The 15 Greatest Performances of Classic Hollywood Actors Playing Against Type

8. Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

He’s known as the infallible small-town Sheriff Andy Taylor, loyal to friends and family, a model to his young son, and darn good at his job. If not that you might associate Griffith’s career with Matlock are even the early comedy film No Time For Sergeants (1956), which feels like a precursor to The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle USMC. However, if we play a game of one thing is not like the others you quickly come to Elia Kazan’s drama A Face in the Crowd (1957).

Our star is none other than Andy Griffith and he is a holy terror of a man named Lonesome Rhodes. Kazan gets a heated performance out of his young star who is conniving, deceptive, and downright dishonorable as he goes from lowly drifter to television sensation. But with any rise in power and fame there usually has to be a fall from grace that comes with it free of charge. He’s despicable and he could care less about other people.


7. Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Whos Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (1966)

If most people are honest they want to watch a movie with Elizabeth Taylor, not due to her acting prowess, but because of her renowned beauty, her tabloid worthy lifestyle, and maybe to steal a peek at what she’s wearing. That’s probably reason enough for some to watch anything from A Place in the Sun (1951) to Cleopatra (1963). And her A-grade romance with Richard Burton undoubtedly brought the masses into theaters too.

That’s why Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) is so unique. You have Taylor and Burton paired once again for what could be another passionate lovefest . But instead it’s a biting slugfest full of harsh words and a constant barrage of insults flung by a middle aged married couple.

In fact, if you’re not paying attention you might even lose Taylor inside her character, because she’s frumpy, overweight, and completely undesirable. Thus, her performance does not rest on her looks but the laurels of her acting ability and she certainly delivers, maybe the best performance of her illustrious career.


6. Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)Directed by John M. StahlShown: Gene Tierney

In the 1940s Gene Tierney was a brunette beauty with the Minnie Mouse voice and the most beloved overbite in Hollywood at the time. She was the perfect lady to star in such timeless productions as Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943) or Otto Preminger’s film-noir Laura (1944). She was generally sweet, but also intelligent. In other words she was the dream girl of any boy next door and for good reason.

That’s what makes her foray in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) probably the most extraordinary of her career. She had played some noir women before, but Ellen Harland is by far her most vengeful and deadly incarnation. That sweet smile is contorted into an evil grin full of malice as she obsesses over her husband.

Nothing says it better than when she broodingly sits in a boat watching a little boy drown. She goes on to kill her own baby and even beyond the grave her revenge continues. The only thing to do is Leave Her to Heaven, because there is no way to deal with her otherwise. She is absolutely psychotic and it is an absolute joy to watch. I can only imagine Tierney had a lot of fun with the role, because much like Phyllis Dietrichson she is deliciously evil.


5. Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Although his love life was a little tumultuous at times (with six marriages), Tony Curtis more often than not played charming and lovable characters. Take a film like Some Like it Hot (1959) or The Great Race (1965) for instance. We cannot help but like him and he works well in comedy, especially opposite another legend in Jack Lemmon.

But if you take a look at Curtis’s performance as Sydney Falco in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), he gives off a completely different vibe altogether. There’s no better description for him than the quip that comes out of the mouth of gossip columnist J.J. Hunseckker (Burt Lancaster). He’s “a cookie full of arsenic,” slinking around playing the angles and ingratiating himself to anyone who will fall under his slick charm.

All to get in good with Hunseckker who can really make or break his career. That notable Bronx accent gets a little slimier than usual and it’s a great deal of fun to watch.


4. Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley (1947)

Before his tragic death of a heart attack in 1958 Tyrone Power was the epitome of a Hollywood heart-throb garnering huge box office appeal during the 1940s as a romantic lead and swashbuckler. However, many people only saw him as a pretty face hiding behind The Mask of Zorro (1940) or in The Black Swan (1942).

However, Power wanted to be accepted as a true actor and he got his big break when he came across Nightmare Alley. It would have been B-film material, but Daryl F. Zanuck reluctantly gave Power the lead role along with A-list production values.

Actors often relish the chance to go bad and that’s what Power did so wonderfully here to totally subvert his Hollywood stereotype. Stan Carlisle is a conniving carnival worker who looks to swindle, con, and slither his way to success. He never thinks about anyone else and he even acknowledges it, but that doesn’t stop romance from finding its way into his life. His demise and spiral into the depths of madness is as dismal as it is befitting of such a man.


3. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck Fred McMurray Edith Head

Barbara Stanwyck: she was a strong, intelligent, energetic leading lady of the 1930s and 40s. She could play the sympathetic female lead in a drama or the free-spirited comedienne in a screwball comedy, but her characters very rarely ventured in corrupt territory. Then enter stage right the notorious husband-killer Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and everything changed.

There’s a line in the film where her patsy Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) notes, “Who knew murder could smell like honeysuckle.” And that’s the epitome of Phyllis. She’s alluring while still maintaining the strong-will of a Stanwyck character. She will not stop at anything to get what she wants and she uses everyone.

There is absolutely no remorse in her voice even on the brink of destruction. If she is not the ultimate femme fatale then she is pretty darn close. Stanwyck may have been apprehensive that her fans would be turned off by the role, but it’s no doubt that her turn as the wig-wearing temptress goes down as one of her most memorable.


2. Cary Grant in Notorious


Cary Grant started out as an acrobat, but soon enough he tailored himself to be a debonair bachelor-type and the perfect leading man for many a romantic comedy. In fact his career in such roles spanned from the 1930s well into the 50s and 60s. He was aided by that suave trans-Atlantic accent and dashing good looks.

However, aside from his appearance there is no doubt that he had tremendous comic ability and physical skill. He was the complete package and you would be hard pressed to find a more prolific romantic lead than Cary Grant.

Alfred Hitchcock loved to take such established stars like Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart and play with his audience. Grant as Devlin is near the top of the long list of Grant’s greatest performances because he’s so different. In fact, he’s a real jerk, icy, aloof, and distant in all respects. He belittles poor Ingrid Bergman like nobody’s business and yet he also falls in love with her.

So it does indeed have the Cary Grant element of romance, but it’s wrapped up in an espionage thriller that feels outside of his usual range. It definitively proves that Grant could play other types of characters, it’s just that he was tied to a particular persona.


1. Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West


He played Tom Joad, Wyatt Earp, and courageous Juror number 8. All these roles have a common thread going through them. They are individuals who are honest and upright. They stick by their morals and thanks to the natural performances of Henry Fonda they exude a genuine quality that is hard to top. He was America’s unassuming, plain-speaking everyman in the same company as his good friend Jimmy Stewart.

Thus, when Sergio Leone was casting the villainous role of Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), the full irony of the choice did not elude him. Fonda’s first introduction in the film comes right after shooting a defenseless kid. He follows it up by edging out a local land baron and sleeping with the wife of a man he killed. And he does it all will that smile and those piercing blue eyes that he formerly used to win over his audience.

It’s a brilliant piece of casting, because Fonda was so closely tied to his persona. The role broke with all the conventions and it really is a subversion of the American ideal. That’s what Fonda represented and Leone used that to his advantage. We may not like Frank, but there’s no doubt that this was a special role for Fonda.