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The Best Oscar Performances of All Time


On our podcast over the weekend, we were discussing some of the best performances … ever. In 1982 Dustin Hoffman did Tootsie, Paul Newman did The Verdict, Ben Kingsley did Gandhi and Meryl Streep did Sophie’s Choice. While Streep’s stratospheric rise happened just before she reached the apex with Sophie’s Choice, journalists weren’t quite ready to surrender to the force that was and is Meryl Streep.

I personally think that Streep’s performance in Sophie’s Choice is the best performance by any actor ever, male or female. But that got me thinking and wondering what others I would add to the list. Off the top of my head I would say, in no particular order (but with an eye on transformation, becoming someone other than the actor) – obviously my own personal choices, this list of names:

[Note: a few of of these performance missed out on an Oscar nomination but we’re making up for the omission and including them anyway — Ryan].

Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice
Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire/On the Waterfront
Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor/Sandy Dennis/George Segal, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Mary Tyler Moore/Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People
Bette Davis, All About Eve/Now Voyager/The Letter
Jack Nicholson Carnal Knowledge/Five Easy Pieces/One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Louise Fletcher, Cuckoo’s Nest
Katharine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter
Peter O’Toole, Lawrence of Arabia/The Stuntman
Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind/A Streetcar Named Desire
Robert De Niro, Raging Bull
Judy Garland, A Star is Born
Frances McDormand/Steve Buscemi/William H. Macy, Fargo
Ben Kingsley, Sexy Beast

Paul Newman/Piper Laurie, The Hustler
Holly Hunter, Raising Arizona
Anthony Perkins, Psycho
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen
Dustin Hoffman, Midnight Cowboy/Tootsie
Cloris Leachman/Ben Johnson/Jeff Bridges/Ellen Burstyn, The Last Picture Show
William Hurt, The Kiss of the Spider Woman
Denzel Washington, Malcolm X
Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind
Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski
Anjelica Huston/Annette Bening/John Cusack, The Grifters
Kevin Spacey, American Beauty
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Gene Wilder, Young Frankenstein
Peter Sellers, Being There/Dr. Strangelove/Lolita
Liza Minnelli, Cabaret
Malcolm McDowell, Clockwork Orange
Sissy Spacek & Piper Laurie, Carrie
George C. Scott, Patton
Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard
Judy Holiday, Born Yesterday
Al Pacino, The Godfather II
Robert Walker, Strangers on a Train
Jessica Lange, Frances
Sally Field, Norma Rae
Angela Bassett, What’s Love Got to Do with It
Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Sean Penn, Milk
Diana Ross, Lady Sings the Blues
Glenn Close & Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune
Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump
Ralph Fiennes, Schindler’s List
Colin Firth, A Single Man/The King’s Speech
Emma Thompson, Sense & Sensibility
Anthony Hopkins, Silence of the Lambs
Kate Winslet, Heavenly Creatures
Holly Hunter, The Piano
Cicely Tyson/Paul Winfield, Sounder
Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
Jodie Foster, Taxi Driver
Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive
Laura Dern, Inland Empire
Dennis Hopper, Blue Velvet
Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth/I’m Not There
Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven
Diane Keaton, Reds/Annie Hall
Nicole Kidman, To Die For
Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Gene Hackman, The French Connection
Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Georgia
Peter Finch, Network
Faye Dunaway Network/Chinatown/Bonnie and Clyde
Charles Laughton, Hunchback of Notre Game
Sidney Poitier, To Sir with Love, Lilies of the Field
Meryl Streep, One True Thing/The Devil Wears Prada

What would be your list? Or more importantly, whom have I left off?