The 10 Most Legendary Movie Performances of All Time

5. Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice


One reason why Meryl Streep is such a fascinating actress is that each generation of film lovers has a towering performance to associate with her. Her consistently high quality body of work gives everyone something to love.

Modern audiences may be less aware of her stellar early work in 1982’s Sophie’s Choice, but it still stands as her most impressive performance. The versatility and range she displays in this one film are unforgettable, and would have been enough to win her screen immortality.

As Sophie, Streep plays a half-starved prisoner in Auschwitz as convincingly as she portrays the alluring love interest for two different men. She shows us unbridled joy, crippling anxiety, bitter hopelessness, and tender sensitivity from one scene to the next.

Streep’s delivery of her lines as a Polish speaker learning English never misses a note, and her German is spoken flawlessly. It’s an unbelievable well-rounded performance that no one but Meryl Streep could have given so well.


4. Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange

Who else can movie fans imagine playing Alex in A Clockwork Orange besides Malcolm McDowell? Even though McDowell seemed to relish the challenge of playing such a despicable character, this must have been an exhausting undertaking. The performance he channeled for Kubrick’s classic film became an indispensable ingredient of what made A Clockwork Orange so iconic and so powerful.

As a hopelessly manic criminal and as a fawning repentant hypocrite, McDowell threw every ounce of energy into his role as Alex. He made the eccentric dialogue and vocabulary his own, and wielded it with such confidence that it never feels like a performance.

Alex is a character that audiences are meant to hate, so little effort was exerted to make him sympathetic. Still, he had to be an interesting character, and McDowell never lets us down for one moment. The fire in his eyes never diminishes, and his cunning mind continues to plot and calculate with twisted glee. It’s McDowell’s best work, and one of the all time great performances.


3. Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire


The great Marlon Brando is forever associated with the method style of acting, which he helped to define, and which in many ways defined him. Brando epitomized the approach to acting which seeks to discover the emotional truth in a given situation and accurately portray that feeling for an audience. In A Streetcar Named Desire, he so thoroughly embodied the character of Stanley that people forever mistook Brando’s personality with that of Tennessee Williams’ creation.

With his perpetually dirty white t-shirt, almost incoherent mumbling, and general brutishness, Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski has become an archetypal American character. And who can ever forget Brando standing in the rain, screaming “Stella!” like his life depends on it? The ironic thing was that public perception of Brando became intertwined with what he showed them in A Streetcar Named Desire.

This was an image that Brando spent much of his career distancing himself from, and which did little to remedy his natural distaste for Hollywood. Still, we love Brando as Kowalski, and it’s a performance that never grows old.


2. Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood

there will be blood theme

No one commits to a performance quite like Daniel Day-Lewis. One might more correctly say that he commits to a character, because he’s famous for spending months or years researching for a role, and then refusing to break character during the entire filming period. While this has made him difficult to work with at times, what director wouldn’t trade those headaches for the quality of performance that Day-Lewis consistently delivers?

In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis achieved the pinnacle of perfection for his own career, and set new standards of perfection for all actors who will follow. The way he immerses himself in every aspect of Daniel Plainview’s character is a wonder to behold, and he moves like a man possessed by the ghost of his character. Day-Lewis channels the loathing, the ambition, and the enigmatic humanity of Plainview in a way that blows us away the first time, and never ceases to awe us after repeated viewings.


1. Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Maria Falconetti crafted a performance for the ages as Joan of Arc. You won’t find her name in the credits of many other films, but her work here won her immortality in the world of cinema. “You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti… To see Falconetti in Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1928) is to look into eyes that will never leave you” – so wrote the great critic Roger Ebert is his review of this film.

She deserves every ounce of praise heaped upon her over the years. In silent films, a performer’s face must naturally help to convey what words or sound cannot; Falconetti’s acting here is so effective that any sound added would have only diminished it. Portraying a figure as iconic as Joan of Arc, and doing so in a silent film without any modern aids to prop up her performance wins her top honors in the annals of legendary performances.