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20 Best Actors Of All Time


20 Best Actors Of All Time


Summary

  • Meryl Streep tops the list with a record 21 Oscar nominations and three wins in a career spanning nearly four decades.
  • Daniel Day-Lewis is hailed as a modern legend for his diverse roles, including an Oscar-winning portrayal of a man with cerebral palsy.
  • Stars like Kate Winslet and Harrison Ford have solidified their places among the greats with iconic roles in timeless classics.



Through unforgettable performances, several actors have established themselves as the greatest of all time. After more than a century of cinematic history, there have been countless actors and actresses who have enjoyed their fair share of the spotlight. A long list of stars from the industry’s past and present, ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Clint Eastwood, have achieved reputations as movie legends.

The diverse list of movie genres lends itself well to the massive pool of stars audiences have followed over the years. Some developed a mastery over a certain medium, with actors like John Wayne and James Cagney becoming synonymous with Westerns and gangster films respectively. Others tried to showcase their versatility by appearing in all sorts of different films. In one way or another, numerous actors have made enough contributions to movie history to earn their place among the best.


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20 Cate Blanchett

One of the most impressive things about Cate Blanchett’s career is how much she’s accomplished in such a short length of time. Despite only being active since 1990, the 55-year-old actress can already be counted as one of Hollywood’s best, and not just in the current era. Her breakthrough performance was the role of Elizabeth I in the 1999 biopic, Elizabeth. Less than a decade later, Blanchett set a noteworthy record that continues to hold by reprising the role in Elizabeth: The Golden Rule. Because not only did her depiction of Elizabeth earn her an Oscar nomination, but her second turn as the queen of England managed the same.


19 Christian Bale

In the 2000s, Christian Bale was a rising name in Hollywood due to his growing status at the time as an action star. Playing Batman did much for his image, but it’s important to note that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was more than just a slew of superhero-themed action vehicles; aided by Bale’s performance, the three films succeeded in providing a nuanced look at what makes the Caped Crusader tick.

Since then, Bale’s profile has grown beyond Batman, with the actor garnering critical acclaim for movies outside the action genre. Part of this was due to his onscreen performances, but a great deal of it also comes from the extreme effort he puts into becoming his characters. One of the most noteworthy examples of this is the very real physical transformation Christian Bale underwent to play Dick Cheney in Vice.


18 Al Pacino

Although Al Pacino only landed one Oscar win, the range of his nominations say a lot about his career’s significance to Hollywood. Between 1973 and 2020, Pacino racked up nine nominations, including his win for Secret of a Woman in 1993. Pacino made his first mark on the industry with his role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, a film justifiably lauded as one of the best movies ever made. In fact, it’s often cited as the greatest of them all, and that’s due in no small part to what Pacino brought to the Michael Corleone role with how he crafted the character’s gradual transformation into a crime lord.


17 Harrison Ford

Few stars walk the line between action hero and dramatic actor better than Harrison Ford. His importance to action movies is underscored by the notion that two of the biggest action icons ever – Han Solo and Indiana Jones – are credited to him. Ford’s charisma has helped immensely in making Star Wars’ Han Solo and Indiana Jones endearing favorites to multiple generations.

Also among Harrison Ford’s best movies are Blade Runner, The Fugitive, and Witness. With the latter, Ford won his first and only Academy Award. The others were also supported by Ford’s performances, as it’s hard to imagine Blade Runner being hailed one of the best sci fi movies of all time with another actor in the lead role.


16 Marlon Brando

The Godfather’s legacy being what it is today can be attributed at least partially to its cast being headlined by not one, but two of Hollywood’s most talented actors of any generation. Marlon Brando memorably portrayed Vito Corleone, taking viewers through his personal journey and adding various edges to the role. With Corleone being just one example of this, Brando excelled in playing jaded and charismatic characters, as evidenced by his performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and Apocalypse Now. Crucial to his approach was his well-known implementation of method acting, which grew more common thanks to Brando.


15 Kate Winslet

Not unlike Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet has accrued many major accolades in her career, enough to be deemed one of Hollywood’s greatest actors. Along with Leonardo DiCaprio, Winslet used her performance and chemistry with her co-star to help make the love story in Titanic one of the most famous onscreen love stories. But while Titanic has emerged as a timeless classic, it’s ultimately just one of Kate Winslet’s best movies.

It shares good company with Sense and Sensibility, The Reader, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Little Children, which were all lifted up by Winslet’s acting. The high Rotten Tomatoes scores of each film do well to illustrate the value Winslet brings to a movie’s cast and story. This is further reflected by her seven Academy Award nominations, including one win, which was for The Reader.


14 Toshiro Mifune

It’s no coincidence that several of the best Japanese movies of all time feature Toshiro Mifune as the lead actor. In his distinguished career, Mifune headlined a multitude of now-iconic movies, including Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Rashomon. His ability to play a cold and calculated warrior in Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies even provided the inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name. And it’s not hard to see why; he could skillfully play a character with a quiet and measured demeanor that hid a powerful and fearsome spirit.


13 Olivia de Havilland

Between playing the love interest in a string of Errol Flynn movies, Oliva de Havilland carved out a legacy for herself through her performances in movies like Gone with the Wind. Early in her career, her roles leaned heavily on her characters’ charming and innocent appeal, but other movies demonstrated that there were multiple layers to the actress. De Havilland seemed to effortlessly steal the show in films such as Snake Pit, Hold Back the Dawn, and The Heiress, all of which being films that highlighted her emotional range. Three of her performances were recognized with well-deserved wins for Best Actress.

Olivia De Havilland’s Academy Award-winning performances were in
To Each Their Own, Snake Pit,
and
The Heiress.


12 Glenn Ford

Several film genres count at least one Glenn Ford movie as one of the best examples of what they have to offer. That’s the case with Westerns (3:10 to Yuma), film noir (Gilda), comedy (Pocketful of Miracles), and war movies (Midway). Even 1978’s Superman, arguably the most popular superhero movie before the 21st century, was made better by a Glenn Ford appearance. His empathetic portrayal of Jonathan Kent was vital to Superman.


This thoughtful, caring side of Ford contributed much to his likability, but it’s worth noting that there were other shades of him as well. Movies like White Heat and Gilda show that he could also convincingly play darker, crueler characters, which can be equally entertaining to watch. This sort of balance went hand-in-hand with his numerous Western roles, which often called for him to play characters whose morals weren’t necessarily in black and white.

11 James Stewart

Whereas several acting legends have earned their reputations due to being able to play both heroes and villains, James Stewart doesn’t have the same level of experience. But while his history of playing flawed protagonists is limited, that detracts nothing from Stewart’s legacy. He made a career out of playing soft-spoken, well-meaning characters whose likable qualities made him instantly relatable and easy to root for in movies like Harvey and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.


Of course, the characters in James Stewart’s best movies weren’t without nuance. His haunting performance as a man who discovered that his life had been erased from existence in It’s a Wonderful Life is undoubtedly one of the highlights of Stewart’s career. Something similar can be said for his roles in Rear Window and Winchester ’73, to name a few.

10 Tom Hanks


Another actor largely associated with “nice guy” roles is Tom Hanks. But like the situation with James Stewart, that’s not a knock on Hanks’ versatility. Rather, it speaks to the success he’s had in playing characters viewers are meant to like and respect. With movies like Castaway and Forrest Gump perfect examples, Hanks is adept at presenting his characters’ flaws while also endearing them to the audience at the same time. Notably, this is a quality of Hanks that seems to have improved over time, with the actor continuing to deliver memorable, Oscar-worthy performances in the later years of his career.

9 Ingrid Bergman


One of the top stars of the 1940s, Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman has her name attached to several of the decade’s most well-known films, such as Notorious, Gaslight, Casablanca, and The Bells of St. Mary’s. Her chemistry with Humphrey Bogart and emotional range played a huge part in Casablanca having at least a claim to the title of the greatest movie ever made. But while the movie’s fame is proof of her acting ability, her Oscar-winning role in Gaslight was perhaps an even better chance to showcase her talents, as it saw Bergman deliver a captivating performance as a woman tricked by her own husband into thinking that she’s losing her mind.

Bergman’s relevancy persisted well beyond the 1940s. She received critical acclaim and major awards throughout her career, with Anastasia and Murder on the Orient Express being among her many noteworthy roles. At 63 years old, she came close to winning what would have been her fourth Oscar in Autumn Sonata.

8 Meryl Streep


Easily one of the most accomplished actors still working in the industry today, Meryl Streep has had more Oscar-nominated performances than any other actor or actress in history. Streep has a whopping number of 21 nominations, including three wins, between 1978 and 2017. The sheer frequency of a Meryl Streep performance garnering widespread attention is a testament to her screen presence. Celebrated films like The Deer Hunter, The Iron Lady, The Bridges of Madison County, and The Post make up just a fraction of Streep’s best acting credits.

7 Denzel Washington


Denzel Washington has enjoyed a long and prolific career in Hollywood, one that’s been littered with exemplary performances. Washington has been an audience favorite since the 1990s, a notion that’s backed up by box office numbers. His roles have gone over well with critics as well, as indicated by the score of nine Oscar nominations and two wins the actor has under his belt. Impressively, Washington never needed to find a niche to find this level of success, as he’s been able to reliably deliver hits whether he’s playing an amoral gangster (Training Day), a conscientious lawyer (Cry Freedom), or a boxer (The Hurricane).

6 Katharine Hepburn


In 1982, Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for her starring role in The Golden Pond, and in the process, claimed an extraordinary record no actor has since been able to top: with it, Hepburn had accumulated a total of four Academy Awards. Originally, she found success in 1930s and 1940s romantic comedies, which leaned heavily on her unique wit and charm. As time passed and the movie industry changed, Hepburn gracefully evolved with it, moving on from the screwball comedies of her past and diving deeper into more dramatic roles on occasion.

5 Cary Grant


An actor with whom Katharine Hepburn shared much of her early success, Cary Grant had his own wit about him that greatly elevated the romantic comedies he made both with her and opposite other actresses. That humor could come in a variety of forms, as Grant could provide laughs and entertainment as a clumsy victim of circumstance or a suave playboy. But thanks to Grant’s impressive repertoire as an actor, his films weren’t always dependent on his comedic chops. Cary Grant’s many collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, act as examples of his greater dramatic range.

4 Sidney Poitier

The most prominent Black actor of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the first to earn the Best Actor Oscar (Lilies of the Field), Sidney Poitier amassed dozens of standout performances. His supporting role as a rebellious teenage student in The Blackboard Jungle put him on the map in Hollywood in 1955. Before long, Poitier was able to work his way up to being a lead actor himself, playing emotionally meaningful roles in dramatic films, including Patch of Blue and To Sir, with Love.


Poitier had grown to excel at playing good-natured, respectable characters. These roles made up a large chunk of his career, but don’t necessarily define it. The Defiant Ones, for instance, took advantage of his impressive depth when it placed him in the role of an escaped convict who wrestles with his conscience during his time on the run.

3 Laurence Olivier

Aided by his experience as a stage actor, British actor Laurence Olivier did some of his best big-screen work when he headlined Othello,Richard III, Hamlet, and Henry V. All four Laurence Olivier-led William Shakespearian adaptations reached across-the-board acclaim, with Olivier’s performances in particular getting Best Oscar nominations (including one win). This astonishing accomplishment highlights the extent of his dramatic range, which perfectly complimented the William Shakespeare stories’ emphasis on psychological journeys.


2 Bette Davis

For decades, Bette Davis has been revered as the “the Queen of Hollywood,” and for good reason. Rather than sticking to love interests or sympathetic protagonists, Davis was never averse to playing characters with questionable morals, or even those that were outright despicable, as seen in Jezebel. The movie industry benefited from 60 years of Davis’ spirited performances, as she received Oscar buzz from her mid-20s all the way into her late 70s, just prior to her death in 1989. Well-respected for the extreme level of intensity and attention to detail that the actress had prioritized, Davis set the standard for Hollywood’s leading ladies.


1 Daniel Day-Lewis

If there’s any actor who can stand above all other acting legends in the modern era, it’s Daniel Day-Lewis. His remarkable versatility has been on display throughout his career. Day-Lewis’ moving performance as someone with cerebral palsy in My My Left Foot rewarded him with instant critical acclaim and an Academy Award for Best Actor. It was the beginning of a long-running, consistent trend for the actor who has remained in the conversation for high-profile accolades year after year, sometimes outright winning.


His Oscar for My Left Foot was joined by new Academy Awards for 2008’s There Will Be Blood and 2013’s Lincoln. Both were deeply dramatic roles, but Day-Lewis has shown that he can thrive even when trying something completely different. Despite playing a somewhat over-the-top character in Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis still picked up an Oscar nomination. And with The Last of the Mohicans, there was an indication that he had “action hero” potential as well.

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