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The 20 Greatest Transformative Performances of All Time

01 August 2014 | Features, Other Lists | by Jake Slankard

best transformative performances

In the world of film acting, there are different certain kinds of actors. There are the “Star” actors: actors who are big-time, world-renowned and –respected actors that have a self-defined brand that they always carry with their roles. People go see “star” actors not to see them blend in as new characters or disappear on-screen, but rather to continue being that certain type of character that an audience grows to feel comfortable and familiar with.

For instance, Kevin Costner is almost always the soft-spoken, stoic everyman; Tom Cruise is the action star with the bright shiny smile and intense charm; Harrison Ford is the gruff action hero hidden in the façade of an average middle class man. None of these guys would often be considered consistently “Oscar-caliber”, but audiences are happy to see them being presented as a set-in-stone cinematic idea rather than a necessarily fully dimensional character.

There are the “character” actors: lesser known actors who tend to have big cult followings and are dependable to bring the audience memorable supporting characters, be it in dramas or comedies. Some examples would be Steve Buscemi, Ward Bond, M. Emmet Walsh, and William Fichtner. Each of these guys are known for popping up in a plethora of different films, usually as fairly important supporting characters. It’s very likely that these are the type of actors where, when discussing them in retrospect, you would suddenly realize who that actor is and respond with, “Oh, THAT guy! I’ve seen him before.” Most likely.

Then, there are the “chameleons,” the real heavy-hitters. The actors who can change almost everything about them, mentally, physically, emotionally, no matter what role they are given. The actors who have a tendency of being not even recognized when on film, even if they were the big star of the film.

It seems like they really could play most any role that imagination could throw at them, and we continue to marvel at the performance on screen. We are going to be looking at some of these chameleonic performances throughout history. Please note that this is not an end-all be-all list; surely there are some performances that I either have not seen or cannot recall at the moment that could belong in this company.


20. Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise

Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort

Ralph Fiennes is an actor known for his fluid accent, his sense of charm and wit, and primarily his dashing good looks that make him appear to be English royalty. All of that is either completely stripped away or twisted in his portrayal of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named in one of the most popular franchises of recent memory. Voldemort is a foul, disgusting creature with a bald, rat-like head and face, no nose, and sickly eyes. To achieve such an effect, the filmmakers put makeup and CGI markers on Ralph Fiennes’ face that worked to make his skin a sickly pale color and replace his full nose with serpent-like vertical slits.

Fiennes himself uses some of what he is known for and turns it on his head. That charming accent of his is turned into a slick, slithering hiss that continuously produces a kind of hypnotic, seductive quality that shows how Voldemort can be such a charismatic and fearsome creature. Fiennes just as easily takes that hiss and turns it into a wailing howl when he’s enraged at his current situation. He carries his body language as if he is separate from time and space, as if he’s a monster floating around briskly rather than walking like a normal human being.


19. Jim Carrey as the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Jim Carrey as the Grinch

This was a film that was not very well received by either critics or audiences, citing its apparent lack of genuine cheer and joy and overly-complicated plot. But one thing that must be commended is Jim Carrey’s performance. As is pretty typical of him when doing comedic roles, he’s going big or going home. Rather than being limited by his yellowy contact lenses, crooked and gnarly false teeth, heavy facial makeup that completely changes his real face, and his full body green hair-covered body suit, Carrey uses it to give a master-class in how body language can be used to elicit comedic responses.

The Grinch might be a humanoid creature, but most of the time he carries himself like a bum: constantly slouching everywhere he walks, or standing up so straight that it comes off as he’s sarcastically paying attention at whatever is going on as a sign of how little he cares. This works because it shows how self-absorbed a character he is: he is both so comfortable in his own skin that he does not care how others see his appearance (in fact he knowingly uses his appearance against most everyone he comes across to get what he wants, with Carrey milking it for all it’s worth), and also so contemptuous of the Who’s that he tries his hardest to disrespect as many as he can.

One of the best examples of Carrey’s genius can be found in the scene where the Grinch confront Cindy Lou Who after she broke into his cave home on Mount Crumpit. Grinch is trying to terrify Cindy Lou Who so she can run away from the cave, and most every line of dialogue and physical action that the Grinch has is cranked to 11 in Carrey’s performance.

He flails his arms around, strikes poses even when he’s just standing still, and every word he says is either elongated or given an extra flavor by how precisely Carrey is speaking it. Some would argue that, besides the heavy makeup, Carrey isn’t really acting any different than he’s known to. But I would argue Carrey’s type of acting is the perfect method to provide laughs out of such a ridiculous creation as the Grinch.


18. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in Watchmen

Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach

In today’s day and age, we are drenched in superhero films of all kinds. Watchmen came out right as the superhero films began to become a constant thing in Hollywood, and the standout character of that film was Jackie Earle Haley playing the overly-intense, overly-confident vigilante known as Rorschach. It was probably the only element of the film adaptation of the famous graphic novel that was almost universally praised by fans of the novel, citing his performance as exactly how Rorschach is in the book.

Haley is an actor who, in real life, has a fairly high-pitched voice and comes off as a laidback, if not outright quiet person. But as Rorschach, he does a better Batman voice than Christian Bale could ever hope for. Every line of dialogue, as done by Haley, is delivered with such a commandingly controlled gruff voice that (unlike when done by Batman in the Dark Knight Trilogy) never dips into a self-parody ridiculous tone. It’s consistently terrifying and well-tempered.

For half of the film, Rorschach is wearing a mask, but when his bare face is shown, Haley switches up his usually short (if not bald) hair and lack of facial hair for a strong 5 o’clock shadow and spiky red hair. This combined with Rorschach’s habit of slouching mysteriously and self-absorbedly for most of the film makes for an intriguing and conflicted character.


17. Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire

Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck

This if a film that works off a fantastic idea: what if Max Schreck, cinema’s first famous vampire Count Orlov in Nosferatu, were actually a vampire and not simply an actor. It’s the made up story of how vampire Shreck acted in Nosferatu and how many of the cast and crew would eventually “figure it out”.

As played by Willem Dafoe, who’s donning a bald skull-cap that enlarges his cranium and makes his ears more pointy, along with his sharp teeth and bulbous nose, Schreck goes beyond simple method acting to a degree where cast and crew of the production start to question who this guy really is. Appropriately, Dafoe knows that going over-the-top is the way to sell this character: he uses a grotesque Transylvanian accent, and is always stooping and sleuthing his way around the sets like a real creature of the night. It would eventually earn Dafoe an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.


16. Gary Oldman as Drexl Spivey in True Romance

Gary Oldman as Drexl Spivey

He’s only on-screen for around 6 minutes, but Oldman gives one of his best performances as the disgusting drug dealer who helps get the plot started in the Tarantino-penned, Tony Scott-directed film.

Oldman is astonishing: with his dreadlock hairdo and heavy thug-wannabe Rastafarian accent, swinging his gun around and lounging around the strip club in his boxers and fur coat, it’s one of those kinds of performances where you would probably have to see it multiple times before you realize that that’s actually a renowned British thespian and not an actual thug off the street.


15. Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander

Mara comes off as a perfectly well-adjusted, very pretty young American woman, with her well-kept long hair and nice smile. So it’s a real shock to see her turn as the terribly gaunt, isolated, quiet Swedish computer hacker in David Fincher’s remake of the Swedish film of the same name.

With her spiked and chopped hair and enhanced cheek bones, Mara does wonders with her body language, projecting the character’s intense loneliness and sense of being jaded with humanity just with the way she walks through a room and the way she looks around at other people. She’s a character who does not often say much of anything, so it helps that Mara has the ability to communicate an array of emotions with her eyes.



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  • Charles Barnes

    While we’re on Tropic Thunder, credit must be given to Tom Cruise’s wonderfully hilarious performance 🙂

    • Xanian

      That end credits sequence was pure gold.

  • Richard

    Great article! Others I can think of are Bette Davis is “Now Voyager,” Hillary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry” and Leo in “Gilbert Grape”

  • Benas Bačanskas

    Citizen Kane?

    • Charles Barnes

      I hadn’t even realised this was absent :/

      Hopefully that was the same case with this list’s author, because its pretty damned essential.

  • Mariano Berro

    What do you think about Dustin Hoffman and his perfomance as Jack Crabb in Little Big Man (as an old man recreating his youth adventures), Ratso in Midnight Cowboy or Raymond in Rain Man where you forget that he is Hoffman.
    Great job

  • Kevin Wang

    I think Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club should be here.

    • RockyJohan

      Or matthew mcconaughey….

  • Rosio Reynoso

    Can’t believe Jared Leto is not here.

  • Iam_Spartacus

    I still think Felicity Huffman in Transamerica was absolutely awesome, playing a male transsexual wannabe fully equipped with a prosthetic penis. And taking a piss with it!

  • Scuba06

    Jack Nicholson’s Joker >

    • RockyJohan

      Ehm. He pretty much plays “Jack Nicholson in make up”. Not very different from other roles off his. It totally works but i wouldnt call it that big of a transormation.

  • Ted Wolf

    not to be too picky, but I’m sure there could have been a picture of Lon Sr. as the phantom rather than the one that was used.

  • Ron Geatz

    No Meryl Streep? Take your pick– Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood, A Cry in the Dark, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Julie & Julia, Angels in America, The Iron Lady?

    • Xanian

      Meryl Streep, while being an incredible actress, is not one who generally does completely transformative characters.

  • The line between costumes and transformation is shady, sometimes. The real winners – to me – are the actors who don’t rely as much on makeup and special effects to transform (Andy Serkis’ roles as an exception, since he very much transforms into creatures). That said, I’d put Carrey up for Man on the Moon, instead of Grinch, and maybe find a space for Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector. Jared Leto in DBC was pretty good. I’d even look to Kevin Spacey in Usual Suspects and Depp in Fear and Loathing or maybe even Ed Wood or Pirates (though now it seems that he plays more costumed roles than he does “normal” ones). Thanks for the list.

  • manos

    Where is Nicole?

  • Interesting choices… the top 3 on the list have my approval as well. Here’s my Top 10 performances of all time:

  • Ted Wolf

    Pretty much every alec Guinness performance would qualify and the early Dustin Hoffman career.

    • Lars Franssen

      Yes! Where is Tootsie?

  • Unkle Amon

    Daniel Day-Lewis in My left foot before in There will be blood. Also, Kidman in Hours deserves a spot here.

  • So Man

    If I didn’t know, I wouldn’t recognize any of these:
    Mickey Rourke,Sin City;
    Johnny Depp, Edward Scissorhands;
    Ron Perlman, Hellboy;
    Tim Roth, Planet of the Apes

  • Daria Leanne

    Other than the jaw prosthesis, The Godfather was pretty much Brando being Brando. The others on the list I’d mostly agree with – also Nicole Kidman was great as Virgina Woolf in The Hours; and Michael Fassbinder outdid Christian Bale’s concentration camp victim look in Hunger.

  • I’d add Natalie Portman in Goya’s Ghosts to this list. Her performance in that film is one of the most astonishing transformations in cinema.

  • Omar Abo Gabal

    Marion Cotillard’s La vie en rose performance should be on this list, if not in the top 5.

  • Brian Lussier

    “I have chosen The Two Towers out of the three films”, and yet the image shown is from The Return Of The King?! Haha! Anyway, good list, and I’m glad to see Serkis getting some love. Wish he were higher up, but point is, he’s there. On a side note, I never liked Charlize Theron’s performance in Monster. To me, the transformation never felt like a great piece of acting, but more like a calculated stunt to get her the Oscar. Would have liked to have seen Nicole Kidman for The Hours…

  • Biswajit Bhattacharya

    i think you should’ve put Javier Bardem’s role as Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland from Cast Away,

    Jack Nicholson as Randle Macmurphy, Johny Depp As Capt. Jack Sparrow from Pirates(although not a follower) and Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard in American History X

  • Tito Lima
  • Sergio

    What about Sara García??!!! She took off her own teeth to play the role of Pedro Infante’s grandmother!!

  • filmpotato

    Mark Strong as Hani Salaam in Body of Lies deserves a mention. he’s a brilliant actor dubbed as one of the greatest in Britain today by Ian Mckellen

  • Deweb

    Actually: Allmost all of Daniel Day Lewis’ characters should be in this list. If there is one person who can transform, then its him.
    And how about the first version Jack Sparrow? It was the first húge transformation for Depp.
    Not mentioning Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, Jack Black in King Kong (he cán be serious), Robin Williams in One Hour Photo etc. etc. ofcourse.
    125 years of film, it’s difficult choise.

  • Where’s Al Pacino; or Sean Penn?

  • I’d have Day-Lewis down as Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York” before his character in “There Will be Blood.”

  • durgesh

    Why only American actors?

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  • PAS

    jared leto in chapter 27

  • Akshay Shetty

    Amitabh Bachchan in Paa

    • Abhishek

      I second that. But I think they always consider Hollywood movies for a generic list.

  • Mariana Tineo Blanco

    Michael Fassbender in Shame. That last scene is really intense, the way he handles the character, body and mind, is amazing.

  • Abhishek

    Joker ought to be at top!

  • Alice Olivia

    Michael Fassbender in hunger too.

  • Dimitri Poenaru

    Nothing from Johnny Depp? LoL. This list is invalid.

  • Tiago Nunes

    Robert Downey, Jr. as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder…. really??

  • killerjoe1985

    Danny DeVito as penguin Batman Returns(1992), Christopher Lloyd as Judge Roger Rabbit (1989), Benicio del Toro as Che Guevara (2008-9)

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    What an awesome list. but i could mention a few others, say for example Sean Penn in Carlito’s Way..

    • Louunicorn

      you left out Carl Consiglio in ‘Make Believe’ – awesome actor.

    • Louunicorn

      now he’s on a padre pio image building exercise, he thinks, with the ‘cheaper by the dozen’. the power of truth is immense, especially when it’s time for it to shine.

  • Steppenwolf

    Great list! 🙂
    I thought Jeff Goldblum in The Fly is the most obvious one though

  • Abhishek

    Joker oughta be at top! DDL acted very nicely in the film but it was not that trans formative for me. He was just great!

  • Adrian

    I really like this list, thanks for the writing.

    I’d add Brad Pitt in True Romance, quite different from many of his more usual parts. And, coincidentally, I’d also add Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading, perhaps not one of the Coen’s better films, but still a fantastic performance by Pitt.

  • Milton Dammers HaemorrhoidRing

    Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    Oh come on Johnny Depp does deserve to be here somewhere, he’s not just a pretty face, he’s super flexible.

  • Come on guys–Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote” and Natalie Portman in “Jackie”–both TRUE transformations (and sans prosthetic make-up)!

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