ByJack Mitchell, writer at
I'm a student at the University of Sussex, studying Drama and Film. I'm a huge cinephile, watching and discussing a wide variety of cinema
Jack Mitchell

We've now had a week to reflect on Daniel Day-Lewis's sudden retirement from acting, in a move that's shocked film fans the world over. Though we would have loved to see the actor star in countless more films, he left us a body of work to be envied by even the greatest of thespians.

Day-Lewis has comfortably established himself as a cinematic legend and arguably the greatest actor of the 20th century so far. Now that we are no longer crying over the news of his retirement, it seems like an appropriate time to fully celebrate his work. So let's take a look at all the greatest stars to have graced the screen and examine who is likely to compete with Day-Lewis within each decade.

1. 1910s/1920s — Charlie Chaplin

Prominent films:

  • The Tramp (1915)
  • The Immigrant (1917)
  • The Kid (1921)
  • The Gold Rush (1925)
  • The Circus (1928)

Charlie Chaplin is one of cinemas most recognizable stars. While his slapstick style is now outdated, he was the first real example of an actor establishing themselves as a worldwide icon. Chaplin was once the highest-paid actor in the world, making $10,000 a week, which was a staggering amount for the time and in comparison to other entertainers.

Chaplin's style was energetic and playful. As a pioneer of silent movies, he thrived in this medium through his fantastic physical and facial expressiveness. Slapstick may not have endured, but Chaplin's legacy certainly has and he remains one of the all-time greats.

Other notable actors of the decade and their films:

  • Buster Keaton (The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr.)
  • Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!, The Freshman)
  • John Gilbert (Flesh and the Devil, The Big Parade)

2. 1930s — Clark Gable

Prominent films:

  • Red Dust (1932)
  • It Happened One Night (1934)
  • Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
  • Call of the Wild (1935)
  • Gone with the Wind (1939)

The 1930s saw Hollywood's departure from slapstick silent cinema to talkies. Leading this cinematic revolution on screen was Clark Gable, the star best known for his turn in the classic Gone with the Wind. He dominated this decade, starring in no fewer than 40 films from 1930–1939, thus establishing himself as a prolific, bankable megastar and reminding us how different the industry is now in terms of its creative output.

While his acting is different from the hyperrealistic style that's since been adopted, he was a fantastic example of a growing reliance on realism. Gable was a suave character and has had his cool demeanor imitated for decades. He was undoubtedly the defining face of the '30s.

Iconic lines:

"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." – Gone with the Wind

"I've been looking at her kind ever since my voice changed." – Red Dust

Other notable actors of the decade and their movies:

  • Spencer Tracy (Mannequin, San Francisco)
  • James Cagney (Angels with Dirty Faces, Frisco Kid)
  • William Powell (The Thin Man, My Man Godfrey)

3. 1940s — Orson Welles

Prominent films:

  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
  • The Stranger (1946)
  • The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
  • The Third Man (1949)

This decade was defined by Citizen Kane, a film that forever altered the course of Hollywood. One of the major rules of cinema is to deliver exposition visually — Citizen Kane drove this cinematic trend. It also intelligently used flashbacks, showing that film is not confined to one specific linear time frame. Lead actor, director and writer Orson Welles spearheaded this legendary film, delivering a heartbreaking tale of loss and greed through the use of his complex acting and genius, establishing himself as the defining face of the '40s and cinema in general.

Iconic lines:

"Rosebud." – Citizen Kane

"You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich I might have been a really great man." – Citizen Kane

Other notable actors of the decade and their movies:

  • John Wayne (Red River, Fort Apache)
  • James Stewart (It's a Wonderful Life, The Philadelphia Story)
  • Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon)

4. 1950s — Marlon Brando

Prominent films:

  • A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
  • The Wild One (1953)
  • On the Waterfront (1954)
  • Guys and Dolls (1955)
  • Sayonara (1957)

I'm sorry, James Stewart, but while your incredible performances, full of swagger, are still lauded today, this was Marlon Brando's decade. Brando single-handedly changed the face of acting with his performances and was a dedicated practitioner of the Stanislavski system, incorporating a more realist style that was prevalent in theater acting. Brando's style has been continuously replicated ever since. Without his innovations we may not have had some of the defining performances that followed, and for this, as well as his later turns in films like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, he will forever be remembered.

Iconic lines:

"I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it." – On the Waterfront

"Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you." – On the Waterfront

Other notable actors of the decade and their movies:

  • James Stewart (Rear Window, Vertigo)
  • Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments)
  • William Holden (Sunset Boulevard, The Bridge on the River Kwai)

5. 1960s — Clint Eastwood

Prominent films:

  • A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
  • For a Few Dollars More (1965)
  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
  • Hang 'Em High (1968)
  • Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Cinema goes through genre trends. Nowadays, the most prominent Hollywood genre seems to be the superhero film. In the 1960s it was all about the Western, and the most memorable Western actor of all time would have to be Clint Eastwood, despite fierce competition from John Wayne. The '60s was the decade that saw the release of the entirety of Sergio Leone's Man with No Name trilogy, comprised of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Some masterful were crafted before and after this trilogy, but this was a defining moment of cinematic history, headed by Eastwood's nuanced, badass, assured performance. Whilst he's continued to make fantastic cinema, he was at his best in the '60s, showing us how to play the antihero.

Iconic lines:

“In this world there's two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.” – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

"I don't think it's nice, you laughin'. You see, my mule don't like people laughing. He gets the crazy idea you're laughin' at him. Now if you apologize, like I know you're going to, I might convince him that you really didn't mean it." – A Fistful of Dollars

Other notable actors of the decade and their movies:

  • Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Guns of Navarone)
  • Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
  • Sean Connery (Dr. No, The Longest Day )

6. 1970s — Jack Nicholson

Prominent films:

  • Carnal Knowledge (1971)
  • The Last Detail (1973)
  • Chinatown (1974)
  • The Passenger (1975)
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

What a decade the '70s were for ! He established himself as a hugely talented and versatile star, with films like Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest showing his range as an actor. He rebounded between sadness, madness, hilarity and solemnity as he pleased. Nicholson has thrived throughout his career, displaying his talent continuously since his emergence on the scene. All of this may not have been possible without this cinematic legend's talent being shown to the world in the 1970s.

Iconic lines:

“What do you think you are, for Chrissake, crazy or somethin'? Well you're not! You're not!” – One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

“All right, Curly. Enough's enough. You can't eat the Venetian blinds. I just had them installed on Wednesday.” – Chinatown

Other notable actors of the decade and their movies:

  • Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter)
  • Robert Duvall (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather)
  • Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico)

7. 1980s — Robert De Niro

Prominent films:

  • Raging Bull (1980)
  • The King of Comedy (1982)
  • Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
  • The Untouchables (1987)
  • Midnight Run (1988)

Robert De Niro could easily have been chosen as the best actor of the '70s. His performances in The Godfather: Part II, Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter are still celebrated to this day. However, there is no doubt that he was the best actor of the 1980s, capitalizing on his newfound fame from the previous decade and furthering his ambition and ability.

He kicked off the decade with the explosive Raging Bull and continued to give compelling performances throughout the decade in the form of Once Upon a Time in America and The Untouchables. De Niro can be deceptive with his everyman appearance, but his subtle, down-to-earth, gritty performances have shown him as one of cinema's greatest actors.

Iconic lines:

“Who's an animal? Your mother's an animal, ya son of a bitch.” – Raging Bull

"I came into this game for the action, the excitement. Go anywhere, travel light, get in, get out, wherever there's trouble, a man alone. Now they got the whole country sectioned off, you can't make a move without a form.” – Brazil

Other notable actors of the decade and their movies:

  • Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie, Rain Man)
  • Anthony Hopkins (The Elephant Man, The Bounty)
  • (Blade Runner, The Empire Strikes Back)

8. 1990s — Tom Hanks

Prominent films:

  • Philadelphia (1993)
  • Forrest Gump (1994)
  • Toy Story (1995)
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998)
  • The Green Mile (1999)

Tom Hanks was definitely a favorite of the 1980s, starring in family-friendly films like Big, Turner & Hooch and The Money Pit. However, it was the '90s when he really found his feet. Whilst he still retained his reputation as a star for the whole family to enjoy thanks to his performance in films like and You've Got Mail, he proved his worth as a multi-nuanced actor, giving some of the best and most compelling performances of his career with the likes of Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan and The Green Mile.

Hanks remains one of the most likable actors of all time. He's charismatic and genuine, managing to deliver a unique blend of good-natured appeal and seriousness that relentlessly pulls at our heartstrings. Hanks is versatile and showed the true extent of his ability in the 1990s, establishing himself as the star and major force of the decade.

Iconic lines:

"My mama always said, 'Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.'" – Forrest Gump

"Are you crying? Are you crying? ARE YOU CRYING? There's no crying! THERE'S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL!" – A League of Their Own

Other notable actors of the decade and their movies:

  • Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, What's Eating Gilbert Grape)
  • Denzel Washington (Malcolm X, Crimson Tide)

9. 2000s — Daniel Day-Lewis

Prominent films:

  • There Will Be Blood (2007)
  • Gangs of New York (2002)

Daniel Day-Lewis is a rare type of actor. He seems to be one of the only Hollywood stars not to have given up his artistic integrity. Look at De Niro in Dirty Grandpa or Anthony Hopkins in Transformers: The Last Knight and you'll realize that even the best can be swayed by that alluring paycheck. Day-Lewis seems to have never given in to these temptations. He's the rare selective actor, always careful with what roles he takes, and always looking to fully prepare himself before launching into a new challenge.

He is notorious for his intensive method acting, taking years to transform himself into the characters he so accurately and faithfully portrays. His care and effort has been reflected in his staggering performances. He starred in only four films in the 2000s, a minuscule amount compared to the output of other prominent stars. However, he still defined this era with his fantastic performances, most notably his performance in There Will Be Blood. Day-Lewis is a chameleon who could play anyone or anything, and we are lucky to have seen him grace our screens.

Iconic lines:

"I drink your milkshake!" – There Will be Blood

"To defeat my enemy, I extinguish his life." – Gangs of New York

Other notable actors of the decade and their movies:

  • Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight, Brokeback Mountain)
  • (Ali, I Am Legend)
  • Christian Bale (The Machinist, American Psycho)

Who Will define The 2010s?

It took hindsight to define the greatest stars of each era, and it will likely take some time to fully establish a leading light of the 2010s. However, with stars like , Mahershala Ali, Michael Fassbender and Christoph Waltz all displaying their talent, we have been spoilt for choice. Cinema is forever evolving and we should all be thankful that we get to witness the continuous production of brilliant film spearheaded by amazing actors.

Who are your favorite actors of all time? Let us know in the comments.


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