5. Meryl Streep – Sophie’s Choice
Meryl Streep may be synonymous with a few notions nowadays: overly-political, acting genius, overrated, justly rated, “why is she always nominated?”, and “why hasn’t she won more than three Oscars?”.
Yes, she may be polarizing now, but there was a time where the world was still discovering her and what she was truly capable of. Her film-saving performance in Sophie’s Choice, no matter what she has done before or since, remains her greatest achievement, because we are treated to the many layers of Sophie Zawistowski.
Even when she tells a story, she says it with such enthusiasm just to be heard. While you are thankful to be told these stories, you will soon realize what you have signed up for when Zawistowski starts to hit hardship. The story becomes more and more unforgiving, until the iconic climax where her screams, like Cotillard as Piaf, will never leave you.
4. Ben Kingsley – Gandhi
What happened to Ben Kingsley? His first major film performance as Mahatma Gandhi is arguably one of the finest of all time, and his career looked so promising until the new millennium (The Love Guru makes any bad decision Robert De Niro made look smart in comparison).
As Gandhi, Kingsley not only captures his every fiber perfectly (even the fact that Gandhi’s accent changed over time), he accurately speaks from the bottom of his heart every single time. You note that every action comes from a place of care, and even his smallest moments carry a massive punch. A single tear dropping from Gandhi’s eye almost hits you more than any monologue ever has.
When he starves himself, his faintness also speaks loudly. When Kingsley’s Gandhi is finally ready to address the world (and he does many times), you may not be able to focus on anything else.
3. Jessica Lange – Frances
In one year, Jessica Lange went from overlooked bombshell to a queen of the craft. While she won her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Tootsie (she delivered her thank-you in a bittersweet way because she knew that win meant she would lose for Best Actress), we all know that win was for Frances, too (and the Academy wanted to reward Streep as well).
As the mocked and misunderstood Frances Farmer, Lange makes a bold everyday girl’s transition into a mistreated woman with mental deterioration devastating. Her shrieks are both frightening and heartbreaking, and are confrontational in a way that you usually never find in films anymore.
Farmer makes grand speeches in her everyday discussions until the very end, when society sadly gets to her. Even in her eventual quietness, you face the commanding Farmer that was stripped away from a bigoted world, and it makes the story even more depressing.
2. Daniel Day-Lewis – My Left Foot
Daniel Day-Lewis being mentioned on a list of powerful performance is as surprising as a soup being featured as the soup of the day. Picking one of his many vibrant performances is hard, but we will go with his work as Christy Brown in My Left Foot. Day-Lewis speaks so heavily while doing so little, as he convincingly plays a painter and author with severe cerebral palsy.
Without the ability to use body language to boost a performance, Day-Lewis uses his voice and face alone. With a pitch-perfect attention to every single infliction possible, Day-Lewis Brown learns to communicate a little better each day. Each struggle eventually evolves into the ability to take control of the room.
This is a performance that is as large as it is through commitment, where Day-Lewis holds himself back as much as he propels himself forwards; the acting-juggling here is untouchable.
1. Peter O’Toole – Lawrence of Arabia
We cannot end the list in any other way. Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence is easily the most commanding performance of all time. This is especially true, because Lawrence of Arabia devotes its first moments painting Lawrence as a clumsy goofball that is not taken seriously. He is eccentric down to the way he burns himself and gets distracted by cat statues mid sentence.
When he experiences a bit of what is going on in the Arabian Peninsula, he stands shocked and astonished; he even feels damaged by those around him. With a bit of time and evolution, Lawrence ends up becoming a force to be reckoned with. He returns to his headquarters running the show with such anger that he literally shakes.
Yes, O’Toole includes many (and I do mean many) small intricacies to tie each and every loud aspect together, yet those are hidden gems. No one elevated words off a page in such a hypnotically moving way like Peter O’Toole did in this historical epic.