Top Ten Performances in Spielberg’s Films


If there is a criticism heard over and over about Steven Spielberg’s work as a director, it might be the lack of truly great performances in his films or the fact no actor has ever won an Oscar in a Spielberg picture. Excuse me??? Are they serious? Many of the performances in his films have earned Oscar nominations and while no one has ever won an Oscar for acting in a Spielberg film, did anyone in a Kubrick film win an Oscar for acting?  Or Chaplin? Even the great Oscar-winning actor Burt Lancaster weighed in on the criticism about the  performances in his films, focusing on Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as the older actor knew a thing or two about finding the character and bringing the character to the audience while spending most of the film dodging bullets, fighting, cracking the whip, romancing the girl, and running and scampering.  Understanding that Ford gave us a character from the moment he walked out of the dark into the light of the frame after cracking his whip and disarming a man of his gun with a knowing scowl, Lancaster had nothing but praise for the actor.  Knowing the challenges of portraying a character in a physical film, Lancaster reminded audiences, actors and critics of just how fine Ford was as Jones, creating in a character in a film that barely gave him time to do so. Many of Spielberg’s films are special effects laden works, which means the actor often has to work twice as hard to create their character. However, make no mistake, his reputation among actors is very strong, and he widely considered, in his own way, an actors director.

With Lincoln, I think all of this might change, and Spielberg will be hearing an actor thank him from the stage of the awards, holding a little golden man.

1. Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (2012)…Surprised? You should not be, really. Hailed by Time magazine as the greatest living actor, Day-Lewis was something of a surprise choice for the role of Lincoln after Liam Neeson departed the project. He does something extraordinary in the role, capturing who the essence of who we believe   Lincoln to have been, bringing to us the man, in the flesh flaws and all, yet retaining the distance and the mystery. It was said that Lincoln was unkowable, a man of secrets and contradictions, who suffered bouts of melancholy, and was known to be a man of contradiction. Perhaps Lincoln so believed in America he felt himself as torn apart as his nation during the terrible Civil War, knowing that no one could ever truly win such a destructive and deeply personal war. Other actors have portrayed Lincoln as we thought he might be, Day-Lewis is the first to play him, according to historians as he likely was, a great flawed man.

2. Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List (1993) as the demonic Goethe in his finest film, Fiennes is chilling creating the Nazi of everyones’ nightmares. Dedicated to the cause, and drunk with the power he wields over human life, Goethe is a study of psychosis, evil incarnate, the poster boy for Nazism. A terrifying portrait of a man in his element, and how frightening where that element actually is. Look into his eyes and see the depths of hell, evil incarnate. Whether rising from a bed where a naked woman rests to shoot Jews off his balcony with a rifle, or brow beating the maid he loves (a Jew) in his basement, or attempting to control his murderous ways when taunted by Schindler, Fiennes give us an exercise in madness. A man who loves to kill, and just cannot help himself.

3. Robert Shaw in Jaws (1975)…for his speech about the SS Indianapolis he should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor but was not. As Quint, Shaw was brilliant, giving audiences a modern day Ahab, obsessed with sharks, but in particular this shark because he sees it as a very personal war. Salty, arrogant and menacing, Shaw’s Quint is a man’s man hiding a terrible past that he reveals to us through the course of the film. His end though terrifying seems like the perfect death for him, at last one with the creatures he so loves and hates. And as we see , rightfully  fears.

4. Henry Thomas in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982)…this might be the single greatest child performance in the history of the cinema made all the more brilliant because he was acting most of the time to a special effect. The deep connection the child had with the creature, the love, spilled off the screen and into the audience as  Thomas  brought immense humanity to his role. That goodbye sequence remains heartbreaking as he says farewell to the greatest friend he has ever known, and knows he must let him go because he loved him, because it is the right thing to do.

5. Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (1998)…after two Oscars in ’93 and ’94 Hanks continued to deliver Oscar caliber performances including this turn in Spielberg’s war epic as John Miller, the Captain sent on a mission to save one soldier, perhaps placing his own men at great risk. Haunted by the death around him, worried he may never re-connect with his wife, Miller is an average man at war conducting himself with absolute decency. His breakdown after the death of the medic is shattering; while the opening and closing battle sequences show us the carnage, chaos, and madness of war, Hanks in that moment shows us the terrible impact of the horror of war on one man who at that moment symbolizes all of humanity.

6. Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)…though the screenplay and Spielberg’s sappy over direction almost betray her performance, Goldberg hangs tough and creates a deeply moving portrait of a man struggling against her plight in life, to be abused and belittled by men until she realizes she does not need them. It’s a powerful performance from Goldberg who was a relative newcomer to the entertainment world, this being her first major role. She gave a superb performance, the best thing in the film, and earned an Oscar nomination as Best Actress. How she might have flown had the writers and the director had the courage to create the anger and anguish Alice Walker really wrote down in her splendid book, The Color Purple (1985).

7. Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun (1987)…the child we encounter at the beginning of the film, constantly in motion, eventually slipping away from the tight grip of his mother, spends more than four years in a Japanese POW camp in Japan during the Second World War. Always moving, always thinking, scheming,  perhaps to beat back the memory of his childhood fading away, Bale is astonishing. Those ancient eyes that stare up at the sky as his mother embraces him at the end of the film are the eyes of a very old soul, no longer a boy having lost his childhood and man’s world to move directly into old age with no time to mourn the man who might have been.

8. Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List (1993)…as the secretive, enigmatic Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party and war profiteer, Neeson never allow us to know or understand his character. Why does Schindler save the 1,100 Jews who work in his factory? He owes them no allegiance, he barely knows them, yet he fights for them as they were his own family over the course of the war. That mystery brings so much to the character because at the end of the film, when Schindler breaks down over what he did not do, we really do not know yet, and frankly it is better that way. I think i know the moment it changes for him, you might too, as he sits on a horse high above the ghetto and watches a little girl in a blood-red dress move through the madness. He encounters that same child later, pulled from a mass grave, the bodies being burned. That would change anyone would it not? For whatever his reasons the humanity Schindler displayed was staggering, and Neeson perfectly captures it in this fine and strong performance.

9. Haley Joel Osment in A.I. (2001)…as David, the life-like robot boy Osment was astonishing, never blinking, seeing the world through the ever curious eyes of a child. Singularly devoted to Monica, the woman who activated him, the film explores the question of what do we owe those who love us? When Monica’s son, a nasty little fellow named Martin returns home, she takes David into the woods and abandons him, leaving him at the mercy of Flesh Fairs, and those who hate robots. His sole purpose is to find her, to get back to her. Osment had just come off an Oscar nomination for The Sixth Sense (1999) and was remarkable in this film, which I think will be re-discovered in years to come for the outstanding work it is.

10. Sally Field in Lincoln (2012)…though she had to fight for the role when Liam Neeson left the film, Spielberg’s eventual trust in her was paid off with a marvelous performance of the woman behind the man. Yes, Mary Todd Lincoln was troubled, tormented by the grief over the death of her son, and yes, she was often a burden to the President with her erratic moods swings, but she understood Lincoln like no one else, and more knew the people loved him as one of theirs. Field is Mary Todd, creating a complex woman who is the President’s closest confidante, and best friend. How great to see Field in a role worthy of her substantial gifts again!