5. Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (2014)
Before 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong’o was a standout student at the Yale School of Drama, a well-known TV actress and director in her native Kenya, and a documentary filmmaker with one acclaimed title to her name (2009’s In My Skin, about the discrimination faced by Kenya’s albino population).
Then she went on to win an Oscar for her brutal portrayal of slave Patsey in Steve McQueen’s harrowing epic – so even though she didn’t land a lot of roles after that, she’s still one of the most accomplished people on this list.
Her relentlessly physical performance as Patsey is a testament of commitment to the craft, and almost single-handedly prevents the movie from steering into exploitative material. In Nyong’o’s hands, Patsey is a living, breathing human being that we can empathize with, and the fact that she holds her own against one of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s most brilliant performances to date says a lot.
4. Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields (1984)
Haing S. Ngor’s story is fascinating and sad. He survived three terms in Cambodian prison camps through his medical knowledge, eating whatever he could find, from beetles to scorpions, under the Khmer Rouge regime. Then, he went to America to resume his medical practice and was chosen by director Roland Joffé to play Cambodian journalist and refugee Dith Pran in the harrowing war drama The Killing Fields.
At the age of 44, Ngor became the second Asian men to ever win an Academy Award, and went on to several other roles until his death in 1996, although he never really abandoned his first occupation. Anyone’s who watched The Killing Fields can attest that his performance carries the genuine power of a man who truly went through all of that persecution, and the film is way better for it.
3. Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God (1986)
Marlee Matlin’s soulful and unforgettable performance in Children of a Lesser God is perhaps one of the less-contested Oscar wins in the history of the award, so it’s crazy to think it’s also for her debut feature film performance. Before this, she was only doing plays with the Center for Deafness and the Arts in Illinois, and suddenly she became the only deaf person to ever win an acting award.
It’s regrettable that her career failed to take off after that, even though she has a steady gig on TV currently in Switched at Birth. Having a unique talent and vision like Matlin’s in Hollywood right now, as the argument about diversity and performers with special needs is in the forefront of the industry, would be priceless.
2. Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968)
Barbra Streisand had been the next big thing in Broadway for six years already when the film adaptation of her Tony-nominated turn in Funny Girl became the hit that would change her life forever. In the one and only case of a tie in the Best Actress category, Barbra shared her Academy Award with Katherine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter, and went on to have one of modern cinema’s most celebrated careers.
As Fanny Brice, she shines in a performance that’s complete with charisma and profound understanding of her characters. Her voice is found not only in the legendary songs of the film, but in grandiose dramatizations that belong just as much in the screen as they did on the stage.
1. Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins (1964)
Julie Andrews was a two-time Tony nominee when she made her feature film debut in Disney’s musical adaptation of the Mary Poppins novels by P.L. Travers. At 29 years old at the time, the legendary actress became known outside of Broadway after starring in a made-for-TV version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, a live network broadcast watched by over 100 million viewers.
Her role as the whimsical nanny earned her the Oscar in a highly competitive year, in which she was up against Anne Bancroft, Sophia Loren, Debbie Reynolds and Kim Stanley. Andrews’ vibrant energy and quiet confidence in the role displayed her as the unparalleled musical performer she was, and built a persona that would stick with the public perception of her forever.
Author Bio: Caio Coletti is a Brazilian-born journalist, a proud poptimist, and has too many opinions to keep them all to himself.