Top Ten Greatest Performances of All Time (Karen Peterson)
When I found out we were doing this Top Ten Greatest Performances of All Time series, I was immediately nervous about it. For a couple of reasons. First, how was I ever going to narrow down thousands of performances into my personal Ten Greatest? And second, I could very well be run right out of the Awards Circuit when I admit to not having seen some truly iconic films. Oh, and third, my list is probably going to garner some pretty stiff (and probably deserved) criticism from you, our discerning readers.
My process for creating this list was pretty simple. I made a rule that I wouldn’t select any performance after 2010. That’s just too recent to stand the test of time. I originally wanted to focus more on female performances, but as I jotted down names that came to me, they were more predominantly male. Which surprised and disappointed me as a contributor to the Women in Cinema column.
I wrote down every amazing performance I could think of, eventually coming to 54 finalists. And there are some truly stunning performances in that list of 54. From all decades of film, all genres, and even a fairly balanced split between men and women.
Unfortunately, I had to leave off some notable roles. (This is the part where I admit I’ve never seen The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Raging Bull, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire or Network.)
But as I whittled my list down to its final 10, I was forced to make cuts. Gone was Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys. Away with Sissy Spacek‘s Carrie. Sidney Poitier for In the Heat of the Night? Not this time. And my list didn’t have room for Edward Norton, Julie Andrews, Kevin Spacey, Morgan Freeman, Barbara Stanwyck, Natalie Wood or Meryl Streep either.
Eventually I came to my chosen Ten. A ten that I’m still not completely satisfied with or certain about. A ten that will be jeered far more than it is lauded, I know. A ten that I will want to change yet again the second this post is published.
10. Amy Adams, “Giselle”, Enchanted
It’s easy to discount what, on the surface, seems like a silly character in a silly Disney movie. But what Amy Adams did with the role of Giselle was fascinating to watch. She didn’t just play a Disney princess. She WAS a Disney princess, embracing all of the mannerisms and characteristics familiar in some of the best loved princesses of all time. Amy Adams did what no other actress could have done as well, and she deserved a lot more accolades than she ultimately received. The result is a character that is adorable and memorable without becoming a cliché.
9. Tom Cruise, “Frank T.J. Mackey”, Magnolia
Despite being one of the biggest movie stars ever, it seems audiences are continually surprised whenever Tom Cruise pulls out a truly great performance. And his work in Magnolia is arguably the best work of his career. Cruise’s misogynistic Mackey is at once a hateful villain and a tragically flawed man-child trying to navigate some deep-rooted familial issues. It’s a departure from the norm for Cruise and he proves he is not only a star, but a true actor.
8. Javier Bardem, “Anton Chigurh”, No Country for Old Men
One of the creepiest villains ever to grace the silver screen, Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh became an instant favorite character for his chilling, patient gun-for-hire. Bardem’s performance here was reminiscent of Robert Mitchum in some of his darker roles, but Bardem brings something extra to the part. Perhaps it is the fact that he takes his time, never rushing through any moment of any scene. It is his patience and deliberation that make Chigurh such a memorable, and terrifying, character and earn Bardem a place among the greatest performances ever.
7. Frances McDormand, “Marge Gunderson”, Fargo
The best thing about Frances McDormand’s performance in Fargo is that she could easily have relied on the quirky accent and funny dialogue to portray local police chief Marge Gunderson. But she doesn’t. She embodies the role of a police officer who will do what it takes to solve her case. She is smart, tough, and yet gentle when she needs to be. She is one of the most rounded characters on this list and it’s impossible to imagine another actress doing justice to the role.
6. Andy Serkis, “Gollum”, The Lord of the Rings
What can be said about Andy Serkis that hasn’t already been said by many, many others? The most tragic of all characters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and, possibly, one of the most tragic characters in all of cinema, Andy Serkis gave the perfect embodiment of Gollum without ever crossing over into making him silly or ridiculous.
5. Kathy Bates, “Annie Wilkes”, Misery
The creepiest thing about Kathy Bates’s portrayal of Annie Wilkes is the fact that she so seamlessly folds herself into the role. It’s hard to separate the actress from the character because the lines are perfectly blurred by a flawless performance. Annie is unpredictable and unstable, a deadly combination, and Bates plays the part so expertly that people still talk about it to this day.
4. Tom Hanks, “Chuck Noland”, Cast Away
This performance was one of the first that came to mind when I began to think about my Top Ten. Tom Hanks is a gifted (and decorated) actor whose range of memorable characters extends from Josh in Big to Forrest Gump to his most recent work in Captain Phillips. But when I think of Tom Hanks and his long career, the performance that stands out most to me is his work in Cast Away, as a plane crash survivor stranded on an island all alone. For some 62 minutes, Hanks is alone on screen with only a Wilson volleyball as his co-star. He makes the audience laugh and cry and feel the entire range of human emotions and he does it with only the skills that made him the star he is.
3. Marlon Brando, “Terry Malloy”, On the Waterfront
Marlon Brando is a gifted actor. I know, I haven’t seen two of his most well-known films, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still appreciate his talent and abilities. His work in On the Waterfront, as a former boxer-turned dockworker and mob informant is one of the earliest examples of truly great acting. Before Brando came along, so much of acting was about the words and not the emotions attached to them. Brando, particularly in this film, showed that a great performance embraces both.
2. Anthony Hopkins, “Dr. Hannibal Lecter”, The Silence of the Lambs
Honestly, what can I say about Anthony Hopkins? Particularly in his role as Hannibal Lecter? He is perfect. He’s never had a more perfect performance or a better character. And there will probably never be a more memorable villain. Except maybe…
1. Heath Ledger, “The Joker”, The Dark Knight
When I think of great performances, the one that I can never get out of my head is Heath Ledger’s work in The Dark Knight. When he was first cast, many (myself included) thought Christopher Nolan had lost his mind. But then the trailers began to spread across the internet and the film was a hit before it was ever released in theaters. This is largely due to Ledger’s work proving himself and Nolan worthy of every accolade that could be heaped upon them. And if Ledger’s untimely death wasn’t tragic enough, it was made even more so by the fact that he didn’t live to receive his deserved Oscar.
Okay, folks. There you have it. My 867th draft of the Top Ten Greatest Performances of All Time. I know you’ve been sharing some of your own personal favorites over the past week or so, and I invite you to yell at me and tell me how wrong and how right I am. Just please be nice. This is REALLY hard!