Top Ten Greatest Living Film Actors. According to: Me.


In honor of this week’s Oscar nominations, I thought I would make a Top Ten (plus more).  I used to ravenously try to keep up with the year’s critical darlings, but I don’t have the time and I’d rather watch movies out of desire rather than obligation.  That said, YAY Melissa McCarthy!!!!  I’m also thrilled with the long overdue nod for Gary Oldman.  With Mr. Oldman in mind, I’d like to offer my

Top Ten Greatest Living Film Actors

These are actors who are able to totally transform themselves.  Some actors do what they do, and do it well, but these guys do basically everything. Note:  this is not my list of favorite actors, nor is it my list of Greatest of All Time. But I do believe that these are the greatest living film actors today.  Some are completely ignored by the Academy, others have rightly brought home an Oscar.  Rather than overload this post with video, I only include selections for my #1 and #2 choices (plus a select few).  However, I’ve included an “Essential Performance” that, for me, defines why I find these people to be so utterly brilliant, and whom I can learn from just by watching their work. Note: the “essential performance” is NOT necessarily their academy award winning film.

One final thing: I’ve never really understood why performance awards are set up along gender lines, so I said f*ck that and threw them all together.

10.  Kenneth Branagh.  Branagh gets it.  He’s a haughty classically trained Brit who can perform Shakespeare with the best of them.  He often does.  But his performance in Harry Potter tells us he’s also in on the joke.  That said, watching him do Shakespeare, nay…he nearly dances it, is a joy to behold.  Certainly, his Hamlet was a career topping acheivement.  I thought he was a little old for the role, myself, but still well done.  What really trips my Shakespearean trigger is his performance as Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing.  Very few comedies leave me laughing repeatedly like this film, and while all evidence is to the contrary, I am no film snob.  I love this movie very much BECAUSE it has a wonderful fart joke.  But Branaugh, alongside his then wife Emma Thompson, shines.  Yet there is something unsettling about Branaugh, and that undercurrent of darkness despite his shiny blonde hair, finds him cast as a high ranking member of the Gestapo more than once.  Branagh has a certain air of classic actor, but he is able to transcend that and ultimately comes off as not modern, but rather essential.

Academy Awards: 0
Essential Performance: Much Ado About Nothing

9.  Johnny Depp.  Remember that internet meme “Steal like an artist?” Depp does this.  He’ll tell you who inspired a certain performance.  But what he is becomes so much more than an imitation.  Depp gets tossed aside critically for relying on “weirdness” or for his longtime partnership with Tim Burton.  What is missed is his ability to take a risk and commit. His apparent need to hide behind these characters works for our benefit.  I believe very much that the idea of vulnerability in performance is abused and misused.  Using your life story isn’t vulnerable, working out personal issues onstage or onscreen isn’t vulnerable. Opening yourself up, being available and responding honestly to your fellow actors IS vulnerable.  Depp gets this.  Something he inherently understands is what he looks like on camera.  I don’t mean what he looks like esthetically.  He knows what angle will help him achieve a mood, an emotion, or even that characteristic weirdness.  Unlike a stage actor, Depp was built for film.  He knows that even the correctly timed milimeter of eye movement says something.  The small smile says something different than the big toothy one.  Depp is always working as hard as the camera.  And yet it looks effortless.

Academy Awards: 0
Essential Performance: Pirates of the Caribbean- The Curse of the Black Pearl OR Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

8.  Christopher Guest.  We all know his work in his own films, as Corky St. Clair, Nigel Tufnel, Alan Barrows and Harlan Pepper, but he’s also the Six-Fingered Man in The Princess Bride, a role where he nearly (and slyly) blends into the background.  That subtlety is exactly what gives you chills about his character.  He rightly let’s Chris Sarandon get the showy stuff.  It’s an unsung and wonderful performance.  It’s also an example of his ability to see his roles beyond the scope of himself.  Anne Bogart, one of my fave directors and theatrical thinkers, often asks “What is the most interesting/important thing happening right now and what can I do to add to it?”  Sometimes the answer is “Nothing…yet.”  And that seems to be where Christopher Guest works.  He creates characters who can stand alone with a film behind them.  There’s a reason we still occasionally catch Nigel Tufnel on a talk show, even though Spinal Tap was made in 1981.

Academy Awards: 0
Essential Performance – Waiting for Guffman

7. Frances McDormand. Occasionally, an Oscar goes to the right person.  Like most people, my first time noticing Frances McDormand was in Fargo.  Marge Gunderson is one of the greatest film characters ever created (another list I’d like to make). I love her performances in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Almost Famous, Raising Arizona, and Wonder Boys.  A lot of people talk about how “natural” or “believable” an actor is.  I don’t care.  Some of the most unnatural and bizzare performances are my favorites.  See Hank Azaria in The Birdcage.  What McDormand does is make the ridiculous honest.  When I watch her onscreen I think “THAT’S what I want to do when I grow up.”

Academy Awards: 1
Essential Performance: Fargo

6. Catherine O’Hara.  She’s brilliant, and it ain’t just her acting skills.  Thanks to her collaborations with Christopher Guest, she’s actually creating these roles from the ground up.  As a kid, she was of course, the Mom in Home Alone to me…but you know what?  She’s really good as the Mom in the Home Alone.  Her scene with John Candy is precious.  But it’s Christopher Guest’s films where she really got to show her stuff.  Each and every character is completely different and three dimensional.  She’s a slapstick as she is smart. She is also the hands down best stage drunk I’ve ever seen.

Academy Awards: 0
Essential Performance – Any Christopher Guest film in which she appears.

5. Gary Oldman.  I’ve posted about Oldman before.  He has been many things, and boring has never been one of them.  His intensity is often spoken about, but his tenderness is as profound.  I simply can’t think of anyone else who could play Sirius Black.  Or Sid Vicious.  Roles that may have been up for interpretation, once played by Oldman, are no longer anything but what he makes them.  His role in The Professional could have been easily botched by or more likely, rotely played by another actor.  It is, on the page, just a better-than-average action movie bad guy.  In Oldman’s hands, it’s evil incarnate.  Volatile, funny, and all the more terrifying because of it.  His Dracula is not a monster, but a wounded man.  A man corrupted by his own pain.

Academy Awards: 0 (Hopefully soon to change)
Essential Performance: Sid and Nancy OR The Professional

4. Ian McKellan. McKellan is a lesson for an actor to learn.  The lesson is this:  A strong sense of self is the key to survival in such a vicious business.  The man owns a tshirt that says, “I’m Gandalf AND Magneto, bitch.”  Oh, and also maybe the greatest King Lear.  His performance as James Whale in Gods and Monsters is smart and heartwrenching.  (As a side note, I think the Bride of Frankenstein is overshadowed by Frankenstein.  The Bride of Frankenstein is better, funnier, campier, and more self aware.  Check it out. Both pieces are James Whale, but The Bride has a sense of self it seems like he was almost afraid to let loose in the first film.) But back to Gandalf, he’s like a master class in acting in one character.  There are the most subtle and also the most huge theatrical moments and yet it all belongs, and never feels out of place in his portrayal of Gandalf.

Academy Awards: 0
Essential Performance: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy OR Gods and Monsters (Also google his King Lear…It’s phenomenal)

3.  Robert Downey, Jr. There are two categories of Robert Downey Jr films.  His entire career, and then Tropic Thunder.  Both are full to the brim with brilliance. In the first category we have Chaplin, Wonder Boys, Home for the Holidays, Iron Man…. and then there is Tropic Thunder.  One false move, and it could have been a disaster.  Certainly Stiller and the other creative minds behind the concept of Downey, Jr.’s character walked that line very effectively, but they needed someone to make it physical in form.  And they found the right guy for the job.  Robert Downey, Jr. has soulful eyes, but they absolutely radiate ego and mischeviousness in Tropic Thunder.  Certainly it’s well known that the guy has had some inner demons to fight, but it’s almost like Tropic Thunder gave him the venue he really needed.  People have misconstrued some of the charicatures in Tropic Thunder and read them as making fun of a particular race or a physical or mental disability.  What Tropic Thunder is really doing is ripping the ridiculousness of Hollywood and awards shows and the general self-congratulating that entertainment types like to do.  (I am not unaware I am an actor making a list of awesome actors, btw.)  Tropic Thunder succeeds because overwhelmingly, they trusted their audience to “get it” and we did.  Robert Downey, Jr is as comfortable in a drama as in a comedy, but one thing he always bring is a sense of fun and of the ridiculous.  He almost seems to step out of the screen and make us laugh at ourselves, including him.

Academy Awards: 0
Essential Performance: Tropic Thunder OR Chaplin

2. Emma Thompson.  She’s a phenomenon.  I’m sort of speechless about her talent and abilities.  She kind of sneaks into some movies and just tears into the role, no matter how small.  There is a moment in Love Actually when she finally realizes her husband is at the very least, contemplating an affair, and she’s just trying to get it together so her kids don’t see her lose it at Christmas.  We’ve all had this moment.  That “please stop crying” moment.  That in-your-bedroo0m-trying-to-get-your-shit-together moment.  I couldn’t find a good clip of it, but go to 1:26 of this video to at least see a hint. My favorite Emma Thompson performance is in Stranger Than Fiction.  Lest you think I only enjoy her when she’s being a bit bleak, check her out in the aforementioned Much Ado About Nothing throwing around some banter with her then husband Branagh

Academy Awards: 1
Essential Performance: Stranger Than Fiction

1.  Peter O’Toole.  I arrived late to the Peter O’Toole game.  Partially, that’s because I was born in 1981 and those missed years of film making couldn’t be helped.  Partially I was too busy watching his partners in crime like Richard Burton.  But better late than never.  He made a really bad movie in the 80’s that I adore called High Spirits.  Truly, it’s dreck.  But I love it, and not ironically.  And here’s the thing.  He knows it’s dreck, but he still performs as if it’s Shakespeare coming out of his mouth and better yet, he almost makes it sound like it is.  If Robert Downey Jr.’s performances are equivalent to a great backyard BBQ with your best friends and family, Peter O’Toole’s are the grandest most fun three day bender you’ve ever had.   I mean, of course, Beckett is great.  Lawrence of Arabia, a triumph.  Lion in Winter, astounding.  But I offer you my favorite O’Toole performance:  Man of La Mancha.  It’s flat out fantastic.  Unlike most movie musicals, La Mancha doesn’t give you much to look at (other than Sophia Loren, and I do, as wannabe bombshell, adore Sophia Loren).  The roads are dusty.  The costumes dirty.  The setting bleak.  It’s an actor’s musical.  That’s almost literally all there is.  O’Toole is perfection.  You want his Don Quixote to march his chivalrous way into your life and tell you to dream the Impossible Dream.  I daresay I wept in joy at this movie.  And it was all because of Peter O’Toole.  He is, in my mind, the greatest living actor.

Academy Awards: 1 (Honorary)
Essential Performance: Every single one.  He NEVER turns in a bad performance.  However, Lawrence of Arabia can’t be denied.

Runners Up:

Stephen Root – 0 Academy Awards.  He is the definition of a working actor.

Hank Azaria – 0 Academy Awards.  His vocal work alone speaks for itself.

Paul Gross – 0 Academy Awards.  This might be my favorite scene ever.  Watch him direct a bad actress on her performance as Ophelia:

Allison Janney – 0 Academy Awards. She pops up in weird places like Primary Colors, but she makes her mark.  Plus she’s from Ohio… She is big part of why I love Drop Dead Gorgeous so much. But truly where she gets to shine is on The West Wing.

Diane Weist – 2 Academy Awards.  Woody Allen gets a lot of shit sometimes, but his eye for Diane Weist is right on target.  I watch her performance in Bullets Over Broadway the night before I start rehearsal for a show.

Jeffery Wright – 0 Academy Awards. Basquiat.  Angels in America.  And then he plays Colin Powell.  An argument for the subtle.

Dustin Hoffman – 2 Academy Awards.  He should have won for Tootsie, but I won’t pick the fly shit out of the pepper.  Sure he was wound a little tight early in his career, but he relaxes as he ages, making his body of work always interesting to watch.

Hope Davis – 0 Academy Awards.  American Splendor.  About Schmidt.  And if you’re interested in the early careers of your acting heroes as I am, that’s her in Home Alone as the French airline associate.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman – 1 Academy Awards.  This guy has presence.  And a very unique one too.  Often the word “masculine” gets associated with Cary Grant types, but for me, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the picture of a masculine presence on screen.  One of my favorite performances of his is actually in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War.  I could take or leave the flick, but this movie is actually the first time I really paid attention to him.

Angela Lansbury – 0 Academy Awards.  She can do anything.  She still fucking does.  I can’t handle it.  Oh, and she originated my absolute dream role: Mrs. Lovett.

Benicio Del Toro – 1 Academy Award.  I like weird with a purpose, and Benicio Del Toro is just that.  When you watch him, you are watching a story develop through someone’s eyes you don’t recognize and that is so very interesting.

David Morse – 0 Academy Awards.  I just know, I just know that George Washington must have sounded like that.

Cloris Leachman – 1 Academy Award.  She’s in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  She’s Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein.  She’s still swingin’ and she doesn’t give a shit.  I love this woman.

Anyhoo, I know there’s no Streep or Dench on my list (no reflection on them.  I love them both.) Nor is there Anthony Hopkins or any other typical list toppers.  Tell where I’m wrong!  I love a good debate on a top ten list.  Still, I stand by this.  These are the folks whose brains I want to pick.  Who’s talent I want to learn from, and whose work I ALWAYS want to watch.

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