20 Great Performances Every Actor Should Watch

Actor Marlon Brando on the waterfront

Want to be a great actor? Watch great acting. Go to professional live theater and see how it’s done. Otherwise, crank up some Youtube, Netflix or Turner Classics. Go deep and study master performances by some of the greatest actors of all time. Show Business makes it easy for you to find and observe some of  the greatest performances of all time with our 20 great performances every actor should watch list below.

1. James Cagney, White Heat

“Made it Ma! Top of the world!” shouts Cody Jarrett, flanked by exploding gas tanks that cannot hope to compete with his electricity. Cagney makes the top of the list as well. Trained as a dancer, he worked with speed and uncanny intuition. Nobody listened like Cagney. Whenever he was on screen, there was a sense that anything could happen. His reactions were always unexpected. In White Heat, take a look at the scene in the prison mess when he is told his beloved mother has died. Cagney’s subsequent breakdown, especially the animal-caught-in-a-trap sound he makes, is perhaps the frankest expression of pain ever achieved by any actor.

2. Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark

Enamored of accents, basically resistant to conventional romance and drawn to difficult women characters, Streep is regarded by nearly everyone as the most accomplished actress working today. Her most characteristic role came in this grim account of the Lindy Chamberlain murder case. Streep wears a thick black wig and employs an unerring Australian accent. Critics of the actress have commented about her over-reliance on technique, and her lack of warmth. Streep uses these perceptions to give a searing account of a hard, defensive woman gradually broken down by the media after the death of her baby. Her Lindy will not show reporters the emotions of bereavement, and, when tears finally come, we feel her humiliation.

3. Peter Lorre, M

Everyone’s favorite character actor of the 1940s made a vivid impression in this Fritz Lang film. As a child murderer, Lorre is seen fleetingly throughout M. He is practically a nightmare projection of our worst fears. But when he is finally cornered by an angry mob, his feverish defense of himself before a makeshift courtroom thrusts you into this tormented man’s head. “I can’t help it!” he shrieks. Any actor should look at this to see a sensitive depiction of a person most of us would shrug off as merely evil. Lorre in M makes us feel his character’s hellish desires, and you can’t shrug off the performance.

4. Paul Giamatti, American Splendor

It’s not easy drawing sympathy for a character as perpetually grouchy as Harvey Pekar.  But Paul Giamatti brings a relatable humanity to the underground comics icon. Watching Pekar bitch and moan his way through everyday events like waiting in line at the supermarket forces us to get in touch with our own inner curmudgeon. (Who among us has not stared at a pile of dirty dishes with the same sense of dread?) The undeniably average-looking Giamatti, who was by no means a star when the film was made, found a way into the national psyche strictly on his strengths as a performer. Ultimately American Splendor proves that an unremarkable everyman can make a compelling film protagonist with the right actor in the role.

5. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces

Nicholson had just made a splash in Easy Rider when he played Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces, which remains his signature role. The classic chicken salad sandwich scene is still funny, but it is only a flashy detour. Nicholson caught a particular kind of loner, a man who betrays the people around him and squanders his own potential because of a kind of spiritual self-destruction. He finds some solace in booze and sex. However, when Susan Anspach tries to reach out to him, he makes fun of her. Finally, all of his deep-seated insecurities come out in his big scene with his stroke-ridden father. It is clear that Nicholson is working from a very personal place, and when he starts to cry, it seems to cost him.

6. Montgomery Clift, A Place in the Sun

“Tell mama,” whispers an enraptured Elizabeth Taylor to her soul mate, Montgomery Clift. “Tell mama all.” A Place in the Sun is still the best demonstration of the Monty Method. Clift is the most internal of actors. In order to catch each painstaking detail of his work, it is essential to pay the closest attention possible. He is vague, he is dreamy and forgetful, he is the first purely androgynous actor. There is a rarefied pleasure in watching him. It’s difficult to latch onto specific moments in his work because of their small scale. Yet his wounded sensitivity is as potent now as it was then. It is an example of how acting effects can be stripped down to their bare minimum and still get across.

7. Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage 

After dozens of nondescript roles, the titanic frustration and nearly supernatural energy of Bette Davis finally exploded all over the screen in Of Human Bondage. Using a light Cockney accent, Davis unflinchingly fleshed out a truly impoverished human being. The famed Davis mannerisms are hard to detect here. When she launches into her big speech, in which she tells off lovesick, club-footed Leslie Howard, all bets are off, the camera stays on her as she rants and raves. Davis spins off into the stratosphere. The scene remains startling. “Do you know what you are, you gimpy-legged monster? You’re a cripple, a cripple, a cripple!” she shrieks. Davis goes so far over-the-top that she reaches a level of truth. It is a great example of the fearlessness needed to portray real anger.

8. Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box

The immortal Brooks has inspired hyperbole from many writers. Every word is deserved. As the blissfully innocent, erotic Lulu, Brooks dances through Pandora’s Box.  She flails about like a child, a force of nature, transfiguring the camera and the other characters with her sexual vitality. Two scenes are indelible. The first, her scene of victory over her lover Schon, which ends with an astonishing look of smeared, gloating power, and the bemused, exploratory way she dances with the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, which forms the best portrait of infatuated gay / flattered straight in film history. Lulu ends in isolation; she is scorned for her power and indifference, just as Brooks was herself.

9. Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront

The method acting technique pioneered by Brando is perfectly showcased in this 1954 drama about a former prize fighter who witnesses a murder while working for a corrupt union boss. Brando’s Terry Malloy is a man torn between the loyalties of his gangster ties and his desire to rat out the perpetrators, and it’s hard to picture any actor before or since who could embody this inner conflict with such sublime intensity. The famous taxi cab scene between Brando and Rod Steiger, who plays his desperate older brother, remains as emotionally stirring today as the day it was shot. Brando’s work here is often regarded as the cinema’s greatest actor giving the greatest performance of his career.

10. Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption

Morgan Freeman lost the 1994 Best Actor Oscar for The Shawshank Redemption to Tom Hanks’ wildly-hyped Forrest Gump. But in the 13 years since Frank Darabont’s prison drama  was released, Freeman’s performance as the unassuming inmate, Red, has found its own redemption among acting circles. He is the character whose sense of hope refuses to be crushed by the despair of long-term incarceration.  Freeman’s Red remains one of the greatest testaments to the indomitable human spirit ever realized on the big screen.

11. Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People

Hutton’s agonized performance in Robert Redford’s Best Picture winner is the debut that every actor dreams about. Recovering from a suicide attempt, Hutton’s Conrad looks like a big open wound. Making things worse is iron butterfly mom Mary Tyler Moore, who blames him for his brother’s death. When he hugs her, she cannot respond. Hutton is at his best as he begins to rebel, and especially when he attempts to charm Elizabeth McGovern. He won the Oscar for this part. Unfortunately, his career went nowhere. But, seeing Ordinary People again, his promise is still exciting.

12. Judy Davis, High Tide

Davis can sometimes be fussy and tense.  But in High Tide she lets her guard down to such an extent that her performance is practically a catalog of the basic human states of mind. At times, you can see her straining against the emotionality of the piece. Her drunk scene is a joy. When she watches her estranged young daughter shave her legs, Davis goes for feelings no one else would ever touch. These feelings overwhelm her usual plummy superiority. For fans of this prickly actress, her work here is a touchstone.

13. Terrence Stamp, Billy Budd

For those who know him chiefly as General Zod in the Richard Donner Superman movies, coming upon Stamp in Billy Budd is a shock. There is something enormously touching about his innocence and youth. There is an indefinable potency weirdly represented by blond hair and white clothes. The pure-hearted sailor Billy is an impossible part. He is meant to suggest Biblical goodness shot through with its reverse, unthinking evil, and Stamp takes this challenge on with open simplicity. He manages to delineate the narcissism inherent in all saints.  In his big scene with Robert Ryan’s malignant Claggart, the tenderness he offers the tortured captain comes from a place of purity that few actors could match.

14. Margaret Sullavan, Three Comrades

Nearly unknown today, the bewitching Sullavan has a delicacy that is unmatched by any other player. Though she is physically small and frail, she usually asserts herself boldly. Her voice matched this contradiction.  It was husky and whimsical and, finally, indescribable. There is no one else, not even Garbo, who could equal Sullavan when it came to a tragic death scene. This was her specialty. In Three Comrades, she manages to create a magical chemistry with stolid Robert Taylor. Her last scene with him is the ultimate in the performance of death.

15. Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The role of George in Edward Albee’s play is a part that necessitates an investigation of complex, often sadomasochistic feelings, especially relating to a sense of inadequacy. Burton dove headfirst into the part in a way that few other performers could have managed. The stink of failure and lost greatness lies heavily over his portrayal. His cutting, incisive vocal rhythms are ideal for the endless vitriolic dialogue. Burton’s George is not a pretty sight and shows just how far you have to use your own demons in order to play a part to its fullest.

16. Jessica Lange, Frances

Gorgeous, full-bodied, in love with her own emotions, Lange invests her entire soul into the playing of the tragic Frances Farmer, an embattled movie star who endured years in a mental institution and was finally lobotomized. At first, Lange’s performance is restrained, a bit sly. But when Frances is challenged by authority, she heads into overdrive. Her hair crackles with lunatic voltage.  Her eyes become feral. She screams, curses and howls in several shocking displays of rebellion and rage. Lange reaches a primal kind of anger, and what she does is dangerous. In her complete identification with this ruined woman, she puts herself in touch with genuine madness. Her Frances remains a truly haunting performance.

17. Charles Laughton, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Simon Callow’s biography of Laughton calls him A Difficult Actor, and he was surely that. He took his craft very seriously, and saw each performance as a birth.  If he wasn’t ready, he would hold up productions until he decided he was. Laughton was deeply interested in the subject of self-loathing, often sublimated, and he dealt with large issues in the way a great essayist or novelist would. His Quasimodo is the height of his art. When he is being pilloried, and Esmeralda (Maureen O’ Hara) gives him water, Laughton’s face is tremulous and beautiful, bathed in gratitude for her kindness. It obliterates the extreme make-up. Later, he covers up his face when he is with her so that only his good eye is showing. It’s a heartbreaking piece of work.

18. Agnes Moorehead, The Magnificent Ambersons

Moorehead’s Aunt Fanny in Ambersons is a towering personal achievement. It gives you an idea of just how stylized you can be without losing a sense of reality. Moorehead goes way out on a limb, playing every note in her voice. She gives us this shrill woman’s lonely soul. All the while, she makes huge but always truthful choices. Her Fanny is a raging cartoon who poignantly realizes her own absurdity. Furthermore, the scene where Fanny cracks apart is as far-out into the realm of hysteria as you can go without shattering your sanity permanently.

19. Robert Walker, Strangers on a Train

For years, Walker had been the GI in ’40s films. His roles were wholesome and kind, but clearly neurotic. Nothing in his past work could have prepared audiences for his magnificent villain in Hitchcock’s classic thriller. As Bruno, an evil genius who snares tennis champ Farley Granger into a murder plot, Walker is unfailingly inventive. Never merely sinister, he makes his character likable and amusing. Immediately after strangling Granger’s wife, he helps a blind man across a street (one of Hitch’s best jokes). Walker died soon after Strangers on a Train, but he left a sunburst of a performance behind. It’s hammy, detailed and altogether delicious.

20. Gena Rowlands, Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter

Mrs. John Cassavetes did mind-blowing work for her husband. Without Rowlands as his muse, Cassavetes’s films would be awash in macho posturing. Yet, if you want to see her work in a less pressurized atmosphere, seek out this elegiac TV film with Bette Davis. Rowlands and Davis create a convincingly combative mother-daughter dynamic. When reconciliation comes, Rowlands pulls out all the stops. Her last scene, in which she quietly tells her mother about her life, is as uncluttered a piece of acting as you are likely to find. It catches the mood of reflection and resignation like nothing else.

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