The 20 Greatest Transformative Performances of All Time

7. Cate Blanchett as Jude in I’m Not There


The idea of actors playing cross-gendered roles is nothing new, at this rate. Over the years, it’s become an increasingly normal thing to see. But usually when those kinds of roles are done, the characters played usually are people like cross-dressers or transsexuals. Rarely is there a role that has a man playing a 100% biological woman, or a woman playing a 100% biological man.

Such is the case with Blanchett’s portrayal of one of the many versions of Bob Dylan presented in this underrated the film. Her character represents Dylan from his iconic, prime period: with the frizzy black hair, the all-black clothing, and the ever present dark sunglasses. She swaggers her way through the role, spiteful and bitter but also witty and laidback, never once giving a hint that the tough and enigmatic male “Jude” is actually a blonde female. Even though Blanchett was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, she was sorely robbed.


6. Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster


Charlize Theron is a beautiful woman. Normally that’s not something that should be taken into account when judging/viewing an actresses’ performance, but it’s shocking how different and un-beautiful she made herself look for her role-of-a-lifetime as the infamous serial killer. Back in the older days of Hollywood, when beautiful starlets had to look “normal” or “not pretty” for the camera, they were usually done up in a way that showed that it was clearly just for show and they were beautiful under the makeup.

With Theron, in this case, she went past looking “not pretty” into the realms of unrecognizability. Putting on around 30 pounds and no make-up or any beautifying products, Theron used the lack of looks to channel the fractured, angry soul of Wuornos, and effectively portrayed her as a damaged woman trapped in her own mind and as a victim of her awful upbringing. Her work was justifiably praised as one of the greatest performances in film history.


5. Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove/Merkin Muffley/Lionel Mandrake in Dr. Strangelove


If Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot is one of the textbook examples of playing multiple characters, then this is THE textbook example of playing multiple characters in one film. Another performance sorely robbed of an Oscar (one of Sellers’ two nominations), Sellers has three completely different roles here and none of them are anything like who he was in real life. He goes from madcap German scientist to classy and proper British air force captain to soft-spoken American president and never misses a beat.

Sellers often claimed that he felt like there was no true him, and he could only be his characters. Such a belief must have helped in the process of bringing these three characters to life. What makes this case especially impressive is how these characters have to actually interact with each other at some point without it feeling awkwardly copy and pasted together. But Sellers is up to the task and pulls it off magnificently.


4. Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight


By the time Ledger was cast as the Joker, he was known as the Aussie pretty boy who started out in teen comedies and lighter films before making a big splash in Brokeback Mountain. None of what he had done prior would prepare audiences for his masterful work as one of the greatest comic book villains in history.

What made his task more challenging was the great versions of the character there already were that he would have to measure up to: Jack Nicholson’s version from the ’89 Tim Burton film Batman; Mark Hamill’s voice work in Batman: The Animated Series. This just added to how brilliant the performance he gave. Ditching his “pretty boy” looks and well-kept long hair, his appearance in the film was the definition of “strung out”: long stringy, unkempt green-dyed hair, splotchy uneven white face paint, and smudgy black makeup over his eyes and red lipstick over his lips and mouth scars.

Ledger always appeared to be a fairly quiet, kept-to-himself type of guy, and seeing him be the manic, wildly psychotic and unpredictable Joker was a genuine shock to many. It has rightfully gone down as one of the greatest performances of recent memory (if not all time) and became the first time an actor won an acting Oscar for a role in a comic book movie. Too bad he didn’t live to see his legacy.


3. Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood

there will be blood daniel day lewis

Daniel Day-Lewis’ entire career is a testament to the art of transformative acting. Most every role he takes, he changes almost everything about himself: his body language and shape, his hairstyle, his voice, his mannerisms. Everything down to a T is rebuilt from the ground up, so to speak. So with that in mind I could have easily chosen any role that he’s done in his career.

I chose Plainview for a few reasons: 1. It’s full of excellent scene-chewery that allows Day-Lewis to parade around his character’s utter insanity and ego in glorious fashion; 2. Even by Day-Lewis’ standards, it’s one of his most unrecognizable roles. With an almost painted-on thick black mustache and intense yet oddly glassy eyes, combined with his windbaggy self-important accent, Day-Lewis crafts a character with a pitch black heart and the massive hubris to match.


2. Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull

Raging Bull

Widely touted as both his best performance and one of the greatest ever given, DeNiro as LaMotta was a breakthrough in that it became a prime example for how far some actors are willing to go for their roles (if they have that drive). De Niro filmed half of the movie with the body of a trimmed, fit boxer.

Then he took around 4 months off of production to eat himself to a degree where he put on a whopping 60 pounds to play the past-retirement, out of shape LaMotta. But more than that: DeNiro managed to use his different body shapes to bring out the inner uncaged animal that was always in LaMotta. DeNiro plays him like a creature always ready to pounce on and hurt almost anyone, no matter the circumstance. With his bulk and his intense, almost un-breakable gaze, DeNiro stormed his way to the Oscars as the Best Actor of 1980.


1. Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather

The Godfather (1972)

Admittedly it seems like a bit of a cliché to put this as number one, but the enduring power of Brando at his best cannot be denied. Putting on a fake jowl with puffed up cheeks and a high-pitched raspy whisper of a voice that was supposedly based off of a real life mob leader, Brando took on a daunting task: taking an evil figure and making him a human being.

Rather than being viewed as a monstrous tyrant, obsessed with keeping power and control, he made Vito Corleone into a father at the end of his road who has the mental prowess to look back on his life and choices and use it to inform the future of his family: his number one priority.

Author Bio: Jake Slankard is a DePaul college student who is an avid life-long film fan. He is working in college with hopes of becoming a filmmaker or film critic.