Niro's performance as Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is what inspired these set of columns. De Niro has given many brilliant and ground breaking performances, but none are as impacting as his offering as a crazed taxi driver. The picture on this page should show you the level of grit Taxi Driver has as a film. That film belongs Robert De Niro. Taxi Driver includes Cybil Shepard and Albert Brooks, but it's a one man show. Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver is as creepy and demented as any character you'll ever see. You will not connect with his character (at least I hope not), but you will be captivated by it. Only one performance have I seen is better.....

1. Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire

When I think of Marlon Brando I think of the most talented actor ever. Not De Niro, Pacino, Olivier, Stewart, Fonda, Hanks or Penn could match his talent. Sadly though, he wasted his talent. It came too easy to Brando. Yet, despite that he wasted his gift; he still managed to give the greatest performance by either an actor or actress I have ever seen. As Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando simply changed the acting landscape in American cinema forever. Before acting was Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet or Clark Gable, but with one performance Brando brought the idea of a human being to the screen. Stanley is a man who beats his wife, abuses his friend and eventually rapes someone. Brando does what no one had done before him. He created more than just a character. Brando as Stanley Kowalski creates a human being. Full of rage, fear, hate, lust and everything else. In one performance Marlon Brando changed acting forever. Should I say it again?

There you have it! That's it for this two part series. I hope you enjoyed the columns. I know I always love reading top ten lists. I promise it's not the last one I will do. In the next edition of Out of the Past I will be remembering one of my favorite actors, Gregory Peck. I hope all of you read that one. See you in two weeks!

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Bobby B
Dec 19, 2011 6:49 PM
[X] delete
There's absolutely no way to make a definitive list like this that won't encounter some disagreement. However, as far as that goes, this is one of the most well thought out of such lists that I've seen.

Maybe I say that because I agree with a bunch of it.

Brando in "Streetcar" has to be number one for exactly the reasons you state. I don't even know if it was the greatest performance ever -- or even HIS greatest performance -- but it was the one that changed everything after it and made a lot of those other performances possible.

Bogart in Casablanca. Again, it has to be on here and again, for the reasons you state. I would have faced the same conundrum with "Treasure" but I think I would have gone with Casablanca as well. Bogart's Rick Blaine might be the hero that best encapsulates the best part of twentieth century America.

Robert DeNiro. It's interesting. For as great as everybody thinks Sean Penn is -- and he is -- he doesn't really have a performance that has become so indelibly ingrained into the American consciousness as DeNiro's Travis Bickle. Still, this would have been the toughest guy to pick his one performance. Because he's out of this world in Raging Bull. Godfather Part II and The Deer Hunter as well. And I mean, out of this world. He's fantastic in those movies. Still, it's hard to argue with the disintegration of Travis Bickle, a performance that like Rick Blaine, says something profound about the America that it came out of.

Jimmy Stewart. Love the guy. Think I'd take his "It's a Wonderful Life" performance. One of the most underrated movies in history because of what it's become Christmas-wise. But Jimmy Stewart is fantastic in it. The scene where he's giving up his dreams even as he's telling Donna Reed he loves her? Off the hook.

Pacino. Another tough one. The arch in I from "That's my family, Kay. That's not me." to having his enemies wiped out while he baptizes his godson, deep. And have you ever seen Dog Day Afternoon? Phenomenal.

Tom Hanks? Saving Private Ryan? Nah, dude.

Charlie Chaplin. City Lights. Woah. For those of you not paying attention, see this movie. Yeah. One for the ages.

Some that might make honorable mentions.

Robert Duvall: The Apostle

Jimmy Cagney: Public Enemy

Marlon Brando: On the Waterfront

Marlon Brando: Last Tango in Paris

James Dean: Rebel Without A Cause (the face of things to come)

Daniel Day Lewis: There Will Be Blood


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Out of the Past
Every other Tuesday

Discussing classic films from City Lights to Apocalypse Now and everything in between and beyond.

Other Columns
Other columns by Andy York:

Top 10 Coolest Movie Characters

Stewart-Mann Western Connection

Academy of Irrelevance

Ride of Terror Showdown

A Guide to the Fiercely Divine

All Columns

Andy York
Andy is a life long movie fanatic. The first movie he saw in the theater was Back to the Future, Part 2 at the age of 3 and he has loved movies ever since.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Andy York by clicking here.

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