This article is dedicated to Andrew Copp: filmmaker, film writer, artist and close friend who passed away on January 19, 2013. You are loved and missed, brother.
Looking at the Best Actor Academy Award nominations for the film year 2012, the one miss that clearly cries out for more attention is Liam Neeson’s powerful performance in Joe Carnahan’s excellent survival film The Grey, easily one of the best roles of Neeson’s career.
In Neeson’s case, his lack of a nomination was a case of neglect similar to the Albert Brooks snub in the Best Supporting Actor category for the film year 2011 for Drive(Nicolas Winding Refn, USA).
Along with negligence, other factors commonly prevent outstanding lead acting performances from getting the kind of critical attention they deserve. Sometimes it’s that the performance is in a film not considered “Oscar material” or even worthy of any substantial critical attention.
Other times it’s that the performance was overlooked in favor of critical focus being placed on another actor in the film or another aspect of the film entirely.
Following is a chronological look at lead acting performances that should have received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination. Each entry is followed by a list of other feature film performances by that particular actor that should also be sought out.
Included after the main list are a couple of supplemental lists for further exploration.
Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell Of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957, USA):
Lancaster, an Academy Award winner for Best Actor for Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960, USA) and Best Actor Oscar-nominee for From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinneman, 1953, USA), Birdman Of Alcatraz (John Frankenheimer, 1962, USA) and Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980, USA) gives a criminally underrated performance here as a ruthless newspaper columnist.
His powerful, caustic portrayal in Sweet Smell Of Success shows a little-seen, darker dimension of Lancaster’s considerable talent and is far superior to his much more critically lauded work in Elmer Gantry. This role is worthy of recognition as one of Lancaster’s very best performances.
Other notable Burt Lancaster performances: Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947, USA), Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak, 1949, USA), From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinneman, 1953, USA), The Professionals (Richard Brooks, 1966, USA), Valdez Is Coming (Edwin Sherin, 1971, USA), Ulzana’s Raid (Robert Aldrich, 1972, USA), Twilight’s Last Gleaming (Robert Aldrich, 1977, USA).
Richard Boone as Major James Lassiter in Rio Conchos (Gordon Douglas, 1964, USA):
Best known to fans of vintage television as Paladin in the popular Western series Have Gun, Will Travel (1955-1963), Boone gives a blistering performance in a rare lead film role in Rio Conchos, an unjustly overlooked gem of 1960’s Westerns.
Boone’s Apache-hating character leads a group in search of a shipment of stolen Army rifles, putting him on a collision course with two key figures from his turbulent past.
Boone brings a real darkness to the Lassiter character, including a scene where he laughs while watching several Apache warriors burn to death in a fire he started. Boone is at his big screen best here. Both his performance and the film deserve a much higher degree of critical praise.
Other notable Richard Boone performances: The Tall T (Budd Boetticher, 1957, USA), Night Of The Following Day (Hubert Cornfield, 1968, USA), The Kremlin Letter (John Huston, 1970, USA), Big Jake (George Sherman, 1971,USA), The Shootist (Don Siegel, 1976, USA), Winter Kills (William Richert, 1979, USA).
William Holden as Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969, USA):
Holden, an Academy Award winner for Best Actor for Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953, USA) and a nominee in the same category for Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950, USA) and Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976, USA), turns in the best performance of his career in director Peckinpah’s famously violent milestone Western.
Holden’s screen presence was never stronger than in his portrayal of the aging leader of a band of robbers in a changing American West. The film is revered as a true classic and that’s due in no small part to Holden’s tremendous lead acting performance, an aspect of the film that usually overlooked in favor of praise for Sam Peckinpah.
Other notable William Holden performances: Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950, USA), Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953, USA), Bridge On The River Kwai (David Lean, 1957, USA).
Michael Caine as Jack Carter in Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971, UK):
Much like Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell Of Success, Michael Caine’s lead performance in the British gangster film milestone Get Carter is considered less classic than the film it’s an integral part of.
Caine was nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards for Alfie (Lewis Gilbert, 1966, UK), Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972, UK), Educating Rita (Lewis Gilbert, 1983, UK) and The Quiet American (Phillip Noyce, 2002, USA) and was an Oscar winner in the Best Supporting Actor category for Hannah And Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986, USA) and The Cider House Rules (Lasse Hallstrom, 1999, USA).
Caine’s tough-to-the-core Jack Carter deserves to be on a shortlist of his career-best performances more so than a number of his more awards-oriented pieces of acting, some of which will be largely forgotten long before Get Carter.
Other notable Michael Caine performances: Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964, UK), The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston, 1975, USA), The Eagle Has Landed (John Sturges, 1976, UK), Hannah And Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986, USA), The Fourth Protocol (John Mackenzie, 1987, USA), Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009, UK), The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012, USA).
Malcolm McDowell as Alex in A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971, UK/USA):
With director Kubrick receiving the lion’s share of critical praise, both then and now, for this disturbing dystopian vision based on Anthony Burgess’ novel, not enough credit has been given to Malcolm McDowell’s classic performance as the vicious gang leader Alex.
Let’s get things nice and sparkling clear: with a lesser actor in this incredibly challenging role, A Clockwork Orange wouldn’t work. McDowell as Alex is a prime example of superior casting.
Other notable Malcolm McDowell performances: If… (Lindsay Anderson, 1968, UK), The Passage (J. Lee Thompson, 1979, UK), Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982, USA), Blue Thunder (John Badham, 1983, USA).
Oliver Reed as Urbain Grandier in The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971, UK):
While his best performances are usually supporting roles (see the film list below), Reed turns in one of the great pieces of acting in his career as a priest who gets caught up in a political power play and winds up accused of witchcraft.
The Devils generated much controversy due to its graphic nature, but bottom line it’s a truly great film with a commanding lead acting performance that needs to be discussed more frequently than the film’s history of censorship.
Other notable Oliver Reed performances: The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester, 1973, UK), The Four Musketeers (Richard Lester, 1974, UK), The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979, Canada).
Woody Allen as Allan in Play it Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972, USA):
While there is a widely held belief that if you’ve seen one Woody Allen acting performance, you’ve seen them all, Allen is at his best in this screen adaptation of Allen’s own stage play. Written for the screen by Allen and directed by Herbert Ross, this film remains an underappreciated gem in Woody Allen’s filmography with a masterful comic performance by Allen as a neurotic (of course) film critic who falls in love with his friend’s wife.
While Allen has given other memorable performances in films he’s written and/or directed, Play It Again, Sam is Woody Allen the actor at his finest.
Robert Blake as John Wintergreen in Electra Glide in Blue (James William Guerico, 1973, USA):
Blake, an actor destined to be most remembered for off-screen activity and his television acting work such as Baretta, turns in a highly memorable performance in a too-often overlooked film.
Other notable Robert Blake performances: Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (Abraham Polonsky, 1969, USA), Busting (Peter Hyams, 1974, USA), Money Train (Joseph Ruben, 1995, USA), Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997, USA).
William Devane as Major Charles Rane in Rolling Thunder (John Flynn, 1977, USA):
Devane really stands out in a subdued but powerful performance as a Vietnam veteran out for revenge in director Flynn’s 1970’s classic. Interestingly, this film was an MGM production penned by Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould. When MGM executives had issues with the completed film’s violence, distribution rights were sold to AIP.
Perhaps best known for his very long and impressive television resume, Devane really scores in this rare lead film role. Performance highlights include the fascinatingly quiet confrontation scene with his wife about her infidelity and the later rope scene where Devane’s character demonstrates the way he defeated torture while in captivity as a POW.
Other notable William Devane performances: Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976, USA).
George C. Scott as Jake Van Dorn in Hardcore (Paul Schrader, 1979,USA):
One of the most powerful and charismatic screen actors in cinema history did not get the critical acclaim he richly deserved for his work here as a driven father in search of his runaway daughter in Los Angeles.
While the film’s overall quality is hampered by a studio imposed ending and its’ troubling, naïve placement of pornographic films a hair’s breadth away from bestiality and snuff films, Scott’s tremendous performance is unforgettable.
Scott, a Best Actor Oscar winner for Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970, USA) and Best Actor Oscar nominee for The Hospital (Arthur Hiller, 1971, USA), was also Academy Award-nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Anatomy Of A Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959, USA) and The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961, USA).
Other notable George C. Scott performances: The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961, USA), Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970, USA), The Hospital (Arthur Hiller, 1971, USA), The New Centurions (Richard Fleischer, 1972, USA), The Day Of The Dolphin (Mike Nichols, 1973, USA), Firestarter (Mark L. Lester, 1984, USA), The Exorcist III (William Peter Blatty, 1990, USA).
Bob Hoskins as Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie, 1980, UK):
The recently retired Hoskins delivers his career best big screen acting performance in what was his first leading film role.
Hoskins’ strong performance as a British crime boss in a dire situation helps make The Long Good Friday the British gangster film classic it is and his acting in the film deserves far more critical credit than it typically gets.
Other notable Bob Hoskins performances: Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan, 1986, USA).
Stacy Keach as Colonel Vincent Kane in The Ninth Configuration (William Peter Blatty, 1980, USA):
Keach gives a powerful performance as an Army colonel with a dark past in this underrated film that takes place in an isolated asylum for mentally disturbed American soldiers.
The “why don’t you just love somebody a little” scene with actor Neville Brand and the film’s violent climax are classics. While a number of critics might cite Keach’s performance in John Huston’s somewhat overrated 1972 boxing drama Fat City as his career best, his work in The Ninth Configuration beats that performance hands down and stands as his finest screen acting to date.
Keach’s focus in the mid-1980’s went to the television work that he is most known for today such as The New Mike Hammer series and he is unfortunately not frequently discussed as a major screen acting talent.
While a big box office hit as a lead actor eluded him, Stacy Keach was the single most underrated and underappreciated American screen actor of the 1970’s and early 1980’s as evidenced by his work in The Ninth Configuration and the films listed below.
Other notable Stacy Keach performances: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (Robert Ellis Miller, 1968, USA), Fat City (John Huston, 1972, USA), The New Centurions (Richard Fleischer, 1972, USA), The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean (John Huston, 1972, USA), The Killer Inside Me (Burt Kennedy, 1976, USA), The Squeeze (Michael Apted, 1977, UK), American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998, USA).
James Caan as Frank in Thief (Michael Mann, 1981, USA):
Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his famous role in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, USA), Caan turns in the best lead acting role of his career in screenwriter/director Mann’s excellent character-oriented story of a high-end thief nearing the end of his career.
Highlight scenes include Caan’s character’s visit to an adoption agency with his girlfriend and the “join the labor union” confrontation scene later in the film with actor Robert Prosky.
Frank in Thief –the prototype for Robert DeNiro’s Neil character in Michael Mann’s 1995 Heat-is a role so perfectly cast, you can’t imagine another actor in Caan’s place.
Other notable James Caan performances: The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, USA), Freebie And The Bean (Richard Rush, 1974, USA), Way Of The Gun (Christopher McQuarrie, 2000, USA).
Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983, USA):
Having won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978, USA) and having been nominated in the same category for Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002, USA), this is Christopher Walken’s best lead acting role.
Another example of perfect casting, Walken utilizes his unique, quirky intensity to make his portrayal of Stephen King’s reluctant psychic unforgettable. While Walken’s entire performance is outstanding, highlights include the public demonstration scene where a pushy reporter finds out more than he wanted to know and the “you knew” confrontation scene during the search for a serial murderer.
Other notable Christopher Walken performances: The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978, USA), At Close Range (James Foley, 1986, USA), The King Of New York (Abel Ferrara, 1990, USA), True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993, USA).
Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle in The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986, USA):
Jeff Goldblum’s performance as a brilliant mutating scientist is far and away the actor’s finest work to date. Goldblum radiates intelligence and intensity through all stages of director Cronenberg’s tragic love story as he transforms from a quirky genius into something only partially human.
The film won a Best Makeup Oscar while Goldblum’s incredible multi-faceted acting has never received the proper critical attention.
William Petersen as Will Graham in Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986, USA):
Petersen, mostly known for his television work in the CSI series, turns in the best big screen acting performance of his career as driven FBI investigator Will Graham.
Petersen perfectly captures Graham’s intensity and his sensitivity in a much more memorable way than the miscast Edward Norton’s attempt in director Brett Ratner’s misfire Red Dragon, the 2002 adaptation of author Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name that was also the basis for Manhunter
While the combined box office failure of 1985’s crime film gem To Live And Die In L.A. (William Friedkin, USA) and Manhunter-both excellent films-effectively spelled an end to the promotion of Petersen as a big screen leading man, those who only know the actor from television are missing out on his finest work.
Other notable William Petersen performances: To Live And Die in L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985, USA).
Steve Martin as C.D. Bales in Roxanne (Fred Schepisi, 1987, USA):
Martin executes his best screen acting in this updating of Edmond Rostand’s famous stage play Cyrano de Bergerac. Martin wrote the screenplay and turns in a masterful comic performance as a fire chief competing for the affection of an astronomer who just moved to his town.
Martin is at the peak of his verbal and physical comedy skills in this film, which features a clever version of the stage play’s well-known “nose insults” scene.
Other notable Steve Martin performances: The Man With Two Brains (Carl Reiner, 1983, USA), Planes, Trains & Automobiles (John Hughes, 1987, USA).
Terry O’Quinn as Jerry Blake in The Stepfather (Joseph Ruben, 1987, USA):
Forget the deeply unnecessary PG-13 remake from 2009, there is only one The Stepfather and that features actor Terry O’Quinn in his best screen role as a psychopath who insinuates himself into families with lethal results.
O’Quinn, best known for his television work in the series Lost, turns in an unforgettable performance here. Highlight scenes are his character’s rant in the basement and the “who am I here?” scene late in the film where his character becomes genuinely confused about his identity.
To put O’Quinn’s great performance in sharper focus, compare it to the Dylan Walsh performance in the remake and watch one of the biggest same role acting mismatches of all time.
O’Quinn has yet to equal the very high acting bar he set for himself in The Stepfather.
Jeremy Irons as Beverly Mantle and Elliot Mantle in Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988, Canada/USA):
Irons delivers far and away his finest screen acting to date in director Cronenberg’s twisted tale of twin gynecologists. Irons establishes subtle differences between the brothers, allowing the viewer to tell them apart and respond to them as individual characters.
Irons was a Best Actor Oscar winner for a substantially less accomplished performance in Reversal Of Fortune (Barbet Schroeder, 1990, USA), the widely held belief being that the award was largely delayed recognition for his work in Dead Ringers.
Other notable Jeremy Irons performances: Betrayal (David Hugh Jones, 1983, UK), The Mission (Roland Joffe, 1986, UK).
Michael Douglas as Nick Conklin in Black Rain (Ridley Scott, 1989, USA):
Douglas, one of Hollywood’s major leading men of the 1980’s and 1990’s, turns in what is easily one of the best acting performances of his long career in director Scott’s story of a maverick American cop caught up in a Yakuza war in Japan.
Black Rain takes a number of cues from Sydney Pollack’s under-seen 1974 crime film gem The Yakuza, including the casting of well-known Japanese actor Takakura Ken, who also has a major role in Pollack’s film.
While many will say that Douglas’ Best Actor Oscar-winning role in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987, USA) is his career-best performance to date, his work in Black Rain deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of Douglas’ finest acting, especially in light of the fact that Black Rain has aged much better than the heavily dated Wall Street.
Other notable Michael Douglas performances: Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987, USA), Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987, USA), Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992, USA).
Harvey Keitel as Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992, USA):
Keitel, an Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Mickey Cohen in Bugsy (Barry Levinson, 1991, USA), is at his best as a veteran thief in Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature film.
While many point to excellent performances by Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Steve Buscemi when discussing Reservoir Dogs, it is Keitel who holds the whole film together.
The early 1990’s represented a kind of career renaissance for Keitel as he garnered a high degree of critical praise for his performances in Bugsy, Reservoir Dogs and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992, USA).
Other notable Harvey Keitel performances: Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973, USA), Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara, 1992, USA).
Al Pacino as Carlito Brigante in Carlito’s Way (Brian DePalma, 1993, USA):
It seemed film critics were so busy comparing this superb film to the previous pairing of Pacino and director DePalma in the laughably overrated, one-dimensional Scarface (1983,USA), the brilliance of Pacino’s performance as a former crime kingpin trying to go straight in Carlito’s Way was largely overlooked.
Pacino, an obvious American cinema legend, won a Best Actor Oscar for Scent of a Woman (Martin Brest, 1992, USA) and was a nominee in the same category for Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973, USA), The Godfather part 2 (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974, USA), Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975, USA) and …And Justice for All (Norman Jewison, 1979, USA).
Pacino was Oscar-nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category for The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, USA), Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty, 1990, USA) and Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992, USA).
While the 1970’s will always be considered the golden age of Al Pacino, the 1990’s also contains some outstanding performances by the actor with Carlito Brigante at the top of that decade’s list.
Other notable Al Pacino performances: The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, USA), The Godfather part 2 (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974, USA), Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973, USA), Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975, USA), …And Justice For All (Norman Jewison, 1979, USA), Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992, USA), Heat (Michael Mann, 1995, USA), City Hall (Harold Becker, 1996, USA).
Morgan Freeman as Detective William Somerset in Seven (David Fincher, 1995, USA):
Freeman’s outstanding performance as a burned-out veteran police detective in this film is one of the best of his career. In fact, Freeman’s undeniably strong screen presence and tremendous acting help make up for a mediocre performance by Brad Pitt as his cocky young partner.
Seven is a modern classic and while much of the credit for that has gone to Fincher’s excellent directing and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker’s brilliant screenplay, not enough credit has gone to the quietly powerful lead acting of Morgan Freeman.
An Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actor for Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004, USA) and a nominee in that category for Street Smart (Jerry Schatzberg, 1987, USA), Freeman was nominated for Best Actor Oscars for Driving Miss Daisy (Bruce Beresford, 1989, USA), The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994, USA) and Invictus (Clint Eastwood, 2009, USA).
Other notable Morgan Freeman performances: Street Smart (Jerry Schatzberg, 1987, USA), Lean On Me (John G. Avildsen, 1989, USA), The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994, USA), Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004, USA).
Philip Baker Hall as Sydney in Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996, USA):
Veteran screen and stage actor Hall turns in the best performance of his film career in a rare leading role as an aging professional gambler who takes a novice in need of money under his wing.
The film’s original title was Sydney and that would have been an appropriate moniker as the film is a tremendous showcase for Hall in a role written by screenwriter/director Anderson with the actor in mind.
Hall worked with Paul Thomas Anderson on Hard Eight, Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) and is outstanding in all three collaborations, especially Hard Eight and Boogie Nights.
For a hilarious look at another side of Hall, check out the 1991 Seinfeld episode “The Library”.
Other notable Philip Baker Hall performances: Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997, USA), Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999, USA).
Stellan Skarsgard as Jonas Engstrom in Insomnia (Erik Skjoldbjaerg, 1997, Norway):
First, forget the softened 2002 American remake directed by Christopher Nolan as it pales by comparison with the original. Skarsgard turns in one of the great performances of his long career as a guilt-ridden police detective searching for a killer who knows a little too much about him.
A perfect example of what could be called modern film noir, this great film is not to be missed and it’s Skarsgard’s impressive lead acting that ties the excellent directing by Skjoldbjaerg and the outstanding screenplay by Skjoldbjaerg and Nikolaj Frobenius together.
Usually cast in supporting roles, in Insomnia and Tom Shankland’s woefully underrated Waz (aka The Killing Gene, 2007, UK), Skarsgard shows he can brilliantly carry the right film.
Other notable Stellan Skarsgard performances: Waz (aka The Killing Gene, Tom Shankland, 2007, UK).
Eric Bana as Mark Brandon Read in Chopper (Andrew Dominik, 2000, Australia):
The film performance that put Bana on the global cinema map set the bar very high and Bana has yet to find a role as perfect for him as the lead in Chopper.
Performance highlights include the scene where Bana’s character converses with a prison inmate while he’s being stabbed and the gruesome ear-cutting scene.
Efforts to promote Bana as a Hollywood leading man have met with mixed results as he tends to be cast in roles that lack the kind of ‘’go for broke” edge found in his portrayal of real-life criminal Read.
Bana has yet to equal his incredible acting in Chopper but he has a long career ahead of him.
Other notable Eric Bana performances: Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005, USA).
Robert Forster as Eddie Miller in Diamond Men (Daniel M. Cohen, 2000, USA):
Robert Forster’s trademark subtle acting style is in full effect as an aging mentor character in director/screenwriter Cohen’s little-seen character-based drama about a pair of traveling salesmen.
The always solid veteran actor Forster got a substantial career boost after his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown in 1997 and his work in Diamond Men stands out as his best post-nomination performance to date.
Other notable Robert Forster performances: Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997, USA).
Billy Bob Thornton as Hank Grotowski in Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster, 2001, USA):
And the critical attention for this film goes to…..Halle Berry. Berry landed an Academy Award win for Best Actress in a film where she is blown off the screen by Thornton’s powerful performance as a troubled prison guard who finds himself at a major turning point in his life.
There are scenes in the film where the audience can see Berry really exerting effort whereas Thornton quietly and confidently fully inhabits his character from the first scene. Forget Thornton’s self-directed cartoonish acting in Sling Blade (1996, USA) that landed him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, his performance in Monster’s Ball is his best to date, showing Thornton at the height of his acting skills.
Thornton landed a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998) and was robbed of real critical acclaim for his work in Monster’s Ball.
Other notable Billy Bob Thornton performances: A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi, 1998, various countries), Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff, 2003, USA).
Kurt Russell as Eldon Perry in Dark Blue (Ron Shelton, 2002, USA):
Russell is a prime example of an actor who simply has never received enough critical credit. One of the performances that deserved much more attention than it got was his role as a corrupt Los Angeles police detective whose way of life is about to be shattered in director Shelton’s Dark Blue.
From a screenplay written by James Ellroy and David Ayer, the film deals with high-level LAPD corruption just before the 1992 riots sparked by the Rodney King verdict. Dark Blue is centered on Russell’s renegade character and his younger, more idealistic partner and Russell does a fantastic job with all aspects of his character in this mixed bag of a film.
Performance highlights include the motel room scene where Russell’s character realizes a potentially deadly betrayal is headed his way and his unexpected public confessional speech at the film’s end.
Other notable Kurt Russell performances: Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981, USA), The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982, USA), Big Trouble In Little China (John Carpenter, 1986, USA), Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993, USA).
Daniel Auteuil as Leo Vrinks in 36th Precinct (Olivier Marchal, 2004, France):
There was a good deal of conversation about Javier Bardem being the best screen actor in the world around the time of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar win for the Coen Brothers’ misguided No Country for Old Men(2007, USA).
While Bardem is clearly very talented and there certainly are other elite contenders in the mix for such a lofty title, the best screen actor in the world is the brilliant, astonishingly versatile French actor Daniel Auteuil.
What stops most critics from acknowledging this fact? Unlike fellow French actors Jean Reno, Vincent Cassel, Mathieu Kassovitz and Jean Dujardin, Auteuil doesn’t act in American films or even English language cinema for that matter-the lone exception being Chris Menges’ The Lost Son (1999, UK/France)-and therefore doesn’t have the critical profile he should outside of Europe.
The charismatic Auteuil is highly adept at both drama and comedy and his physical performance as a feared swordsman in Philippe DeBroca’s On Guard (aka Le Bossu, 1997, France) is very impressive.
While many of his lead performances could’ve have been singled out for this article, Auteuil’s underrated acting as a French policeman in a dangerous competition for promotion in director Marchal’s superior crime film 36th Precinct deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.
If you want to get more acquainted with this tremendous cinema talent, 36th Precinct is a great place to start and it would be advisable to watch this film before the American remake that’s currently in development comes out.
Other notable Daniel Auteuil performances: Queen Margot (Patrice Chereau, 1994, France), On Guard (aka Le Bossu, Philippe DeBroca, 1997, France), Girl On The Bridge (Patrice Leconte, 1999, France), The Widow Of St. Pierre (Patrice Leconte, 2000, France), Apres Vous (Pierre Salvadori, 2003, France), My Best Friend (Patrice Leconte, 2006, France), The Last Deadly Mission (aka MR73, Olivier Marchal, 2008, France).
Min-Sik Choi as Dae-su Oh in Oldboy (Chan-wook Park, 2003, South Korea):
Highly respected actor Choi turns in an amazing performance in Park’s vicious tale of a man transformed from an unlikable drunk to a revenge machine over fifteen grueling years of imprisonment.
An iconic piece of acting along the lines of Noomi Rapace in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009, Sweden), the unenviable task of tackling this role in the inevitable and absurdly unnecessary American remake being released in late 2013 falls to the talented Josh Brolin.
For a great look at another side of the gifted Choi, see Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil (2010, South Korea), where the actor is cast as a predatory psychopath and really makes what could’ve been an unremarkable role incredibly memorable.
Other notable Min-Sik Choi performances: I Saw The Devil (Jee-Woon Kim, 2010, South Korea).
Ricardo Darin as Esteban Espinosa in The Aura (Fabian Bielinsky, 2005, Argentina):
What Daniel Auteuil is to French cinema, Javier Bardem is to Spanish cinema and Mads Mikkelsen is to Danish cinema, Ricard Darin is to Argentinian cinema.
Darin delivers an outstanding performance as an epileptic taxidermist drawn into a robbery plot in this largely overlooked and highly accomplished modern film noir from late director Bielinsky. Bielinsky had previously directed Darin in the well-made but lighter in tone con man crime film Nine Queens in 2000.
Bielisnky’s untimely death at age 47 in 2006 robbed the film world of an obvious talent and a director/actor collaboration with tremendous potential.
Other notable Ricardo Darin performances: Nine Queens (Fabian Bielinsky, 2000, Argentina), The Secret In Their Eyes (Juan Jose Campanella, 2009, Argentina), Carancho (Pablo Trapero, 2010, Argentina).
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006, USA/UK):
Daniel Craig is perfectly cast as a multi-faceted James Bond and does more with the role than any 007 predecessor, including a powerful, explosive level of physical performance not even approached by any previous Bond actor.
Performance highlights include the great train scene with Craig and Eva Green and the genital torture scene that features intense, emotional acting you can’t picture any of the previous Bond actors being able to perform so effectively.
Craig, the best James Bond in the series’ long history, has had difficulty finding a role outside the series that makes use of his particular acting talents as well as the current Bond films do.
Other notable Daniel Craig performances: Quantum Of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008, USA/UK), Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012, USA/UK).
Michael Fassbender as Brandon in Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011, UK):
Fassbender, a major screen acting talent, is the best part of uneven films like Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009, USA) and Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012, USA).
He was absolutely and disgracefully robbed of a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his courageous and intense performance as a deeply damaged man whose contained world of sexual obsession is disrupted by the arrival of his sister.
This was a huge nomination miss. One is left to believe that if an American actor had given this performance in an American production, a Best Actor Oscar nomination would’ve been much more likely.
Other notable Michael Fassbender performances: Eden Lake (James Watkins, 2008, UK), Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009, USA), X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011, USA), Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012, USA).
THE “ALMOST” LIST:
The following is a list of outstanding lead acting performances that almost made the cut but ultimately didn’t for various reasons.
Robert Mitchum as Jeff in Out Of The Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947, USA).
Sterling Hayden as Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950, USA).
Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955, USA).
Charles Bronson as Arthur Bishop in The Mechanic (Michael Winner, 1972, USA).
George Peppard as Tuxan in The Groundstar Conspiracy (Lamont Johnson, 1972, USA/Canada).
Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987, USA).
Chow Yun-Fat as Ah Jong in The Killer (John Woo, 1989, Hong Kong).
Martin Donovan as Matthew Slaughter in Trust (Hal Hartley, 1990, USA).
Johnny Depp as Ed Wood in Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994, USA).
Jean Reno as Leon in Leon: The Professional (Luc Besson, 1994, France).
Owen Wilson as Dignan in Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996, USA).
Todd Field as Jimmy in Broken Vessels (Scott Ziehl, 1998, USA).
Paddy Considine as Richard in Dead Man’s Shoes (Shane Meadows, 2004, USA).
Joseph Gordon Levitt as Brendan in Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005, USA).
Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell in Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009, USA).
Ryan Gosling as The Driver in Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011, USA).
SPECIAL MENTION: I’ll take a quick moment here to give recognition to some lead acting performances that don’t get any attention outside the horror genre and receive very little even within those confines.
Robert Quarry delivers the best performances of his career as the title character in Count Yorga, Vampire (Bob Kelljan, 1970, USA) and The Return Of Count Yorga (Bob Kelljan, 1971, USA), truly elevating the level of quality of both films.
William Marshall does the same as Blacula (William Crain, 1972, USA). Marshall, a very talented actor who should’ve had a much more successful big screen career, would have been the perfect casting choice for The Duke in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981, USA) and Thulsa Doom in Conan The Barbarian (John Milius, 1982, USA).