What makes a great acting performance? Some would say, “You can’t tell he’s acting” or “She vanishes into the character.” For some of us, it is easier to pick out the bad performances: wooden, uninspired line delivery, a lack of realistic interactions with other characters and reactions to events that don’t seem credible. The ‘ham’ makes it obvious to all that he is ACTING, thus making it impossible for us to suspend our disbelief and accept the film or play as real (at least on an emotional level). Of course the actor may not be wholly responsible for a ‘bad’ performance. Except in a wholly-improvised situation, there is a writer who created the character and wrote all or most of his lines. It takes an especially gifted actor to give a three-dimensional performance of a two-dimensional character. To confuse matters further, writers may deliberately draw attention to the artificial nature of the play or film – think of Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill on the stage and Jean-Luc Godard in film (or Groucho’s frequent asides to the audience). Or a writer may deliberately create a character who is acting in their own life (Tennessee Williams was famous for this). I have occasionally reevaluated an acting performance halfway through a movie when I realized that it wasn’t the actor who was disconnected, awkward and seemingly out of place, it was the character.
The Hollywood star system added another layer of complication. During the Golden Age of the studio system (roughly 1920-1960), actors who had become stars had their movie roles carefully selected. The studios felt that in order to preserve the box office appeal of their stars, they had to play roles that fell within a fairly narrow range. Furthermore, for the leading men and ladies, they were not supposed to “disappear” into their roles a la Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis, but to inhabit them while also continuing to project their star persona. In a classic example, the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) was altered to avoid giving the impression that Cary Grant’s character had murdered his wife. In today’s post-studio system, the audience plays a similar role by refusing to accept its stars in roles that clash with their personae. When comic actor Bill Murray attempted to move into serious roles with 1984’s The Razor’s Edge, the audiences stayed away in droves. It took another 20 years for Murray to achieve success in the tragicomic roles which he now excels at.
Even in contemporary performances, there may be a wide variety of acting styles, from The Method to a more instinctive approach. There may be a variety of opinions from observers as well – an unscientific review of Internet postings reveals Daniel Day-Lewis as everything from an overacting ham to the greatest actor alive today. And then in the case of film, there are the “performances” of the director, editor, cinematographer and others who take the actor’s performance, chop it into bits and rearrange them, decide on long shots or close ups, add music to manipulate our emotions, etc. So, while we can do better than “I know it when I see it” in evaluating good and bad acting, finding a list of objective criteria that applies generally appears unrealistic.
Before introducing my new lists of the best film actors of all time, I need to talk about procedure. First, as always, I was limited by the lists I could find in books and on the Internet. These were almost exclusively limited to film actors, so I left out actors who exclusively performed on the stage (no room, then, for Sarah Bernhardt, Lunt and Fontanne, and my favorite stage actor, Mark Waldstein). As for the lists of film actors, there were more lists of men than of women, more contemporary actors than actors from the past, and, as usual, a pro-US and English-language bias. I did my best to find lists that included actors from all over the world, but there were few such sites (at least in English). Knowing that India’s film industry is one of the largest in the world, I went out of my way to find lists of Bollywood actors and include the best-regarded names, even though my knowledge of Bollywood films is essentially zero. As a result, the lists include only the very best known actors from India and non-English speaking countries, while they include some English-language actors whom I do not personally feel merit a place on a “Best Actors” list (I’ll let you decide which ones I’m talking about). While my original intent was to use only lists of “best” actors, I did include some lists of “most popular” and “most famous.” I also included several lists of “best performances” in an attempt to get away from the famous/popular bias. I did draw the line at lists titled “Hottest” or “Sexiest” or “Most Beautiful/Handsome” actors, which I refused to include on principle. Despite all the procedural drawbacks, the resulting list has a lot going for it – I’ve arranged the actors in rank order, and divided it up into two pieces: the first starts with the actors on 22 lists and ends with those on 4 lists. Part 2 includes all the actors on 3 lists. For each actor, I’ve included some biographical information, a selected filmography and a still from one if the films (click on it to enlarge the picture).
So here they are: