Idiots Guide: 20 All-Time Classic Acting Performances in Film (Male)

The filmmaking art form is truly a collaborative effort. The journey begins with the screenwriter and as the train moves forward a litany of artistic and business professionals board it as it heads to the finish line, which is of course the completed film. With all other things being equal, a dedicated performance from the actor(s) is paramount to a films overall success. Bringing characters to life is a fine art and when it’s done well creates a memorable image that is at the same time influential and transcendent. There have been many good performances in film history, however there’s just a rare few that have ingrained themselves into the pantheon of the all-time classic. Idiots Guide presents a look at 20 of these timeless performances and the actors who produced them. Not all of these performances were from ‘leading’ characters, some are from ‘supporting roles’, however, all them are transcendent in application and effect. Enjoy the journey…

#20. Sylvester Stallone  /   Rocky    (1976)

sylvester-stallone Rocky 1

It is likely that Sylvester Stallone never imagined the incredible level of success that the ‘Rocky’ film series has enjoyed when he was writing the original screenplay back in 1975. However that’s exactly what has happened. His portrayal of Rocky Balboa, the street educated working class, Italian-American boxer with a heart of gold was riveting. From the first scene it was obvious that Rocky was a compelling character. The film was directed by John G. Avildsen and in many ways is the classic ‘rags to riches’ yarn which American audiences immediately relate. Stallone’s Rocky Balboa is an all-time character.

#19.  Harrison Ford   /   Star Wars  (1977)

Harrison Ford Star wars

Did you know that Harrison Ford’s salary for the original ‘Star Wars’ was a modest $1,000 per week? True story. Of course he had no way of knowing that he was enlisting to star in a phenomenon-to-be, but a good choice in the end, no? Regardless, his portrayal of the wise-cracking, acerbic tongued smuggler, Hans Solo is one for the ages. Following this character as he engaged with the Rebel Alliance against the formidable Galactic Empire has become a significant part of American popular culture.

#18.   Jack Nicholson  /  One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest   (1975)

Jack Nicholson One Flew Over

For those of you lucky enough to have seen Jack Nicholson act during his prime in the 1970’s, you remember what an amazing talent he was at the time. In 1975 he played the anti-establishment criminal  Randle Patrick “Mac” McMurphy in Director Milos Forman’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, a film that would go on to be considered one of the greatest of all-time critically speaking. A major reason for this was Jack Nicholson’s performance. Sublime. His character brought a screen gravitas that has rarely been seen before or since.

#17. Morgan Freeman  /  The Shawshank Redemption   (1994)

Morgan Freeman Shawshank

Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding in Writer/Director Frank Darabont’s exceptional ‘Shawshank Redemption’, was quite frankly, the lynch-pin of the film. Especially with regards to his compelling voice over narration. He starred alongside Tim Robbins (also great) in this adaptation of the Stephen King novella. Freeman’s friendship with Robbins helped to truly characterize life in Shawshank State Penitentiary. Morgan Freeman’s performance was transcendent and thus earns him a spot on our list.

#16.   Ed Harris  /  GlenGarry Glen Ross   (1992)

Ed Harris Glen Garry

It should come as no surprise that the writing in David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play ‘GlenGarry Glen Ross’ was exceptional. In Director Dave Foley’s 1992 film adaptation, Ed Harris played the Dave Moss character and he did it better than anyone had before on stage or film. Harris captured the abject desperation and frustration of the real estate salesman, masterfully. In fact his supporting cast which included Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey are all deserving of an honorable mention however, Ed Harris is the true standout in our opinion. “You got the memory of a f*cking fly!” -Moss

#15.   Chazz Palminteri   /   A Bronx Tale   (1993)

Chazz P Bronx Tale

Sonny LoSpecchio was a fictional mob captain in a 1960’s Bronx, NY neighborhood. Chazz Palminteri’s portrayal of him made it seem all too real. His performance of the mafia figure was exemplary, especially in a genre that is saturated with talented players. Released in 1993, ‘A Bronx Tale’ was Robert De Niro’s directorial debut and Chazz Palminteri served as both screenwriter and c0-star. Both of his contributions are noteworthy, with his acting positioned at the forefront of the films notoriety. If you haven’t seen this picture, we highly suggest that you do so and the sooner the better.

#14.  Peter Sellers   /  Being There   (1979)

Peter Sellers Being There (1979)

Hal Ashby’s ‘Being There’ released in 1979 is an unusual comedy-drama hybrid film. What is for certain is Peter Seller’s quirky, memorable and Best Actor nominated performance as Chance the simple minded gardener who unwittingly possesses credible philosophic wisdom that he derives almost exclusively from television programming. I told you it was unusual. This is the kind of performance that requires adept nuance and Seller’s delivered in monumental ways. You know an actor did his job when audiences couldn’t possibly imagine anyone else playing the role. That was Peter Seller’s in ‘Being There’.

#13.  James Stewart   /   It’s a Wonderful Life   (1946)

James Stewart  It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

James Stewart’s portrayal of George Bailey , a suicidal man with broken dreams but has a Christmas Eve intervention by his guardian angel, is simply one for the ages. Directed by Frank Capra, The 1946 film is probably the most popular Christmas movie in the history of American cinema. A film that is mandatory viewing in millions of American households during the silly season. Some of that is nostalgia, but the reality is that this film is one of the best overall pictures, ever. With James Stewart’s performance approaching legendary.

#12.   Tom Hanks  /  Castaway   (2000)

Tom Hanks Cast Away (2000)

In the year 2000 Director Robert Zemeckis’s film  ‘Castaway’ was released and audiences were instantly entertained by Tom Hank’s portrayal of Fed Ex employee and plane crash survivor Chuck Nolandepic, and his fight for survival. We watched Chuck’s drama unfold as a lone stranded man, somewhere in the South Pacific, fighting to retain his sanity using ‘Wilson’, a volleyball. It was the kind of role that only the best of the best could pull off and Hank’s did it with bells and whistles. For his extraordinary efforts, Tom Hanks was nominated for Best Actor at the 73rd Academy Awards and won that same award at the 58th Golden Globes Awards for his efforts. His performance in this film made it clear that Hanks is among the very best actors, ever.

#11.   Kevin Spacey  /  The Usual Suspects   (1995)

Kevin Spacey Usual Suspects

Bryan Singer’s 1995 release of his film-noir crime drama ‘The Usual Suspects’ ignited an underground cult following that exists to this very day. A major reason for this is the shadowy, evil character known as Keyser Söze and Kevin Spacey’s amazing double duty performance of con artist Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint who is actually Söze in disguise, hiding in plain site while in police custody. Got all of that? Yes, it’s a very intriguing crime drama. Spacey’s compelling voice over narration is the backbone of this film and it keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. Spacey brilliantly melded diabolical, sinister and vulnerable in playing these roles. This is a fine example of exemplary acting work.

#10.  Wesley Snipes  /  New Jack City   (1991)

Wesley Snipes New jack City

Ironically, Wesley Snipes isn’t exactly comfortable with the popularity of his Nino Brown character from Mario Van Peebles’s 1991 crime drama ‘New Jack City’. The popularity of this character has a lot to do with how incredible Snipe’s portrayal of him was. He played the drug czar during the 1980’s crack epidemic with a kind of inert intensity that is rarely seen and impossible to teach. The film itself is a fast cult classic with many quotable and memorable lines of dialogue. Many an adolescent to young adult male has found great pleasure in this film regardless of Snipe’s uneasiness with it. Sometimes, it’s possible to be too good at a thing, I suppose.

#9.  Robert DeNiro   /   Raging Bull    (1980)

Robert De Niro  Raging Bull (1980)

Martin Scorsese’s ‘Raging Bull’ (1980) is a visually exceptional black and white sports bio-pic that helped propel Robert DeNiro into superstardom. His portrayal of Italian American boxing champion, Jake LaMotta is right along par with the very best of the genre. DeNiro showed audiences the good, bad and ugly of this character with almost flawless diction. The film itself is considered to be among the very best ever, regardless of genre. Robert DeNiro’s performance is something to be admired, then and now.

#8.  Steve McQueen  /   Bullitt    (1968)

Steve McQueen Bullet

Throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s Steve McQueen defined what it meant to be ‘cool’ in America. His portrayal of SFPD Lieutenant Frank Bullitt was the archetype of this notion of cool. McQueen played this character with a quiet intensity that embodied the ‘strong, silent type’. Director Peter Yates’s 1968 dramatic thriller served as a perfect vehicle for McQueen to show his stuff and that he most certainly did. Throughout film history there have been a few leading men that all men wanted to be like, Steve McQueen served as that figure for the better part of two decades.

#7.   Samuel L. Jackson  /  Pulp Fiction    (1994)

Samuel-L-Jackson Pulp Ficiton

Director Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994) is one of the very best American film noir crime dramas of all-time. This film starred an impressive list of stars, but Samuel L. Jackson’s role as mob hitman Jules Winnfield set itself apart for sheer energy and impact. There was the classic and memorable reciting of bible verses in the moments immediately before he commits a murder, for example, that made this character so significant. It’s difficult to find a character that such a great number of fans continue to revel, even after two decades time. Samuel Jackson was that good in this role. #Awesome.

#6.   Ray Liotta   /   Goodfellas    (1985)

Ray Liotta 2 Goodfellas

Did you know that ‘Goodfellas’ was a film adaptation of ‘Wiseguy’ by Nicholas Pileggi (1986)?  Martin Scorsese directed a very talented cast of characters, not the least of which was Ray Liotta in his role as Henry Hill a real life member of the Lucchese crime family. Although the family itself was not mentioned by name, the implications were clear, and the characters thinly disguised. Liotta played Henry Hill to a level that was impressive as it was compelling. His voice over narration was an important part of the movie and was so good that personally, I couldn’t think of any actor who could do it better than he did. The film itself is considered to be one of the best mafia films ever made, taking nothing away from ‘The Godfather’. Ray Liotta’s contribution is certainly a big reason for this.

#5.   Val Kilmer   /   Tombstone    (1993)

Val Kilmer Tombstone

Seriously, what’s not to love about a hard drinking, degenerate gambling, expert gunslinging cowboy? I know, right? I can’t think of any actor who wouldn’t fall over themselves for an opportunity to play that character. Well, Val Kilmer got that opportunity when he was cast to play the legendary Wyatt Earp’s old friend Doc Holliday, in Director George P. Cosmatos’s modern classic western ‘Tombstone’ (1993) . Kilmer knocked it out of the park. Sure, Cosmatos took extreme dramatic license and exhibited revisionist history in the plot of the ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’, but who cares? Kilmer’s Doc Holiday was off the chain good. With a litany of memorable lines including “I’m your huckleberry” and “You’re a daisy if you do”, Val Kilmer’s portrayal of the legendary Doc Holliday is definitely one for the ages, and not up for debate. #Badass

#4.   Robert DuVall   /   Apocalypse Now    (1979)

Robert Duvall Apocolypse

The horror of the Vietnam war is well documented, some of which was detailed in Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979). It featured a well stocked cast of veterans (Marlon Brando) and new kids (Laurence Fishburne). However, Robert DuVall’s portrayal of Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Kilgore was simply one of the most compelling in the history of war films. Never before had audiences seen this type of military leader, a swashbuckling surfer type who was hell bent on having a good time in the midst of the abject terror of war. Frankly, I am still amazed to this day, each time I watch this film. That by definition is an exceptional acting performance. Hats off to Robert DuVall.

#3.   Denzel Washington   /   Malcolm X     (1992)

Denzel Washington Malcolm X (1992)

Portraying a historical figure carries with it a unique set of challenges. Playing a controversial historical figure from the turbulent civil rights era, even more so. Then add the caveat of that figure being Malcolm X, perhaps the most misunderstood civil rights leader in history, and you have a recipe for the challenge of challenges. These issues are a large part what make Denzel Washington’s performance in Director Spike Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ (1992)  so remarkable. When I first viewed this film I was amazed at the accuracy of not only his look, but his voice and mannerisms. It was like looking at history come to life. Spike Lee deserves all the credit in the world for not only making this film, but for making it so very well. However, it was Denzel Washington’s transcendent performance that still resonates today and for future times. Unbelievable. The fact that he didn’t win the Oscar that year, is an indictment on the Academy. Seriously.

#2.  Heath Ledger   /  The Dark Knight    (2008)

Heath Ledger Dark Knight

As fans of exceptional film acting, we all lost a great deal when Heath Ledger tragically passed away suddenly in early 2008. However, we were lucky enough to see his virtuoso performance as fictional criminal madman, and Batman’s nemesis  ‘The Joker’ in Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008). It was as if Ledger truly became the depravity ingrained in the character, there is no other explanation for his otherworldly performance. I honestly forgot for a moment that I was watching a film and thought this character was real. That’s how good Heath Ledger’s performance was. There is not one iota of embellishment or conjecture when I state that. It was a chilling performance that from reports, haunted Ledger. I can certainly see why. Heath Ledger may have left us too soon, but with this performance he left us a permanent reminder of his immense talent.

#1.  Al Pacino   /   The Godfather  &  The Godfather Part II     (1972 & 1974) 

Al Pacino Godfather, Part II (1974)

The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) are widely considered to be the best set of crime drama films of the 20th century. A major reason for this was the standard setting performances given by a young Al Pacino as crime empire heir  Michael Corleone. Pacino’s acting was a clinic in nuance, pace and intensity. He had a chilling demeanor that made audiences hold their breath, while at the same time allowed us to imagine his inner emotional turmoil. His performances were simply sublime and should be the gold standard for dramatic acting in this world or any other. Al Pacino is our number one.



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