25 Best Oscar Winning Performances (Male)
25 Best Oscar Winning Performances (Male) – Good acting is one of the hallmarks of a good film. Some actors put on a voice or are just able to switch on when the director calls out, “Action.” Some others engage in research whilst some choose to transform themselves and become the character they will be portraying.
The Oscar for acting has been a core part of the ceremony right from its inception and nomination in this category or even a win results in the picture having a good chance at securing the best picture nomination. All the films in this list were part of the Best Picture nominees and the one that wasn’t managed to ensure that the Academy expanded the nominees in the following year. You know which film I’m talking about. Would any best Oscar-winning performance list be without that performance?
In this list, I’ve merged the lead and supporting actor categories. Pruning it down to just 25 was tough as 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.
F Murray Abraham (Amadeus)
A fictionalized costume drama rich in production design sees the rivalry of Salieri and Mozart. The film focuses on an elderly Salieri who expressively recounts his life to a priest. The film’s background score comprises of Mozart’s work which only enhances the jealous and bitter emotions F. Murray Abraham conveys to the audience through his admirably acted out part.
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As court composer, he has to fake appreciation, smile and agrees with the emperor’s opinions of Mozart. That unprincipled and conceited and cheery person who can drive him insane. But in front of the emperor, all Salieri can do is scoff and eye roll in a polished courtly manner.
25. Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
At #25 in our list of Best Oscar Winning Performances (Male) is Mahershala Ali for Green Book. I didn’t like the fact that ‘Green Book’ beat out BlackKklansman and Roma to win the Best Picture award. However, the same feelings can’t be echoed towards Ali’s win in the supporting actor category. Ali became the fastest actor to follow up his maiden Oscar with another one in the same category.
Sophisticated and elite are the words that often sprung to mind whilst analyzing the character of Doctor Donald Shirley. There seems to be a wall between Shirley and his driver/bodyguard Tony. Shirley believes in being level headed as dignity always prevails. Over time he educates the audience about how the categorization of a person is never the right thing as everyone is different.
24. Jack Nicholson (One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
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.
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There is a brilliant scene where he refuses to be 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 violent act in the film will release pent up emotions.
23. James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy)
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 where they had to act for the audience at the back as well. It was only natural that they would perform in this manner. This film about the life of stage performers benefitted by 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 this man dominates the screen and is synonymous with his 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” is a catchy number that can remain in your head for a long time.
22. Sean Penn (Mystic River)
In this Clint Eastwood adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel, Sean Penn plays a grieving parent and shop owner/ man with a shady past. The standout scene for me was the one where he learns that his daughter is the one who has been killed. The mixture of despair and anguish he exhibits as he attempts to break free would have been the clincher of the award.
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Another scene where he captures the despair of his character is his interaction with David Boyle. When Jimmy says, “I can’t even cry for her,” it can break a viewer. The evolution of the character from here to the vengeful and honourable man who justifies his actions based on doing what’s right is cold and chilling to watch.
21. Peter Finch (Network)
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 the 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 saviour of the masses. He is dubbed as the mad prophet and ‘presents the news.’
These trembling and fainting scenes are what changed my mind. Even 44 years later this movie is still relevant if not more relevant than before. Not for how Beale presented his show. But for the type of acting, 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)
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 harbouring 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. Robert de Niro (Raging Bull)
The biopic of Bronx Bull Jake LaMotta sees Robert DeNiro play LaMotta both in his prime as a heavyweight boxer and in his retirement as an overweight club owner. He looks convincing as the middleweight boxer who channels his rage in the ring and ascends to the title.
Jake struggles to keep a check on himself outside the ring which results in his downfall (yea that’s common in so many sports films). 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.
18. Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter)
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 home town before they leave for Vietnam. And amidst the gunfire and bombs, they reach their breaking point. A game of Russian roulette traumatizes and changes the lives of these 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. One-shot…..?
17. Robert de Niro (The Godfather: Part II)
This is a true supporting role. 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 him not winning the Oscar is one of the examples of daylight robbery that is ever-present at the ceremony. These chilling scenes of Michael are paired across 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 with the Oscar for Best Actor. It doesn’t seem as though there is anything different in the character’s mannerisms despite the change in the actor. 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.
16. Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird)
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 To Kill a Mockingbird. He is played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation and is the epitome of honour and duty. A widower and father of 2 children he seems to radiate qualities that endear the audience to him, be it his calming down of elderly Mrs Dubrose to 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 defence of a coloured 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 was asked in the film. “Because if I didn’t, I couldn’t hold my head up in town.”
15. Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
When Bohemian Rhapsody hit cinemas it got criticized for its historical inaccuracy and for it’s supposed diluted presentation of the biographical subject matter. It was one of the poorest Rotten tomato films to secure an Oscar nomination for Best Film. Also, it was the lowest-rated Best Picture winner at the Golden Globes. One thing everyone agreed on was Rami Malek’s portrayal of the lead character. That would be the sole reason behind this film’s ability to power through all these obstacles and secure enough votes to be part of the race for the top prize.
Malek’s portrayal of Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury a.k.a. Farrokh Bulsara made people wonder if the real Freddie Mercury’s footage had been remastered or if this was a computer-generated version of the icon. He looked the part and even played it to such perfection that a side by side comparison of his life the film’s and the real-life live aid concert began doing the rounds, with a spot the difference challenge.
14. Joel Grey (Cabaret)
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 Grey’s performance. He is the emcee and appears on screen in every musical number in this musical 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.
13. Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote)
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 ‘Capote’ 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.
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Hoffman lives and breathes the role. He adopts a different voice for the film which seems as though it is completely natural for it never wavers in its tone for the entirety of the film. The real depth of his acting is seen in the final scene and I had some doubts over this performance making my list. But after watching it Hoffman not only made the list but got bumped up several places.
12. Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs)
Sir Anthony Hopkins brings to life the chilling cannibal from Thomas Harris’ novels. The film directed by Jonathan Demme is a Big 5 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 of 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 which stare directly into the 4th wall i.e. 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 on improving upon such an iconic role?
11. Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man)
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, pored over scientific papers and talked to numerous psychologists and autism experts and it surely paid off. In the tone of Raymond Babbit; surely paid off..yea.. amazing acting.. yea.. loved the performance yea..brilliant acting… he’s a good actor..only the fourth actor to win this award again. Dustin Hoffman for Rain man is at #11 in our list of Best Oscar Winning Performances (Male).
10. Marlon Brando ( The Godfather)
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. Now in terms of screen time. Well, there have been performances with much lesser time. Marlon Brando plays Don Vito Corleone, head of the Corleone Crime family which is one of the 5 families of 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 in 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” That’s from this scene. The scene of the grocery shop shootout is 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 overacted. Also, the scene where he breaks down after seeing Sonny’s bullet-riddled body is iconic.
9. J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Abusive, unique, abusive, uncharacteristic, abusive, motivating, abusive, 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 life and personal well being.
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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.
8. Harold Russell (The Best Years of Our Lives)
William Wyler’s film The Best Years of our Lives focuses on the reintroduction of veterans to civilian life. The film shows us, three different servicemen, from different classes and age groups. It depicts their struggle in dealing with themselves as well as society. 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.
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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. Harold Russell remains to this day the only actor to win 2 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.
7. Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
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.
This is his 3rd appearance in this list. Here too, he manages to look and sound way different from his earlier award-winning turns. This performance was untouchable throughout the award season.
6. Marlon Brando (On The Waterfront)
At #06 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. This character echoes the sentiment of the 2 D’s that all the labourers on the Waterfront swear by. 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.
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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. And once more… that stupendous, “I coulda been a contender,” monologue.
5. Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men)
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 humour, 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 fear 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 will ever dare to mock another person who sports Chigurh’s hairstyle.
4. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
The Revenant is a reel of stupendous acting moments by Leonardo DiCaprio who plays frontiersman Hugh Glass. He is mauled within an inch of his life by a fully grown bear and left for dead by Fitzgerald. For this role, DiCaprio slept in an animal carcass.
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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 first win.
3. Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot)
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 well documented as part of the man’s insane method of acting techniques. In order to perfectly 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 to not 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.
2. Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Do I even need to elaborate on what this is about and why it made the list? 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 insane preparation techniques are well documented. Locking oneself inside a room for 6 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 in 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?
1. Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
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 and popular 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 are evident to 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 make me call this a symphony of acting which needs to be experienced.