When it comes to Best Picture, the Oscars often get it wrong. Fortunately, they have a better track record when it comes to performances. Here are 15 of the best Oscar-winning performances of all time.
Janet Gaynor, Best Actress, “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” (1927)
The first Oscar for Best Actress was given to silent star Janet Gaynor for her role as the Wife in F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece “Sunrise.” This movie’s parable-like simplicity requires “pure” performances caught between high drama and low action. Gaynor delicately balances the two to deliver a solemn-subtle turn of silent beauty.
Today, we misperceive silent performances as melodramatic and over-the-top, perhaps the result of our upbringing on sound pictures. But think about it — the silent actor, being crucially robbed of the capacity to speak, has a tougher job than actors today. From the audience, they must wrench emotions — tears of laughter and joy, sweat beads of nervousness and tension — with limited means of expression (face, body, posture). In this context, Gaynor’s simple country Wife redefines what it means to act for cinema.
Hattie McDaniel, Best Supporting Actress, “Gone With the Wind” (1939)
Hattie McDaniel’s win for “Gone With the Wind” both supported the stereotypical image of blacks in ‘30s pop culture and propelled black actors forward in Hollywood. Riffing off the infamous “mammy” stereotype of a house slave, McDaniel makes the most out of a thankless role with her sharp wit and subtle sass. The best moment of this otherwise overlong treacle is when Clark Gable and Hattie McDaniel quietly share brandy, toast each other and muse on the ridiculousness of the plot so far. Today, we feel the traces of McDaniel’s pioneering work in places like Mo’Nique’s Oscar speech for “Precious,” where she thanks McDaniel “for enduring what she had to, so that I would not have to.”
Harold Russell, Best Supporting Actor, “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946)
Decorated veteran Harold Russell’s amateur performance as a soldier with hooks for hands in “The Best Years of Our Lives” is inspirational. Russell plays Homer Parrish, a American veteran returning home from WWII who lost both hands in battle. Homer struggles to transition back into a society that can’t understand the traumas he’s endured. Russell’s inexperience with acting adds an aura of honesty to his character. (Russell actually lost his hands during the war and had to learn how to use prosthetic hooks.) When Homer calls himself a “freak” and a “monster” in front of his family and fiancée Wilma, the raw pain and anger expressed in his face feels all-too-real. His is a humanist performance for the ages.
Rita Moreno, Best Supporting Actress, “West Side Story” (1961)
The music, colors and dances of “West Side Story” are rightly praised, but only one performance from the movie rises to their heights. Rita Moreno — the first Hispanic individual to win an Academy Award — steals the show from the leads Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood-en). She brings a peculiar Broadway broadness to her role as Maria’s best girlfriend Anita, high-kicking with pop-art flair. Excelling in both comedy (“America”) and tragedy (her near-rape at the hands of the white Jets gang), Moreno is a perfect distillation of the musical’s high-octane energy.
Gregory Peck, Best Actor, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)
What more can be said about Gregory Peck, who managed to perfectly translate Atticus Finch from page to screen, in “To Kill a Mockingbird?” Standing erect with father-knows-best spectacles, squinting with intense wisdom and speaking with hushed passion, Peck’s image is inexorably linked with Harper Lee’s iconic hero. There was a great deal of controversy when the underdog Peck won the Oscar for Best Actor over the more lavishly acclaimed Peter O’Toole (his first, but not best, role) in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” But O’Toole’s Lawrence recedes into the background of Lean’s ostentatious spectacle, whereas Peck more definitively defines the quiet spaces in which he walks. The right man won.
Julie Andrews, Best Actress, “Mary Poppins” (1964)
In Disney’s most mature work “Mary Poppins,” Julie Andrews plays the stern, hip nanny everyone wishes they had. Her Poppins discourages childish antics, but she hates stuck-up adults even more. She’s secretly a rebel raising hell. Ceiling-tea parties, holiday romps through chalk drawings and chimney-sweep jigs tracing soot across the rooftops of London: She has a unique way of keeping Britain tidy. Andrews’s soulful coldness deservedly won her the Oscar for a role I much prefer over her more popular Maria von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” (1965).
Elizabeth Taylor, Best Actress, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)
Elizabeth Taylor won her second Oscar playing frumpy-frumious Martha, the college professor’s wife in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In every scene, Taylor hurricanes her way through the village of unsuspecting dinner-guests, including simpering English hubbie George (Dick Burton), hot-shot young math prof Nick (George Segal) and his hysterical wife Honey (Sandy Dennis, who won the film’s other acting Oscar). The film, which feels as if Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) directed it from the inside of a pressure cooker, diagnoses American Marriage as an institution that is thoroughly corrupt and morally bankrupt. At the center is Taylor’s tragic Martha, a has-been hag whose sense of morality is so faded that she can’t tell the truth from the lies.
Ruth Gordon, Best Supporting Actress, “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
Devil-baby-worshipping cults require the perfect leader. And what better person to lead than 72-year-old Ruth Gordon? This bonechilling psycho-thriller directed by cinemaster Roman Polanski (“Chinatown,” “Repulsion”) gets deep under the skin. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is an innocent, pregnant housewife… whose husband (John Cassavetes) may or may not have sold their unborn baby to the Satanic couple next door. Gordon plays the nosy, busy-body neighbor almost too well. Straddling the line between normalcy and lunacy, Gordon is the cherry on top of Polanski’s cold, disturbing sundae.
George C. Scott, Best Actor, “Patton” (1970)
“Patton” puts today’s Wikipedia biopics to shame. And George C. Scott, as the scruffy-cocky four-star general himself, stands firmly at center-attention. From the tough-nosed verbo-technics of the opening monologue (“No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country; he won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country”), Scott truly loses himself in the role. Scott doesn’t sugarcoat Patton’s egomania, but neither does he play down his unquestionable genius. Notably, Scott refused his award, calling the Oscars “a goddamn meat parade.” Surely, General Patton would have approved.
Marlon Brando, Best Actor, “The Godfather” (1972)
At the heart of “The Godfather” — routinely considered among the greatest movies ever made — is the morally ambiguous Don Corleone, played with bulldog solemnity by Marlon Brando. After a prolonged “slump” in the ’60s (which included starring in Charlie Chaplin’s supremely underrated “A Countess from Hong Kong”), Brando came back big with this gangster noir par excellence. Brando, too, refused the Oscar, but his reasons — protesting the lack of representation of Native Americans in Hollywood — were political, bold and daring for their time. But nearly 45 years later, progress in Hollywood is still damningly slow. Brando would shake his head in shame.
Tom Hanks, Best Actor, “Philadelphia” (1993)
Tom Hanks (today’s Jimmy Stewart) won an Oscar in 1994 for “Forrest Gump,” by far his most popular role. But I prefer the low-key work he delivered a year before, in Jonathan Demme’s tear-inducing “Philadelphia.” In this work of tragic depth, Hanks plays a lawyer stricken with AIDS who is wrongfully terminated by his firm. With the support of his legal colleague (Denzel Washington), Hanks mounts a legal assault against the firm for discrimination. Hanks channels his apple-pie appeal to a story worthy of his star talent. Though representations of gay men and women in cinema have become more sophisticated in the years since “Philadelphia,” the film still stands as a solid starting-point.
Robin Williams, Best Supporting Actor, “Good Will Hunting” (1997)
Robin Williams surprised everyone with “Good Will Hunting” in a meaty, dramatic role of fortitude. Playing Matt Damon’s psychologist, Williams registered a wistfulness and a tiredness hitherto unseen in his work. It was frightening. Across his very uneven oeuvre — the highs of “Moscow on the Hudson” and “Fisher King,” the lows of “Jack” and “Patch Adams” — we can look at “Good Will Hunting” and still be astounded by the man’s undeniable range.
Christoph Waltz, Best Supporting Actor, “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)
The Nazi you hate to love. Waltz made his name overnight in the morally thorny tour-de-force that was “Inglourious Basterds.” There, he played an S.S. colonel (the “Jew Hunter”) who was both evil and charming, morally repulsive but also the best-developed character in the film.
Jennifer Lawrence, Best Actress, “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012)
Blink and it’s easy to miss the intense rigor packed into Jennifer Lawrence’s roles under the tutelage of David O. Russell (“American Hustle,” “Joy”). In “Silver Linings Playbook,” the best of the JLaw Trilogy, she plays Tiffany Maxwell with an eclectic, rapidfire, no-bullshit, scheming intelligence not present in other actresses of her generation. A lot of the young Katherine Hepburn (“Bringing Up Baby”) lives on in Lawrence’s sensual-spiritual leads. With each of her larger-than-life females, star glamor reaches its ultimate modern apotheosis.
Patricia Arquette, Best Supporting Actress, “Boyhood” (2014)
Long after the faux-profundity of “Birdman” leaves our memories, we’ll have movies like Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” that embody the word “art” with honesty and quietness. (Unlike Iñáaritu, Linklater doesn’t capitalize the “a.”)
If young Mason is the movie’s narrative center, then Arquette’s Olivia is its emotional core. Everything revolves around Olivia’s steady resolve to make sure the boy grows up well. It may not look like Arquette is doing much, but this is where Linklater’s slow-burn subtlety works at peak efficiency. Along with Sara Allgood’s Welsh mum in “How Green Was My Valley” and Delphine Seyrig’s ennui-drenched housewife in “Jeanne Dielman,” Arquette captures the difficulties of being a mother with laid-back clarity.
Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.