In this new cinematic paradigm of shoot ‘em up, superhero shlock, it’s hard to remember a time when movies used to be judged on their heart, intelligence, philosophy, and realism…rather than their CGI. And what ultimately gave life to those films of yesteryear? The actors. Back in the day, what made you stand out as a star had nothing to do with the evenness of your features or the definition of your abs – I don’t even think they had abs back then – it was your ability to connect with the audience by opening up a window into your soul.
Below I present the top ten male actors that did it best (a separate list for women will follow). For the millennials in the house who may not have heard of some of these people – or any of them for that matter – maybe it’ll inspire you to check out their movies. I’m sure most of them are available some streaming service or other.
10) Dustin Hoffman
Hoffman re-defined the image of a leading man. His unconventional appearance, and brilliant technique (earned through years at the Actor’s Studio under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg) helped to usher in the era of the anti-hero which began in the late 60s with such films as The Graduate and Easy Rider and remained popular until the era of the ‘blockbuster’ took over – Jaws, Close Encounters, Star Wars, etc… Over the years, Dustin Hoffman has played an incredibly broad range of characters from a 120 year old Indian to an autistic savant, but in my opinion he’s most successful when he’s breaking your heart.
For me, his greatest roles will always be: Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, Ted Kramer in Kramer vs Kramer, Raymond Babbit in Rain Man… and of course his greatest masterpiece of all, Willy Lowman in Death of Salesman.
9) Dana Andrews
Dana Andrews always brought an intense vulnerability to each of his roles which was far ahead of its time. In fact you can see echoes of his distinctive style in actors like David Morse and Tom Hanks. He is known for portraying “Average Joe” types, yet he never played them broadly, choosing a far subtler approach. Although on the surface he may have appeared stolid, his eyes would always give him away, expressing the doubt, fear and pain that we all carry around inside us.
His greatest films are The Best Years of Our Lives, A Walk In the Sun, and The Ox-Bow Incident (which by the way are three of the greatest films EVER).
8) Bruce Dern
Generally regarded as a character actor, for me Dern’s passionate performances are amongst some of the greatest in film history. When he’s on the screen, it’s literally impossible to keep your eyes off of him. Bruce Dern was part of a large gang (Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Peter Bogdanovich, and more) which got their start working with legendary producer Roger Corman. He rose to prominence in the 1970s, during the anti-hero movement but never quite achieved leading man status (although to me, he repeatedly stole the film from whomever was lead in billing). His wild eyed portrayals were always filled with such energy and bluster, yet there was a great sadness at the heart of it all.
His best films are: The King Of Marvin Gardens, Silent Running, The Laughing Policeman, and Coming Home.
For my money, he was the greatest actor of my generation. When he committed to a role he went ALL THE WAY. It’s sometimes excruciating to watch (Synecdoche, New York springs to mind), but it’s always a powerful experience nonetheless. There’s a beautiful ease in the way he portrayed each of his characters, it’s a fascinating combination of confidence and insecurity which is so compelling.
His greatest films are: Magnolia, The Savages, Charlie Wilson’s War, and Doubt.
6) Paul Newman
Well to begin with, he was the greatest looking actor who ever lived. You can take your Brad Pitts, Johnny Depps and Jude Laws, wrap em’ all up in a ball and they still don’t compare to the astounding beauty that was Newman. Still, the fantastic part about him was that down the line, he played against his looks, taking on more complex roles like The Hustler and Somebody up There Likes Me instead of the usual shlock handsome leading men were expected to take. He was a versatile actor with the ability to play light comedy, drama, even slapstick and he excelled equally in all genres. Any movie he was in, he made better. Even a bad Newman film is still pretty good, ’cause it’s got him in it!
His greatest films are: Hud, The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Harper, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, The Drowning Pool, Slap Shot, The Verdict, The Hudsucker Proxy… and definitely check out a lesser known gem of a film called Pocket Money!
Both of these actors absolutely needed to be included on this list and as there are only ten slots, I had to call a tie for fifth place.
Let’s begin with Jack Lemmon.
To some, Lemmon’s unparalleled brilliance as a comedic actor may forever bind him in their minds exclusively to the genre. It would be easy enough to understand this point of view, as his absolute virtuosity in such hilarious masterworks as The Odd Couple, Some Like It Hot, and The Out-Of-Towners will stand forever in time as some of the funniest movies ever printed on celluloid. However, Jack Lemmon’s talent was far too great to be restricted to any one category – he could do it all. Expertly starring in dramas like Save The Tiger, Days of Wine and Roses, and The China Syndrome proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. Ultimately though, Jack Lemmon’s many varied characters (whether they were tragic failures as in Glengarry Glen Ross or romantic heroes like his turn in The Wackiest Ship In the Navy) will be remembered as the paragon depiction of the modern American everyman. With innate warmth and technical perfection, he made us root for him throughout his entire illustrious career, and in doing so; we were really just rooting for ourselves. His contribution to cinema was truly colossal.
His greatest films are: Mr. Roberts, The Odd Couple, Save The Tiger, Some Like It Hot, Glen Garry Glen Ross, The Days Of Wine and Roses, The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie, The Out-Of-Towners, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and The China Syndrome
And now on to Warren Oates.
Putting it simply, Warren Oates was the greatest American character actor that ever lived.
His ability to tear at your heart with his nuanced portraits of the disaffected and rejected contingent of society is unsurpassed. He started off his career in Westerns, adeptly playing a host of ne’er do wells one shadier than the next, but it wasn’t until his role as Lyle Gorch in the classic The Wild Bunch directed by Sam Peckinpah that he gained his first real notice. He would go on to star in several other films helmed by Peckinpah, most notably Bring Me the Head Of Alfredo Garcia, which very well might be the ultimate encapsulation of the anti-hero aesthetic of the 1970s. As far as I’m concerned though, his greatest performance was in the existential masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop, in which he plays a shattered loser, with a pathological inability to tell the truth – especially to himself. Richard Linklater (director of such films as Dazed and Confused and Slacker) once described Oates as a “God who once walked the earth”, I thoroughly concur.
His greatest films are: Two-Lane Blacktop, The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head Of Alfredo Garcia, The Shooting, In the Heat Of the Night, and Stripes.
It is impossible to have a list of the greatest actors of all-time without including Brando. Still, it’s hard to come up with any new insight on the man as his body of work has been analyzed and re-analyzed, ad nauseum, by both fans and critics alike from the beginning of his career to its end. Still, I suppose there might be something to glean from that after all and it’s this… despite the fact that he’s been the most studied actor in the history of film, there is something basic, something intrinsic about him that still continues to elude us all to this day. For many, Brando would be the obvious choice for greatest actor of all time, but I stand by my decision to have him in the number four slot. I will say this however, his almost unsettling ease and facility for the craft perhaps makes him the most natural actor that ever lived. The way he moved his body, delivered his lines, used his tremendous sex appeal (which was an extremely compelling combination of masculine and femine) it was all so unhindered and fluid. Of course, before Brando no one had actually acted this way before. He pretty much created a new blueprint of dramatic expression, which was copied wholesale by many others – including James Dean. He really had it all, astonishing looks, incomparable skill and a raw animalistic power that literally sent shockwaves through the world. His performances in On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Wild One captured the imagination of an entire generation, as well as being a major inspiration for practically every other actor to come along after him. Of course for me and many millions of others, his crowning achievement will always be his tour-de-force performance as Don Corleone in The Godfather. Brando was a true enigma. After all, it’s well documented that he hated the profession and preferred instead to promote human rights causes. Still, as with all enigmas his mysterious, elusive quality is part of the reason audiences have been drawn to him for decades.
His best films are On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One, Guys and Dolls, The Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, and of course…The Godfather.
If Brando was the most natural actor that ever lived, then Bogey was the COOLEST. Deep down inside, every man secretly wishes they could be like him. He’s a veritable icon, one of the TRUE legends. His nonchalant gift for attracting the dames, his quick wit, steady nerves, and general all around…well… COOL-ness was and always will be unequalled in cinema. He’s inspired books and movies dedicated to his cool (my favorite being Woody Allen’s side-splitting Play It Again Sam). Hell, he is cool personified. This unique gift was a perfect fit for the characters of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe in the respective films The Maltese Falcon and the Big Sleep which literally cemented Film Noir as one of the most enduring genres in cinematic history. Bogart OWNED his performances like no other, his turn as Rick Blaine in Casablanca is so real and deftly executed, he made audiences believe those incredible words coming out of his mouth were HIS. If it wasn’t for Bogey, Casablanca would not be what it is – the greatest film of all time. Now, if that was all there was to the man, it would be more than enough, but there’s much more. He could also play pitiful characters like Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny as well as cold hearted killers as he did in the superb Dead End. Underpinning all of these roles though, was that unquestionable, remarkable, overpowering, mesmerizing, mind-blowing, colossal COOL! There will never be another that comes close to Bogey. His contribution not only to the movies but to the world is inestimable.
His greatest films were: The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Across the Pacific, The Caine Mutiny, The Petrified Forest, Dead End, The African Queen, In a Lonely Place, Dark Passage, and of course…Casablanca.
Ahhh…Jack. Well, here it gets personal. Jack Nicholson is my hero. Growing up an outsider, I connected with his disaffected anti-hero characters in a profound way. I can still remember clear as a bell the day I first saw the film Five Easy Pieces. I was in my late teens, and miserable. At the time I thought no one felt as I did about life, the universe and all the ‘what not’ that falls in-between the cracks. Five Easy Pieces, for me was a revelation. The main character of Bobby Dupea instantly resounded deep within my soul – the overbearing ambivalence, cynicism, and hopelessness was exactly the same jagged prism through which I viewed the world that surrounded me. With one movie, my whole life changed. In point of fact, all of Jack’s roles during his 1970s hey-day dealt with a similar theme; the inevitability that the average thinking human being, will eventually get their unique ’spark’ extinguished, and the NECESSITY that as thinking human beings we must all fight against that inevitability – to the death. After watching Five Easy I decided to cast off my own awkward persona (one that had most definitely not been working for me I might add) and try on Jack’s. Those were some of the happiest days of my life! By playing a role in my own movie, I was able to disconnect from all the bullshit I’d endured in my childhood. In a way, it freed me, and ultimately changed me for the better – I owe that all to Jack Nicholson. Now, getting back to the man’s actual body of work, for my money, the run of Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, The King Of Marvin Gardens, The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Passenger, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Missouri Breaks, Goin’ South, The Shining, and The Postman Always Rings Twice is the single greatest run of any actor – bar none. Of course, a lot of his later work was quite masterful as well i.e. The Witches Of Eastwick, Terms Of Endearment, and About Schmidt, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the work he did in the 1970s. It’s truly an astounding achievement. Anything he did during those days was absolute magic, he was the golden boy of the decade and deservedly so.
His best films are part of that great 70s run : Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, The King Of Marvin Gardens, The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Passenger, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Missouri Breaks, Goin’ South, and The Shining.
Pound for pound, in my humble estimation, the greatest actor of all time was none other than James Stewart. If you don’t agree, let me state my case. The man did it ALL: Westerns (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence); mysteries ( Rear Window and Vertigo); comedies (You Can’t Take It With You and Harvey); drama (Anatomy of a Murder); film noir (Call Northside 777); tragedy (The Glenn Miller Story); romance (The Shop Around the Corner and The Philadelphia Story)… and he did it all perfectly. He was both leading man and character actor; he could play either a total bad ass or a lovable everyman. He simply was the most versatile actor that ever lived, thus making him the greatest. Moreover, he’s got some of the most iconic performances of all time in his resume, films that permanently reside in the collective psyche of the entire western world. Films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. These roles have surpassed mere performance; they’ve become symbols of America and our ideals as a nation – ideals we’ve tragically strayed far away from in recent years. Still we have the evidence; that America once stood for something great, something worth fighting for. James Stewart remains an undying symbol of that lost America…and he is the greatest actor that ever lived.
His best films are: Rear Window, It’s a Wonderful Life, Anatomy of a Murder, Rope, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Harvey, and Vertigo.
BONUS ACTORS WHO SHOULD RECEIVE HONORABLE MENTION:
TOM HANKS, Gene Hackman, Cary Grant, Sidney Poitier, Clark Gable, Groucho Marx, Fred MacMurray, Joseph Cotton, Van Heflin, Lee Marvin, Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, Michael Murphy, Sterling Hayden, Ned Beatty, Robert Redford, James Dean, William Bendix, Alan Ladd, Robert Deniro, James Gandolfini, Fred Astaire,Robert Duvall, Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, and many, many more….