10 Greatest Oscar Winning Performances!

With the road to the Academy Awards well and truly underway, the next few weeks of Top 10 Tuesdays will have a suitable Oscar theme, kicking off this week with the 10 Greatest Oscar winning Performances! The past 83 years have unquestionably provided some exceptional performances €“ as well as some that have definitely been overlooked by the Academy €“ and below are the five best Oscar winning performances by an actor and the five best from an actress€in my opinion!


Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward) is a woman with a questionable moral fibre. Often found in seedy bars soliciting, she has previously been sentenced for a number of small, petty crimes. When two of Barbara€™s sleazy male acquaintances murder an older woman it isn€™t long before the police catch them. Falsely believing that Barbara has assisted the police in arresting them they claim that is in fact her who is the murderer€ Susan Hayward is one of those Hollywood actresses that has slipped from popularity and is probably most likely remembered for her role opposite John Wayne in The Conqueror (1956) €“ and like Wayne, her tragic death from cancer at only 57, was caused by exposure to radioactive toxins during the shooting of that film. However, her portrayal of real life murderer Barbara Graham is often considered to be one of the finest performances in cinematic history. Whilst the film characterises Graham as a victim falsely accused, Hayward spent a lot of time with the prisoner before her death in the gas chamber and without actually admitting her guilt, lead the actress to believe that she was in fact guilty of the crime. Therefore, for me, what makes the performance so riveting is Hayward€™s ability to portray Graham€™s €˜innocence€™ despite her own inside knowledge. When Hayward was presented with the Oscar on Award night she entered the stage to such thunderous applause that she is the only actress ever to return for a curtain call!


Don Birnam (Ray Milland) has been an alcoholic for a long time. Having managed to stay alcohol free for the past ten days, he believes that he must be over the worst of the addiction. However, it isn€™t long before his cravings become more dangerous. Managing to avoid a country weekend planned by his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman), he begins a four-day binge. Through a series of flashbacks Birnam recalls past events that have all gone wrong because of his addiction. Slipping into deep depression his current binge looks like it will be his last: one-way or the other€ In a year that was dominated with religious performances (Bing Crosby and Gregory Peck both earned Oscar noms playing fathers), it€™s nice to see that the polar opposite of this €“ Milland€™s alcoholic, Don Birnam €“ won the Award! Milland€™s performance is deeply moving and affecting even for contemporary audiences, due to his exceptional skill at demonstrating the devastating effects of Birnam€™s addiction. The particularly harrowing nature of the drama within the narrative is heightened through Milland€™s skill at preventing his drunken scenes from appearing comical or insincere. He effectively manages to display Birnam€™s alcohol addiction as a fundamental internal conflict, suggesting that deep within all of us we battle something €“ no matter what it is €“ in a similar way.


Sophie (Meryl Streep) has survived being imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and escaped to America. Through her relationship with Nathan (Kevin Kline), an engaging American Jew with an obsession with the Holocaust, she has renewed her interest in life. When Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young writer new to New York City, moves into their apartment block it isn€™t long before the couple befriends him. As their friendship grows, Stingo soon finds that the couple€™s happiness is in jeopardy due to Nathan€™s holocaust obsession and the horrors Sophie has lived through... With the most Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress (no less than 16 in total!), Meryl Streep is probably the most distinguished present day talent. Tackling no more than three languages in Sophie's Choice, Streep is convincing when conversing in any and her excellent ability to capture the hesitation of someone with broken English adds a distinct reality to the character. The overwhelming feelings of Sophie€™s guilt permeate throughout the various elements of the narrative and the flashback structure effectively reveals the ultimate horror that she suffers whilst allowing Streep scope as an actress. Her performance is both memorable and affecting, cementing her power as a dramatic actress.


As Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), head of a New York Mafia family, oversees his daughter's wedding, his favourite son Michael (Al Pacino) returns home from the war. However, to Corleone€™s disappointment Michael doesn€™t intend on becoming part of the family business. Running the business in the way of the €œold country€, Corleone finds that some of his associates don't want to follow the traditions of looking out for community and family. As a rival of the family starts selling drugs in New York Corleone€™s fading old world values demand a terrible price from Michael for the sake of the protecting the family€™s status€ Marlon Brando has often been considered the greatest actor of all time and with a total of 7 Academy Award nominations and 2 wins, he has the numbers to back him up. His most iconic role however, has to be here, as Don Vito Corleone. Whilst he doesn€™t enjoy the prominent amount of screen time, Brando€™s portrayal of Corleone is certainly one of the most memorable elements of The Godfather and has often been imitated, but never duplicated. Brando's performance in The Godfather is one of the most memorable €“ and iconic €“ in cinema history and thoroughly deserving of his win.


Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an enigmatic but merciless oil prospector who€™s main drive to succeed is his extreme hatred of others and brutal psychological need to see his opponents€™ businesses crumble. When he learns that California has patches of land rich in oil that can be bought cheaply, he transfers his company there and begins to manipulate and exploit locals into selling him their land. With a young adopted son, Plainview fosters an image of a caring family man, which helps forge cooperation from the majority of locals. Promising to build schools and invest in the community, Plainview manages to become popular amongst his neighbours. However, over time, as he gradually accumulates a mass of wealth and power and reveals the emptiness of his promises, his true personality surfaces causing those around him to slowly turn against him€ As an enormous fan of classical Hollywood cinema, Daniel Day-Lewis€™s performance exudes technique and stature reminiscent of the Golden Era. His portrayal of Daniel Plainview is thoroughly convincing and his ability to make the entirely mortifying actions of the character seem somehow human propels the actor to the heights of some of Hollywood€™s finest talent. Playing such a theatrical character could have lead Day-Lewis into an over-the-top performance, but through incredible skill the actor manages to perfectly blend the inflated personality of Plainview with expert restraint. In my mind, this is easily one of the finest performances of the 21st century!


Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) is a Southern Belle who evokes images of a bygone era. When mysterious circumstances at home lead her to visit her younger sister Stella (Kim Hunter) in New Orleans she meets her brother-in-law Stanley (Marlon Brando) for the first time. With illusions of former Southern grandeur, Blanche doesn't understand how Stella could have married somebody lacking the refinement she considers obligatory within a man. As Blanche€™s mental health appears to be deteriorating, Stanley preys on her weakness with ideas of ridding her from their lives for good€ Perhaps mainly remembered for her histrionic performance as self-centred Southern beauty Scarlett O€™Hara in Gone With the Wind, Vivien Leigh gives her most striking screen performance here in Tennessee Williams€™ classic play A Streetcar Named Desire. Leigh proves that a stage star mentality can transcend well on to the screen and her thespian performance enables her to intrinsically capture Blanche€™s unhinged mentality. Starring opposite the freshly famous Marlon Brando and his method approach to acting, Leigh holds her own in their scenes of confrontation and manages to exude a sweet vulnerability as well as a maniacal threat to her sister and brother-in-law€™s marriage. By the end of the film, when Blanche has had a complete mental breakdown, Leigh manages to portray the character€™s emotional disturbance with great reality and evokes equal feelings of sympathy and disdain within the audience.


Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) marries against her family€™s wishes and is whisked away out of her husband€™s clutches to her father€™s yacht. The heiress escapes from the yacht and manages to find a bus that will return her to her husband. Bumping into out-of-work reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), Ellie finds herself blackmailed into sticking with him until he gets her back to her husband or he'll reveal her location to her father! Believing he€™ll be rewarded with a tasty newspaper story will this be all he wants by the end of their adventure? Much like Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable€™s most memorable performance is probably as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. However, five years before that he starred in this low budget, light hearted romance picture that saw the birth of the screwball comedy! With an amusing mix of misogyny and traditional values of masculinity, Gable€™s characterisation of Warne is representative of the time the narrative is set in. However, what is most remarkable about Gable€™s performance is his chemistry with co-star Claudette Colbert, which helps exude a confidence and ease on screen that implies accomplishment as a truly great actor. In fact, It Happened One Night was so popular that it became the first film to go on and win the Oscar grand slam of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress.


Middle-aged married couple George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) have a volatile relationship consumed by vitriolic verbal battles. Plied with alcohol the couple€™s verbal battles often become out of hand and when Martha invites Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis) over for a nightcap, the elder couple soon pull the younger pair into their twisted, cataclysmic games of torment. As the evening progresses, Nick and Honey, overwhelmed with alcohol, begin to question their own marriage... The usually glamorous and impeccably mannered Elizabeth Taylor donned a grey wig and a fat suit to play the vulgar, acidic Martha and the star certainly cements her abilities as an accomplished actress here. Her portrayal of Martha€™s psychological torment allows the actress to seamlessly shift between sadistic attacks on George and a vulnerable tenderness that requires comfort from her husband. Taylor builds a truly monstrous character out of Martha with her harrying disparagement, but also manages to instil a sense of sympathy within viewers as her exhausted helplessness allows brief glimpses of the warm and loving woman she may have been had the couple€™s child not died. Certainly a tragic character, Martha gave Taylor a full range of emotions to play with and by managing to avoid slipping into the realms of camp (which could have so easily happened with her outrageous bitchiness) this performance categorically proves her abilities as a dramitic actress.


When Dan Bellows (Franchot Tone) finds former stage star Joyce Heath (Bette Davis) a penniless drunk, he decides to take her home for rehabilitation. Dan, who was inspired by one of Joyce€™s early performances, asks his fiancée Gail (Margaret Lindsay) to break off their engagement as he is in love with Joyce. He then offers to sponsor Joyce in a Broadway play, simultaneously proposing marriage. Unbeknownst to Dan, Joyce is already married. When her husband refuses to give her a divorce, she deliberately crashes her car into a tree, crippling him for life and preventing her from opening in her show... In an ironic act of art imitating life, Bette Davis €“ who was always her own worst enemy, as well as her strongest ally €“ gives a spectacular performance as the acidic Joyce Heath. Very much the beginning of the screen persona that would follow the actress around for the rest of her career, the selfish and manipulative Joyce is played with such effect by Davis that it€™s perfectly believable that she is simply playing herself.


Based on the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning book by Harper Lee, this film sees Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) €“ a lawyer in a small, racially segregated Alabama town in the 1930s €“ agree to defend a young black man accused of raping a white woman. Finch finds opposition from many of his fellow townspeople, but he decides to go ahead. Throughout the trial, Finch attempts to educate his two young children on prejudice and racism, ending up having to defend himself and the children, as well as his client, against their neighbours. Will the trial relieve any of the racial tension that the town is fraught with? To Kill a Mockingbird is often praised as one of €“ if not the €“ greatest courtroom dramas ever produced. The unbridled look at racism in the small town, Southern America of the Depression Era still evokes outrage and feelings of antagonism. Similarly, Peck€™s portrayal of the all American hero Atticus Finch is fondly remembered and equally revered as the film. Back at the 1961 Academy Awards, the voters obviously felt the power of Peck€™s performance too. For me, it has to be the greatest Oscar winning performance simply because it inspires me: when I see Finch stand up and defend the accused Tom Robinson against his entire town it makes me want to stand up for what I believe in! Peck€™s performance is incredibly restrained and he portrays Finch as an open-minded, kind and loving man €“ certainly the proverbial needle within the haystack of his backwards, prejudiced town. This list is of course personal to me and I€™d like to hear what your choices would be€so leave a comment below and share your thoughts!

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