BY John H. Foote
Understand I am not discussing the great biography 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, 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. The movie itself is an old-fashioned, greatest hits biopic, staying away from anything remotely controversial or suggesting the Mahatma was flawed, and he was. It is public knowledge he was. By exploring those flaws, they humanize the character.
Oliver Stone did not hold back in exploring the flaws of Richard Nixon. Paranoid, a bully, vulgar yet a brilliant statesman, he gives a deeply flawed man who managed to do great things in his Presidency. 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, flaws and all, find their soul and put it on the screen. Looking like the character may help the audience but is not for me essential, provided they find the soul of the character.
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 twenty have done just that.
There are many I could not include, James Cagney in Man Of a Thousand Face (1957), James Woods in Salvador (1986), Gary Oldman in Sid and Nancy (1986), Robin Williams in Awakenings (1990), James Franco in James Dean (2000), and 127 Hours (2010) , along with countless others.
In order of preference, they are.
25. John Travolta in Primary Colors (1998)
Cheating here a bit because Travolta’s character is Presidential nominee Jack Stanton, but make no mistake, that syrupy southern drawl, the handshake, always a two-hander, the manner of making whoever he was talking to feel like the only person in the world? This is Bill Clinton. Based on the book of the same name by an anonymous writer, thought to be someone close to the Clintons during the campaign, it explores this interesting man; warts and all. The constant eating, the womanizing, and the covering up the womanizing should the girl be underage, it is all here. And yet we like him! Hell, I would vote for him! Described as the sun, Travolta brings such charisma to the role, such authenticity, there is little doubt who he is portraying. Deniers, well, are simply as stupid as the current man in the Oval Office.
24. Val Kilmer in The Doors (1991)
The film as a whole does not quite work but in the middle of the madness is this stunning performance from Kilmer as the lead singer of The Doors, the Lizard King, Jim Morrison. Blessed with a deep, powerful voice, he became a sensation in LA clubs before going national with a hit record, Light My Fire. Drugs, women, poetry, and witches soon overtake his life and he spends most of his time angering everyone close to him, biting the hand that made him wealthy. Kilmer is electrifying as the actor, his performances onstage filled with a raw sexuality and seething intensity that could not be denied. That he did his own singing in the film is beyond astonishing. Watch him sing The End, you will not be watching an actor but the spirit of Morrison passing through an actor.
23. James Franco in The Disaster Artist (2017)
Franco deserved to win the Academy Award for this brilliantly funny, poignant performance as Tommy Wiseau, the infamous director of the dreadful film The Room (2002). Speaking in a strange mid-European accent, though claiming to be from New Orleans, much older than he claims to be, with a seemingly endless cash supply, Wiseau befriended a young actor before the pair headed to LA to find fame. Obsessed with James Dean, who, ironically Franco portrayed with blinding accuracy for HBO in 2002, Wiseau wrote a dreadful script, then acted and directed it, financing the mess himself. Though untalented, he shines with determination and brims with hope. You cannot help but like the guy, and he makes you laugh, constantly. Franco, rightly, saw him as a sad dreamer.
22. Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote (2005)
Slipping under the skin of the outwardly delicate, fry writer who wielded his pen with vicious and honest intent, the late actor was superb as Truman Capote. The film explores Capote’s fascination with the murder of a family in Kansas, that led him to write, In Cold Blood, which created a new genre of book, the crime docu-novel. Using the fish out of water element Capote is quite a sight in rural Kansas in his expensive clothes, lisping, light speech, and high pitched laugh. He befriends the killers out of necessity for his book but finds himself drawn to Perry, the more sensitive of the two. Confused by his emotions for the cold-blooded killer, he also knows only the death of the killer will allow him to finish his book. A glimpse into genius by an acting genius.
21. Woody Harrelson in The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
If anyone, in the eighties, had suggested to me Harrelson, best known as the dim bartender on TV’s Cheers, would become an Oscar-nominated in the years to come? I would have laughed in your face. C’mon, Harrelson? But that is exactly what has happened, and beyond the Oscar, he has become one of the best character actors in the business. His breakthrough, no question was as pornography magnate, the publisher of Hustler magazine, Larry Flynt. The performance has a tremendous arc because Flynt attack everyone in his magazine, even The Wizard of Oz characters, the Easter bunny and Santa Claus, no one was safe from his vicious, sexual satire. But then he was shot, left paralyzed from the waist down, lost his wife and soul mate to drugs, and yet he survived. Harrelson captures all the pain, the hurt, and the courage it took to survive whatever was thrown at him.
20. Dustin Hoffman in Lenny (1974)
Comedians are often great actors, they find the wounded clown within. But an actor, a serious actor might be challenged when portraying a comic who made their living talking in front of audiences. When Bob Fosse was casting the role of Lenny Bruce he knew who he wanted, but Hoffman was afraid of the role. He did not have to be. The research he did allowed him to find the speech pattern of Bruce, the rage that drove his commentaries, the manner in which he stalked the stage. Bruce was the first comic to be a social commentator and Hoffman brings all aspects of him to vivid life. Husband, father, a defendant in the courts, drug addict, Lenny Bruce was an icon for freedom of speech. Hoffman, for two hours, inhabited the role.
19. Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon (1999)
As the self-described song and dance man, Andy Kaufman’s, Jim Carrey went deep within himself and Kaufman, finding the character and refusing to let it go. I never understood the humour of Kaufmann, it just did not tickle me, though his lip-synch to the Mighty Mouse theme was inspired. Carrey brings it all to life, the wide-eyed joy he took in making people laugh, the perverse happiness in springing a joke on someone, even if they took it poorly. Taking that to heart, Carrey did the same to the cast and director, who were mystified by his actions. That said, his performance was remarkable, as though he was channeling the ghost of Carrey through his performance. Sadly the Academy turned a blind eye to both Carrey and the film.
18. Ben Kingsley in Gandhi (1982)
Ironically with the same Director as Downey’s Chaplin, Ben Kingsley suffered the same fate. He is an exceptional Mahatma, yet is trapped in a film 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. With Kingsley this committed, imagine what he might have done portraying the darker characteristics of the character, think what greater contradictions he would have had to explore? Sadly the screenwriter and director chose to film the more saintly aspects of his life, which made for an honourable film, just not a very good one, or an honest one.
17. 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. You would think Hollywood would treat such a pioneer better than they have, but let’s not forget Hollywood stood by while the government ran him out.
16. 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, harder to dislike because he is a genius, and yet as described by a girlfriend, an asshole. But my God what a mind, and the actor perfectly captures it. Those this brilliant are often socially awkward, and that is true of Zuckerberg, as perfectly portrayed by Eisenberg. Watching him there is no doubt he created an application that would alter the world, making it a great deal smaller with the stroke of a key, or click of a mouse.
15. Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List (1993)
How do you portray an enigma? Oskar Schindler was such a man, a member of the Nazi party, a war profiteer, a womanizing cheating lout, yet somewhere in his heart there was good, profound compassion. During the war, he saved the lives of one thousand one hundred Jews, workers in one of his factories. Many times they were bound for the death camps, yet like a guardian angel, Schindler intervened to save them each time. His performance is in his eyes, on his face as he watches the horrors around him and quietly, without a word as to why he goes about fiercely protecting those who became known as “the Schindler Jews.” A deeply moving, profound performance.
14. Anthony Hopkins in Nixon (1995)
Hopkins had quite a run after he won the Academy Awards for The Silence of the Lambs (1991), but 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 of the seventies, Nixon was a true statesman, but a flawed and paranoid man, doomed as a world leader. He captures the wounded soul of the disgraced President in every way. Looking nothing like him, he instead captures his essence and speech pattern and becomes Nixon before our very eyes. A foul-mouthed President behind closed doors, he never felt entirely worthy of the Presidency, believing people would have preferred another Kennedy. Hopkins made us feel for this man who never allowed anyone to get too close to him, Henry Kissinger excepted. The scene of the two men praying in the White House the night before he resigned is shattering.
13. Warren Beatty in Bugsy (1991)
Beatty was always an interesting actor, but 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, which brought Siegel down. 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. We watch him casually do murder, terrorize a man who has robbed him, gently bully an opera singer out of his home because he wants it for himself, and build an oasis in the desert that became a city. It is a brilliant performance.
12. 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, beautifully capturing the essence of Brown, bringing his strange brand of genius to life. What we are always aware of with Brown is his ferocious mind, always at work, overcoming his handicap to be the artist that lurked within.
11. 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, Hells 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. Yet we know Hughes was already damaged, his phobias working on his mind, often turning his mind inside out. It is a bold, outstanding performance that touches beautifully, though gently on his madness. 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. And we, of course, know his future all too well, which I believe gives the film an added heartbreak.,
10. George C. Scott in Patton (1970)
As one of the greatest warriors in the history of the United States military, General George S. Patton did as he pleased often defying his superiors’ orders. He was brilliant and possibly a little man 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. In a few words, Scott defines the General, telling us his definition of the American soldier. “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country, he won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his.” With Viet Nam raging here was a film, a performance about a feared warrior, embodied by one of our greatest actors.
9. 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, really 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. The first time we see Amin in the film, we see what the masses saw, a man dedicated to his people. Yet look closer, there is something ferocious in those eyes, something unhinged. Whitaker is brilliant, seething with anger and contempt for those who defy him, believing himself to be a God. As his power increases, so does his lust for blood, as bodies pile on the roads outside the city. So arrogant was he, his men stopped burying the bodies, leaving them to rot. Terrifying, often difficult to endure, but entirely necessary. Whitaker swept the acting awards in 2006, rightfully so.
8. Eric Roberts in Star 80 (1983)
In portraying the horrific human being Paul Snider, who shot, killed and then raped his estranged wife, Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratton he ensured his immortality. Sadly, no one but the critics and his fellow actors really noticed Roberts achievement, which was to bring humanity to a monster. Snider had carefully nurtured the career of his wife, but as Hugh Hefner stated “had the personality of a pimp”. Knowing those around Dorothy did not like him, knowing they were advising Dorothy to divorce him, he grew enraged then obsessed when she left him. Roberts is chilling bringing the character so to life, it is almost uncomfortable. The final scenes of the murder are indeed frightening in their honesty but essential to explore the full degree of his madness. A brave, powerful performance.
7. Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
A magnificent performance in a masterful work from David Lean. 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 with 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 sado-masochism, love of killing and struggling with homosexuality at a time heroes were not permitted to be so. Towards the end of the film, dressed in his flowing white robes, he weighs in on an attack, and soon, amidst the carnage those robes are crimson with blood. In a perfect performance, the moment defines Lawrence. A perfect performance.
6. Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980)
As middleweight 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 Motta himself, then gained eighty pounds to portray the wasted, overweight fighter. So much was made of the weight gain, I worry that today’s audiences might miss the nuances he brought to the role. The swagger, the sense of not being worthy, his constant bullying those around him, the obscene jealousy that ended his marriages, De Niro is a revelation in the role.
5. Denzel Washington in Malcom 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. A stunning performance from one of our finest actors. So much of the performance is showing Malcoms’ growing awareness, in prison of himself as a black man, later in Mecca where he realizes men are all one, equality means equals for everyone. His monologues have a lacerating force, a truth tinged with barely concealed rage. Yet he cannot conceal the hurt when Elijah Mohammad turns on him and very likely ordered his assassination. A towering performance.
4. 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 DiCaprio gives a brilliant performance, the best of his career. The young actor brings a furious energy to the performance and brash confidence, moving through the film like a young rock star. He covets and worships money, the more the better, and Belford did not care that what he was doing was illegal. He rose quickly in the financial world of New York, buying all the things that suggested enormous wealth. The actor captured with a seething intensity that hunger for more, All the time more. 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 and the great tragedy was, that he knew every step of the way where he would end up.
3. Sean Penn in Milk (2008)
The range of Sean Penn as an actor has never been in doubt, but his performance as Harvey Milk will quite simply astound you and blow your mind. Never before has Penn portrayed such joy in a character, never has he brought forth such life force, and hope. Milk was the first openly gay government official to be elected to office. What he did in San Francisco for gay rights, for young gay men and women across America was let them know they were not alone, and it was ok to be gay. Penn gives himself over to the character, his smile his signature as he told those who followed him, “You gotta have hope.” Nothing Penn had done through his great career prepared audiences and critics for what he did as Milk, it was a breathtaking, honest, heartbreaking portrayal that won critics awards in LA and NY, as well as the National Society, Screen Actors Guild and the Academy Award, his second in five years.
2. Bruno Ganz in Downfall (2005)
Is it possible to humanize Hitler, possibly the most hated and evil man to ever exist? I am not sure that is possible yet Bruno Ganz does that very thing in the superb German film Downfall, which explores the last days Hitler was alive in his 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. Most of all he knows he cannot be captured for fear of what the enemy will do to him. He knows he must die at his own hand, and we watch him slowly gather the courage to take his life and convince Eva Braun to do the same. Often gentle and kind with those around him, he sometimes flies into a rage when his orders are not followed. It is clear, there is never a doubt, that Hitler was a dangerously unstable man. In the end, the monster was all too human, just a man. An astounding, brave performance, I mean think about it, Ganz is portraying possibly the most hated man who ever lived, and he somehow finds whatever humanity was there. In the end, all that death, the camps, he was just a sad, small old man.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (1992)
The moment we laid 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. A melancholy man, in grief over the death of his son, the weight of the nation on him, blacks looking to him for salvation and constant worry over his wife’s’ mental illness, he carries all that in every step he takes, in every word he speaks. Slavery disgusted Lincoln, enough for the nation to become divided and go to war, and he would not allow the war to end without abolishing slavery. The actor captures both who Lincoln was and who we hope and want him to be. 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.