The Best Best Actors

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Since this particular Oscar year feels a bit, well, predictable, and because I’m so far behind on seeing the nominated films, I’ve decided to focus my Oscar blogs on other topics as we count down to the big show on February 26th.

This week, I want to tackle my personal list of the best of the Best Actor winners.

5. Scofield in A Man for All Seasons

The story of Sir Thomas More and his absolute conviction in the face of religious persecution is an incredible one, and worthy of being brought to life on the silver screen in this 1966 Best Picture winner.

Scofield brings every ounce of conviction and courage into his performance, which once you’ve seen it, can never be forgotten. This is a film that is criminally under-discussed as is Scofield’s performance.

As Thomas More, he raised the standard of what it looks like to play a real, flesh and blood human and not just a construct of a writer’s mind. It’s easy with a historical figure like More to elevate him to a super-human level, but it’s Scofield’s ability to infuse him with humanity that makes his on-screen struggle so relatable and agonizing for the audience. We want him to both stand firm in his faith and save himself, but these aims are in direct conflict with each other, and he executes this fight perfectly.

4. Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird

A few years ago, the AFI named Peck’s performance of Atticus Finch as the greatest film hero. While that is certainly debatable, what is unarguable is the fact that Peck was made for this role and so inhabits Finch, that we want to believe he is a real person we can go chat with.

While Finch’s reputation is now somewhat soiled by the controversial Mockingbird pseudo-sequel novel Go Set a Watchman, Peck’s performance remains immaculate and holds up perfectly even by today’s acting standards.

This is a situation in which the perfect actor played the perfect role at the perfect time, and it can never be duplicated. It remains a performance for the ages.

3. Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I can’t make this list without including Jack. I go back-and-forth on whether he is better in Cuckoo’s Nest¬†or As Good As It Gets, but I believe his first Oscar win will probably be considered by generations to come as his most memorable.

With Murphy, Nicholson invites us into a literally crazy world. And we never can quite make up our mind about about him: is he good? Is he misunderstood? Is he a troublemaker? Some combination of all three.

After all, Murphy is not an entirely likable character, he just happens to be more likable than the compassion-less Nurse Ratched. But that confusion and ambiguity over the moral status of Murphy is part of what makes Nicholson’s performance so genius. We are both repelled by him and attracted to him. And that last scene. Oi…

2. Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood

You could put pretty much any of Day-Lewis’ incredible 3 Best Actor wins on this list, but it’s definitely my favorite of the three and certainly the most complicated.

He is the consummate example of a Method actor and disappears entirely into the person of Daniel Plainview. The film presents a dark and stark view of human character, full of grays…but dark shades of gray

1. F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus

The pseudo-biopic of Mozart boasted two performances nominated for Best Actor: Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Mozart, and F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri. At the time, it was a minor surprise as Hulce was favored by most viewers to win for his charismatic and eccentric performance. But it was the cold, calculating, and layered performance by Abraham that prevailed.

In hindsight, this makes perfect sense. Upon repeated viewings, it is Abraham’s performance that is the more complex, faceted, and challenging. Also, he had to play Salieri as both a conniving, ambitious, middle-aged man and a frustrated, mentally-compromised elderly man. There is more than one performance here and he weaves them together so well, that for a long time, I’ve considered this the best performance by an actor I’ve ever seen on film.

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