By John H. Foote
Understand I am not discussing the great biographical FILMS here but rather the greatest PERFORMANCES by an actor portraying a person from history. So, understand the performance is all I care about, it is all I am focusing on, does not matter if the film was great or awful, if the performance of the character worked, was truthful, it is here.
That explains the presence of Ben Kingsley in Gandhi (1982) his superb performance towering over the film, again a case of an actor surpassing the very film he was in with his sublime artistry.
Two Failed Films Despite The Actor
ROBERT DOWNEY JR. in CHAPLIN (1992)
A brilliant actor ready for the performance of his lifetime, stuck with a weak script, a cowardly director not willing to show his subject warts and all, Downey Jr. still gave one of the great performances, beautifully capturing Chaplin and his artistry. Sadly neither the director nor script took advantage of Downey being so far into character, the actor was gone, Chaplin remained. With an edgy actor such as Downey, why explore the more controversial aspects of his life? They had an actor ready to cut loose and they failed him.
BEN KINGSLEY in GANDHI (1982)
Ironically with the same filmmaker as Downey’s Chaplin, Ben Kingsley suffered the same fate. He is an exceptional Mahatma, yet is trapped in a film, with a screenplay far beneath his gifts as an actor. Playing for all the world like Gandhi’s Greatest Hits the film elevates the man to sainthood rather than exploring him warts and all. Kingsley is flawless with what he is given to do, but he could have done so much more and brought complexities to the man. Each line he utters feels like a sound bite, as though a team of writers were following Gandhi around. Attenborough fails because he does not present us a man, but a being we expect to walk on water.
In reviewing the film Nixon (1995) I remember writing that Anthony Hopkins did not look much like Richard Nixon, but he somehow captured the stooped walk, and in his eyes his wounded soul. That is what a great biographical, performance should do, capture the essence of the character, find their soul and put it on the screen. Looking like the character may help the audience but is not for me essential, provide they find the soul of the character.
Most biographical films tend to be little more than greatest hits of the person’s life, the good or wrong that they did, depending on the person. Nothing works unless the director is prepared to explore the flaws of the character, because that is the very thing that humanize that person. Each of us remain deeply flawed people, just as those from history do. Any true depiction of a historical character MUST be honest, must include those flaws, otherwise the film is a failure.
Nothing is more frustrating than to have an actor geared up to do brilliant work, only to be failed by the director or script. It happens a few times here, where the performance transcends the work.
These fifteen have done just that.
15. JAMES CAGNEY in THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957)
Though highly romanticized, as biography films tended to be in the fifties, this study of silent film great Lon Chaney is very good, elevated throughout by Cagney, perfect as Chaney. A master of silent communication having been born to deaf mute parents, he used that to become a very gifted actor in the days before sound. To get work, he would arrive early to see what was being shot, his gifts with make up allowing him as many as four parts a day. By the twenties he was a major star. Cagney captures the anguish that went into his art, how his tortured past, marriage and divorce fed his drama. One of his most under valued performances.
14. JESSE EISENBERG in THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)
Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (2010) – In David Fincher’s superb study of the creation of Facebook, actor Eisenberg is brilliant as its creator Mark Zuckerberg, who took an idea, created something that would unite the world. Almost instantly Facebook became part of our culture and Zuckerberg in his mid twenties among the wealthiest men on the planet. Spiky, sarcastic, hard to like, he radiates extreme intelligence, sizing up everyone he meets, and as described by a girlfriend, an asshole. But my God what a mind, a truly beautiful mind who created something in our lifetime that later the entire world. Eisenberg, still a young actor perfectly captures it.
13. ANTHONY HOPKINS in NIXON (1995)
Hopkins had quite a run after he won the Academy Awards for The Silence of the Lambs (1991), but I believe the boldest work of his career was as President Richard Nixon in this outstanding bio from Oliver Stone. As one of the most polarizing figures in American history, Nixon was a true statesman, but a flawed and deeply paranoid man, doomed as a world leader. He captures the hurt and wounded soul of the disgraced President in every way, captures glimpses of his greatness, but more, what was his undoing. Looking nothing like him, he instead captures his essence and speech pattern and becomes Nixon before our very eyes. It took a few minutes before I did not see the actor, only Nixon.
12. WARREN BEATTY in BUGSY (1991)
Beatty was always an interesting actor, but with his work here as murderous gangster Benjamin Siegel, he proved he was a great one. With movie star good looks, Siegel landed in a Hollywood and quickly took over all gangland related activities and when visiting the desert he had a vision of what became Las Vegas. Obsessed with his Flamingo Hotel in the desert he failed to see his girlfriend was stealing from the mob, siphoning millions, which brought Siegel down. He was murdered by his friends for what his girlfriend did. Beatty is terrifying in his rages, deluded in his belief he can kill Mussolini, yet gentle and kind with his family and friend Meyer Lansky. An alarming, intense performance.
11. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS in MY LEFT FOOT (1989)
On the rise as an actor when he made this lovely, gritty film about Irish artist/ writer Cristy Brown, afflicted with cerebral palsy since birth, Day-Lewis won the Academy Award and several other awards in announcing himself as a major new acting force. His eyes ablaze with intellect and purpose, his body betraying him with constant shaking, twitching, everything out of control except his left foot, the actor brings us the fierce mind that was trapped in that wretched body. Despite his affliction he was gifted, horny and a heavy drinker. Day-Lewis is a miracle in the film, showing us not a man afflicted, but a life force, bursting to be heard.
10. LEONARDO DICAPRIO in THE AVIATOR (2004)
As the young Howard Hughes during his Hollywood years, before the madness set in, Di Caprio is outstanding. Blessed with a brilliant, inquisitive mind, he is always looking to the skies, even in his first film, Hell’s Angels (1930) which he reshot after the advent of sound. Fascinated with aviation, he built planes, making them bigger and faster, crashing one of them in downtown LA, forever damaging himself. It is a bold, outstanding performances that touches beautifully, though gently on his madness, showing us what charisma Hughes possessed. The genuine fear in his eyes when he has one of his spells is truly frightening because he is never really sure if he can snap out of it.
9. GEORGE C. SCOTT in PATTON (1970)
As one of the greatest warriors in the history on the United States military, General George S. Patton did as he pleased often defying his superiors orders. He was brilliant and possibly a little mad, believing he has reincarnated, having been a gladiator in the Roman Empire. George C. Scott is magnificent as Patton, one of the screens greatest performances and refused the Oscar he won for Best Actor. That iconic image that opens the film, Scott dwarfed by a massive flag, once seen can never be forgotten. His opening speech defines his character, and we never forget it. A towering, magnificent performance.
8. JAMES FRANCO in THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017)
In a profoundly funny, moving spot on inhabitation of Tommy Wiseau, James Franco should have won the Academy Award for Best Actor last year. The gifted young actor disappears under the skin of the mysterious and bizarre Director-writer-star of the notorious The Room (2003). Franco could have gone for straight comedy, but instead dives deeper, going for the deeply sad man just looking for acceptance in a business he cannot break into. He finally finances it himself, and makes a truly dreadful movie that has become infamous. Franco channels Wiseau, capturing the soul of the man in every way. Oscar, how? How?
7. FOREST WHITAKER in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (2006)
In portraying the purely evil yet charismatic Idi Amin Dada, actor Forest Whitaker gave a performance for the ages, winning every single award available to him that year. Self appointed President, dictator of Uganda, he takes a young Scottish doctor under his wing and it is through that man’s eyes we see the monster appear. While he presented himself as a decent man to the world, bodies littered the countryside, victims of Amin’s ordered slaughter. Whitaker is brilliant, seething with anger and contempt for those who defy him, believing himself to be a God. Terrifying.
6. PETER O’TOOLE in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
A performance of great majesty in a masterful work from David Lean, one of the greatest films ever made. Not even the scope and size of this extraordinary picture can dwarf the stunning performance of O’Toole as TE Lawrence, a military genius who banded together the warring tribes of Arabia into a lethal fighting force. Like the tribes we too are mesmerized by O’Toole who looks like a young blonde God in his flowing Arabian robes. The actor brilliantly allows for the darker elements of his personality to be explored, the sadomasochism, love of killing and struggling with homosexuality at a time when heroes were not permitted to be so. A perfect performance.
5. ROBERT DE NIRO in RAGING BULL (1980)
As middle weight champ Jake LaMotta, Robert De Niro gives an astounding performance in which he superbly harnessed the anger and rage that drove the fighter. Horribly jealous of his wife, insecure, La Motta forever at war with himself is constantly battling his inner demons which make him a brute in the ring but a boor to live with or be near. De Niro famously got into peak fighting condition, trained by La motto himself, then gained eighty pounds to portray the wasted, over weight fighter. The opening sequence defines LaMotta, shadow boxing in the ring, at war forever with himself.
4. DENZEL WASHINGTON in MALCOLM X (1992)
– If you watch the film and newsreels of Malcolm side by side I defy you to know the difference between real and Washington. Denzel Washington gives the finest performance of his impressive career as the doomed black activist who found the Muslim beliefs while in prison, emerging a changed man. Angry at how the black man is treated by the white he lashes out until a trip to Mecca where he realizes all men are created equal. The actor captures Malcolm’s intelligence, his quiet ferocity, and deep sadness when betrayed by the men he believed in. A stunning performance from one of our finest actors.
3. LEONARDO DICAPRIO in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)
As stock swindler Jordan Belfort, who became obscenely wealthy before the FBI brought him down, Leonardo Di Caprio gives a brilliant performance, the best of his career. The young actor brings a furious energy to the performance, a brash confidence, moving through the film like a young out of control rock star. Whether stoned on drugs, smashed out of his mind, or arguing with his gorgeous wife the actor is a revelation and force of nature. He is electrifying from beginning to end, always in motion, scheming, descending slowly into his own hell. His great accomplishment is in portraying such a man and still gaining our sympathy. We like the guy.
2. BRUNO GANZ in DOWNFALL (2005)
Is it possible to humanize Hitler, possibly the most hated and evil man to ever exist? Bruno Ganz did that very thing in the superb German film Downfall (2005), which explores the last days Hitler was alive in his underground bunker, the Soviets not far from the heart of the city. Hands shaking, frail, obviously drugged heavily, he knows the end is near and what is coming, he knows what the reaction will be to his Death Camps, he must have known what would become of him. Often gentle and kind with those around him, other time he flies into a rage when his orders are not followed. In the end, the monster was all too human, just a broken, sad, sick old man, who knew all too well how much he was hated and what his legacy would be. An astounding, brave performance.
1. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS in LINCOLN (2012)
The moment we lay eyes on him in the opening moments of the film, and he spoke in that surprising high reedy voice, audiences felt they were encountering Abraham Lincoln, possibly the greatest American who ever lived. Day-Lewis poured over books, found descriptions of his voice, his gait, the manner in which he spoke and the deep melancholy he carried with him and brought it with him to his performance. When cast in the film, replacing Liam Neeson, the actor asked Spielberg for a year to prepare, which the director agreed to give him. It was a startling show of trust from the director, but he was also giving that trust to perhaps the finest living actor. His co- stars claimed they never met Day-Lewis until the film’s premiere, they knew only President Lincoln. This profoundly fine performance won the actor his third Academy Awards for Best Actor.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.