Showdowns. Stares. Shootouts. These are just a few of the elements that make Westerns an irreplaceable piece of the cinema landscape. In celebration of the genre that has given us so many great movies, let’s take a look at the all-time best performances in a Western.
10Clint Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976)
dir: Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood is one of the actors who is most synonymous with the Western genre. In “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” he plays a man avenging the death of his family in one of the more mature takes on the classic Western tale. The performance strays from the square-jawed masculinity that was Eastwood’s signature and offers a more emotionally complicated look at the life of a gunslinger. The muddled machismo makes for a much more interesting turn and earns Eastwood the first of his two spots on this list.
9Walter Huston in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948)
dir: John Huston
Directed by his son, John Huston, Walter Huston turned in the most iconic performance in this Western classic. His rapid-fire delivery and sure-handed explanations shine even next to Humphrey Bogart. His character, Howard, doesn’t have time to waste and the audience benefits from the immense force his performance generates. The performance earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and made him the first of three generations of Oscar winners (with his son, John Huston, and Granddaughter, Anjelica Huston, also winning)
8Henry Fonda in “Once Upon A Time in the West” (1968)
dir: Sergio Leone
From one famous father to another, Henry Fonda plays a character named Frank in this Spaghetti Western classic. Following his “Dollars Trilogy,” Sergio Leone returned to the Western genre and gave Fonda the chance to embody many of the genre’s previous tropes. The film references some of the most classic Westerns, including Leone’s own work. As a result, Fonda’s performance does not exactly break new ground but comes through as the quintessential portrayal. The performance serves as a bookend for the 50s-60s Westerns that cemented the genre’s place in cinematic history.
7Jack Palance in “Shane” (1953)
dir: George Stevens
Most of this list is rightfully filled with iconic leading men giving unforgettable performances. But if you have seen “Shane,” there is perhaps no more memorable performance in a Western than that of Jack Palance as the hired killer, Jack Wilson. He is devilishly cruel in the familiar black hat traditionally donned by Western villains. But what makes Palance’s performance so special is that it spoke to the godlessness that so many Americans were fearful of at the time. He is evil through and through and that black heart and black hat belong on this list.
6Gene Hackman in “Unforgiven” (1992)
dir: Clint Eastwood
Gene Hackman’s Little Bill Daggett helps define what many consider the best modern Western. Directed by Clint Eastwood, “Unforgiven” is a tale of vengeance and justice–themes very familiar to the Western genre. What Hackman brought to the film was an incendiary nature that saw him go from calm to manic in the blink of an eye. The live wire of a portrayal earned Hackman the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and is one of the reasons “Unforgiven” remains a masterpiece.
5Jeff Bridges in True Grit (2010)
dir: Joel & Ethan Cohen
Yes, this is a remake that didn’t take a ton of chances. Yes, the incomparable John Wayne played the same role. But all of that aside, Jeff Bridges seems somehow born for this. Rooster Cogburn is a legendary part and despite the lofty expectations, Bridges rose to the occasion with his own brand of no-nonsense straight talk. The performance garnered him a Best Actor nomination and added yet another layer to his storied career.
4Javier Bardem in “No Country For Old Men” (2007)
dir: Joel & Ethan Coen
It is perhaps a stretch to call “No Country For Old Men” a Western, but it has all the pieces. Simple stakes, hot pursuit and a certain lawbreakers’ code. If you accept that it is a Western, it is hard to argue with Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. He is as menacing a villain as the big screen has ever seen and Barden perfectly captures his cold indifference to human life. There is so much about the performance that is jarring (even beyond the mind-meltingly ridiculous haircut), but the most indelible marks are left by Bardem’s delivery of what have now become classic lines.
3Clint Eastwood in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
dir: Sergio Leone
You could fill this entire list with personas created by Clint Eastwood and no one would call you crazy. He is one of the most prolific actor-directors in Hollywood history and he has shown a career-long affinity for the Western genre. It is no surprise then, that he is featured on this list for a second time. This time, it is as “The Man With No Name” in Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.” The film is the third in a trilogy and was responsible for creating a certain macho brand of cowboy that would dominate for decades to come.
2John Wayne in “The Searchers” (1956)
dir: John Ford
On a list full of cowboys, John Wayne was perhaps the most cowboy. His persona was so entwined with boots and spurs that many people don’t even realize that he is entirely responsible for their mental image of cowboys. In “The Searchers,” he plays the deeply flawed Ethan Edwards. He is a former Confederate soldier who is searching for his abducted niece. The portrayal is layered with dark and brooding complications and stands out as the best work of John Wayne’s storied career.
1Gary Cooper in “High Noon” (1952)
dir: Fred Zinnemann
If you flipped to the “Western” in the dictionary, you should be met with “High Noon.” And the image used to represent the film, should be the virtuous visage of Gary Cooper. It should convey justice, forthrightness and all of the other qualities we expect in our cowboys. His character, Kane, must round up a posse to protect the town from an outlaw on his way to get revenge. Much of the imagery in “High Noon” has become the lingua franca of the genre and Gary Cooper is a large part of the reason why.