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The 8 Ball 02.25.14: Top 8 Best Actor Winners
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 02.25.2014

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!

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Top 8 Best Actor Winners

Welcome back to another scintillating edition of the 8 Ball, ladies and gentlemen! Yes, we're busting out the SAT words because it's Oscar week and so it's time to get classy. The 86th annual Academy Awards takes place this coming Sunday and there is an especially strong field of nominees for Best Actor. That award has been handed out to seventy-six actors over the years for eighty-six performances (two actors won for the fifth award show) and while there is no shortage of debate about whether they are all truly the best of the best, there shouldn't be much doubt that all of them are, at the least, incredibly good pieces of acting. This week with the Oscars less than seven days away, I thought it was time to look at which Academy Award winners for Best Actor in a Leading Role were truly the best among the full field.

Caveat: If a role won Best Actor, it was eligible. That's about as simple as it gets! And on this list, like many of mine where I have a finite pool of options to select from, I suspended my "try to include each actor only once" rule.

Just Missing The Cut

Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend)
James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story)
Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird)
Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot)
Humphrey Bogart (The African Queen)

#8: George C. Scott - Patton (1970)

First up on our list is one of the most celebrated (and indeed one of the greatest) biographical performances in cinema. (It isn't the absolute greatest, but we'll get to those.) George C. Scott's performance in the title role is stunningly powerful in this film, which celebrates the genius of one of the most important men of World War II. Just take a look at the iconic opening to start with; it is an absolute classic in which General Patton delivers one of the most patriotic, masculine and pro-war speeches of all-time against the backdrop of an enormous American flag. He talks about America's love of war and why the country will never lose one, and how being a part of World War II means that the soldiers he is speaking to will never have to tell their grandchildren that they sat by and didn't fight. Many inspirational war speeches since have tried to capture the magic of this one, and none have fully succeeded. I defy anyone to not feel inspired and emboldened by this. But it's more than just one great monologue; Scott embodied everything we imagined from the one allied General who was actively and truly feared by the Axis. Interestingly, Scott wasn't the original choice for the role; Rod Steiger turned the role down and later considered it the worst decision of his career. Scott also drew attention when he refused to accept the award, the first actor to do so. In that, he was as bold and defiant as the Patton he portrayed. It's a real tour de force performance.

#7: Ben Kingsley - Gandhi (1982)

We move from one of the most well-known warriors of the modern era to one of the most well-known pacifists with #7. You know what amazes me about Gandhi, more than anything? That this film did not win the Best Makeup award, losing out to Jean-Jacques Annaud's Quest for Fire. The makeup work used to transform Ben Kingsley into the physical spitting image of the non-violent Indian independence resistance leader was nothing short of spectacular, and its loss may be the worst crime in Oscar history. But it's not just the clothes and makeup that make the man. Kingsley is absolutely astonishing as the man, portraying his deep spirituality in a performance that is so good and well-known that I think it has even unfairly fallen in esteem due to everyone referencing it. He breathes the role, playing it in every motion and every breath, every tone of inflection in his words. The film was referred to in one famous review as one of the rare movies "that absolutely must be seen," and I think that's a fair statement. I'm not trying to say that Ghandi needed a film to have impact--far from it, clearly, as he accomplished so much during his life before it was tragically cut short. But I do think that Gandhi--and particularly Kingsley's performance--helped to elevate this great man's renown among people who otherwise may never have heard of what he accomplished. And it's not out of the realm of possibility that the film helped other revolutionaries believe what was possible, or at least have Gandhi's philosophies introduced to them. Which makes the performance not only amazing; it makes it important.

#6: Anthony Hopkins - The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

There may be some people who argue that Anthony Hopkins' work as Hannibal Lecter should be higher. And my reason for placing him here isn't because his performance is anything less than chill-inducingly amazing. The only reason he is placed at #6 and not #2 is the amount of time he spends on the screen. Hopkins spends about sixteen minutes of the film's 118 on the screen, making it the second-shortest Best Actor-winning performance of all time. The thing is, Hopkins makes the absolute most of that time and he casts such a powerful presence that it is difficult to realize that he's not on the screen for any longer than that; even when he's not in front of the camera you can almost feel his presence lurking just at the edges. Hopkins went into a deep, dark place to portray the brilliant and violently criminal doctor/cannibal, giving what is to date the greatest portrayal of a sociopath ever committed to film. He's charismatic and carries the veneer of propriety when it suits him, but it's just a costume that is easily ripped away when he is done with it so he can wear your face and eat your liver. Hopkins matches up with Jodie Foster brilliantly here and it is in fact quite a testament to say that as good as Foster is, Clarice Starling is the first thing that comes to no one's mind when this film is mentioned. Hopkins showed that it's not about how long you have; it's what you do with the time given. And what Hopkins did as Lecter was quite simple: terrify and captivate us with one of the best performances of all-time.

#5: Marlon Brando - The Godfather (1972)

Marlon Brando is one of the greatest actors in cinematic history, period. There's no doubt that the Nebraska-born thespian changed the landscape of film performance, bringing a sense of realism to the medium in a day when it was still expanding from its theatrical origins. And his work as Don Corleone is perhaps the role for which he's known best. And yet, the story of how he very nearly wasn't cast is hallowed Hollywood lore. As brilliant as Brando was, he was also known for being difficult to work with and his decline in the 1960s came from his increasing disinterest with acting as anything more than a job, to the point that he was considered uncastable. He famously said of this time, "In some ways I think of my middle age as the 'Fuck You Years.'" Francis Ford Coppola had to fight tooth and nail with Paramount Pictures to get Brando cast in the role. It paid off of course, as Brando dominated the screen as the aging head of the Corleone mafia family. The voice, the attitude...the very look of him is nothing short of one of the most enduring personas in the history of film. Brando made Vito a man who is certainly a criminal, but is much more complex than the one-note mobsters from the earlier days of movie-making. His presence makes him appear much more formidable than any single line or stage direction. The film single-handedly brought back Brando's legacy and made it absolutely untouchable.

#4: Daniel Day-Lewis - There Will Be Blood (2007)

Daniel Day-Lewis is the most celebrated actor in Academy Award history, with a record three wins for Best Actor. His performances in Lincoln and My Left Foot are both fantastic, but it is as Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood that he gave his best performance to date. Day-Lewis' all-in approach serves him well as the greed-dominated Plainview, making for a fascinating, thrilling and at times truly terrifying portrayal. That monologue at the end of the film is of course his best known moment, with "I drink your milkshake" becoming one of the most quotable film lines of the last ten years. But it's not just the villain which captivates us; he's more than just a black hat. There's something far more interesting in this man and the way that we sympathize with him in some ways but are repulsed by the monster that he becomes. It's the need to get more and achieve more that stops being a means to an end and eventually becomes the end in itself. Day-Lewis takes us on a very dark journey and makes us see how dangerous of a thing greed can be. Day-Lewis had some impressive competition that year but deservedly came out ahead because, quite frankly, there are few performances better in any capacity.

#3: Marlon Brando - On the Waterfront (1954)

The second spot on this list for Brando is perhaps his best performance ever (with only the sadly non-Oscar winning Streetcar Named Desire's Stanley as a possible other choice). Brando had already been nominated three previous times for an Oscar, and in three successive years, but this was the one that was absolutely undeniable as an Award winner. Film acting had already been changed by Brando with his Streetcar performance but this was something on an entirely new level. Brando showed a deep vulnerability in Terry Malloy, right alongside the toughness that befit the blue collar hero. Many, many words have been spilled in praise of Brando's work here and they're all well-directed; it's a captivating performance and one that to this day is still discussed and studied by actors hoping to learn from it. This was the win that really crystallized Brando as THE actor of his generation, and almost sixty years later the performance remains one of the absolute best that has won a Best Actor award.

#2: Jack Nicholson - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

For many a year, Jack Nicholson's Oscar-winning performance as Randle in this film was considered to be the definitive mental patient. And in some ways, he probably still is. In a long and storied career, Randle McMurphy is Nicholson's finest performance. He runs the gamut of emotions and as we see him running down a path that only has one possible finale, he keeps us enthralled and cheering for him throughout. It's one of those performances that stand above and beyond in a very rare echelon and you have to respect Nicholson's work. Nicholson had already been nominated four times before this film, earning a Best Supporting nod for Easy Rider and Best Actor nominations for Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail and Chinatown. I maintain that he should have won for Chinatown, but even that performance was overshadowed by work so spectacular that he can't be denied. McMurphy is an acerbic character to be sure, but one with a heart and who is standing up for the right thing once he's inside the film. And don't get me wrong, he's hardly a sympathetic character at first; he's doing time for statutory rape and only gets into the asylum because he's not doing his time well in prison. But Nicholson lets us see and understand Randle's progression and by the end of the film we're thoroughly on his side. Not including him on this list would be even crazier than some of the legitimately mentally ill characters on Nurse Ratched's watch.

#1: Robert De Niro - Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro's turn as Jake LaMotta isn't just the best Best Actor winner. It might just be the best single performance in cinematic history. De Niro embodied this role in a way that few others have ever been able to get into their characters. Raging Bull isn't my favorite Scorsese film, but that has nothing to do with a lack of quality. Rather, I'm just not a boxing guy. That said, some performances transcend whatever genre they're in. De Niro did that here. He went heavy method on this one, doing serious training and weight gain for the role, and just devoted himself to everything about LaMotta. Aided by a fantastic script from Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin and Scorsese's brilliant direction, De Niro commands your attention and just won't let go. The development of LaMotta is portrayed superbly; there are very few situations with actors as iconic as De Niro where you watch the film and you don't think of the actor, but the character. Watching Raging Bull I never once think "De Niro is doing such a great job." It's always thinking in terms of Jake, because that's who is on the screen. It is the best performance of De Niro's career and the best performance ever to win a Best Actor in a Leading Role Academy Award.

Disguise of the Episode

Current Series/Season: Season One (2001 - 2002)
Episodes Watched: 13
Last Serial Completed: The Box (Part 2) - Sydney and Jack find themselves in the ironic position of having to save SD-6 as former agent McKenas Cole tortures Sloane in order to obtain a mysterious item stored inside the SD-6 vault, while Will finds new leads into his story about the organization.
Episodes Remaining: 92

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.


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