Top 10 Greatest Performances of All-Time (Clayton Davis)

We end the popular series with the editor’s take on the acting of cinema…

top-101We’ve come to an end.  No more analyzing, no more criticizing, just putting it all out there.  When we began these “10 Greatest” series two years ago, I wasn’t sure what they would turn into.  It’s easy just to say, “I like movies.”  It’s even harder to describe what they mean to you.  Film is a medium that is continuously changing, evolving as our minds and souls either drift closer together or farther apart.  When called upon to choose JUST ten performances that have made the most significant impact in my cinematic mind, I cringed.  And I’m the one who decided we should do this listing.

This was so much more difficult than choosing the ten greatest films list.  You’ve talked about the movies you loved your entire life, but how often do we, as a society, genuinely speak about performers, his or her craft, and what they mean to the cinematic medium?  I’ll be honest and say I don’t, and I’m a person that continually covers the Oscar race and looks at performers through a different lens than most movie-goers.  There were probably ten different versions of my ten greatest performances list.  I thought I had five or six performers I just couldn’t live without, but then dozens of names started filling the page.  I came to a point where I just couldn’t leave any of them out.  It’s like choosing your favorite child.  They mean so much to you, and both fulfill different requirements of your life at any given time of day, but you love them all the same.

I was pleasantly surprised by how diverse and how different the entire staff’s lists looked when everything was said and done.  I was sure I knew some of these people, and at the end of the day, each of them surprised me.  Calling upon certain performers and their crafts, and bringing some new and enlightening things on my radar that I will always be grateful for.

These lists, just like any list we write, are our own.  What I learned about myself is how contemporary my list is—so many from the same era, even the same year at times.  I was sure older works would outweigh and outshine anything that was given in recent memory.  Some, unfortunately, had to sit this one out.  Will they sit it out for all-time?  Surely not.  You could probably ask me this same thing next week, and these ten could completely change.  I love actors and actresses and everything they bring to their crafts.

I can’t mention the “greatest” or “best” list without talking about the ferocious nature of Daniel Day-Lewis‘ work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.  Speaking of Day-Lewis’ work, if he is a #1, then Brad Pitt is a #1.01 in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

What about the sheer heartbreak that Maia Morgenstern pours into her Virgin Mary in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ?  I don’t think any actor has spent a more valuable 18 minutes on screen than Anthony Hopkins in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.  I will always consider Elizabeth Taylor‘s towering work in Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The single best performance by a Best Actress winner.  And she isn’t the only Elizabeth, well she is with the “z.” Elisabeth Shue‘s “hooker with a heart” bravura in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, is something that came onto the awards circuit at the wrong time in 1995.

I’m surprised how many times I circled back to Rosemarie DeWitt‘s multi-layered and beautiful Rachel in Demme’s Rachel Getting Married.  Considered one of the greats in the world of cinema, it pained me very much to leave Robert DeNiro‘s work in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, his most exceptional effort.

Though my parents will credit her TV show as her gift to the world, Mary Tyler Moore‘s gift to my life will be her distant mother in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.  You can’t just take the serious with this kind of list.  Crying tears of laughter have never been any more apparent than Jack Lemmon‘s riot in The Odd Couple.

Horror films can bring something more than just screams.  They can shatter you to the core, and that’s what Piper Laurie achieves in the classic Carrie opposite Sissy Spacek.  Something I probably will never forget.  I even heavily considered very recent performers like Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis and Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave.  I feel like I wouldn’t be able to aptly justify throwing either of them into the mix without allowing their works to settle in more.  It hasn’t even been a year yet.

The last two names that were omitted from the list are my two favorite working actors today.  To not find room for Joaquin Phoenix‘s recent but utterly cherished work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master or either of Sean Penn‘s Oscar-winning/nominated performances in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River or Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking is something I’ll likely regret tomorrow morning.

Call all of these mentioned my “runners-up,” if you will.  They will bob in and out of the list if and when we decide to revisit them.

This list may not be much.  But it’s mine.

JuliaRoberts_PrettyWoman10. Julia Roberts as “Vivian Ward”
Pretty Woman (1990) – dir. Garry Marshall

The Oscar that sits on Julia Roberts’ mantle at home for Erin Brockovich is wholly earned.   I will never argue the merits of her work in Steven Soderbergh’s intelligent and smartly constructed film; however, there’s a second space that lays empty, and that’s for her charismatic “Vivian” in Garry Marshall’s early 90’s comedic and romantic romp Pretty Woman.  Exuding an abundance of sexiness that a young six-year-old can’t understand, Roberts marched her way right into the hearts of America opposite Richard Gere in this Oscar-nominated performance.  Vivian’s spunk and rapturous cackle didn’t just seal it up.  It was the sensitive and heartbreaking manner in which she chooses to let Edward into her world.  Her telling of her first client, the pain and sorrow she felt being treated as the very thing she is during the polo outing, and the dream of being rescued from the tower are the very things that will stay with me for all-time.

Her reaction to the opera, however, is the peak of her work.  Tear ducts filling as the somber and powerful music soars across her eardrums.  It’s her single best piece of acting she’s ever done.

EARLIEST MEMORY WITH THE PERFORMANCE: A VHS tape sits in my brother’s collection.  A hot, young Julia Roberts has her back to Richard Gere.  I’m about six or seven.  Again, probably shouldn’t be watching it.  I remember being very smitten and blushing at the scene of Richard kissing Julia all over on the piano.  She was one of my first celebrity crushes.  Still, love her today.

Samuel-L.-Jackson-Pulp-Fiction-movie9. Samuel L. Jackson as “Jules Winnfield”
Pulp Fiction (1994) – dir. Quentin Tarantino

What can be said that hasn’t already been spouted, shouted, and repeated on every message board of every fanboy throughout the world.  Samuel L. Jackson’s work as “Jules” in Quentin Tarantino’s Palme d’Or winner is everything you appreciate and love from an actor.  Infusing “Jules” with redemption when he’s all he shows is a violent and ruthless demeanor is one of the single best creations of a character in the ’90s.  Jackson shatters any Tarantino performance that came before or after.  Just a magnificence of warm yet chilling tones.  You can’t reward Jackson without acknowledging the brilliant script that Tarantino laid out for him.  The pinnacle of both their careers rests softly in the year 1994.

EARLIEST MEMORY WITH THE PERFORMANCE: I’m a Freshman in college. Roommate talks fondly of the film.  I haven’t seen it in its entirety.  A girl I liked at the time called it one of her least favorite movies because of the needle in the heart scene.  I liked her, so I avoided it.  I came back to it that same year.  There’s a reason she isn’t in my life anymore.

joanallen_crucible8. Joan Allen as “Elizabeth Proctor”
The Crucible (1996) – dir. Nicholas Hytner

When I think of the words “understated” and “quietly powerful,” I always find myself recalling everything that surrounds Joan Allen’s masterful work in the vastly underrated Nicholas Hytner film.  One of the single best reasons that the Casting Oscar should exist, Allen fits into the role so mercilessly, it seemed as any semblance of the woman had melted away, and all we were left with was Elizabeth. It’s hard to take anything away from every performance that three-time Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis brings to his roles, but to simply upstage with him with presence and grace, is something I haven’t seen most actresses accomplish.

As she bares her soul to John, speaking about a future where a lie can set them free, and a mistake is the root of the cause, I fell so deeply in love with Allen’s demeanor in which she expresses her feelings about herself.

“I counted myself so plain…”

Nothing has ever sounded more honest or heartbreaking in a single instance since.  In a marriage that is clearly fractured and desperately trying to heal, Allen stops the bleeding eternally.  She is the profoundly moving piece of that entire year.

EARLIEST MEMORY WITH THE PERFORMANCE: I’m in Drama Class, my Senior year of high school.  We are studying different forms of acting.  He puts the film on to show the class an example of “over-acting” in Daniel Day-Lewis.  I disagreed entirely.  What was most baffling is that he chose not to cite Allen’s work and how extraordinary it was.  It comes up again during my Junior year of college.  The professor appreciated everything about the film.  That’s a teacher.

anthonyperkins_psycho7. Anthony Perkins as “Norman Bates”
Psycho (1960) – dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Innocence is stapled on Norman’s face as he interacts with the beautiful Marion Crane in the back room of his motel.  She offers advice on the condition of him and his mother’s relationship.  At the drop of a hat, with no cheap tricks, his facial expression changes.  He’s taken back.  The irony of his “harmless as the stuffy birds” speaks volumes to the remaining of the film.  Anthony Perkins’ iconic work in Hitchcock’s most popular picture is a rapture of thunderous sensitivity and fragility.  A work that goes down as one of cinema’s finest.  It’s layered and realized in every frame that he shares with any co-star or when he’s inhabiting alone.

EARLIEST MEMORY WITH THE PERFORMANCE: Channel 11 or in New York what we used to call “WPIX” and then “The WB” was playing the film on a Saturday afternoon.  Scared me half to death.  I’m about five at the time.  I can’t finish it.  Years later, the remake is in theaters with Vince Vaughn.  I go with my sister to see it.  This time, I’m baffled at what the hell I was so scared of.  I go back home, and a few weeks later, I catch it on television.  Now I remember what I was so afraid of.

AngelaBassett_WhatsLoveGottoDoWithIt6. Angela Bassett as “Tina Turner”
What’s Love Got to Do With It? (1993) – Dir. Brian Gibson

The only Black actress to ever win the Golden Globe (Comedy or Musical), a joke in its own right, Angela Bassett’s interpretation of “Tina Turner” is the single best performance of a struggling musician I’ve ever seen.  Taking on every ounce of emotion and personality of the singer, save for the actual singing, Bassett becomes the iconic performer as she struggles with physical abuse, her career, and even suicide.  Slipping Tina on like an old pair of jeans, everything fits perfectly.  The way she takes the stage, owns the microphone, and allows a single tear to fall as her husband Ike kisses her cheek, is everything I ask from our acting community.  Why the roles didn’t just pour into her lap following her Academy Award nomination is just another testament to our racial issues in Hollywood.  Hopeful enough, she set the bar and the path for women like Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball and Viola Davis in The Help to follow.  While there is a single performance that precedes her as a trailblazer (and that will be addressed later), Bassett’s work stands tall.

The next time someone comes to you and says Jamie Foxx “became the great performer, Ray Charles,” tell them about a woman from New York City that knows how to attack and emote without breaking a sweat.  Bassett is one of our greatest treasures.

EARLIEST MEMORY WITH THE PERFORMANCE: My much older brother and sister go to see it in the movies.  I don’t go; I’m too young.  They come back, and my brother says, “that lady went through hell.”  I’m immediately fascinated and intrigued.  I don’t get to see the film until I’m about fourteen.  I’m blown away.  I can’t believe what I’ve witnessed.  I called my sister and brother to share the news.  Unfortunately, they’re not “into the movies” like I am.  They could care less.

denzelwashington_malcolmx5. Denzel Washington as “Malcolm X”
Malcolm X (1992) – dir. Spike Lee

An example of Oscar’s mistake that comes back to haunt them.  Passing over Al Pacino for decades led to a crowning ceremony for a subpar performance in Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman, which led an impeccable and marvelous Denzel Washington left on the sidelines for his finest and most bombastic performance ever.  They’ll make it up to him nearly ten years later for his work in Training Day.  Superbly crafted and layered with just passion upon passion, Washington exudes the core message of Lee’s epic biopic with ease.

Sheer brilliance.

EARLIEST MEMORY OF THE PERFORMANCE: Denzel is everywhere in the ’90s. My first experience with him is in Ricochet.  I thought he was just an action star.  My sister buys the VHS, and it’s a double.  I’m immediately frazzled.  “All this can’t fit on one tape?” I say to myself.  I watched it twice in one weekend.   I haven’t done that again in my home since.

tomhanks_philadelphia4. Tom Hanks as “Andrew Beckett”
Philadelphia (1993) – dir. Jonathan Demme

Tom Hanks had four performances that made it onto my longlist.  By my estimation, and in my perfect world, Hanks should have four Academy Awards, our living, breathing Katharine Hepburn.  Breaking out with such innocence in Penny Marshall’s Big, he came through with certainty and precision in Jonathan Demme’s tear-jerker.  While there may be some that will chalk some of the success to makeup and the AIDS story that precedes it, Hanks’ stoic and fair interpretation of a damaged man is something that legends are made of.  Choosing this performance doesn’t take anything away from his Forrest Gump or his shipwrecked man in Cast Away; it’s simply a case of a performance that defined a man’s career.

EARLIEST MEMORY OF THE PERFORMANCE: Some part of me thinks I went to the movies to see this with my mother.  I’m unsure if that’s true or not.  It’s foggy.  If it is, I didn’t understand its power then.  I revisit (or see it for the first time) at the tender age of fifteen.  I borrow it from my older brother, who has an impressive DVD collection similar to mine.  I never thought I would think Hanks was better than he was in Forrest Gump.  Well, here I am.

ralphfiennes_schindlerslist3. Ralph Fiennes as “Amon Goeth”
Schindler’s List (1993) – dir. Steven Spielberg

Being a villain is easy.  Being pure evil is something completely different.  It oozes out of Ralph Fiennes and every ounce of his screen time in Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece.  From his eyes to the tip of his fingernails, Fiennes shatters the audience with fear and disgust.  Something that I haven’t seen since.  It’s not just in what he does, but the way he reacts to what he is doing.  It’s one of the best breakthroughs of the ’90s and something that has led him to continuously deliver in films like The Constant Gardener, The Reader, and even most recently in The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Staff Writer Robert Hamer offered some very fitting words in his piece.

EARLIEST MEMORY WITH THE PERFORMANCE: Religion Class.  2001.  Sister Pat, unsure if she’s still living, shows the entire class the film over five days.  We only have 45 minute periods in high school.  I’m frightened by what Fiennes is doing on-screen.  I can’t believe this is the same guy from The English Patient.  He’s so relentless.  He makes me feel uncomfortable.  I didn’t understand then.  I know now.

whoopigoldberg_colorpurple2. Whoopi Goldberg as “Celie”
The Color Purple (1985) – dir. Steven Spielberg

Daniel Day-Lewis may have the distinction of being the only performer from a Spielberg film to win an Academy Award, but that’s because, in the 1986 Oscars, they lacked any logical sense.  Mirroring the exact reason, and nomination loss that Denzel Washington faced the year he lost for Malcolm X.  Geraldine Page laid on Oscar nomination #8, no win in her arsenal, and enters her film The Trip to Bountiful.  Not a bad film by any stretch, and one that I haven’t revisited since the early years of high school.  What I do know is the single best female performance of all-time enriched screens with heartache, strength, and emotion.

Her Oscar may say Ghost on it, but its heart says The Color Purple.  Goldberg has excelled in comedy, brilliantly, I might add.  What she brought to Celie, showing the fear against Albert, being smitten about Shug, and find solace and love in Sofia, is astounding.  Her yearning to be back with her sister, her relentless power and urge to be free and independent.  You can’t teach these things to actors.  When you got it, you got it.  Thank you, Whoopi.  You got it.

EARLIEST MEMORY WITH THE PERFORMANCE: This is my sister Veronica’s favorite movie.  She had a copy growing up.  Watching it nearly all the time.  It’s in the background, but I don’t pay any attention.  I see it here and there.  I laugh when Oprah laughs, but I don’t know what the big deal is.  Junior year of high school, I read the novel.  Tour de force of writing.  Something that I haven’t seen in another book since.  I watched the movie right after in class.  This is what acting is all about.  My English teacher explains to the class that laughs when Celie kisses her sister on the lips that “this is love.”  I knew EXACTLY what he was talking about.

marlonbrando_streetcar1. Marlon Brando as “Stanley”
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) – dir. Elia Kazan

It’s the beginning of acting.  That’s what Marlon Brando means to cinema.  That’s what he means to me.  Method acting, the clash of two worlds, and he brings it to the forefront.  Despicable Stanley loves Stella, unknowingly aware of his demons, perhaps even ignorant of them.  He leads an all-star cast, full of cinema’s most celebrated performers in the best cast ensemble of film history.  Yet he’s the one that went home empty-handed.  That’s what I love about lists like these.  Misunderstood at the time, perhaps even feared about what it would do to the medium or craft, but it’s now revered and loved for all-time.

I lost Brando on my 20th birthday, but he gave me the greatest gift of all.  Thank you, sir.  I’ll never forget it.

EARLIEST MEMORY OF THE PERFORMANCE: It’s on television.  Unsure what channel.  All I know is there’s a lot of screaming in the film.  I’m about seven or so.  I come back to it over a decade later.  I’m in college now and “mature.”  I think I should start watching more black and white movies.  This is the second one I pop in following Psycho.  I don’t remember much more of that day.  I sat in awe.

I hope you enjoyed the series.  We’ll be bringing this back next with another look at the ten best of something impossible.  We hope you’re there to enjoy it.  Please, if you haven’t done so already, include your ten in the comment section.

What do you think?


Written by Clayton Davis

Clayton Davis is the esteemed Editor and Owner of Born in Bronx, NY to a Puerto Rican mother and Black father, he’s been criticizing film and television for over a decade. Clayton is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association where he votes and attends the kick off to the awards season, the Critics Choice Awards. He also founded the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association, the first Latino-based critics’ organization in the United States. He’s also an active member of the African-American Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Online, International Press Academy, Black Reel Awards, and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. Clayton has been quoted and appeared in various outlets that include The New York Times,, Variety, Deadline, Los Angeles Times, FOX 5, Bloomberg Television, AOL, Huffington Post, Bloomberg Radio, The Wrap, Slash Film, and the Hollywood Reporter.


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