25. AUDREY HEPBURN
My Fair Lady (1964)
Audrey Hepburn bespeaks a plucky elegance that permeates her turn from a ”draggle-tail guttersnipe” into a proper English aristocrat. But it was her singing that turned out to be problematic for Oscar voters: Eliza’s numbers were voiced by Marni Nixon (West Side Story). Resentment also lingered that studio head Jack Warner had given Hepburn the part over the untested Julie Andrews. Come ceremony time, Andrews took the Oscar for Mary Poppins, but Hepburn received a long ovation, proving she still won plenty of hearts.
24. DENZEL WASHINGTON
It’s easy to see this as Tom Hanks’ movie. It was his character who suffered the indignities of being afflicted with AIDS, and Hanks won a well-deserved Oscar for his efforts. But Washington, as the ambulance-chasing homophobe, had the harder task. He had to coerce audiences, ever so gently, into realizing that his character represented our own ignorance, and then drag us on his path to enlightenment.
23. GARY OLDMAN
Sid & Nancy (1986)
Playing a junkie/murder suspect/punk-rocker is difficult enough. Playing the most famous junkie/murder suspect/punk-rocker of all time — and selling it — is borderline impossible, but Oldman did just that. As Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, the never-nominated Oldman not only looked and sounded the part, but gave us one of the cinema’s most haunting portraits of a rock & roll suicide.
22. GENE KELLY
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
There is the wonderful comedy of Kelly’s acting in Stanley Donen’s candied backstage musical — the sun-browned vanity he brings to his turn as a silent-film star. Then there is the cosmic wonder of his dancing: those muscular escapes, that uplifting splash through a downpour. In contrast to Fred Astaire (prince of the effortless glide), Kelly shows you his heartiness and his heart.
21. RITA HAYWORTH
She plays a lady with a shady past gone down to Argentina — bad news in the best way. She exudes sex, of course, but also sadistic sarcasm, slimy sweetness, and murderous contempt. She sings ”Put the Blame on Mame” and makes it a prancing celebration of the femme fatale. She is unapologetic, and because Hayworth swings her demeanor from the unbearably tense to the devil-may-care, we love her for it.
20. GENE TIERNEY
Jacoby was in love with her when he painted her portrait. She was worshiped, adored, warm, and vibrant. Quite a buildup for a woman who, for the first 15 minutes of the film that bears her name, exists only as a memory. Logic would dictate that because Laura is extraordinary she must be played as such. But Tierney’s Laura is not a goddess — she’s a firmly planted mortal (albeit one with unearthly bone structure), which makes her infinitely more intriguing. She underplays. She seems to speak so softly at times that you have to lean in to catch her lines. It’s subtle, career-defining work with as many shadings as the angles of her face.
19. ROBERT DE NIRO
Mean Streets (1973)
Pick any scene from Martin Scorsese’s big Little Italy masterpiece: Johnny Boy tossing a bomb in the mailbox and grinning. Or walking into the bar with a hippie chick under each arm and ”Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on the soundtrack. Or doing an improvised duet with Harvey Keitel. Or swinging wild in a pool-hall brawl. Pick any scene and see De Niro raw, hardly seeming to act, just behaving with crazed charisma. The Godfather Part II would put him on the Oscar map a year later — and a year late.
18. KATHARINE HEPBURN
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
You’d think an actress known for playing witty, strong-willed women might have been tragically miscast as what the movie’s trailer described as ”a flutter-brained vixen.” And you might think that a 12-time nominee and four-time winner could not possibly have been overlooked by Oscar. On both counts, you would be wrong. Hepburn fits snugly in Howard Hawks’ farce as Susan Vance, an impulsive heiress who sets out to snare zoologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) with the help of her pet leopard, Baby. Like the spotted cat, Hepburn is beautiful, cunning, and damn near impossible to tame.
17. MALCOLM McDOWELL
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Who knew milk and Beethoven could be so downright disturbing? Throw in a bowler hat and cane, and you have one of cinema’s most indelible images of apathetic evil — an image brought to life by McDowell in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of ultraviolence. But McDowell was more than simply a visual (and virulent) centerpiece. As ruthless hooligan-turned-aversion therapy patient Alex, he ran the emotional gamut — delivering riveting portrayals of both sinister charm and helpless dread.
16. ROSALIND RUSSELL
His Girl Friday (1940)
Perhaps the speediest movie ever made, Howard Hawks’ screwball newspaper comedy has dialogue that clocks in at 100 miles per hour. Russell says she wants out of the news game; her instincts and Cary Grant (her ex-boss and ex-husband) say she wants in. Sparring with Grant in close verbal knife fights, working two phones at once as if mechanized, nabbing a witness with a high-stepping stride and a headlong dive, she is the most quick-witted of all tough broads — a queen among fast-talking dames.
15. DONALD SUTHERLAND
Ordinary People (1980)
With Mary Tyler Moore playing so wildly against type, and Timothy Hutton hogging the psychiatric spotlight, Sutherland was People‘s only star ignored by the Oscars. Which is understandable: As the devoted husband and dad in Robert Redford’s Best Picture winner, the actor exists in the movie’s negative spaces — the ultimate middleman, he’s the glue that can’t keep the Jarrett clan from coming apart. The thankless role asked Sutherland to pour his heart out as a man who finally dares to confront his unfeeling wife and mourn his cursed sons. The result was hardly ordinary.
14. BETTE DAVIS
Of Human Bondage (1934)
With hair bleached a garish blond and her saucer eyes rolling insolently at sensitive Philip (Leslie Howard) and his endearments, Davis plays W. Somerset Maugham’s caustic cockney waitress at full throttle and without an iota of warmth. It’s a turn that invites us to hiss the character while thrilling to the actress’ nervy bravado. And though playing a bitch earned Davis accolades, she was snubbed by Oscar. The uproar forced the Academy to allow a special write-in ballot. She still lost, but nabbed the gold the next year for Dangerous, a win that Davis herself considered a consolation prize.
13. ORSON WELLES
Touch of Evil (1958)
Fat as Falstaff, amoral as Harry Lime, imperious as Charles Foster Kane, Hank Quinlan is a sorry chunk of pride. When Welles first turns the camera on himself in this border-town noir, his veteran cop comes scowling out of a shadow, sucking on a cigar he will subsequently treat as if it were a candy bar. Or a pacifier. With expert intuition and a willingness to plant evidence, he is a great detective and a lousy cop — as Marlene Dietrich says at the end, ”some kind of a man.”
12. KATHLEEN TURNER
Body Heat (1981)
With her smoldering voice, lithe body, and a temperature that runs higher than 100 degrees, Turner’s Matty Walker embodies the steamy desires of lowlife lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt). Turner, in her incendiary film debut, drapes Matty in haughty insolence, desperate unattainability, and seductive refinement. With amazing assurance for an actress whose previous work was primarily in daytime soaps, Turner turned up the sexual heat of the classic femme fatale while bowing to her stylish ’40s forerunners.
11. SIDNEY POITIER
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
As an impeccably dressed Philadelphia police officer picked up for murder in ’60s Mississippi, Poitier masterfully keeps his character’s fury just below the boil, merely hinting at his power when he bellows in response to Rod Steiger’s racist sheriff: ”They call me Mr. Tibbs!” Steiger nabbed the Best Actor Oscar (Poitier had already gotten one for 1963’s Lilies of the Field), but with Poitier’s radical, barrier-breaking performance, Hollywood’s first real black star explicitly demanded respect.
10. DENNIS HOPPER
Blue Velvet (1986)
He got a supporting-actor nomination for appearing in Hoosiers the very same year, but the Hopper character most likely to have left a permanent scar on your cerebral cortex is Frank Booth, the profane, fabric-swatch-loving sadist of Blue Velvet. Before writer-director David Lynch unleashed Frank, we’d never seen a villain inflict quite such a queasy mix of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse on a victim. It’s still hard to watch Frank’s initial tryst with singer Dorothy Vallens, who, as played by Isabella Rossellini, seems both terrified and turned on. And as Frank swigs Pabst Blue Ribbon and huffs nitrous oxide, it’s also hard not to think about Hopper’s own battles with drugs and booze, adding to the tightrope tension.
9. MARILYN MONROE
Some Like It Hot (1959)
She drove everyone nuts. She arrived late on set, flubbed her lines, and deferred to her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, over director Billy Wilder. But she was Marilyn Monroe. And she was worth it. Sugar Kane, the ukulele-strumming, bourbon-swigging sexpot, is nothing if not pure Marilyn. Her wide-eyed, blissful sensuality is the perfect counterpart to Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon’s drag show and confirmed what many already knew from 1955’s The Seven Year Itch: that Monroe was a gifted comedian who sparkled more vibrantly than all of Sugar’s sequined dresses stitched together. When she breathily boop-boop-be-doops in the middle of ”I Wanna Be Loved by You,” you have to wonder what fool wouldn’t wanna be loved by her.
8. JUDY GARLAND
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
We all know The Wizard of Oz is chockful of heart, brains, and courage, but the girl who made the whole thing dance was Garland. The 17-year-old had big shoes to fill working alongside old pros like Jack Haley (Tin Man), Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), and Bert Lahr (Lion), but her wide-eyed innocence and powerful voice are what truly brought the film over the rainbow. (They also helped land Garland a specially created Juvenile Award at the 1940 Oscars, a kiddie-table honor that’s no longer passed out.) Later in life, Garland would lose the innocence and concentrate more on her singing career. And though she could still light up a screen on occasion (most notably in 1954’s Star Is Born), to find one of cinema’s most indelible performances, you must backtrack down the yellow brick road.
7. JOHN CAZALE
The Godfather Part 2 (1974)
Michael got the brains, Sonny got the brawn, but Fredo — poor, forlorn Fredo — what did he get? Passed over. With Mike (Al Pacino) now in charge, the middle Mafia child is all impotence. The guy can’t even betray right. Pitiable, but Cazale never plays it like that. He’s awkward and sweet, and so very mournful of the old days. When he finally blurts his reasons for turning on his brother, it’s with the resentment of a child. ”I’m not dumb! I’m smart and I want respect!” he bellows, wobbling helplessly on a patio chair. Thanks to Cazale, who made just six movies, all great, before his death at 42, Fredo got the heart.
6. SUSAN SARANDON
Bull Durham (1988)
What kind of a woman could steal a movie about one of America’s most testosterone-filled pastimes, the mustache-adorned, tobacco-spittin’, butt-pattin’ sport of baseball? The kind of impeccably funny, lust-lidded siren that Susan Sarandon became in this role. With a Southern drawl as comfortable as a well-oiled glove, Sarandon’s Annie Savoy takes on the local minor-league franchise’s most promising player each season, educating him in love and ”life wisdom.” Combining smoldering sensuality with a gentle, protective nature, the actress slides without a drop of sweat from advising her charge (Tim Robbins) on the unfastening of garters to the wonders of Walt Whitman.
5. SAMUEL L. JACKSON
Jungle Fever (1991)
Spike Lee’s inner-city melodrama is ostensibly about an affair between African-American architect Flipper (Wesley Snipes) and Italian-American secretary Angela (Annabella Sciorra), but Samuel L. Jackson steals the movie as Flipper’s crackhead brother, Gator. In just five scenes, Jackson (who had completed real-life drug rehab mere months before filming) beams a lifetime of hurt and rage through his eyes. Wheedling money from his doormat of a mother (Ruby Dee) and tragically menacing his fallen-pastor father (Ossie Davis) with a devilish dance, Jackson fearlessly conjures his character’s inner demons.
4. INGRID BERGMAN
When Bergman walks into Rick’s Cafe, her Ilsa is ”the most beautiful woman ever to visit Casablanca.” She pulls us in with a simmering-below-the-surface eroticism and an un-Hollywood freshness that makes her seem earthbound and attainable. And like all great screen actors, she made the camera an accomplice. Watch her face, held in a tight, caressing close-up, as Dooley Wilson’s Sam first sings ”As Time Goes By.” A lesser actress might have overemoted, but Bergman restricts expression to a minimum and just lets the camera play across that gorgeous profile. It’s one of those wonderfully mysterious moments when an actor, seemingly by doing nothing, lets us imagine everything.
3. CARY GRANT
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
When Grant dashed off his dashing lines, his verbal aggression could seem driven by neurosis and his voice by the crack of a silken whip. The Philadelphia Story is about a romance between Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, and about Grant — as the odd man out — being uncommonly needy. His C.K. Dexter Haven is more desperate than his man on the run in North by Northwest. Rather cruel, rather too cool, he wears his sophistication as if it were armor. It is rare to find Cary Grant heartbroken, and more rare yet to find an actor who can seem terribly lonely and still find romance a jolly game.
2. ANTHONY PERKINS
”We all go a little mad sometimes.” No one can speak lines like that today without reflexively resorting to ”the psycho stutter” or ”the psycho stare.” Such unnaturalness is only natural — after a half century of serial-killer movies, we share a template for knife-wielding loonies. Perkins, the pioneer, had no such road map. For him, the tics were organic: He approached Norman Bates as a character, not a trope. His murderous, mother-lovin’ motelier is plenty creepy, but it’s Perkins’ disarming, oddball lack of self-consciousness that makes you believe Janet Leigh wouldn’t take off down the highway after one look into those beady, birdlike eyes.
1. JIMMY STEWART
For great swaths of his career, Jimmy Stewart played wholesome, aw-shucks kinds of fellows who stood knock-kneed before the opposite sex. That’s why he remains such a revelation as Scottie Ferguson, the acrophobic, borderline-necrophilic detective of Vertigo. Stewart’s Scottie is sympathetic as he becomes attracted to an unfaithful wife he’s hired to tail. He’s moving when he witnesses her apparent death. He’s creepy when he finds another woman he wants to make over in his dead amour’s image. And he’s genuinely frightening when he discovers his love object may have betrayed him — all sweaty rants and shaking-hand-across-the-lip fury. Nothing gee-whiz about it.