Many of you have asked me to compile a list of my favorite performances after seeing my comedy, western, writing, Classics, the weird, and action Essentials lists, and I suppose you’re right. I should go on record with my favorite performances. The problem is, this is a really, REALLY hard list to compile in my head. There are hundreds of performances I could list. All with different contexts and goals. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to list the performances that have stuck with me long after seeing the movie. It could be comedy, drama, anything, as long as that performance stuck with me.
There will be blind spots. Don’t worry about it. Also, I’m only going to name an actor once, so if they have two great performances, then assume those others are included.
Maria Falconetti, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
This is, for me, the first great film performance. In Carl Theodore Dreyer’s early masterpiece, Falconetti spends the majority of the film’s running time in a tight close-up, wordlessly pleading to a judge so she may not be executed. To this day, I have never seen such an emotional, heart-wrenching performance. And it’s all done in silence, from close-up, in a single room.
If you’ve never seen this movie, check it out. It’s public domain and available on youtube right now.
It is all the best scene. Watch the whole thing.
Henry Fonda, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
In John Ford’s classic biopic, a young (and strikingly Lincoln-looking) Henry Fonda plays Abraham Lincoln in the early days of his political career. While it doesn’t hurt that John Ford, one of the founders of American Cinema, directed Fonda’s performance, it’s impossible to deny the sheer power of his commitment to the role.
From the scenes of Lincoln walking through nature to the heated debates near the end of the film, Fonda’s mastery over the role is, to me, still the best representation of the man we’ve got. Also, it’s public domain. So watch it for free!
Orson Welles, Citizen Kane (1941)
There’s a reason that Citizen Kane is often singled out as the best film ever made. Well, there are actually hundreds of reasons, but one of the big ones is the breathless, magnificent performance of Welles himself as the titular tycoon. It’s no easy task to play sixty years’ worth of a man’s life honestly and earnestly. It’s also not easy to act under the limitations of archaic stage makeup with a broken ankle (broken during a particularly angry bit of performance, no less). But Welles makes it look easy. He makes it look downright seamless. Match this performance with his duties as director, writer, and producer, and you’ve got a performance owed completely and totally to the man himself.
Try to watch this film with the knowledge that Welles was in his twenties at the time, directing himself, while performing Macbeth on the stage in New York.
Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard (1950)
It’s always brave to play yourself onscreen. To be honest about who you are and what you are to the world. But few actors had it as hard as Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, who plays the most menacing, terrifying version of herself possible as Norma Desmond, the aging, narcissistic, delusional silent film star who hasn’t starred in a hit in over twenty years.
Swanson herself was a once-universally beloved celebrity whose star had faded some time ago when Billy Wilder approached her with the project. Courageously, Swanson not only accepted the role, but totally and completely embraced it with a layered, honest, and shocking portrayal of a queen without a kingdom.
Bibi Andersson, Persona (1966)
Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is an extremely oppressive and surreal film. Perhaps too much so for the general masses. But what makes it work is the remarkable lead performance of Bibi Andersson as a kind-hearted Nurse who must remain on an isolated island with a mute, selfish celebrity. Over time, Andersson goes from being a shy fan of the actor to an emotional, co-dependent mess. Eventually, the women’s personalities switch and converge in interesting ways, making Andersson’s job as an actor both challenging and engaging. And we, as an audience, get to witness one of the all-time greatest performances committed to celluloid.
Guess what! Also FREE ONLINE!
Ronee Blakely, Nashville (1975)
Robert Altman’s masterpiece is filled with fantastic performances, all of which would have easily made this list, but Ronee Blakely’s heartbreaking turn as the victimized, deeply disturbed country-Western superstar Barbara Jean is the real stand-out. From her mostly-improvised, awkward monologue at a sold out show to her Hospital breakdown, Blakely plays the part with true conviction and arresting honesty.
All of which are on total display in her performance of “Dues“. The best scene of the movie.
Robert DeNiro, The King of Comedy (1983)
Robert DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin is his boldest, most unusual role to date. Finishing out the “Masterpieces beyond Comprehension” trilogy of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, Scorsese and DeNiro decided to make a dark comedy about a failed Stand-Up comedian who kidnaps a late-night talk show host in order to appear on television. It’s an underseen film full of fantastic performances (including a very dark Jerry Lewis performance), but the real stand0ut is DeNiro’s Pupkin, who is about as far away from DeNiro’s previous cool guys as you can get. He’s awkward, unfunny, timid, annoying, and desperate. Nothing goes his way, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. And with just a mustache and a hunched posture, DeNiro conveys an entire lifetime’s worth of failed opportunities and lost dreams.
And watch the whole thing here.
Woody Allen, Crimes & Misdemeanors (1989)
People like to give Woody Allen a hard time for being the same person in every movie, but as my Moonrise Kingdom review should have taught you, that’s kind of irrelevant. Especially when it comes to Allen’s 1980s output, his most consistent release of genius films, culminating in his crowning achievement, Crimes & Misdemeanors. Allen, playing Cliff, a too-much-integrity-to-be-successful documentary filmmaker, deals with a whole buffet of awkward and absurd situations, ending with one of the most intellectual conversations about morality I’ve seen in any film to date. He’s also mercilessly hilarious, engaging, and fantastic. Watch it.
Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves (1996)
Lars Von Trier has an amazing ability of pulling brilliant performances from his female protagonists, but he’s yet to top the excellence of Emily Watson’s Bess, a naive, innocent young woman who will do anything for her new husband, even if it means playing out his disturbed fantasies in the name of her skewed projection of God.
The final ten minutes will mutilate your tear ducts.
Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights (1997)
It’s hard for a good actor to pretend to be a bad one. In Boogie Nights, as the porn star Amber, Julianne Moore has to play out an entire movie as two characters at the same time. The first character is a disturbed, overwhelmed woman who has ruined her future job prospects by doing porn, and who cannot gain custody of her son because of it. The second character is the one Amber is playing, the happy, content, free-spirit party-girl who is living the life of her dreams and doing what she loves.
Moore plays the part(s) perfectly, shooting from one character to the next sometimes in just one look, one line delivery, or one movement of her hands. She’s a mellow adult film star who, just beneath the surface, is about to explode with rage and fear. A beautiful performance.
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter (2012)
I’ve already spoken at length about Michael Shannon’s powerful work in Jeff Nichols’s brilliant Take Shelter, but I’ll elaborate a little more on how special it really is. Shannon takes a role that could have easily fallen into cliche, over-acting, Oscar-y nonsense, and he made it a real, honest, brutal piece of character acting.
You don’t see Michael Shannon playing a character. You see a man who doesn’t know fact from fiction. A man who truly believes that the end of the world is coming, and that he is the only person who can save his family. He is Noah, mocked by the townspeople, knowing that he’ll have the last laugh when it all comes crashing down. His fear and his fury are palpable and vivid and terrifying, and it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.
What are you favorite performances? Let me know in the comments!