From old Hollywood to millennials, here’s honoring the best actors, that have stood the test of time and cemented a place in film history.
The Cambridge dictionary defines an actor as “someone who pretends to be someone else while performing in a play, television, or a radio program.” It’s no easy task to bring to life the vision of a screenwriter. An incredible amount of expertise is required to inhabit a character. Acting as an art form has evolved over the years. We’ve moved onto the era of naturalistic acting from poetic acting. There have been different schools of thought regarding the same. Stanislavski’s system proposes method acting while the Meisner technique focuses on “being in the moment.” Irrespective of the methodology, we’re still mesmerized by movie actors and what they’re capable of, in front of the camera.
In light of this, we decided to line up some of the best male actors of our time, in no particular order. Now, this is entirely my personal list which may or may not align with yours. But, that’s the point of such pieces. They’re meant to incite conversation so that the exchange of ideas can happen organically. So, without further ado, let’s dive right in.
Best Actors Of All Time
1. Jean Gabin
Jean Gabin was a renowned star of the early French cinema. Gabin’s rugged charisma could be compared with Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. But he was the king of ‘cinematic cool’ even before the rise of those Hollywood stars. Gabin was born into a family of performers and he entered into cinema through stage roles. By the mid-1930s, he became the French matinee idol, working with top filmmakers of his time including Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne.
Gabin’s performance as a tragic working-class hero in Renoir’s Human Beast (1938) and as the working-class lieutenant in Le Grande Illusion (1937) brought him international acclaim. During the Nazi military occupation of France, Gabin moved to Hollywood. But in the US, he often clashed with the studio-heads, and his movies were box-office failures. By the 1950s, Gabin returned to France. Of course, he could no longer play the romantic working-class hero.
However, Gabin made a strong comeback with Becker’s gangster film Touchez Pas Au Grisbi. This somewhat revived his career as he continued to play world-weary policemen and mob bosses roles.
2. Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton is one of the most uncanny star actors in film history. Laughton’s overweight physicality including his plump, round face didn’t conform to the notions of a star’s physical attractiveness. Yet the supremely talented Laughton played a wide variety of roles where he was both subtly expressive as well as greatly dramatic.
Laughton was born into a wealthy English family. He became a stage actor in the 1920s. But soon saw great possibilities in movie acting, especially with the advent of talkies. The Academy Award-winning performance in the title role of the 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII boosted his fame. Later, he played Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It turned him into a top-tier serious actor. But although his performances were brilliant, his 1940s movies didn’t gain much acclaim.
In the 1950s, the English actor made a great comeback, playing cynical and unsympathetic characters with his usual expressionistic style. Hobson’s Choice and Witness for the Prosecution featured a couple of his most memorable roles. Though Laughton directed only one film in his career, Night of the Hunter (1955) happens to be one of the greatest American movies ever made.
3. Laurence Olivier
A master perfectionist, Laurence Olivier, along with Richardson and Gielgud formed a highly influential triumvirate that revolutionized British theatre. Switching to the cinemas, Olivier became a household name by playing some of literature’s most celebrated lovers — a swoon-worthy Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and a charismatic Maxim de Winter in Rebecca.
A highly energetic actor, Lawrence’s key to portrayal was his ability to hold on to a physical characteristic, like a specific item of clothing. He would often rehearse his lines and had immense control over his voice thanks to his formal training at the Central School of Speech and Drama. It was apparent that he put his heart and soul into every character he played. Who could possibly forget his bellowing wartime call for arms or the immaculate St. Crispin’s speech in Henry V? This dramatic performance earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor.
One of the greatest actors in Hollywood, Olivier Lawrence was conferred with an honorary Academy Award for his exceptional body of work in 1978. The largest auditorium in National Theater was later named after him, in remembrance of his outstanding contribution to theater.
4. James Stewart
James Stewart is an exemplar of idealistic American everyman. Marlon Brando, De Niro, Al Pacino, Daniel Day-Lewis are undoubtedly more talented than James Stewart. But though his characters seem simple, Stewart brings incredible depth to them in his own way. Moreover, his work ethic is unparalleled and no other actor of his time has featured in such a diverse range of great movies. Mr. Stewart’s collaboration with Hitchcock, Capra, John Ford, and Anthony Mann has brought us many a masterpieces.
Stewart’s roles in the post-war era and in the 1950s became considerably complex. He was an irresistibly charming common man in Capra’s Mr. Smith and It’s A Wonderful Life. He is unquestionably sensational in the final moments of both the films. However, his roles in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, and Mann’s Winchester ’73 had a tougher edge and were relatively darker. In fact, these roles were totally at odds with the innocent on-screen persona he cultivated in the previous decades.
5. Alec Guinness
Legendary British actor Alec Guinness was best known for portraying Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars Trilogy. But this renowned performer made his acting debut in theater at the age of 20 in 1934. He embodied various Shakespeare roles in plays like Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, and Romeo and Juliet. In 1939, Alec Guinness adapted Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations for stage and played the role of the energetic young man, Herbert Pocket.
After serving as a seaman in the Royal Navy during WWII, Guinness made his screen debut in David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations reprising the role of Herbert Pocket. Guinness then associated himself with the famous Ealing Studios. His comedic talent found him stardom in the studio’s films like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955). He gained international recognition after playing the tenacious British colonel in David Lean’s epic WWII drama The Bridge on River Kwai (1957).
In the 1960s and 70s, the actor worked in both British and Hollywood films and collaborated with stars like Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Sophia Loren, and Richard Burton. In his late career, apart from playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, Guinness received critical acclaim for playing George Smiley in the spy series based on John le Carre’s novels.
6. Toshiro Mifune
It’s common knowledge that Mifune accidentally became an actor. In the war devastated Japan, Mifune was one of the many desperate youths looking for a job. He applied at Toho Studios for the camera assistant position. But his handsome features and muscular body led him to become an actor.
It’s hard to imagine Akira Kurosawa’s masterworks without the commanding presence of Toshiro Mifune. Between 1948 and 1965, Mifune worked with Kurosawa in 16 films. And the great Japanese filmmaker perfectly understood Mifune’s wide range of expressive capabilities. Mifune might be largely associated with samurai characters in jidaigeki (period film) sub-genre films.
His acting style is also broadly labeled as ‘intense’ and sometimes dismissed as ‘overstated’. However, Mifune was more versatile and he has played plenty of ‘everyman’ characters that are infused with great moments of subtlety. Kurosawa’s Red Beard and High and Low, Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion, Keisuke Kinoshita’s Wedding Ring are a testament to his nuanced acting capabilities.
7. Marcello Mastroianni
Though largely pigeon-holed as a matinee idol and a sex symbol — thanks to the charming roles he played in Fellini’s movies — Mr. Mastroianni is an extraordinarily nuanced and a serious actor. Marcello Mastroioanni grew up during the turbulent times of World War II. After the end of the war, he joined the dramatic society, and was discovered by the renowned Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti.
Mastroianni’s cool screen presence is widely known. But he is more than a pretty face. His ability to incorporate real and profound human emotions to his characters is unparalleled. In fact, the actor became the perfect embodiment of a modern man confronting existential crisis. Mastroianni also has a great knack for comic timing.
His collaboration with Fellini, Antonioni (La Notte), and Visconti (Le Notti Bianche) might have made him an international star. At the same time, Mastroianni’s remarkable performances continued beyond the 1960s. The Organizer, A Special Day, and Dark Eyes are some of his overlooked works.
8. Marlon Brando
With an illustrious career spanning over five decades, calling Marlon Brando a great actor would be an understatement. He’s one of the most influential actors of the 20th century. Brando was the most famous student of Stella Adler, from whom he learned the method acting technique proposed by Stanislavski.
He was one of the few actors to apply ‘The Method’ in 1950s Hollywood. It was the beginning of the fall of Studio system. Hence, in the first few years of his career, Brando had great freedom to choose and play diverse range of roles. While the acclaim he gained for A Streetcar Named Desire, where he played a factory salesman, is well-known, look at other versatile roles he played in this period. A Paraplegic in The Men (1950). A Mexican Revolutionary in Viva Zapata! (1952). Mark Antony in Julius Caesar (1953), a disaffected biker in The Wild One (1953). He even did a musical with Frank Sinatra (Guys and Dolls, 1955).
Brando received his first Academy Award for his performance as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. The “I coulda been a contender” scene from this movie is one of the most widely recognized in all motion picture history. He won his second Oscar for the role of Vito Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather. The acclaim Brando received for Godfather and On The Waterfront is so huge that we often forget some of his important roles. For instance, his brilliant performances in Burn! (1969), Last Tango in Paris (1972), and The Missouri Breaks (1976)
Marlon was also an activist fighting against the mistreatment meted out to Native Americans. He famously refused to collect his second Academy Award citing the portrayal of Native Americans in a bad light. His deep-rooted commitment to the civil rights movement earned him a place near the podium during Martin Luther King’s infamous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.
9. Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier, the trailblazing African-American actor, changed the way Hollywood looked at black actors. Even in the 21st century, the multi-billion dollar industry faces issues over the lack of diversity. The late 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights era was only a more turbulent phase in American political and cultural history. Black actors in lead roles were rare then. When Sidney Poitier made his screen debut in 1950, there were few like Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte. But it was the graceful and powerful Poitier who shaped himself to become the first African-American matinee idol.
The challenges Poitier faced were plenty as he navigated his way through racial inequality. He mostly played supporting roles in the 1950s. But his role in 1961’s A Raisin in the Sun inspired several black actors. It was an adaptation of an iconic play, and Poitier’s stunning performance broke down the many racial Hollywood stereotypes. He followed it up with Lilies of the Field (1963), which got him his first Oscar. In the same decade, the actor made two critically and commercially successful films: In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In his four-decade career, Mr. Poitier brought great changes on and off the screen.
10. Paul Newman
Paul Newman, one of the most handsome and coolest movie stars of all time, enjoyed a career that lasted five decades. The beautiful blue-eyed actor initially played small roles on TV in the early to mid-1950s. His first major breakthrough role was in Richard Brooks’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). The role of the bedraggled alcoholic husband earned Newman first of his 10 Oscar nominations. In Hollywood, the 1950s was the era of rebellious young men. Though Newman played such roles, he initially struggled to find a place in the industry. He lost lead roles in On the Waterfront (1954) and East of Eden (1955) to Marlon Brando and James Dean, respectively.
However, in the early 1960s, with films like The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1963), Newman gradually attained stardom. His two iconic performances came later in that decade: Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969). Paul Newman never relied on his looks. And was thus able to reinvent himself in the 1970s, 80s, and beyond. Slap Shot (1977), The Verdict (1982), The Color of Money (1986), and Nobody’s Fool (1994) are a testament to the actor’s versatility and commitment to his craft.
11. Tatsuya Nakadai
Mifune rose to international fame thanks to the recognition of Kurosawa’s works in the Western countries. But there was another equally brilliant Japanese actor in the same era, who was as versatile or uniquely flexible as Mifune. His name was Tatsuya Nakadai. Nakadai is a highly disciplined craftsman who came from a theatrical background. The actor appeared for a few seconds in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Later, he went on to play the chief antagonist in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and also central roles in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha and Ran.
But Nakadai’s acting career was shaped by the films of humanist filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi. His portrayal of damaged men in the Human Condition trilogy and Hara-Kiri spoke volumes to the post-war Japanese youth. Both films offered a portrait of an individual who is devalued by the oppressive society. Similar to Mifune, Nakadai also alternated between naturalistic acting and stylized, dramatic acting. Apart from Kurosawa and Kobayashi, Nakadai also worked with renowned Japanese filmmakers like Mikio Naruse and Kihachi Okamoto. His anti-hero character in Okamoto’s Sword of Doom is one of the bleakest on-screen portraits of a samurai.
12. Gian Maria Volonte
Known for his chiseled features and strong political activism, Mr. Volonte became a prominent Italian actor in the 1960s. The international audience could recognize him for the popular roles he played in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. But to grasp the true brilliance of Volonte’s acting capabilities one needs to watch his collaboration with the two important Italian filmmakers, Francesco Rosi and Elio Petri. Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli are a testament to his infinitely adaptable acting abilities.
In Petri’s films, Volonte played neurotic and complex characters who didn’t neatly fit into the label of ‘hero’ or ‘villain’. With Rosi, Volonte worked in five films, where he most often played controversial real-life figures.
In his adolescent years, Volonte worked with a traveling theater company which persuaded him to choose the acting profession. He was also a member of the Italian Communist Party and never kept his political leanings a secret. In fact, it’s his political beliefs that led to the great success of Italian political cinema in the 1970s.
13. Dustin Hoffman
In an incredible career spanning over five decades, Dustin Hoffman has made versatility synonymous to his name. Surprisingly, he initially wanted to be a classical pianist after having played the instrument in much of his college years. Looking for an easy class to pass, Dustin took up an acting class at Santa Monica College. This is where his tryst with acting began, eventually landing him at the Pasadena Playhouse. He broke out to the scene with Mike Nicholls’ The Graduate where he was seen playing the role of Benjamin Braddock. It earned him his first Oscar nomination but he lost to Rod Steiger in what was a close call. Hoffman followed this up with a biopic Lenny that narrated the tale of a tragic comedian, who died at the age of 40.
But, his career-defining role was to come in 1976. Dustin featured alongside stalwarts like Olivier and Jon Schieder in Marathon Man. It was reported that Dustin could not sleep for days prior to the shoot.
Three years later, he delivered yet another powerhouse of a performance in Kramer vs Kramer, consequently winning an Academy Award for Best Actor. He would later add to that tally with a moving performance as an autistic but prodigious brother to Tom Cruise’s character in Rain Man.
14. Anthony Hopkins
The oldest actor to win an Acting Oscar, Anthony Hopkins delivered a moving performance in The Father as an elderly man grappling with dementia. But, his most memorable role came years earlier as the terrifying Hannibal Lecter on The Silence of the Lambs. The AFI ranked his performance #1 in its list of the ‘100 years of the Greatest Heroes and Villains.’
Hopkins joined the Royal National Theatre and this is where his tryst with plays and cinema began. He was spotted by Laurence Olivier back in 1965 who insisted he joined the institute. Since then, he’s gotten knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and even received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Hopkins is said to be highly influenced by the legendary actor Richard Burton.
Hopkins is known for his down-to-earth charm and is adept at playing men with pent-up emotions. From the underrated thriller Magic (1978) to playing a loyal butler in Remains of the Day (1993), and as the troubled Pope Benedict XVI in The Two Popes (2019), Hopkins brilliantly realizes the quiet agony of these repressed souls. And as mentioned earlier, just when we thought Hopkins has reached his twilight years, he came up with a career-best performance in Florian Zeller’s The Father (2020).
Anthony Hopkins is well-known for his preparation for roles. He tends to go over the multiple lines until it sounds natural to him. When shooting Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, he shocked the cast and crew by delivering a seven-page speech flawlessly in one go.
15. Jack Nicholson
Jack Nicholson’s made a career terrifying audiences with some of the grittiest roles to date. He also holds the rare distinction of receiving an Oscar nod in every decade from 1960s to early 2000s. But, his path to success has been far from meteoric. He sustained himself with guest spots in television series and various B-grade movies. Monte Hellman’s existential Westerns and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) were his first successful roles. Nicholson’s career finally took off with Five Easy Pieces (1970), where he played an angry young man with an identity crisis.
From playing rabble-rousers, unhinged men to authority figures and mischievous rascals, Nicholson has left behind a huge legacy of great roles.
His career-defining role as Jack Torrance came in the 1980s with Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. He also played another iconic villain The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman. Some of his other well-received films were The Departed, A Few Good Men, As Good as it Gets, and About Schmidt.
In what was a bizarre turn of events, Jack grew up his entire life believing his grandmother to be his mother, and his mother June his sister. He discovered the truth at 37 when he was reading a Time piece about his upbringing. Nicholson said that it was a pretty dramatic event, but not really traumatizing for him because he was psychologically well-formed.
16. Robert De Niro
Yet another frequent collaborator with Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro has won two Academy Awards over his illustrious career. The first one was for his role as Vita Corleone in Coppola’s crime saga The Godfather Part II in 1974. Six years later, he won again for Raging Bull where he portrayed boxer, Jake LaMotta. One of the biggest strengths of De Niro was the ability to transform himself physically, vocally, and psychologically into the character he was playing.
No one have consistently played tough-guy roles with great style and depth like De Niro. At the same time, he has also played quite a few poignant roles. The Deer Hunter (1978), The King of Comedy (1982), and Awakenings (1990) are few good examples. And one of the undervalued acting qualities in De Niro is his knack for comic performances. Midnight Run (1988) features one of his greatest-ever comedic roles.
When asked why he picked physically demanding roles, De Niro, one of the greatest actors of all time, said:
To totally submerge into another character and experience life through him, without having to risk the real-life consequences – well it’s a cheap way to do things that you would never dare to do yourself.
Tells you all you need to know about him.
Interestingly, An English girl group released a fan song called “Robert De Niro’s Waiting…” which remained on the charts for 12 weeks.
17. Al Pacino
Al Pacino has had one of the most prolific careers in the history of Hollywood. Spanning over 50 years, he’s one of the very few actors to have received the Triple Crown of Acting – Academy, Emmy, and Tony Awards in the acting category. He won acclaim and recognition with his breakthrough role as Michael Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather. But Dog Day Afternoon (1975), where he collaborated with Sidney Lumet for the second time after Serpico (1973), remains one of his finest performances.
Though he was almost typecast in the gangster role, Al Pacino actively looked out for different roles. From the early 1970s to the recent decade, he’d played a cop, a small-time crook, a mafia boss, a blind army veteran, a football coach, and a truth-seeking journalist. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t picked up anything that looked like a gun and shouted: “Say hello to my little friend” while blasting off some baddies.
He now runs his own studio called Chal Productions. The first two letters ‘Ch’ are a tribute to his friend and acting mentor, Charles Laughton who’s a co-founder of the company.
18. Tom Hanks
His kind, friendly disposition and proclivity for playing mostly good-guy roles, makes Tom Hanks an instant favourite with the millennials and one of Hollywood’s most loved actors. He made his breakthrough with leading roles in comedies like Splash (1984) and Big (1988). Both were a commercial success, turned out to be sleeper hits at the box office.
In 1994, he gave us his most iconic character in a career-defining film Forrest Gump, that earned him his 2nd Academy Award for Best Actor.
What has always fascinated me is the diverse range of characters this versatile actor has played with relative ease. A charming romantic lead in You’ve Got Mail, a gay lawyer battling with discrimination in Philadelphia, a brave soldier in Saving Private Ryan, a real-life hero and pilot in Sully, America’s favourite neighbour, Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood a goofy immigrant in the Terminal, and a renowned symbologist in the Robert Langdon series.
Is there anything the movie star can’t do? Heck, he even turned director in 1996 with That Thing You Do!.
19. Robin Williams
Robin Williams is regarded as one of the finest comedic actors of all time. Though initially popular for his improvisational skills, he later gained recognition for his roles in films of substance.
The final emotional scene from Dead Poets Society still gives me the chills and also inspired an entire generation. His performance as a therapist in Good Will Hunting deeply affected some real practitioners. John Keating is one of his most iconic characters in his 37-year long film career. His signature catchphrase from Good Morning, Vietnam was so popular that NASA’s space shuttle Discovery crew started its day with a wake-up call imitating his character.
Along with a well-earned win for Good Will Hunting, the actor received four Oscar nominations.
Unfortunately, Williams committed suicide after battling a lifelong struggle with Lewy body disease on August 11, 2014. He experienced bouts of depression, anxiety, and paranoia. His death sent shock waves throughout the entertainment industry. Fans created makeshift memorials in various locations across the city and paid tribute on social media with re-enactments of “O Captain! My Captain Scene!.
20. Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise is the undisputable Hollywood icon of our time. The actor’s muscular physique at the age of 60, and his astounding commitment to stunt sequences have turned Cruise into one of the greatest action stars of all time. Controversies and criticisms have accompanied the world-class entertainer throughout his four-decade acting career. But we often overlook his incredible versatility as an actor who boasts a mind-boggling filmography.
He’s collaborated with revered auteurs like Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Perhaps, no other actor in the history of cinema has delivered countless box-office hits as well as received as much critical acclaim. Cruise made his screen debut in 1981, playing a minor role in the romantic drama Endless Love. The early media attention surrounding the actor mostly complimented his looks. But he proved everyone wrong by offering strong performances in movies like The Color of Money (1986), Rain Man (1988), and Born on Fourth of July (1989).
Films like Risky Business (1983), Top Gun (1986), and Mission Impossible Franchise were a testament to Cruise’s incredible charisma. In fact, films like Jerry Maguire (1996), Minority Report (2002), Collateral (2004), etc wouldn’t have been as compelling if not for his unforgettable screen presence.
21. Gary Oldman
One of the finest actors of his generation, Gary Oldman had an uncanny ability to transform into any character he played. An acclaimed playwright in Prick Up Your Ears, a prodigious musician in Immortal Beloved, a blood-thirsty vampire in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, a wizard with an aura of mystery around him in Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Gary Oldman’s demonstrated an almost chameleon-like ability to morph into the roles he’s portrayed.
Like his celebrated contemporary, Daniel Day-Lewis, Gary Oldman started off in British theater and later switched to playing minor characters in films and television. His breakout role came through Sid and Nancy (1986), as Gary portrayed the role of Sid Vicious, a punk icon who’s remembered as the bassist for the Sex Pistol. Gary was able to articulate that beneath the glitz and glamour of a rock star lifestyle was a child in need of unconditional love and validation. Sid may have been a raging murderer, but Oldman somehow made him appear human.
By the mid-’90s Oldman had become the first choice for all villainous roles. These roles helped him gain a massive cult following, with Tom Hardy calling him his “absolute complete and utter hero”. In 2018, he finally won an acting Oscar for his noteworthy performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.
22. Willem Dafoe
With over a 100 credits in his vast filmography, Willem Dafoe is a natural character actor and one of Hollywood’s greatest actors alive. His journey to filmdom began with theatre at the age of 17 in 1977.
He is best known for his versatility and willingness to appear in controversial roles over the years.
His constant need to reinvent himself have led to some of the finest works in both mainstream and independent cinema. He’s received four Oscar nods over the years. 3 for Best Supporting Actor in Platoon (1987), Shadow of the Vampire (2001), The Florida Project (2018) and 1 for Best Actor in At Eternity’s Gate (2019).
His natural sense of daring comes across in the eclectic group of characters he’s played so far. An elite assassin in John Wick, Green Goblin in Raimi’s Spider-Man, The Fox in Lars Von Trier’s controversial Antichrist, one of the suspects on Murder on the Orient Express.
Dafoe married Italian director Giada Colagrand in 2005. They’ve made three films together: Padre, A Woman, and Before It Had a Name.
23. Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington has often been credited with reconfiguring the conventional idea of stardom by associating himself with characters defined by their resilience and inner strength. His towering screen presence means it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off him. The versatile actor has received critical acclaim for his portrayal of real-life figures: a Muslim minister in Malcolm X, a football coach in Remember the Titans (2000) and an anti-apartheid activist in Cry Freedom(1987). He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role of a corrupt Los Angeles cop in Training Day.
In 2016, Fences, directed and produced by Denzel Washington, was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Picture category.
While visiting Atlanta to promote the movie, he took time off to visit his childhood librarian Miss Connie for her 99th birthday. They hadn’t seen each other in over half a decade, but she said she’d never forgotten about him.
24. Daniel Day-Lewis
If there’s one great actor who deserves the top spot among other great actors, it’s Daniel Day Lewis. In his formative years, Daniel Day-Lewis learned how to imitate the mannerisms of the people around him as a way to deal with bullying. Little did he know that he would be putting that acquired skill-set to good use later on. Day-Lewis has always had an aura of ambiguity around him. He’s only starred in six films since 1988, with as many as five years between roles.
Takes the idea of method acting a notch up, he would remain completely in character throughout the shooting schedule of the film. He spent two nights in jail for In The Name of the Father and had three teams of policemen interrogate him for nine hours.
While shooting My Left Foot, he insisted on visiting restaurants in a wheelchair. It’s this dedication to his art that made him the only actor to have won three Academy Awards for Best Actor. Lewis earned the trio of awards for My Left Foot (1989), There Will be Blood (2007) and Lincoln (2012). Sadly, Day-Lewis announced retirement after the release of Phantom Thread in 2017.
25. Christian Bale
Tell me another actor who’s gone through as many drastic physical transformations as Bale. He bulked up and needed elaborate dental work before appearing in American Psycho. For The Machinist, he, reportedly, lost 60 pounds to play an insomniac. Then, he gained 40 pounds back to portray Dick Cheney in the biopic Vice. Makes my head spin a little just listing down all this.
He was picked from over 4000 kids to play a British boy in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. It was his first brush with fame. But, it came at a cost. Bale experienced bullying in school and soon grew distasteful of the acting profession. It took some major convincing from Kenneth Branagh to get him acting again. Since then, Bale’s gained widespread recognition with roles like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Having been a motorsports enthusiast, I was looking forward to Bale playing racing legend Ken Miles in Ford v Ferrari. He definitely did do justice to the role in what was a fitting ode to the man who lost his life while doing something he loved dearly.
26. Philip Seymour Hoffman
It’s been almost eight years since Hollywood lost one of its finest actors at an untimely 46 but the shock over his death still hasn’t dispersed. Phil Hoffman was a fiercely original actor who offered captivating performances in almost any role.
Whether as a intimidating villain in Mission Impossible or a sexually confused boom operator in Boogie Nights, Phil Hoffman slipped into the characters with great conviction. From art house indies to genre films, he left us countless memorable performances in his two-decade career.
The actor was best known for his collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson. His most powerful role in Anderson’s movie was as the charming cult leader in The Master. Hoffman was equally mesmerizing in the bizarre meta-fiction Synecdoche, New York, and in Bennett Miller’s Capote. The actor also made his mark in quiet, character-driven movies like Savages and Doubt. Despite joining the A-list actors of Hollywood, Phil Hoffman continued to direct stage plays and stayed active in theater.
27. Leonardo DiCaprio
Known widely for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio first burst onto the scene with an empathetic portrayal of a disabled boy on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. The 1993 drama directed by Lasse Hallstrom earned him his first Oscar nomination. He was personally handpicked by Robert DeNiro to act beside him.
Capitalizing on his newfound popularity, Leonardo DiCaprio made a name for himself playing slightly left-field characters. From the adorable Jack Dawson in Titanic to the conniving con-man in Catch Me If You Can to a charismatic Jordan Belfort in The Wolf Of Wall Street, his range is unbelievable.
He stands as a beacon of excellence, collaborating with Oscar sweethearts like Alejandro Iñárritu, Sam Mendes, Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle, Steven Spielberg. Unlike his contemporaries, DiCaprio is yet to feature in a comic book movie or a franchise. Simply put, this movie star is the franchise.
28. Joaquin Phoenix
It’s unbelievably startling how Joaquin Phoenix excels in playing both explosive as well as sensitive characters with great nuance. He was a ruthless psychopath in Gladiator, a sociopath with delusions of grandeur in Joker. At the same time, Phoenix is brilliantly sympathetic and tender in Her and C’mon C’mon.
Though Phoenix won an Oscar for Joker, his career-best performance was clearly in Anderson’s The Master, a drifting alcoholic war veteran. No one could bring a sense of profound vulnerability like Phoenix brought to the role.
He was equally great as a stoned detective in Inherent Vice, as super-cool music legend Johnny Cash in Walk The Line, and as a traumatized assassin in You Were Never Really Here. Phoenix started his career as a child actor. He made a smooth transition from child to adult roles. Moreover, Phoenix right from the early phase of his career never chose a generic role and made his mark even in small character roles.
29. Tom Hardy
Tom Hardy is a nuanced heavyweight actor, who’s as compelling playing a tough guy as a sensitive, vulnerable individual. He hails from an affluent family in London. Hardy went through a turbulent adolescent phase as he took to hard drugs and was booked for theft and gun possession charges before the age of 18. He studied method acting at Drama Centre London and eventually sought help to overcome his addiction.
Hardy made his screen debut in the acclaimed WWII miniseries Band of Brothers (2001). In the same year, the actor played a minor role in Ridley Scott’s action/drama Black Hawk Down. Hardy simultaneously worked in theater. In 2006, he created Shotgun, an underground theater company, where he also directed a play. While Hardy played recognizable roles in films like Layer Cake (2006) and RocknRolla (2008), he captivated everyone’s attention by playing a notoriously violent British prisoner in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson (2008).
Hardy’s method acting skills reached their peak while playing Charles Bronson, a bald, bulked-up guy with mental health issues. The actor gained 100 lbs for the role. Hardy’s dedicated performance gained the attention of Hollywood, and he became part of Nolan’s blockbuster Inception (2010). Though Hardy took on high-profile projects in Hollywood, he also returned to subtle, low-key roles in films like Locke (2013).
30. Mahershala Ali
Mahershala Ali was a former rapper and is now the first Black actor to win two Oscars in the same category. Ali’s first major release was Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button where he played the role of Tizzy Weathers. He also appeared in Marvel’s Luke Cage and Netflix series House of Cards. But, it was his role as a mentor and drug dealer, Juan in Moonlight that won him universal acclaim from critics and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
He later followed that up with Green Book in 2018, winning another Oscar for the role of Don Shirley. At the San Diego Comic-Con in 2019, it was announced that Mahershala Ali had been signed on to play Blade in the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ali is no stranger to comic book movies. He earlier essayed the role of The Prowler, in the excellent Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse.
There we are! These are some of the best actors of all time. We gravitate towards actors in both, reel and real life, for their natural ability to influence human behaviour. But, what is it about the actions of a fictional person that hits so deep? The answer lies in how our minds work and how we process emotions like sympathy. We tap into a sort of collective trauma that makes us want to alleviate their pain. For a while, these great actors make us forget that the events are happening in the realm of fiction.
And if you have a favourite actor, check out GSJJ where you can get cool, bespoke movie character badges, lapel pins, stickers from popular movies and TV shows. They’ve got a ton of templates to choose from. Create one for yourself or order for a friend now.
(Additional writing by Arun Kumar)
A self-proclaimed movie buff who swears he's funnier on the Internet than he is in real life. He also constantly makes sitcom references to make sense of a life that is slowly succumbing to entropy.
Really liked this article. What a diverse, exciting list. As a true Al Pacino fan, I am especially approving of the top pick!
And I appreciate the “reel and real life” mention. A fun article!
Al pacino is def top 2 for me too but what kills me on these lists this is the 3rd one that left out johnny depp, the only actors really on his diverse level of roles is maybe Leonardo DiCaprio, jack Nicholson, tom hanks or brad pitt and none of them have jumped through the extremes johnny depp has, no actor on this list has his resume of uniqueness he becomes with each role, he is the tom brady of hollywood
Russel Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Cary Grant all come to mind. For me cinema is entertainment and these very talented actors really know how to connect with the audience. I would agree with all on the list, especially Antony Hopkins, but not Tom Hanks.
DeNiro at 10. 10????
• Daniel Day-Lewis at number 13 is a crime. Top 3 easy. Every performance has been exemplary.
• Phillip Seymour Hoffman not even on the list?
• Joaquin Phoenix not on the list?
• Watch “The Master”. If you’re not going to watch The Master at least watch the Processing Scene. Those two are intense and both have shown they are as malleable as clay when forming their characters.
• Leo is ranked WAY too high. He’s always given these terrific characters, surrounded by the industries very best, but does that make him among the greatest of all time? He’s not bad, just overrated. Being good at acting cold while being in the frigid snow doesn’t make you good at acting cold.
• Tom Hanks is adorable and great at playing Tom Hanks. It’s impossible not to love him; however; the range, dedication and accuracy of some of the others shine brighter than charming Tom can bring. He should be on the list, but others should be higher.
• I really like the nod to Robin Williams. His iconic roles are irreplaceable.
• It’s sad to see many of our greatest take so many lazy roles lately (Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson). On the other end of the spectrum you have Willem DaFoe releasing things like Lighthouse and The Florida Project. His finest moments are happening now.
• Overall good list and great commentary. Thanks for putting it together!
Appreciate your comment. Daniel Day-Lewis is #1 in my opinion.
Brad pitt. Morgan freeman.