Oscars: the 25 best winning lead acting performances of all time

From Bergman, Bogart and Brando to De Niro, Portman and Taylor, the competition is stellar - and Streep doesn’t make the cut

Jack Nicholson was outstanding in One Flew Over A Cuckoo's Nest, but where does he rank in our all-time list?

Enjoy a foolish attempt to rate the 25 finest performances to have won lead actor – that’s best actor or best actress – over the 94 Oscar ceremonies so far. This is not a list of 25 finest film actors. A few on any such list would never have been nominated. Nor is it an attempt to rate the best actors to have won an Academy Award.

Al Pacino would be towards the top of that list, but his turn in Scent of a Woman would barely trouble a chart of the 50 best winning performances. Had Bette Davis won for either All About Eve or Now Voyager, she would be in the top 10. As it stands, the greatest ever American female screen actor has to settle for the bottom third. No Katharine Hepburn? No Streep? What can we say?

25. Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in Black Swan (2010)

Sometimes biggest is best. Darren Aronofsky brought out the animal in a hitherto restrained actress for his off-the-leash take on the world of professional ballet. “You can get stuck in a very awful cute cycle as a woman in film,” Portman said. Not here.

24. Anna Magnani as Serafina Delle Rose in The Rose Tattoo (1955)

There are not nearly enough European actors on this list, but, happily, Daniel Mann did think to cast Magnani as a Sicilian seamstress who retreats into miserable isolation after the death of her husband. Tennessee Williams served her platefuls of dialogue to masticate as only she could.


23. Robert Donat as Mr Chipping in Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939)

A Goodbye Mr. Chips poster. Photograph: LMPC via Getty Images

Has any actor ever had a sweeter voice? Donat, then 34, takes the shy, undemonstrative teacher from his twenties to his eighties in the most ruthless tear-jerker of all time. “I heard you saying it was a pity I never had any children,” he says, minutes before death. “But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them. All boys.”

22. Rod Steiger as Bill Gillespie in In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Sadly Sidney Poitier, winner only for the insipid Lilies of the Field, doesn’t make the list, but Steiger is there for his rugged, initially racist cop in a film that – though tame now – challenged sensibilities during the Civil Rights era. That round, red face sprang straight from contemporary news photos (of the bad guys).

21. Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray (2004)

Jamie Foxx during Genius: A Night For Ray Charles. Photograph: Cohen/WireImage

Who then knew Foxx had it in him? With only a handful of lead roles under his belt, the actor stormed Taylor Hackford’s biopic with a performance that skirted impersonation while allowing an independent character to emerge. Actors rarely get the chance to show they can do it all.

20. James Stewart as Mike Connor in The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Stewart felt it so unlikely he would win he originally planned not to attend. Everyone thought Henry Fonda was getting in for The Grapes of Wrath. On reflection, it feels like an award for the ensemble: Stewart, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn. But the winner has never been better.

19. Bette Davis as Julie Marsden in Jezebel (1938)

Bette Davis in Jezebel. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Yup, only one actor is getting in for playing a spoilt southern belle in a pre-war Hollywood melodrama. “It was really something to work with,” she said. “And it did become known as a Bette Davis part.” True enough. She didn’t get Gone with the Wind, but she arguably became the greatest of them all.

18. Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996)

The best of McDormand’s three winning performances is still her first. The Coen regular strikes an elegant balance between comedy and grit as the pregnant cop trying to disentangle a deranged crime spree. Introduced the world to a Minnesotan accent it has never forgotten.

17. Clark Gable as Peter Warne in It Happened One Night (1934)

When he took off his shirt and revealed nothing underneath, sales of vests (as we would call them) plummeted. We don’t think of Gable first as a comic actor, but, even in his straight roles, he relished the dispatch of a barbed quip. A perfect comic pairing with ...

16. Claudette Colbert as Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night (1934)

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

The rules of the classic romcom were already in place when Colbert and Gable set across the country in Frank Capra’s still untouchable classic, but those two actors seemed to implicitly codify them. All hate-to-love comedies has, ever since, owed Colbert’s sass a debt.

15. Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist Anton in Gaslight (1944)

Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. Photograph: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

It doesn’t just mean “lying”, you know. The film that gave the modern world a synonym for psychological manipulation drew an impressively internal performance from an actor who, two years after Casablanca, was just coming into her spectacular prime. Not an obvious contender for a fragile victim. That made the performance all the more impressive.

14. Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Guinness savoured mystification with his performance as the British officer who allows pride in professional labour to meld into something close to collaboration. What was he up to? As with his George Smiley, Guinness conveyed the sense Nicholson knew something the audience could never hope to understand.

13. Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels in Klute (1971)

As the era of cover-up and conspiracy kicked into gear, Fonda excelled as a sex worker caught up in the hunt for a missing person. Daniels (like Donald Sutherland’s cop) is fully realised, but barely there. Taut as a cable, but riddled with suspicion.

12. Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (1971)

There really was something fetid in the air that year. The French Connection is very different to Klute – more hectic, looser in structure – but it really does feel as if Doyle breathes the same air as Bree Daniels. Hackman eats up a golden opportunity.

11. Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut in The African Queen (1951)

Three actors won for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951, but, astonishingly, Marlon Brando was not one of them. Why? Because the Academy felt the understandable need to honour a legend in the warmest of his performances. Allnut is a tough old geezer, but soft as mulch inside.

10. Judy Holiday as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday (1950)

Judy Holliday

It was Holiday who got past both Bette Davis for All About Eve and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard in one of the most stacked best actress races ever. And she may have deserved the win. It takes enormous intelligence to play dumb this well.

9. Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Elizabeth Taylor

There are still idiots out there who claim Taylor “couldn’t really act”. Mike Nichols knew better and cast her opposite her husband Richard Burton in his ground-breaking take on Edward Albee’s tale of mutually abrasive egos. Nobody else could occupy the screen with that degree of chutzpah. Unselfish. Brave. Ghastly.

8. Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Maggie Smith

Muriel Spark’s source novel asked a lot of any actor taking on her eponymous Edinburgh teacher. Who could work that degree of arrogance and snobbery in with the sort of magnetism that might inspire students for decades to come? Maggie Smith turned up and has never gone away.

7. Fredric March as Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)

Fredric March

The spirit of silent cinema was still abroad when March delivered his stunning transformation scene – aided by cunning filters – in the first (and some might argue only) horror film to deliver a best actor win. It is the sort bravura turn that, alas, was already going out of fashion.

6. Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Jack Nicholson

After years in the artistic underground, Nicholson emerged into the mainstream at the start of the decade and secured face-of-a-generation status with this anti-establishment masterpiece of the post-Watergate years. McMurphy is not quite a hero. Which was the point.

5. Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood (2007)

Daniel Day-Lewis

Lewis is capable of working in miniature, but for Paul Thomas Anderson’s study of rampant megalomania, he went for the sort of bold – but not broad – strokes that characterised the acting of Jimmy Cagney and Klaus Kinski. It is hard to think of any other actor capable of disciplining such reserves of energy.

4. Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in Cabaret (1972)

Liza Minnelli

Her mother, Judy Garland, never won a senior acting Oscar, but Minnelli knocked it out of the park early with her all-singing, all-dancing, all-strutting turn as the unstoppable cabaret singer in an era-defining musical. What did it was the combination of brass and vulnerability. All subsequent Sallys live in her shadow.

3. Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce in Mildred Pierce (1945)

Joan Crawford

Like Elizabeth Taylor above, Crawford is still treated as something of a punchline by people with small brains. She cleared all competition aside with her turn as one of Hollywood’s many misused mothers in a film that blended noir with melodrama to still gripping effect. Her performance has sour sweetness to it.

2. Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro

It is hard to separate the performance from the machinery surrounding it. De Niro put on all that weight. The actor trained with Jake LaMotta himself. Viewers were staggered as much by the physical manifestation as by the line delivery. None of that takes away from De Niro’s gift for moulding a fully fleshed-out character.

1. Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954)

Marlon Brando as dockworker Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. Photograph: Criterion Collection

It’s hard to argue with a performance that changed the nature of performance. Other film actors were engaging with the influence of Stanislavski, but nobody else combined that method commitment with the cyclonic charisma Brando brought to the screen. And yet the most famous scene – discussing his brother’s portrayal in the back seat of a car – is a masterpiece of containment. “I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

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