Director Rod Lurie is conducting another Hollywood-centric Facebook poll, this time about the greatest-ever lead performances in feature films. Which right away excludes James Gandolfini in The Sopranos so the HE version is allowing performances from longform cable. Lurie started me off with a taste of 20 performances, and right away I was saying to myself “these are too familiar, too boilerplate…where’s that special-passion choice that defies conventional thinking?”
What is a greatest-ever performance anyway? My theory is that picks in this realm have less to do with skill or technique or even, really, the actor, and a lot more to do with the viewer and what they choose to see. The choices that people make tend to reflect their intimate personal histories on some level. Because they’re choosing performances or more precisely characters who closely mirror and express their deepest longings, fondest hopes and saddest dreams.
My late younger brother was tremendously moved by Mark Ruffalo‘s portrayal of a loser in You Can Count On Me, in large part because my brother was that character. I know a pretty lady who’s always felt close to Vivien Leigh‘s Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind for the same reason. Bill Clinton once said on a High Noon DVD documentary that Gary Cooper‘s performance in High Noon is his all-time favorite because Will Kane‘s situation (everyone chickening out when things get tough and leaving him to stand alone) reminded him of what it’s often like for a sitting U.S. President.
When I began to assemble my pantheon the first nominees that came to mind were Gandolfini, Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, Monica Vitti in L’Avventura, Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (I’m dead serious), George Clooney in Michael Clayton, Gary Cooper in High Noon, Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose, Lee Marvin in Point Blank, Alan Ladd in Shane, Brad Pitt in Moneyball, Marilyn Monroe in Some like It Hot and Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings. This is without thinking anything through or second-guessing myself.
I’ll tell you a performance I would never, ever pick as the greatest-ever under any circumstance, not even with a knife at my back, and that’s Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln.
Sampling of 10 from Lurie’s Facebook poll: 1. Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice; 2. Robert De Niro, Raging Bull; 3. Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon (HE preference: Pacino in Heat); 4. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (HE preference: Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces or Prizzi’s Honor); 5. Daniel Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood; 6. Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront; 7. Al Pacino, The Godfather, Part Two; 8. Paul Newman, The Verdict (HE preference: Newman in Hud or The Hustler); 9. Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver (HE preference: DeNiro in Heat); 10. Daniel Day Lewis, My Left Foot.
Second cluster: 11. Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove; 12. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; 13. Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence; 14. Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie (HE preference: Hoffman in The Graduate); 15. Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry; 16. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris; 17. Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (HE preference: Peck in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit); 18. Charlie Chaplin, City Lights; 19. Bette Davis, All About Eve; 20. Dustin Hoffman, Midnight Cowboy.