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The 10 Best Performances in The Movies of Steven Spielberg

18 March 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Andy Kubica

performances spielberg films

Who would have thought the son of a pianist and an electrical engineer would grow up to be one of Hollywood’s most powerful, influential and popular film directors of all time?

Spielberg attended the California State University, Long Beach, where he wrote and directed a 26-minute short film called Amblin, a quirky 1960s love story about two people who travel across a desert to a beach. Impressed by his efforts, studio vice president Sidney Sheinberg offered the young filmmaker an unprecedented 7 year contract making Spielberg the youngest director ever to achieve such an honor. He decided to make a career of it and dropped out of college to work for Universal Studios full time.

In his early career, he directed mostly television including episodes of “Night Gallery”, “Colombo” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.”

He was then given the telefilm “Duel” with Dennis Weaver.

It was not until 1975 when producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown offered the young Spielberg the opportunity to direct their shark film “Jaws”, that he really made his mark.

Since the success of “Jaws”, few directors have enjoyed the financial, commercial and critical success of Spielberg.
He has given us so many classic, unforgettable films and characters, it is hard to even fathom them all.

He soon also became a Hollywood mega-producer having his name attached to many more hits than the films he directed including “Back to the Future”, “Poltergeist”, “Gremlins” and many others.

He also loves the world of animation and was involved in producing “An American Tail”, “The Land Before Time” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” for longtime friend and colleague Robert Zemeckis.

In 1994, Spielberg along with studio executive pals Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen formed their own Hollywood studio, Dreamworks Pictures. Dreamwrorks has become a very successful studio known mostly for their hits “Shrek” and “Madagascar”, but have also produced films the likes of “American Beauty”, “Gladiator” and “Galaxy Quest”.

Turning 70 in 2016, Spielberg shows no signs of slowing down with dozens of producing and directing projects in the works including “The BFG (Big Friendly Giant)”, “Ready Player One” and an untitled “Indiana Jones” film (maybe he can redeem himself with this one?).

Whatever your opinion of successful directors are, no one can deny Spielberg has given the film industry immeasurable contributions over the years, is considered a Hollywood icon and deserves all the accolades he has received.

 

10. Tom Cruise for Minority Report

Minority Report (2002)

The Philip K. Dick short story was adapted into this very entertaining futuristic story about the division of “Precrime” who apprehend perpetrators of crimes before they commit them, virtually eliminating all crimes even before they take place.

Tom Cruise plays the leader of the Precrime division, John Anderton, who performs his job duties admirably until circumstances turn on him and he becomes the hunted not the hunter and has to run for his life to evade capture before he can figure out who framed him for a crime he did not commit.

Minority Report is cut way above your average futuristic crime thriller and the acting is stellar all around. Even the normally annoying Collin Farrell was pretty good in his role.

Cruise plays Anderton just cocky enough for his own good (nothing new there for Cruise) but this time takes the intensity up significantly.

There are points of real emotion and tension for Cruise and he does well displaying his feelings especially when he comes to care for a young girl who holds the key for information vital for proving his innocence.

He races throughout the film from point to point stopping only long enough to catch his breath. One of Cruise’s finest roles.

 

9. Whoopi Goldberg for the Color Purple

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)

In 1985, there was some doubt as to whether Spielberg could take the famous Alice Walker novel about an African-American woman who suffers at the hands of her abusive relationship with her husband in the 1900s and successfully adapt it into a motion picture.

At that time, Spielberg had only been known for his science-fiction, action-type films and not for this deeply human personal story about emotional and complex relationships and sensitive subject matter.

It had to have been a surprise when he cast relative unknown actress and comedienne Whoopi Goldberg in the central role of Celie.

It was reported she won her role after she auditioned at Spielberg’s home in front of Spielberg, Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson among others doing a comedy act she had developed about E.T. getting busted in Oakland, California for drug possession. Through that, he must have seen enough of her emotional range and subtlety and bee impressed to give her the role.

Goldberg’s performance in the film is remarkable especially considering it was her first.

One of the most amazing things is this role seems totally opposite Goldberg’s personality, especially at that time in her career where no one knew her other than her saucy HBO comedy specials.

Celie was demure, reclusive, and unsure of herself, all traits Goldberg were able to get across.

Her transformation from shy girl to confident woman is miraculous and should have won her the Academy Award for Best Actress.

It is still amazing to remember this film was nominated 11 times and did not win even one of them.

 

8. Dennis Weaver for Duel

Dennis Weaver for Duel

After seeing Dennis Weaver in the classic, “Touch of Evil” in 1958, Spielberg was convinced actor Dennis Weaver would be perfect in the central and only significant role in this telefilm about a rogue crazy truck driver who decides to pursue a lonely businessman across multiple state lines to try and run him down.

Shot in only 16 days, Spielberg was able to take a very modest budget and turn in a tension-filled nail biter which is still regarded as one of the tops of the genre.

Weaver has to carry all the acting duties in the film other than the open road and the nameless eighteen wheeler who chases Weaver’s character.

The fact that we don’t see the truck driver himself makes the evil more intense, almost like not seeing the shark very often in “Jaws” and it is left to your imagination which is always worse.

Weaver is able to portray the tension and aghast which slowly builds throughout the film successfully. His actions only give momentary relief once things get going and barely stop throughout.

 

7. Robert Shaw for Jaws

Robert Shaw for Jaws

It may not have been the obvious choice to select Robert Shaw rather than Roy Scheider or Richard Dreyfuss for this list; however, it is Shaw in the role of the salty Irish shark hunter Captain Quint that really stands out and helped sell the idea of catching the massive shark could actually be accomplished.

A veteran of many memorable roles including parts in “The Sting” and “From Russia With Love”, Shaw was not that impressed with the script or director at the time saying “They want me to do a movie about this big fish. I don’t know if I should do it or not.”

It is probably lucky producer Zanuck had just finished working with Shaw on “The Sting” and suggested he be right for the role.

After coming on board the project, Shaw really made the part his own including improvising a lot of his own dialogue. It is even said Shaw wrote a lot of his monologue about the “Indianapolis” since Shaw was also a playwright, but that is one of those Hollywood legends.

His performance was brash, callous and remarkable.

He drew the viewer in to his sea tales and was able to escalate tensions with his words alone which is no small feat.

Jaws was the first film to achieve over $100 million in US box office and is often considered to be the first “summer blockbuster” film ever made.

 

6. Richard Dreyfuss for Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind

Richard Dreyfuss for Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind

Hot off the heels of “Jaws”, Spielberg could have directed any film he chose including “Jaws 2” or even “Superman”. Instead, Spielberg wrote and directed another classic involving several “encounters” between an unknown alien race and human beings throughout the world.

The alien beings begin to send us signals and we are left to interpret their meaning to determine next steps. They even take some humans for study, only to release them later.

Richard Dreyfuss was also hot off of “Jaws”.

He convinced Spielberg to give him a try over several other big name actors who wanted too much money for the film and he had heard so much about the project while filming.

His casting ended up being a perfect choice to portray Roy Neary, another Spielberg everyman who has several meetings with space craft and, ultimately, feels compelled to pilgrimage to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, for unknown reasons to have his feelings validated.

Dreyfuss has made a career of playing these types of roles and this one was no different. In this type of film, it is easy to be overshadowed by the events and the special effects, but he manages to hold his own.

One of the most compelling scenes is when he begins to see visions of the tower’s shape in mashed potatoes at the dinner table. He then decides to recreate a complete scale model complete with shoveling dirt from outside his home to inside his living room.

He manages to create wonder within all of us with his performance and we believe in these extraordinary circumstances and follow right along.

 

 

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  • Juan David Cervantes

    Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies?

  • wendell ottley

    Some great ones here, but definitely some great ones not listed that I would consider very strongly…

    Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List
    Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple
    Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park
    Jude Law in A.I.
    Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can

  • Dimitri Poenaru

    I’d add Leonardo DiCaprio/Tom Hanks in Catch Me If You Can and Roy Scheider in Jaws as honorable mentions. Great list nevertheless.

  • rv

    Obviously tough to condense to ten. My personal fave is robert shaw even though i love indy.