The 20 Greatest Transformative Performances of All Time

14. Lon Chaney, Sr. as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera

Lon Chaney, Sr. as the Phantom

This is a performance that is more impressive from a technical level than a pure acting level, but with that being said Chaney still does an impressive job as one of the first great movie monsters.

With his skull and face twisted, contorted, and prodded into an image very reminiscent of an actual exposed skull, Chaney uses the makeup to heighten the sense of tragedy about the character: he can carry himself in such a regal and respectable manner, he can even win the heart of the lead singer, as long as he’s wearing his mask. But once the mask is gone, all that is left (as far as everyone is concerned) is a horrible monster. Chaney knows this, and uses such knowledge to his greatest abilities.


13. Robert Downey, Jr. as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder

Robert Downey, Jr. as Kirk Lazarus

In retrospect, this might be one of the riskiest performances in recent history. At the risk of being accused of trying to legitimize and/or utilize “blackface”, the odious racist form of entertainment that was used back in the early 20th century to make fun of black people, Downey, Jr. used the skin-darkening make-up to bring a wacky and yet also serious-minded character to life.

Lazarus exists in the context of the film to mock the Method actors, so it is perfect for Downey, Jr. to be about as Method as he’s ever been in his career (for instance, Downey, Jr. didn’t drop his accent and demeanor for the character until the cast finished the DVD commentary). With the darkened skin and authentic-sounding Southern accent, RDJ created a hilarious and memorable character that would have earned him an Oscar (were it not for a future entry on this list).


12. Andy Serkis as Gollum in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Gollum in Lord of the Rings The Two Towers

Some might still debate over whether this should be included on the list or not, considering the fact that Serkis himself is not seen on-screen. But I will argue that he deserves this spot for two reasons: one, the physical and vocal acting is 100% him; two: the visual effects served to animate his performance in a new skin, it did not do any of the actual acting for him. With all that being said, Gollum is one of the greatest characters in film history, and Serkis brought him to life brilliantly. With his high, raspy, almost gargling voice and jittery ape-like motions, Serkis threw himself into a challenging role of a conflicted monster that was once human (and maybe still is).

I’ve chosen The Two Towers out of all three of the films primarily because a large chunk of why that film is so remembered is because of Gollum and his impact on the story and audiences. The obvious highlight of the film (and Serkis’ performance) is when Gollum has an intense argument with himself. When you remind yourself that that is one actor doing all of this physical and emotional work, it’s jaw-dropping.


11. Boris Karloff as the Monster in Frankenstein


Possibly because of how much of an almost ancient icon that the Frankenstein Monster is seen as in today’s pop culture, it seems we often forget how much of a great performance this is. Obviously, the head to toe makeup put on Karloff’s skin and shoe-lifts and neck bolts help make him appear more monstrous. But it’s also Karloff’s inspired performance that elevate the Monster from an identity-less monstrosity into a misunderstood creature with a soul. In real life, Karloff was known for being a great sweetheart to many who knew him. That creates a great contrast when seeing how convincingly terrifying he is as the Monster.

On screen, his imposing gait and intense growls make him a force to be reckoned with; but it is the quieter moments, like when he has such a childlike sense of wonder on his face when he throws flowers into a lake with a little girl and his intense fear of fire, that make him sympathetic and that much more flawed, and therefore interesting.


10. Christian Bale as Trevor Reznik in The Machinist

Christian Bale as Trevor Reznik

Bale is currently one of the top 5 greatest working actors today, and he’s known for how chameleon-like he can be, becoming a totally different character with each role he takes on. Although he may have had better performances in films like American Psycho and The Fighter, no role he’s done better highlights how far he’s willing to change himself in order to fulfill a role than in The Machinist.

He plays a man who hasn’t slept for a year, and because of that has become a walking skeleton, a shell of the man he once was. In order to achieve this, Bale dropped a record-shattering 63 pounds for the role, living off of a can of tuna and an apple a day (so he claimed). It might not have been worth it from a medical perspective, but his gaunt appearance helped increase the intense sadness of the character, and Bale pulled it off wonderfully.


9. John Hurt as John Merrick in The Elephant Man


Some would argue that this is a performance more defined by the extensive make-up on John Hurt’s face and body than the actual acting, but if you pay particular attention to how Hurt uses his eyes and his voice, his performance really shines through. Having to act through makeup that massively enlarged his cranium and forced him to speak in a slurring manner, making it difficult to get around easily, Hurt works through the makeup to bring out the tortured, poetic, Romantic man trapped in the body of a perceived monster.

A perfect example is when Dr. Treves (played by Anthony Hopkins) teaches Merrick how to speak a passage from the Bible, and at first Merrick cracks under pressure when presented to the head of the hospital. But once they leave, Merrick regains determination and gives a resounding version of the passage. Notice the way Hurt uses his body language and voice to deliver the scene. It’s rather impressive.


8. Tony Curtis as Joe in Some Like It Hot


Nobody ever gave Curtis the respect he deserved for this role. Jack Lemmon may have earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination, but Curtis was far more impressive. This is primarily because he had more work to do and pulled it off more convincingly. It’s one thing for Curtis to simply be in drag for much of the film, but he also had the task of playing another completely different persona (that of a rich playboy type).

Each of his three personas are so precise and so differentiated that it should be one of the textbook examples of how to play different characters in a movie. From scene to scene, he moves effortlessly from being Joe (the Chicago musician on the run), to Josephine (the talented lady musician lady who joins Sugar’s band), and then to Junior (the reserved, classy millionaire), it’s absurd how smoothly he pulls off all three. This is especially in comparison to Lemmon, who feels like he’s struggling to convincingly maintain his one persona in drag.