Top Ten Greatest Acting Performances of All Time

With the recently concluded 86th Academy Awards, there is no doubt that Hollywood has earned its reputation to be the melting pot of talents from generations of veteran actors and rising talents. Despite the fact that several movies and acting performances were unable to receive the same amount of recognition among award winning bodies, they also deserve equal acknowledgement with their other peers.

One important factor that contributed to a film’s overall success is the actor’s performance. No amount of publicity could give justice to the film’s performance than how the actor was able to successfully deliver their role.  In celebration of Hollywood’s talented bunch, we give you the top ten greatest acting performances of all time.


10.) Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight, 2008)

Role: The Joker

Heath Ledger
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The late Australian actor received posthumous critical acclaim for his role as the Dark Knight’s iconic nemesis the Joker. Ledger gave one of the most riveting and realistically disturbing performances of the Joker that cemented his status as an icon in pop culture history. The late Academy Award winner actor revealed how he focused on the Joker’s internal character and delved deeper into the character’s psyche thereby giving life to the character. The actor practiced method acting which heavily contributed to his untimely death in 2008. The late actor died of overdose of prescription drugs.

Other notable performances of the late actor included the movies Brokeback Mountain, Casanova, and Lords of Dogtown.


9.) Daniel Day Lewis (My Left Foot, 1989 and There Will Be Blood, 2007)

Roles : Christy Brown and Daniel Plaineview

Daniel Day Lewis
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Academy Award winner British actor Daniel Day Lewis is reputed for being one of the most acclaimed actors with numerous awards under his belt.  Three of these awards came from his role as Christy Brown in the film My Left Foot. The movie centers around the story of an Irishman born with cerebral palsy who can only control his left foot. Lewis’ performance as Brown in the film is echoed by fellow British actor Eddie Redmayne who recently won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of famed physicist Stephen Hawking who has ALS.

Majority of Lewis’ preparations for the role took place in Dublin at Christy Brown’s alma matter. Other preparations included being carried around the set without leaving his wheelchair and the actor requested that his food be spoon fed to him. The actor returned to Dublin after he won his Oscar. One fun fact about the film is that majority of the scenes were filmed through a mirror as Lewis could only manipulate his right foot to perform the film’s action scenes.

There Will be Blood, centers around the story of a silver miner turned oilman on a coldblooded quest for wealth during the Southern California oil boom during the late 19th and early 20th century. The movie is loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! The novel is said to be based on the scandalous life of barnstorming oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny.  Lewis played the role of Daniel Plainview, the protagonist in the story. The actor who is known for his method acting, delivered the role with such intense playfulness that even in between takes he would scare off Kel O’ Neill who found the actor unbearable to work with during the movie.


8.) Patricia Neal (HUD, 1963)

Role: Alma Brown

Patricia Neal
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                Hollywood actress Patricia Neal is best known for her film roles in movies: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and in the film HUD (1963) where she performed one of her most prevailing roles that placed her in this list. Neal played a middle aged housekeeper named Alma Brown. Hud centers between the conflict of principled patriarch Homer Bannon and his corrupt son Hud during the outbreak of foot and mouth disease putting the family’s cattle ranch at risk.

Despite Neal’s minimum screen time, her unaffected performance as Alma has earned her a dominating screen presence. She won major awards for her portrayal of the world weary Alma that exuded a low key sexiness and down to earth resolve that resonated all other remnants of the film.


7.) Elizabeth Taylor (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1966)

Role: Martha

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Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor has proved once again that she is not just a pretty face in the industry. Considered to be one of the greatest screen actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the actress ‘performance as Martha in the critically acclaimed film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, has earned her a spot in the list.

Based on the play of the same name, the movie features the breakdown of the marriage of a middle aged couple named Martha and George. Taylor admitted that she was not so fond of the role when she played it so it came as a surprise to the actress that she won an Oscar for her performance. The actress icy embodiment of her character who preys on weaker characters with such brutality and precision simply made anyone watching her jump from their seat.


6.) Charlize Theron (Monster, 2003)

Role:  Aileen Wuornos

Charlize Theron
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South African and American actress Charlize Theron’s performance as the convicted prostitute Aileen Wuornos garnered a place in the list. Monster is a 2003 crime film about the convicted prostitute and serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Theron’s transformation was not only limited to the physical aspect of the character by gaining 30 pounds but her transformation also reflected the emotional and psychological struggle that her character went through. Her unrecognizable and genuine transformation for the role not only has gained her praises from critics but also awe and inspiration from moviegoers who developed a level of empathy for the convicted murderer.


5.) Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry, 1999)

Role: Brandon Teena

Hilary Swank
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Actress Hilary Swank won major praises for her role as transgender Brandon Teena in the independent film Boys Don’t Cry. The movie features the eventual beating, raping and murdering of Teena by his male acquaintances after their discovery that she is anatomically female. The actress underwent significant preparations for the role.

Swank revealed that she dressed and lived as a boy for months to prepare for the role. Her performance was so convincing that even her neighbors thought she was a brother visiting her. The actress’s portrayal of Teena showed a deeper physical and emotional connection with the character’s past and present life.


4.) Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice, 1982)

Role: Zofia “Sophie” Zawistowski

Meryl Streep
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Three time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep is known for many unforgettable performances but it was her role as the Polish immigrant Sophie Zawistowski in the movie Sophie’s Choice that earned her a spot in the list. Sophie’s Choice is adapted on the novel of the same name. It tells the story of Polish immigrant Sophie who shares a boarding house with her emotionally turbulent lover Nathan and a writer named Stingo.

The actress had to undergo a lengthy and rigorous preparation for the role. Streep meticulously studied the role and even went on a strict diet to achieve the look that one got from being in a concentration camp. One of the most heart wrenching scenes in the movie featured how her character Sophie had to make a choice between her two children on who to keep.  The actress’s display of raw emotions during that pivotal moment is one of Hollywood’s most unforgettable movie scenes of all time.


3.) Vivien Leigh (A Streetcar named Desire, 1951 and Gone with the Wind, 1939)

Roles: Blanche Dubois (A Streetcar named Desire) and Scarlett O’ Hara (Gone with the Wind)

Vivien Leigh
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Hollywood actress Vivien Leigh is not merely known for her exceptional beauty but also for her exquisite performances both on stage and on screen. Leigh’s portrayal of Southern belles from two of literature’s most powerful characters has earned her Academy awards and critical acclaim.

A Streetcar named Desire is an American film based on the play of the same name. Written by Tennessee Williams, the play revolved around the story of Blanche Dubois who sought the protection of her sister only to descend into mental insanity after being raped by her sister’s husband. Leigh once admitted that her beauty has caused people in the industry not to take her seriously. She proved her detractors wrong when she showed her wide trademark range during her performance of a fading Blanche.  Her delivery of a frail yet fortified character and eventual descent into insanity has won her critical acclaim.

In Gone with the Wind, Leigh played the role of the heroine Scarlett O’ Hara. Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War and the Restoration, Leigh delivered one of the most endearing portrayals of one of literature’s most romantic figures. The actress portrayed the selfish strategist and feminist figure with such finesse that the once lauded British outsider has proved how a true artist can shine given the greatest chance of their career.


2.) Robert de Niro (Raging Bull, 1980)

Role: Jake LaMotta

Robert DeNiro
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Academy Award Winner Robert de Niro is an American actor and film producer whose successful career has spanned over 90 films. This talented actor has charmed the world with his performances from several critically acclaimed films like The Taxi Driver, The Godfather and Cape Fear. Despite garnering critical praise from his other movies; it was his portrayal of Italian American Middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta that earned him a place in the list.

De Niro had to undergo tremendous physical training and had to gain 60 pounds for the role of the overweight boxer. It was even reported that the actor joined a boxing match for 3 rounds. Raging Bull tells the story of Italian American boxer Jake LaMotta and chronicles how his self-destructive nature and obsessive rage has destroyed his relationship with his wife and family. The actor’s use of extreme method acting and technical accomplishments to deliver his character’s ugly emotional switchbacks has earned him not just a level of empathy from the viewers but has impressed the critics for his performance to be recognized.


1.) Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront, 1954 and The Godfather , 1972)

Roles: Terry Malloy (On the Waterfront) and Vito Corleone (The Godfather)

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Hollywood actor Marlon Brando has earned the reputation for fitting his roles like a glove and performing them with ease. Brando has earned the reputation for giving realism to his acting performances. A cultural icon, the actor is widely recognized as one of the greatest and most influential actors of all time. Two of his most memorable performances were in the movies On the Waterfront and The Godfather.

On the Waterfront is a movie that revolved around the widespread corruption, extortion, and racketeering on the waterfronts of Hoboken, New Jersey. Brando played dockworker Terry Malloy. The actor, who mainly worked with improvisations, successfully delivered an acting performance that solely relied on improvisations and gestures to communicate his inarticulate character’s internal struggles and emotions.

Regarded as one of Brando’s most memorable performances,  his performance of Vito Corleone in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather cemented his status as one of the greatest actors of all times. The movie revolved around the story of a fictional New York crime family that spanned for over 11 years. Brando delivered a performance that reflected the oppressive weight of amorality and the betrayal of time against a ruthless character. His performance has resonated along the entire franchise even after his departure.

The performances of the actors on this list have proven to be their greatest legacy to the craft. No matter how small or big their roles were, their passion and dedication in bringing every character to life deserves every bit of recognition that even the award giving bodies could not give. The fact that their performances have inspired countless individuals to pursue acting is the ultimate reward of how an artist can truly make a difference.

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  1. Great list! Love that we have so many in common and I LOVE that you included Patricia Neal’s performance in Hud here. More people need to see that movie. She is so good in it.


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