We’ve pulled together our definitive rundown of the 10 greatest acting performances of all time. For more great video content and Top 10 movie lists, subscribe to our YouTube channel.
Acting is one of the world’s oldest art forms and predates movies by thousands of years. From drama, through comedy to action, we’ve looked at movie stars, method actors, leading men and ladies, supporting roles and child performances to pull together our list of the 10 greatest acting performances of all time.
10. Movie star
What is it?
Some big name performers don’t deal in method acting or chameleonic performances, but trade in looks, charisma and an engaging screen presence. These are movie stars, they sell tickets, and it’s the movie star performance we’re looking at to get the ball rolling.
The biggest movie star of his generation, Paul Newman delivered one of his definitive performances in Cool Hand Luke (1967). Audrey Hepburn played a New York socialite and created some of the most iconic movie images, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). And Marlon Brando combined sublime acting and movie star charisma to leave an indelible mark on cinema in The Godfather (1972).
Our selection, though, wasn’t a difficult choice. A great movie star and an iconic movie character. Making this up as he goes along in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), it’s Harrison Ford
Coming on the back of his career-making turn as Han Solo in two Star Wars films, Harrison Ford was cast by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as their next heroic creation, adventuring archaeologist, Indiana Jones.
Starring in one of the biggest films of its decade, Ford’s acting and line delivery are excellent, but it’s his rarely matched screen presence that truly shines. Looking about as great as anybody could donning a fedora, leather jacket, and bull whip, Ford’s performance as Indy delivers high octane action, heartfelt drama, and expert comic timing as he carries one of Spielberg’s most beloved films in a masterclass of movie star charisma.
The title role in a classic series, an iconic character, and the greatest movie star performance of all time.
9. Child performance
What is it?
Sometimes, talent emerges very early in an actor’s career. Some actors’ most famous performances come before they reach adulthood, and it’s child performances we’re analysing for our ninth spot.
Hailee Steinfeld burst onto the scene to hold her own against Hollywood heavyweights in True Grit (2010). Jodie Foster gave signs of the incredible career that was to follow in Taxi Driver (1976). And Tatum O’Neal is still the youngest ever Oscar-winner, for her performance in Paper Moon (1973).
We’re heading to a horror classic for our pick though. It’s the outstanding child performance in The Exorcist (1973) by Linda Blair.
Acclaimed as one of the greatest horror movies ever made, The Exorcists relies on chilling performances from its cast to deliver its scares, and Linda Blair’s portrayal of Regan, a young girl possessed by an evil demon, is pivotal to that.
Just 14-years-old at the time, Linda Blair’s conveyance of happy go lucky child, through worried hospital patient into foul-mouthed, vomiting, abusive demon is equal parts horrific, breathtaking, and mesmerising to witness. Having fought off a host of child stars to win the role, Blair teamed up with voice actor Mercedes McCambridge to create an unforgettable antagonist, and gain an Oscar nomination.
One of horror’s most memorable villains, an astonishing display of range, and one of the greatest child acting performances in movies.
What is it?
Appearing in a single scene can’t be easy and, if done improperly, can halt a story in its tracks. Done well, though, the cameo appearance can steal a film, and it’s the cameo we’re looking at for number eight on our list.
Matthew McConnaughey improvised his way to one of the most parodied cameos in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Ned Beatty was Oscar nominated for 1 days work and a four page speech in Network (1976). And a monologue about a gold watch allowed Christopher Walken to deliver an unforgettable 4 minutes in Pulp Fiction (1994).
Our pick, however, is a tough racket. It’s the brief but blistering appearance in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) from Alec Baldwin.
Depicting two days in the lives of four real estate salesmen, Glengarry Glen Ross is based on a Pultizer-winning David Mamet play and is at its most explosive when top seller, Blake, is sent to shake up the sales team.
Mamet wrote the scene specifically for the movie and his unmistakable prose and savage humour provide the perfect platform, but it’s Baldwin’s Blake who, in a 17 minute diatribe of personal insults and manhood stripping, very nearly steals the entire film, with a portrayal of cruelty, sociopathy and narcissism as incendiary as in any other film.
Extraordinary dialogue, the single most quotable scene in movies, and the greatest cameo performance in Hollywood history.
7. Debut performance
What is it?
Usually, acting careers start with small, unobtrusive roles, working up to leading men and ladies. On occasion though, a young performer bursts onto the scene with such blinding brilliance that they become stars overnight.
Orson Welles directed, co-wrote and acted his way to Hollywood legend status in Citizen Kane (1941). Jennifer Hudson erupted into acting with an Oscar-winning performance in Dreamgirls (2006). And Marlee Matlin was the first deaf and still youngest recipient of a Best Actress Oscar for Children of a Lesser God (1986).
Our pick for number 7 though is a debut performance as beloved and iconic as it gets. With a spoonful of sugar as Mary Poppins, it’s Julie Andrews.
Faced with the prospect of a new carer entering their lives, the Banks children are thrilled with the arrival of a quirky, magical nanny who calls herself Mary Poppins.
Known only within Broadway circles at the time, Julie Andrews burst into Hollywood, and the hearts of audiences everywhere, with her extraordinary portrayal of the endearing, whimsical nanny. Displaying charming chemistry with the child and adult actors alike, Andrews shines in creating one of cinema’s most memorable characters with a blend of sweetness, sternness and a pitch-perfect singing voice, that gained her global recognition, and a Best Actress Oscar.
Practically perfect in every way, one of cinema’s most cherished characters, and a truly timeless debut performance.
6. Ensemble cast
Who are they?
Sometimes a movie doesn’t rely on a lead actor or actress. There’s no hero, heroine, or standout villain. Sometimes, a film tells an multi-character story, and its the ensemble cast we’re discussing for our 6th place.
An eclectic bunch of San Fernando Valley residents have a day they’ll never forget in Magnolia (1999). A group of World War II soldiers band together to fight for their survival in The Thin Red Line (1998). And in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), a family of geniuses set aside two decades of estrangement for an unexpected reunion.
For our winner, though, it’s a 90s iconic classic. From writer-director Quentin Taratnino, it’s his A-list cast in Pulp Fiction (1994).
Telling a tale of the intersecting lives of gangsters in LAs seedy underbelly, Pulp Fiction pulls together one of the most iconic cast rosters in history. A non-linear story of redemption and violence, Tarantino’s Oscar-winning script sizzles with characterisations, humour and quotable dialogue, all brilliantly brought to life by a main cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, John Travolta and Bruce Willis, mostly delivering career-making performances, and a wider cast of strangely superb supporting roles and cameos.
A decade-defining movie, some of the most iconic dialogue ever delivered, and an all-time great ensemble cast performance.
What is it?
Into the top 5, and we’re casting our eye over the movie villain. A story is only as good as its antagonist, so they say, and the villainous performance has given us some of the greatest acting in movies.
Heath Ledger redefined an iconic character and won a posthumous Oscar for The Dark Knight (2008). Jack Nicholson portrayed alcoholism and mental illness as chillingly as any actor has in The Shining (1980). And, in Psycho (1960), Anthony Perkins created a villain as layered and complex as he is shockingly unforgettable.
It’s from a retelling of one of the darkest periods in history where we’ve chosen our winner, though. From Schindler’s List (1993), and playing a World War II Nazi camp commandant, it’s Ralph Fiennes.
A factory owner who saved Jewish workers from extermination, Oskar Schindler is the real life hero of the film, his good deeds juxtaposed against the vile SS commandant, Amon Goeth.
Difficult to believe now that Schindler’s List was only Fiennes’ third cinematic role, given the size and power of his performance. Playing a Nazi who is the definition of evil, Fiennes is unnervingly compelling in portraying the cold, calculated and cruel Goeth as a smug, preening, conceited man with more depth and ambiguity than the real Goeth ever deserved.
Incredible dedication to the craft, spine-chilling realism, and the greatest villainous performance of them all.
What is it?
The comic performance is a balancing act between the silly and the sublime, the funny and the tragic. Too often overlooked, comedy actors can have a difficult time gaining recognition, so it’s the comic acting performance that fills our fourth position.
Great comic actor Jack Lemmon delivered his greatest comic performance in Some Like It Hot (1959). Eddie Murphy improvised his way to Hollywood megastardom in Beverly Hills Cop (1984). And dramatic actor Leslie Nielsen reinvented himself as a master of deadpan comedy in Airplane! (1980)
For our comedy pick, though, it’s one of the most iconic performances in movies, comedy or otherwise. It’s the triple threat performance in Dr Strangelove (1964) from Peter Sellers.
Perhaps best known for portraying bumbling Inspector Clouseau across 6 Pink Panther movies, Peter Sellers greatest comedic role actually came in Stanley Kubrick’s cold war satire.
Seller’s three performances showcased the full extent of his comic genius, each role requiring a different persona and demeanour to the last. From bland President Muffley through calm Captain Mandrake to overly eccentric Dr Strangelove, the common element is Sellers, his extraordinary comic timing, and unmatched talent for ad-libbing, usually unheard of in Kubrick movies.
The greatest multi-role performance, astonishing improvisation and the most iconic comedic acting in movies.
3. Classic Hollywood
What is it?
One of the oldest forms of human expression, acting dates back thousands of years, and certainly pre New Hollywood. Some of cinema’s biggest icons hail from classic era Hollywood, so that’s where we’re headed for third place.
Peter O’Toole carried a grand epic masterpiece as the lead in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Gloria Swanson played a fading movie star laced with humour and tragedy in Sunset Boulevard (1950). And Elizabeth Taylor went method to portray marital angst and win an Oscar in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? (1966).
All time legendary acting names there and, for our winner, we’ve got another. An Oscar-winning lead performance from On the Waterfront, it’s Marlon Brando.
An actor who could have appeared in this list for several roles, it’s Brando’s performance as ill-educated former prizefighter Terry Malloy that shines brightest.
Engaging and entertaining as ever, Brando carries the film like any great leading man would, but it’s the astonishing nuance and sensitivity he brings to Terry that truly elevates the performance. Sensitive enough to attract Eva Marie Saint’s Edie, and also tough enough that we believe he used to fight people for a living, Brando delivered a masterclass of method acting still analysed by students today.
One of the most influential actors in Hollywood, one of the most iconic monologues ever delivered, and the greatest performance in classic Hollywood.
2. Supporting character
What is it?
We’ve looked at some incredible acting performances but movies don’t just rely on their leads – the supporting cast are hugely important and, sometimes a stunning performance from a great supporting actor can dominate a film.
Dustin Hoffman brought his trademark charisma to play an enigmatic con man in Midnight Cowboy (1969). Beatrice Straight won an Oscar for just 5 minutes of blistering screen time in Network (1976). And Eli Wallach delivered one of the most iconic supporting characters of all in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966).
Our runner up, though, is a legendary lead performer in his greatest supporting role. From The GodfatherPart II, it’s Robert De Niro.
Faced with the unenviable task of following an iconic Marlon Brando, and starring alongside an all-star cast, De Niro still stands out as the young Vito Corleone.
Telling a story chronicling Vito’s rise from Italian immigrant to New York mob boss, De Niro spent 3 months in Sicily learning the language and customs, before channeling his trademark charismatic intensity into the Don, creating a character at once relatable and ruthless, all but stealing the film, and leading De Niro to his first Oscar win.
An iconic performance, history-making awards recognition and the greatest supporting role in Hollywood.
What is it?
We’re here, the number one position and our overall winner comes from the protagonist role. The ability to carry a film effectively requires a special talent, and most of the most iconic acting performances in history come from actors playing leading roles.
Meryl Streep’s reputation as one of the greatest actors who ever lived, started with Sophie’s Choice (1982). Al Pacino shouldered the most epic gangster movie of them all in The Godfather Part II (1974). And in Malcolm X (1992), Denzel Washington was Oscar-nominated for his portrayal of one of the most iconic figures in US history.
Any of those could have finished at number 1 but, as our overall winner, it’s a 21st century entry. Playing the lead in There Will Be Blood, it’s a monumental performance from Daniel Day Lewis.
Spanning 5 decades, Daniel Day Lewis’ movie acting career is characterised by its consistency and diversity, and reached an incredible peak with his portrayal of oil tycoon Daniel Plainview.
A brooding, understated masterpiece from Paul Thomas Anderson, its Day Lewis’ towering performance as the sociopathic oil prospector that is the jewel in the film’s crown. Playing a man who sells his soul to line his pockets, Day Lewis creates a character that reflects the movie – portraying quiet contemplation one minute, and unbridled, explosive rage the next.
A great actor’s greatest character, a powerhouse screen presence and, for us, the greatest acting performance of all time.
Do you agree with our selections? Have we included your favourites, or left out others worthy of mention? Let us know in the comments section below, and don’t forget to subscribe, like, and share for more All The Right Movies videos.
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