Assembling a list like this is…daunting…impossible…embarrassing…satisfying. When Clayton tasked we Staff Writers with this assignment, my Top 6 performances immediately made my list—the order, however, fluctuated hourly. But how do assemble by Top 10 Greatest Performances of All Time? When looking at lists like this published on other sites, I gloss over performances that I see listed on list after list after list, wondering if people are trying to appease the commenters and save face, or if they’re writing from their heart. And yet, I recognize that my lists can be read as full of Oscar-favorites and consensus choices. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy!
Lists like his are inherently…frustrating. How do we compare Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in 12 Years a Slave to the comic gold of Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story? How does Golden Age mugging compare to Brando’s method shouting? Simply, the term “greatest” does not have an ascertainable standard—it is an inherently subjective and Rorschachian term. Do we look for which performance is technically great? And if so, where is the magical list of what makes a performance technically great as opposed to, what, untechnically great? Alas, somehow, we must land at a Top 10.
What I immediately notice about my finished list is how very particular the characters are. In many cases, the performances are so grand and so beloved (both by me and by others), that the performance itself is more famous than the actor.
Despite a list of the “Greatest Performances,” I find my list lacking in what I’d call the “Greatest Actors.” No Meryl Streep, no Jack Nicholson, no Marlon Brando, no Vivien Leigh, no Dustin Hoffman, no Robert de Niro, no Daniel Day-Lewis, no Al Pacino, no Laurence Olivier, no Peter O’Toole, no Olivia de Havilland, no Judy Garland, no Greta Garbo, no Audrey Hepburn, no Bette Davis, no Ingrid Bergman, no Humphrey Bogart, no Paul Newman. In fact, only one out-and-out “movie star” makes my list. Particularly heartbreaking for me is the lack of my own favorite actors: no Jack Lemmon, no Jimmy Stewart, no Geoffrey Rush, no Philip Seymour Hoffman, no Jason Robards, no Cary Grant. This list was assembled chiefly to honor and praise great performances and not to honor the best performance from a great performer.
However…the narrowing. The horrors…the horrors. Since Clayton has strictly forbidden ties of any and all types, I’m stuck, sitting here trying to figure out what to do with the handful of my 11-20 performances (the remainder of my personal “essential” list). So, below, before we get to the action, are some honorable mentions, in no particular order:
F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus; Tom Hulce, Amadeus; Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Cary Grant, The Philadelphia Story; Kevin Spacey, American Beauty; Frances McDormand, Fargo; Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs; George C. Scott, Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; Burl Ives, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Rita Moreno, West Side Story.