It’s been well over half-a-decade since I made a tryst with cinema. Ever since that fleeting moment of everlasting joy when I first lay transfixed under its bewitching influence my unconditional love for this enchanted avenue of endless uncertainties has only grown stronger. Even after having lived hundreds of lifetimes, I still find myself wanting for more. Such is the power of cinema. Once you are caught there’s no escape. The only solace is the want for more. And the more you savor the thirstier you feel. To quench this ever increasing thirst you must strive for more even though you are fully aware that in the wonderland of cinema more is less. I consider myself both the victim and the beneficiary of this endless onslaught. And it’s only appropriate that I contribute my bit in spreading this syndrome to every nook and corner of the planet. I take pride in calling cinema my muse, my whore, my beloved.
In my endeavor to understand cinema more closely, I have come up with a compilation of some of the most powerful screen performances of all time. And while I have watched hundreds of movies during the last half a decade, I believe I have just reached the tip of the iceberg, for I have been introduced to the real good ones only recently (not to mention the new ones that get added every year).
And so, if you find one or more of your favorite performances missing from the list then it's highly likely that I may have yet to watch them.
So, I hereby implore my highly learned readers to guide me, for my own edification, in case they feel I have missed or failed to acknowledge a truly worthy performance. I will certainly make sure that it’s incorporated in the future compilations.
Here goes my list of Top 10 Best Screen Performances. Lo and Behold!
10. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. (1950)
The advent of talkies changed the very face of cinema. While it brought in many favorable changes, it also ruined the lives of many great stars of the silent-era, whether actors, directors, or technicians. The greatest attribute of Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's 1950 Noir masterpiece Sunset Blvd., apart from her superlative display of theatrics, is that it is very nearly autobiographical. Gloria Swanson, like the character of Norma Desmond, used to be a renowned silent-era actress who worked with the likes of Erich von Stroheim—once a great silent filmmaker who was forced to play inferior roles in B-movies to make a living; interestingly, he plays the enigmatic role of Norma's butler in Sunset Blvd.. In one of the greatest all-time film performances, Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond with an air of swagger that’s simply awe-inspiring to watch. Norma Desmond may have lost her stardom but the frenzy that once drove her is still pretty much alive. She is about 50 but still believes that she can beguile much younger men. In fact, she is absolutely certain of her irresistible charm and there is not even an iota of a doubt in her mind. And the scene in which Norma visits Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount Studios epitomizes it. But, it is the movie’s haunting ending that overshadows everything else with the famous Norman Desmond closing line: “There's nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my closeup.”
9. Charles Chaplin in City Lights (1931)
Very few artists in history have influenced cinema like the great Charles Chaplin: be it as an actor, writer, director, or composer. Someone once aptly said, “Chaplin has become more than a name, it is a word in the vocabulary of films, and anyone who has ever seen a movie is in his debt.” Chaplin used humor as an instrument to simultaneously mock and mourn the endless adversities that encompass the human existence on earth. In “The Little Tramp”—his most memorable on-screen character—Chaplin created a powerful symbol of hope for the common man. His perpetual struggle inspired them to derive courage out of zilch, a necessity for survival. Chaplin often portrayed “The Little Tramp” as a vagrant with a heart of gold driven by a childlike yearning to be treated with admiration and respect despite his actual social status. “The Little Tramp” appears in several of Chaplin masterpieces like The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), and Modern Times (1936), but it’s the part in City Lights (1931) wherein “The Little Tramp” jeopardizes his freedom—the one thing he has worth cherishing—to help cure the eyes of a beautiful blind girl he falls in love with is the most touching of the lot, vintage Chaplin’s singular performance that makes one experience a rainbow of emotions.
8. Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers (1988)
Those of you who haven’t had the privilege of watching David Cronenberg’s psychological nightmare Dead Ringers might want to argue about Jeremy Irons’ inclusion in this eclectic list of all-time best screen performances. But, it very rarely happens that an actor succeeds in playing not one but two roles with scalpel-like precision. In Dead Ringers, Irons plays the roles of twin gynecologists, Beverly Mantle and Elliot Mantle. David Cronenberg has the uncanny knack of spotting the right actors for his roles. And he once again hit the bullseye when he opted for Irons to play the Mantle brothers. Irons may not have won an Oscar for his portrayal but it nonetheless set him up to secure the coveted statuette two years later for Reversal of Fortune (1990). So, what is it that makes Irons’ performance in Dead Ringers singular? Firstly, it’s never easy to play a double role even if both the roles are quite similar in nature. But, Mantle brothers are like two extremes. While Beverly is an introvert, Elliot is an outright extrovert. Beverly is quite coy in matters of sex but Elliot oozes with chutzpah when it comes to charming the opposite sex. And despite their highly contrasting personalities these two seemingly different individuals are inseparable. They are so dependent on each other that one just can’t survive without the other. Portraying such convoluted parts requires great guile, subtlety, and poise as a performer and Irons’ poignant performance has all this and much more.
7. Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
It seldom happens that an actor’s very first major screen performance also turns out to be his best ever. With a near perfect performance in English filmmaker David Lean’s 1962 epic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole achieved just that. During his long and illustrious career, O’Toole delivered several memorable performances, but none could match the brilliance of his portrayal of T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia where he is simply mesmerizing to watch. In fact, Peter O’Toole’s arresting performance appeals equally to the mind as well as the soul. Such was the impact of his debut performance that Peter O’Toole got repeated opportunities to play similar roles in subsequent films like Lord Jim and Becket, roles that draw thin lines between cowardice and heroism. While he played these latter roles with a greater deal of refinement, it’s his raw performance in Lawrence of Arabia that remains his best ever. In fact, there’s no doubt whatsoever that it also features amongst cinema’s all-time best performances.
6. Jüri Järvet in Korol Lir (1971)
Estonian actor Jüri Järvet may be best known in the Occident for the role of Dr. Snaut in Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's Sci-Fi masterpiece Solaris, but when it comes to singling out his best performance ever it’s difficult to look beyond his tour de force in Russian director Grigori Kozintsev’s 1971 masterpiece, Korol Lir aka King Lear. In fact, Järvet’s poignant portrayal of the aging monarch is right up there with the greatest screen performances of all time. The masterful performance, during which Järvet goes through a gamut of emotions, reaches its pinnacle during the final scene when Lear wails in ghastly terror at the sight of his daughter Cordelia’s hanging corpse. The effect is as shattering as the final scene in Kurosawa’s Ran wherein a blind boy, anticipating her sister’s return, all but falls off the edge of a cliff. It's a testament to Järvet's greatness as a performer that he plays a demanding role like Lear's with such conviction, poise, and aplomb that he makes it look ridiculously simple.
5. Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice (1971)
English actor and novelist Dirk Bogarde was unarguably one of the most underrated actors of the 20th century. By the virtue of his stunning performances in films like Victim, Accident, The Servant, The Go-Between, The Damned, and Death in Venice, Bogarde also proved why he was also one of the most versatile actors of all time. Bogarde’s best came during the ‘60s and the ‘70s where he got to work with the likes of Joseph Losey and Luchino Visconti. In Losey’s The Servant, Bogarde plays with sublime authority the challenging role of a machinating servant to an English aristocrat. In Accident, his second collaboration with Losey, he sublimely portrays an Oxford professor going through a mid-life crisis. In Visconti’s holocaust masterpiece The Damned, Dirk Bogarde masterfully plays a Macbeth-like character. But, it is his haunting portrayal of an avant-garde composer in search of ideal beauty in Visconti’s Death in Venice that is undoubtedly his greatest ever.
4. Marlon Brando in Queimada (1969) aka Burn!
In a career spanning over five decades, Brando delivered a plethora of unforgettable performances. Among the myriad of performances that Brando delivered during his long illustrious career, it’s quite remarkable that he rated his portrayal of William Walker—a British agent provocateur—in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Queimada as his best ever. In his autobiography "Songs My Mother Taught Me", Brando revealed, "I did some of my best acting in 'Burn!'". Brando also admitted to it during an interview with Larry King. What makes the portrayal singular is the element of unfathomable complexity associated with it. Brando’s Walker is a cross between a wolf and a sheep, an inflictor and a savior, a demon and an angel, a usurper and a guardian, a misanthrope and an altruist, and a mercenary and a messiah. Walker is a gifted orator, a master manipulator, an opportunistic pacifier who dresses with the perfection of a fop. His aristocratic attire offers a striking contrast to the shabby appearance of the war-torn natives. And yet he has a certain element of humaneness that makes him likable. It is this ambiguity that makes Brando’s portrayal unique and remarkably magnificent.
3. Rod Steiger in Duck, You Sucker! (1971) aka A Fistful of Dynamite
During his long and illustrious career Rod Steiger appeared in over 100 motion pictures. Steiger’s greatest gift was his incredible range as a performer, a singular attribute that allowed him to do an exhaustive variety of roles. There are few who can forget his arresting performances in films likes Duck, You Sucker!, Doctor Zhivago, The Pawnbroker, Waterloo, and In the Heat of the Night for which he also won the Best Actor Oscar. While all his performances are remarkably singular in those own right, his performance of the rapacious yet naive Mexican bandit Juan Miranda in Italian maestro Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker! remains the most consummate of the lot. What makes the portrayal sui generis is the great precision with which Steiger delicately balances his verbal and non-verbal deliveries as a performer.
2. Klaus Kinski in Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)
The most popular of the German actors and arguably one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, Kinski had a rare gift for acting. The only thing that ever got more attention than his acting was his temper. In a long career that was plagued by his temperamental woes, Kinski managed to deliver several great performances. He often played larger-than-life, overambitious characters whose excessive pride and zeal invariably drove them to utter ruination. But, he is best remembered for his collaboration with the great German filmmaker Wernez Herzog with whom he realized two of the most inconceivable works of cinema: Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God and. While Kinski’s performances in both these films are breathtaking to watch—both marked by an air of frenzied insanity—his portrayal of the Machiavellian Spanish commander Don Lope de Aguirre in the latter stands out as best among equals.
1. Tatsuya Nakadai in Ran (1985)
In a long career spanning over several decades Tatsuya Nakadai delivered several unforgettable performances that made him the most popular Japanese actor in the whole world, perhaps with the exception of the great Toshirô Mifune. While his performances in Harakiri and Kagemusha are nothing short of exemplary, it is his mesmerizing portrayal of a once ferocious senile warlord tamed by the vicissitudes of time—in the vein of William Shakespeare’s King Lear—in master Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s visual masterpiece Ran that truly serves to be the crown jewel of his legendary career. During the portrayal Nakadai seamlessly goes through a gamut of emotions; the tremendous range that he shows during the portrayal is simply awe-inspiring. Over the years many actors have excelled in similar roles, but Nakadai’s portrayal of Hidetora undoubtedly remains a cut above the rest.
What is the greatest classic cinema performance?
This article was originally published at A Potpourri of Vestiges