25 Best Oscar Winning Performances (Male) – Good acting is the hallmark of a good film. While some actors put on a voice or are just able to switch on when the director calls out “Action,” others choose to completely transform themselves to embody the character. Whether one is an instinctive actor like James Stewart – who developed his own signature style of acting over the years – or a radical performer like Marlon Brando, great actors have the ability to captivate us and make us forget that you are watching characters on screen. And when we talk about great actors, we might have different criteria to identify that elite breed of performers. In fact, one easy way (not the best, though) to identify the crème de la crème is the Oscar Awards. 

Of course, Oscar often messes up. However, from Emil Jannings, who won the inaugural acting Oscar in 1923, the Academy has acknowledged some extraordinary performances. In this list, I’ve merged the lead and supporting actor categories. Pruning it down to just 25 was tough, as Tom Hanks has been left out. To borrow a line from Billy Crystal’s 84th Academy Awards opening song, “Hanks is a memory.” This list is quite lengthy.. so let’s get right to it.

25. Joel Grey (Cabaret, 1972)

Joel Grey

There are three ways to look at this win. One- an incredible performance that managed to blow away the trio of Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, and James Caan. Two- the voters were divided between the trio and Joel Grey was the beneficiary. Three- he was a deserving winner. Well, purely speaking about Joel Grey’s performance, he is the emcee and appears on screen in every musical number in this musical, made for those who hate musicals. He prances, screams, and is electrifying in a performance that can leave you stunned for a few seconds when the regular story makes its way back to our screens.

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24. Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975)

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As hateful as Louise Fletcher’s malevolent Nurse Ratched is, the character of free and spirited Randall McMurphy is that much more loved. He tries to breathe life into the controlled and claustrophobic environment at the institution and rallies the oppressed patients to do the same. There is a brilliant scene where Randall refuses to be the one who is controlled by the system and the environment. Here, he ad-libs the commentary of a World Series game when denied permission following a ‘vote.’ The audience grows to love this character and even root for him as his rebellious act in the film offers catharsis.

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23. James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy, 1942)

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In the present day, this performance would be described as exaggerated for the excessive use of expressions. But the film was made at a time when talkies were in the nascent stage. The actors still had a flair for the stage, and they had to act for the audience at the back as well. It was only natural that they would perform in this manner. “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a film about the life of stage performers, benefited from its campy performance, especially by lead actor James Cagney, who embodied playwright, singer, actor, and dancer George M. Cohan.

We get to see his journey right from childhood with ‘the 4 Cohans’ to the time he grew up to be a sharp-tongued man whom every single producer was wary of signing. As the film progresses, Cagney dominates the screen and is synonymous with Cohan’s music and his incredible acting. You just can’t take your eyes off this character as he steps and tap dances to Broadway stardom. This holds even in the on-stage dancing performances, which have the screen-packed with actors. Quite a compliment to the one who owned Broadway. His songs, especially “Over There,” are a catchy number that can remain in your head for a long time.

22. Joaquin Phoenix (Joker, 2019)

Joker 2019

After Heath Ledger’s turn as ‘The Clown Prince of Crime,’ any actor essaying this character would have their work cut out. Ask Jared Leto, for instance. What may have helped in “Joker” (2019) and hindered here is the lack of Batman. Helped, as it provided something fresh to the character to showcase the origin story. Hindered, as there was no Batman to really explore the established supervillain side of the Joker. Joaquin Phoenix, who initially admitted he couldn’t come up with answers regarding how to play the character, took the opportunity and delivered it in style in this critique of apathetic society. 

As the ignored Arthur Fleck, Phoenix is chilling and creepy (the first two fit him from a societal POV) and even manages to draw sympathy to his character. We know what he is becoming, but the why leads to introspection. Does society (the awful) create its own villains (by impacting their mental health)? Joaquin Phoenix’s role does hint at this, showcasing how one from the crowd can become the one.

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21. Peter Finch (Network, 1976)

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At #21 in our list of Best Oscar-Winning Performances (Male) is Peter Finch for “Network.” Peter Finch played Howard Beale in this satire on television networks and the exploitative powers that run them as they cater to a fickle audience. Initially, I wondered what the Academy was high on when they decided to reward this performance. And then came the monologues: the “I’m so mad, and I can’t take this anymore” and “The tube.” The masses begin shouting this from the windows and rooftops in the film. In the 70s, that functioned as what the hashtag is in the present day.

Ratings are everything that leads to Beale being terminated, losing his mind, and then envisioning himself as the savior of the masses. He is dubbed as the mad prophet and ‘presents the news.’ Nearly five decades later, this movie is still relevant (if not more relevant than before). It is not for how Beale presented his show but for the type of acting that we see in a bid to draw the audience towards their show rather than get the audience by doing what needs to be done- which is to just present the news.

20. Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, 2009)

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Waltz won the Best Actor at the Cannes Festival but competed under the supporting actor category at the Academy Awards. Colonel Hans Landa is the primary antagonist in Tarantino’s take on the Nazi occupation of France. Landa, a.k.a. The Jew Hunter, is articulate, charming, calm, and calculated. He says that he thinks like the ones he has to hunt.

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Landa’s mere presence manages to get a confession from the farmer who is harboring enemies of the state. Of course, the farmer’s acting, too, needs to be lauded here in elevating Herr Landa’s intimidating side. The thing with Hans’ character is that through his eyes and body language, you always get the feeling that he knows something more than he lets on.

19. Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter, 1978)

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In “The Deer Hunter,” we get an in-depth tale of how war changes people. The film devotes almost an hour to the characters in their hometown before they leave for Vietnam. Amidst the gunfire and bombs, they reach their breaking point. A game of Russian roulette traumatizes and changes the lives of the three friends. Christopher Walken’s character of Nick undergoes the most harrowing transition of all. Walken’s scene in the hospital is the turning point of his character, which builds up to the finale, where we see Michael return to keep his promise to his friend of not leaving him in Vietnam. But unfortunately, Nick is long gone, and what remains is a walking, lifeless individual who has lost himself. He stares at Michael but doesn’t seem to look at him or even know him.

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18. Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962)

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At #16 in our list of Best Oscar Winning Performances (Male) is Gregory Peck for “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Atticus Finch is a highly liked and respected character in the opinion of anyone who read Harper Lee’s novel of the same name. He is played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation and is the epitome of honor and duty. A widower and father of two children, he seems to radiate qualities that endear the audience to him, be it his calming down of Mrs Dubrose or his habit of giving out words of wisdom with every sentence he utters.

He is a lawyer in the deep south of America and is assigned the defense of a colored man. His battle against existing prejudices is admirable. This character aims to do the right thing and in turn, set an example for Jem and Scout to follow. We all know the result, though… even if we haven’t read the book. The period, the defendant, and the all-white jury. The trial was just for show and still, Atticus accepted the case. Why? He simply says, “Because if I didn’t, I couldn’t hold my head up in town.”

17. Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, 2005)

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This drama will always be remembered for the titular role portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. For those who have the patience to sit through this, you will not be disappointed. The film focuses on the life of Truman Capote, more so his research on the case on which he decides to base his next book and the bond he forms with the killers. Hoffman lives and breathes the role. He adopts a different voice for the film, which seems completely natural, for it never wavers in tone for the entirety of the film. The real depth of his acting is seen in the final scene, and I had some doubts about this performance making my list. But after watching it, Hoffman not only made the list but got bumped up several places.

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16. George C. Scott (Patton, 1970)

Patton 1970

“Americans play to win… the very thought of losing is hateful to America.” George C Scott’s turn as Army General Patton really showcased his striking presence. That was really needed in a war film where the actor established what the audience perceived about the real-life hero. Memorable moments include the one right at the start where Scott marches onto our screens before the stars and stripes. His speech about wars being won by making other people die for their countries really sets the tone for what is a commanding display of acting in a war film (WWII) released during the time of another war (Vietnam).

15. Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln, 2012)

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At first glance, it seems as though Spielberg had resorted to CGI to create an exact image of Abraham Lincoln. But this is all Daniel Day-Lewis, who took a year to prepare physically and mentally to embody Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis wanted to be addressed as Abe and even signed his letters and text messages offset as Abe. He managed to look and sound way different from his earlier award-winning turns. This performance was untouchable throughout the award season.

14. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant, 2015)

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“The Revenant” is a reel of stupendous acting moments by Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays frontiersman Hugh Glass. He is mauled by a fully grown bear and left for dead by Fitzgerald. For this role, DiCaprio slept in an animal carcass. He also bit into a liver and dragged himself across the frigid landscape, making the revenge he finally exerts on Fitzgerald feel sweeter. His character’s struggle in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film can be seen as a representation of his 22-year journey from the first nomination to the first win.

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13. Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)

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Sir Anthony Hopkins brings to life the chilling cannibal from Thomas Harris’ novels. The film, directed by Jonathan Demme, is a Big Five winner at the Academy. Hannibal Lecter is creepy and doesn’t blink for the entirety of his time on the screen, which at just over 16 minutes is the shortest duration of time spent on screen time by a winner in this category.

He has an intimidating screen presence, and even when chained, we see only his face and those eyes that stare directly into us. The voice, the stare, the posture, and the timing set a benchmark for all serial killer/villainous performances to be compared too and equated with for this performance is the blueprint. Mads Mikkelsen would have gone through what actors in this century go through when they learn that they have been cast as The Joker. How can one even fathom improving upon such an iconic role?

12. J.K. Simmons (Whiplash, 2014)

Abusive, unique, uncharacteristic, abusive, motivating, hateful… did I mention abusive? His actions, when explained by him, come across as one who pushes his pupils to be the best. If they want to be great, they will not be demotivated, is his reasoning. Simmons’ Fletcher supports Andrew Nieman to make him push harder, persevere, and be the best he can be, even at risk to his life and personal well-being. Fletcher says that any f***** moron can wave their arms and keep people in tempo. He does exactly that but is so involved with every single movement. He feels the music, and quite honestly, I was shocked when I saw that this was the man who played J. Jonah Jamerson Jr. In Sam Raimi’s “Spiderman.”

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11. Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man, 1988)

For his role as Raymond Babbit, Dustin Hoffman won his second Academy Award (his first win was for his turn in “Kramer vs Kramer”). He played an autistic man, and throughout the film, there isn’t even a single second where it seems as though he is faking it as though he isn’t autistic. Hoffman prepared for the role by watching hours of videotapes about savants and people on the autism spectrum, poring over scientific papers, and talking to numerous psychologists and autism experts, and it surely paid off. Dustin Hoffman for “Rain man” is at #11 in our list of Best Oscar Winning Performances (Male).

10. Harold Russell (The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946)

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William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” focuses on the life of army veterans adjusting to civilian life in post-war American society. The film shows us three different servicemen from different classes and age groups. The most endearing one is that of Homer Parrish. His role was essayed by real-life war veteran Harold Russell. He was cast in this film after director William Wyler saw him in the army film about war veterans. He plays a man with hooks who returns to his hometown and struggles to settle back into civilian life. Homer’s story is the best one in this film.

It isn’t about the continuation of something but the acceptance of a disabled soldier.  That scene between Wilma and Homer is what makes you understand the title of the film. It is more than acting. To this day, Harold Russell remains the only actor to have won two Academy Awards for the same performance. This was so as the Academy loved his performance but did not think that he, as a non-professional, would stand a chance in the Best Supporting Actor category and gave him an honorary award.

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9. Robert De Niro (Raging Bull, 1980)

Robert DeNiro could be termed as one of the actors who live the character rather than just acting it out. This performance is a perfect example of the same. The biopic of ‘Bronx Bull’ Jake LaMotta sees Robert DeNiro play a former middleweight champion, both in his prime as a heavyweight boxer and in his retirement as a heavier club owner. He looks convincing both as the middleweight boxer who channels his rage in the ring and ascends to the title and as the retired professional who struggles to keep a check on himself outside the ring, which results in his downfall (yeah, that’s common in so many sports films).

8. Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men, 2007)

No country for old men Best oscar winning performance male

In this film, which focuses on the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad, Llewelyn Moss stumbles upon and retrieves a briefcase of money, thereby “inconveniencing” Anton Chigurh. Chigurh is a cold, menacing, and intimidating psychotic killer. Through his actions and his lack of humor, he lets the audience know that he is in control. We see this in every interaction featuring Chigurh. Our knowledge of this killer’s “ideals” has us fearing for the life of whoever he meets. His control is established right from the first scene, where he is cuffed at a police station, and the on-duty cop says, “Everything is under control.”

The knowledge of this character’s intentions has the audience hold their breath as they watch him interact with particular characters. When off-screen, we wait in trepidation for his arrival. With his win, Bardem became the first Spaniard to take home an Oscar for acting. His performance perhaps ensured that no one would ever dare to mock another person who sports Chigurh’s hairstyle.

7. Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight, 2008)

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Heath Ledger became the first person to win an acting award for a comic book character. Initially, the casting choice received criticism, well every single casting choice has its fair share of detractors. Ledger made every single one of them eat their words. His unbelievable preparation techniques are well documented. Locking oneself inside a room for six weeks to get depressed is something unheard of by actors who aren’t Daniel Day-Lewis. He even perfected his face paint for this role. On the set, Ledger managed to intimidate a two-time Oscar Award-winning actor, Michael Caine, who said that he forgot his lines in fear.

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Ledger’s chilling portrayal of the clown prince of crime is the best portrayal of the character. He elevates it from the madman who relies on tricks and funny umbrellas. And what we get is a darker, anarchistic criminal mastermind who will stop at nothing to prove that the bat and he are not so different after all. Would you like to know how he got these scars?…. or let him show you a magic trick?

6. Marlon Brando ( The Godfather, 1972)

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The argument presented against this role is that this was a supporting turn. But in a film titled “The Godfather,” I’m sure that the person who is The Godfather would be the titular character. Well, there have been performances with much less time. Marlon Brando plays Don Vito Corleone, head of the Corleone Crime family, which is one of the five crime families in New York.

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The man is a respected and feared leader and also a family man. He commands the room and our attention and dominates the screen from the first scene, where he adheres to Sicilian tradition on the day of his daughter’s wedding. You remember that line?… “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” The scene of the grocery shop shootout where Brando has to fall to the ground after being struck is amazing, as there isn’t a single second where you would think that he has overreacted. Also, the scene where he breaks down after seeing Sonny’s bullet-riddled body is iconic.

5. Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot, 1989)

My Left Foot Oscar Winning Performances Male

This was the first of Daniel Day-Lewis’ record three wins in this category. Day-Lewis embodied the celebrated painter/writer Christy Brown, who was born with cerebral palsy and could only control his left foot. This role is a testimony to the man’s unparalleled method acting techniques. In order to capture Christy Brown’s struggles properly, Day-Lewis refused to leave his wheelchair for the duration of the shoot. He was also fed all his meals and carried around on set so as not to break character.

Make no mistake about it: an able-bodied man played Christy Brown. Throughout the film, it seems as though Day-Lewis is fighting his own able body and restricting it to capture the struggles of his character perfectly. His never-give-up attitude manages to serve as an inspiration to the audience. This isn’t because we know his struggle, but because of a spectacular acting performance through which we see this.

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4. Robert De Niro (The Godfather: Part II, 1974)

Robert de Niro (The Godfather 2)

“The Godfather Part 2” features the dual perspectives of Vito and Michael Corleone. We see the story continue from the first part, where Michael is now the head of the Corleone family. Also, we see the rise of a young Sicilian man in New York who attains power and becomes the Godfather. Michael’s scenes are brilliant, and Al Pacino not winning the Oscar is one of the prime examples of Oscars getting it wrong. These chilling scenes of Michael are paired with the ones of young Vito Corleone.

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Robert de Niro takes over the role played by Marlon Brando, which saw Brando awarded the Oscar for Best Actor. Despite the change in the actor, it doesn’t seem as though there is anything different in the character’s mannerisms. To his credit, De Niro manages to capture the essence of Vito. He talks exactly like Brando did and shows the audience how he attained power and respect whilst being a family man—i.e., everything Michael was not.

3. F Murray Abraham (Amadeus, 1984)

Amadeus

“Amadeus” is a fictionalized retelling of a fictional rivalry between Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The film focuses on Salieri, in his old age, who expressively recounts his life to a priest, letting him in on a dark secret. Mozart’s work serves as the film’s background score, which only enhances the jealous and bitter emotions F. Murray Abraham conveys to the audience through his admirably acted-out part. As a court composer, he has to fake appreciation, smile, and agree with the emperor’s opinions of Mozart, i.e., an unprincipled, conceited, and cheery person who can make him unstable.

Abraham’s performance allows the audience to witness his bristling frustration. Unfortunately for Salieri, in front of the emperor, all he can do is scoff and eye roll in a polished, courtly manner. However, he is in control, making the audience just gape over his devious plan. Salieri called himself the patron saint of mediocrity, but he was far from that. Would a mediocre mind concoct such a devastating plan? 

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2. Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood, 2007)

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Daniel Day-Lewis plays crazed prospector Daniel Plainview and dominates this Paul Thomas Anderson film set in 19th century America. This film is a chilling portrait of a terrifying character that begins with him dragging himself with a broken leg to register a mine in his name. It ends only when he says he is finished. “There Will Be Blood” has long been termed as overrated due to the mere presence of Day-Lewis. This works as a compliment for this film, for the lead role in the hands of any other actor is unimaginable. Day-Lewis’ performance in this film gave me the impression that his co-star Paul Dano wasn’t acting but just reacting to Day-Lewis.

The scene where Plainview drags Paul/Eli through the mud and the bowling ball hurling scene is evidence of that. Acting opposite Day-Lewis can be harmful to the limb. But it can draw out such natural reactions as one involuntarily gets carried through the scene. Remember that scene where he is atoning in church and yells out that he has abandoned his boy? Here he not only acts with his voice but his entire body. Or how about that scene where he wrestles and drags Eli through the mud and oil? The film is replete with spectacular scenes, which makes me call this a symphony of acting that needs to be experienced.

1. Marlon Brando (On The Waterfront, 1954)

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At #01 in our list of Best Oscar Winning Performances (Male) is Marlon Brando for “On The Waterfront.” In Elia Kazan’s film, Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy. He was a boxer who got screwed over, and in a monologue, he wistfully remarks that he “coulda been a contender.” He lost that fight and now is a dockhand. Malloy seems to be the regular person on the waterfront with an aversion to law enforcement. He is then sent on an assignment by those people in high places, and here he is challenged and, in turn, provoked to fight for what’s right, i.e., be a canary. Brando’s face communicates so much in this film that I began to wonder if this could have been made as a silent film, for we don’t need him to say a word to convey his inner feelings.

There is naivety in the opening scene, where he realizes with a pang of guilt that he was hoodwinked into aiding a murder. The expressions just never seem to stop as we learn that this seemingly tough man has a soft side to him. This is what helps him be the voice for the voiceless as he witnesses all the evils of capitalists and mere cogs in the machine who are selected, exploited, and silenced if necessary.

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