This new series of articles is not intended to lay such arguments to rest. Instead it will hopefully prompt some discussion and (polite) debate as we consider, within certain film-making disciplines, who might be considered to be the best and what is their best work. Highly subjective, of course, but that is whence springs healthy debate. We’ll get to actresses, directors and writers in due course, but for now, here are some of the very best actors and a vote for their finest big screen work.
There may be actors who have delivered better single performances, but what the selection below hopefully represents are twelve actors who have delivered consistently excellent work across a long time span, along with one or two performances that really stand out. Let us know what you think in the comments.
Paul Newman – The Verdict
Newman is Hollywood royalty, there are no two ways about it. Consider his work in Somebody Up There Likes Me, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy, The Sting, The Towering Inferno, The Color of Money and Road to Perdition. Decades of iconic performances and sterling work – versatile, affecting and bathed in light.
But in 1982’s The Verdict, Newman delivers his finest performance – subtle, broken, dignified, haggard. Much like Road to Perdition, his blue eyes still glint with steely resolve, but his physicality helps portray the care-worn years the character has endured.
Of course it helps when you’ve got a David Mamet script and Sidney Lumet in the director’s chair, but that in no way detracts from Newman’s achievement here. The washed up lawyer is such a cliche, yet Newman delivers here with pathos and the scars of a thousand hard-fought cases etched across his face.
Anthony Hopkins – The Remains of the Day
Hopkins was rightly lauded for The Silence of the Lambs, as haunting and disturbing a performance as we’ve seen from anyone in anything. And it is certainly no fault of his that Hannibal Lecter then became the subject of endless spoofs, rip-offs and impersonations, though those have undoubtedly diminshed the gleam a little of an otherwise career-defining performance.
But in the end, as accomplished as Hopkins has been in everything from The Elephant Man through Magic, A Bridge Too Far, The Bounty, to Shadowlands, Nixon and Amistad, there is something flawlessly beguiling about the sheer understated quality of his work in The Remains of the Day that leaves everything else in its wake.
Anyone can play blank and unexpressive, but to portray servility whilst still giving glimpses of the heart beneath the glacial exterior; that requires a particular set of skills. Whether it is his response to the heart-breaking news of his father, or the subtlest of brushes of his finger against the hand of Emma Thompson when they part company at the end of the film, rarely has so much been communicated so simply and to such heart-rending effect.
Sean Penn – Milk
This one feels like so much more of a toss-up than others in this list. Mystic River, I Am Sam, Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way, Dead Man Walking, The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line – arguably it might come down to which of his performances you have seen most recently and which therefore lingers in the memory most, rather than much that makes the performance itself stand out.
For once, Oscar got this one right and although Penn very graciously conceded during his acceptance speech that he doesn’t always make it very easy for people to like him, he definitely makes it very easy for people to admire, respect and enjoy his work. Even less obvious roles/films like U-Turn and The Game contain so much to laud and celebrate. Very few actors have maintained such a consistently high standard of work over so long a period (Fast Times At Ridgemont High was 1982), with very few of the CV-blots that have beset his peers.
With Milk, Penn mixes vociferous campaigning, with tenderness and kindness to terrific effect, playing Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California’s history. The story is a tragic but uplifting one and Penn’s investment in the character is unflinching. As a bit of a tangent, Will Smith conceded that he made an error in his performance in Six Degrees of Separation, balking at the prospect of a gay kissing scene. He later stated in an interview that one of his peers chastised him for that, telling him that if he is going to act the role, then he needed to commit to it and see it through, not be half-hearted. Penn commits to the role of Harvey Milk, portraying all of the joy, heartache, fierceness and pain of the real-life campaigner. If nothing else, the relatively recent history of the events shown onscreen mean that he would have been quickly called out if he had significantly missed the mark.
James Stewart – Vertigo
Jimmy Stewart’s everyman charm made him a natural muse for Frank Capra’s heart-warming tales of Americana, such as It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr Smith Goes To Washington, but those films worked in large part due to Capra beginning to tap into what other directors such as Hitchcock and Anthony Mann would exploit to far greater effect, namely a darkness and ambivalence which has made Vertigo (among others) such an enduring performance.
Endless tomes have been written about Vertigo saying far more about Hitchcock’s own desire to transform his leading ladies into his idealised blond form than anything else, but to whatever extent Vertigo is an insight into Hitchcock’s own psyche, that should not detract from our effusive praise of a phenomenally layered performance by Stewart. Kim Novak deserves her own praise too, delivering a subtle and intriguing performance as her own doppelganger, but Stewart is the key here. His Scottie is by turns broken, weary, smitten, obsessive, frantic and mean. Although those shades were there if you looked for them throughout Stewart’s earlier career, audiences still felt real anguish at watching George Bailey drag a terrified woman up the stairs to the bell-tower for Vertigo’s denouement.
Stewart, despite his sometimes “aw-shucks” on screen persona, always had a bit of an edge and a bit of steel to him. Even in films as relatively bubbly as The Philadelphia Story and Harvey, there was something interesting going on below the surface. With Vertigo, all of the weapons within his arsenal got a full airing and as surprising as some of it was, it still resulted in a rich, expansive and emotionally affecting performance.