Who’s the Best Actor in Hollywood?

Bridges - White Squall

For the October 1996 issue of Movieline, eight of the magazine’s writers made a case for who they thought was the best actor working in movies at that time.  Some of these choices have stood the test of time better than others, but all of them are still reasonably well-respected today and all but one is still actively working.

I’m expecting lively debate in the comments section.


Jeff Bridges

by Stephen Rebello

Confronted with an actor with as true an aim, as quintessentially American a look, as rock-steady a vibe as Jeff Bridges, I try not to drive myself nuts imagining the uses to which great, dead movie directors might have put him. Sure, the minute Bridges burst on the scene, many strong directors of the ’70s and ’80s knew enough to get him –Coppola, Cimino, Rafelson, Pakula, for instance. Too bad they never fully got him. Bridges, after all, sits squarely in the tradition of such great American sides of beef as Gary Cooper, Joel McCrea, Robert Mitchum and William Holden: unfussy, quietly persuasive, straight-shooting guy’s guys of the sort whose inborn, affable cockiness shades into pained disillusion as the years wear them down.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that some of his finest work–and full-tilt Bridges stands right alongside the very best–unfolds in retro, throwback contexts. He’s spectacular as the big-dumb-and-full-of-cum high school jock in The Last Picture Show, a black-and-white heartbreaker in which the wayward Texas wind seems to cry John Ford… George Stevens… Howard Hawks. He evoked Brando and Garfield playing the brash boxing contender in Fat City, working so fluidly for the old giant John Huston it suggests how at ease Bridges might have been in the director’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Misfits or The Asphalt Jungle. He’s also brilliant as the failing upward scammer in Cutter’s Way, utterly contemporary yet marinated in the brine of noir. His aging lounge musician in The Fabulous Baker Boys feels coolly bebop, tragically hip, desolate. Even his lesser films are often homages if not remakes, reminders of the days in which he would have rightfully ruled in the business: Hearts of the West, King Kong, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Against All Odds, Starman (an Oscar nomination), Wild Bill (a deserved nomination denied him).

It strikes me as supremely fucked that, in a time when Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell luck into hits. Bridges may be fated never to star in a through-the-roof smash. Forget how he was talked up to play Batman and Robin Hood, couldn’t he have been, shouldn’t he have been, the guy in Fatal Attraction and Basic instinct instead of, say, the guy in Jagged Edge? Think how he could have juiced up Romancing the Stone, Wall Street, The Prince of Tides and The Bridges of Madison County when he was doing, instead, American Heart, Blown Away and White Squall. Search him out working at peak form as a guy shaken to the core by near-death in Fearless. You’d be hard-pressed to catch him acting; he breathes his characters. Nearing 50 and having logged about as many films, he’s Hollywood’s sexiest, most reliable, least-tapped resource. Where in hell are Scorsese, Tarantino, Figgis and Spielberg when a guy needs them?

Freeman - Chain Reaction

Morgan Freeman

by David Thomson

He is an actor who really only began to be himself around the age of 50 — that alone would be remarkable, for so many American film actors have as tough a time being middle-aged on screen as they do in real life. He has never yet been called upon to carry a film on his own–surely a measure of stardom–and no one would shame him by putting his salary at the eight-digit level. Yet no one, I think, would dispute the claim that he is one of our largest, most serious and best actors. Very few others have such extensive and natural ties to the wealth of being human.

Put it that way, and you might guess that Morgan Freeman was English. Of course, he is not. But he is black, which is still a greater handicap. And even someone praising Morgan Freeman should note those roles he has had because of his color. Thus Glory and Driving Miss Daisy (in both of which he is very good) require that he be black, and owe their existence as art or entertainment to the various ways in which we are in retreat from our prejudice against black people. That doesn’t diminish or belittle such films, but it helps explain how some black casting is a gesture, like affirmative action. Freeman’s forlorn black judge in The Bonfire of the Vanities exposes the tokenism possible in such a state of affairs.

But what is really magnificent about Freeman is that on a few occasions he has played men with such force, depth, guile, spirit ant! uniqueness that we hardly notice their color. The pimp in Street Smart was one of these, so frightening a blind viewer would have felt threatened. Then there have been his roles in Unforgiven and The Shawshank Redemption. But for many of us, Freeman made himself most clear and extraordinary as the older cop in Seven, a movie in which he had to represent wisdom, experience, decency and hope (unfashionable things) and made them so fresh and touching that the lack of Academy recognition was proof that racism is only a subset of stupidity. Morgan Freeman could play Lincoln–which other actor of the proper age has more command of Lincoln’s battered honesty?


Gary Oldman

by Michael Atkinson

Some actors are chickenshit — you can read it in their eyes, their stock mannerisms, their reliance on self-mythologizing material–and some are utterly fearless, digging their incisors into the meat of human experience like cheetahs after a 50 mph zebra run-down. Of these, Gary Oldman is the rogue prince, so dazzling, brave and scary that the movies he’s in can rarely keep up. He’s brilliant and dangerous, extraordinarily gifted and always spoiling for a dustup. Whether as Beethoven or Sid Vicious, Dracula or Oswald, you sense that you could never deter him, that he’s running on raw will. In True Romance he took a small, quaint Quentin Tarantino idea — a white hood who thinks he’s black–and made him genuinely chilling. In State of Grace, he took an ordinary gang thug and made him as real and fearsome as a freeway smackup. There’s no lying in his eyes–even in The Scarlet Letter, he meant every ridiculous word. Like his best roles, Oldman is never dull or lazy or less than desperate and vivid. His finest hour may still be capturing the blind doom of punk’s most authentic martyr in Sid and Nancy, but even in bilge like The Professional and Romeo Is Bleeding. Oldman means business in a way those movies can’t handle. He’s mesmerizing because he doesn’t seem to care if we’re watching–he’s wreaking havoc because his blood is boiling, and we had better just step out of the way. There’s never been a Dracula as whacked out and wrenching; imagine another actor declaring war on God in hoarse Romanian and drinking the blood bled from a stone cross, and making you believe it. Oldman is a ledge-walker; there’s no sanctity-of-the-acting-craft piffle, or cheap movie star endearments. Just the electricity of risk.


Jack Nicholson

by Joshua Mooney

Jack’s shit-eating grin is so fearless, it makes me realize how lucky I am to be a man. Could any actor give me more? Of course, I am not Jack. Jack is the one plus ultra against which all men measure themselves and fall short. But when I can jack a little Jack into my bloodstream, I feel a surge of total confidence. And any women in the room begin stirring uneasily in my direction. There are two templates of his Cheshire Cat-got-the-canary smile. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, after an inane question from the shrink, Jack leans back, eyebrows quivering with merriment (eyes and mouth work together as an extremely dangerous team), and looks from right to left, beaming at imaginary compadres as if to say, “Can you believe this guy? Thinks he’s gonna outfox R.P. McMurphy. Ain’t that somethin’?” In Wolf, his wife wakes him after 20 hours of sleep (the werewolf is taking over) and asks him how he feels. Jack licks his chops, savoring the canine bile in his mouth like a connoisseur of madness, thinks for a moment and then says, “I feel… good.” And the grin slowly crawls across his face–the perfect portrait of a shy book editor who wakes up to the wonderfulness of becoming Jack. The grin is the heart of so many roles, so vital to the animus of Jack, whether that be madness (The Shining–great work, I don’t care what anyone says) or cartoon evil (Batman‘s The Joker), or the crushing acceptance of all your failures as a man (Five Easy Pieces). Is it ironic, then, that my role model’s characters so often end in isolation, tragedy or death (The Passenger, Five Easy Pieces, A Few Good Men, Chinatown, Easy Rider, etc.)? Jesus, no. Jack knows the hand is always already dealt. And that grin can so easily turn downward, into the snarl of a cornered beast: “Now you’ve gone too far, my friend. Don’t you know the world is shit? I’m doing my part. I’m Jack. You got anything–anything–to put against that? I didn’t think so.”


Sean Penn

by Martha Frankel

The first time I saw Sean Penn, he was biting his toenails. How could I not fall in love with him? As Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Penn brought being stoned to a new level of vacuousness, and although that performance has been imitated hundreds of times, no one has played a doped-up goofball to such perfection since. So what did Penn up and do? He almost always went for the roles that didn’t point up his good looks, the ones that let him play to all the dark sides and hidden nuances. Think of him as Daulton Lee in The Falcon and the Snowman, an amoral, deceitful, drug-taking schemer whose nerves seem to jump from his body. The critic Pauline Kael once said that watching Penn play Lee, “you feel as if the artist has disappeared and you were left watching a twerp playing a twerp”–which is the best thing an actor could aspire to. Remember his scene at the end of At Close Range, when he’s got to face his father (Christopher Walken) and admit that the man would just as soon kill him as help him out? Remember Penn as the nervy, tic-filled lawyer in Carina’s Way, or the cop returning to his crime-infested neighborhood in State of Grace? Each time, he pushes through what you think he’ll do, and comes out as a character you believe. As Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking, Penn is at his very best. The haircut, the angle of his head, the strange and halting speech only make him seem more repellent, and his redemption all the more beautiful. Sure Penn’s had his misses (Shanghai Surprise, anyone?), but he’s often better than the material he’s in, and if truth be told, I’d rather watch Sean Penn bite his toenails than see Tom Cruise or any of Penn’s peers licking someone’s breasts.


Daniel Day-Lewis

by Stephen Farber

The great English actors have always delighted us with their protean range. Sir Alec Guinness and even Sir Laurence Olivier were often unrecognizable from one film to the next; they were more chameleonlike character actors than iconic movie stars. Daniel Day-Lewis carries on this glorious tradition, with the added pleasure of high-voltage sex appeal. His first two major films, A Room with a View and My Beautiful Laundrette, demonstrated that we were in the presence of an astonishingly versatile actor; he was equally convincing as the upper-class twit in the first movie and as the gay working-class punk in the second. The Unbearable Lightness of Being unleashed his sexual magnetism. He didn’t flaunt it, like some young American hunks, and that made his charisma all the more insinuating.

Although Day-Lewis hasn’t acted in a great many movies since then, he’s shown that he can play just about anything. He made a thrilling action hero in The Last of the Mohicans, and then he transformed him-self into the weak, vacillating urban lawyer in The Age of Innocence. Day-Lewis never begs us to love him. In My Left Foot he caught the petulant anger as well as the fortitude of the handicapped Christy Brown, and he played up the reckless immaturity of the falsely accused Irishman in In the Name of the Father. Other actors would have highlighted the nobility of those two characters, and the films would have been no more than TV-style message movies. With Day-Lewis, they became more tangled and profoundly involving human dramas.

Beyond all that, his intelligence always shines through; he has a rare ability to illuminate the intricacies of thinking. He should be ideally cast in The Crucible, because he’s one of the few actors who can make us experience the internal struggles of Arthur Miller’s reluctant hero, John Proctor. Daniel Day-Lewis has it all: intensity, fearlessness, along with old-fashioned glamour. How can you beat that combination?


Denzel Washington

by Virginia Campbell

A journalist friend of mine once told me this anecdote about a legendary Hollywood star he’d inter-viewed. The star was looking over script pages for an upcoming scene, and the journalist noticed that next to certain lines the star had written “N.A.R.” “What does ‘N.A.R.’ mean?” he asked. The star replied. “No Acting Required.”

That was a very wise movie star, to under-stand that a lot of what makes a star a star on the big screen is that ineffable quality which radiates and moves the viewer when no acting is taking place. It happens that the movie star in question was also an excellent actor–a rather unusual circumstance. Which brings us to Denzel Washington. How odd that Washington should be named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” just as he is on screen in Courage Under Fire, giving a performance that involves no eroticism at all. For heaven’s sake, he’s a psychologically tortured, alcoholic ex-tank commander browbeating other tortured vets into telling him the truth about their lived nightmare. But that’s part of the weirdness of Denzel Washington’s situation, that he has in him the movie star and the great actor. The ineffable quality stare radiate is erotic in great part, and lots of stars lean on that. Great actors are many, many other things, and seek to seduce only on special terms.

Washington has played many different kinds of characters–some definitively black, some not–in worthy and unworthy films. The Academy got it right awarding him for the out-raged slave he played in director Edward Zwick’s Glory. Zwick’s Courage Under Fire is a bookend of sorts to Glory (and another opportunity for the Academy to recognize Washington). Here Washington plays a career military man trained not to let emotion cloud his thought. In a terrific choice, Washington acts mostly with his voice–he has a great voice, which is a profound asset to both a star and an actor, though you’d hardly know it these days. He speaks in a deliberately low voice much of the time, signalling both his character’s trauma and his nearness to an edge that if crossed would result in maximum decibels. That low voice achieves dramatic depth in the movie’s climactic scene, as Washing-ton tells the parents of a fellow commander that he accidentally killed their son. The extended close-up in this same scene could make a stand-alone argument for Washington’s brilliance. It is the truest picture of grief I’ve ever seen in the movies.

But a word about Washington’s eyes. And about Malcolm X. Movie stars tend to let their eyes anchor their beauty. Washington’s eyes are free agents. As the many Malcolms of Malcolm X, Washington has the gestures, the vocal tones, even the weight of his character ever in transition as the real man was, and it’s a remarkable piece of technical acting. Still, the eyes tell everything. They withhold brilliantly. They behold brilliantly. They fear and inspire fear. They hate and love. Best of all, they calculate and will. In one scene. Malcolm stares down two cops who want to keep him from the fellow Muslim that police have beaten; his eyes move carefully from one cop to the other, preying on the predators; they give in. It is Malcolm and Denzel in a nutshell: force of charisma put to a purpose.


Johnny Depp

by Edward Margulies

Ok, I know what you’re going to say Johnny Depp, the best actor in Hollywood- are you kidding? And even if you’re not, didn’t you see Nick of Time? I’m not, and I did. First, about Nick of Time. I suspect Depp made it to get his career wranglers–his manager, his agent–off his back. I can imagine they hounded him after Keanu Reeves‘s price soared post-Speed: “Can’t you do an action picture, can’t you have a tent-pole hit, can it hurt you to make some serious money?” So maybe Depp, that sly devil, picked a John Badham picture on purpose: “See? You wanted me to make a straightforward action picture. I did. It bombed. End of story.”

Which is just as well, for this puts Depp back where he belongs– giving unpredictable, looks-easy-but-isn’t performances in unpredictable small films. Depp’s quintet of best portrayals to date make it clear that no one plays a beautiful loser more beautifully than he does. Using his hushed voice and haunted eyes to draw one in, Depp gently shows the shaky vulnerability that hides within movie masculinity–whether as a prince who’s disguised as a frog (Edward Scissorhands), a sibling who mimes Buster Keaton to escape his troubles (Benny & Joon), a sibling who woos Juliette Lewis to escape his troubles (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), a clueless, cross-dressing optimist (Ed Wood), or a schizophrenic cheerfully trapped in his own fantasy world (Don Juan DeMarco). Damaged goods, all. Has any other leading man illuminated such tortured souls so kindly–as kindly as if he were actually revealing himself?

Depp’s work in Don Juan DeMarco is the argument on which I rest my case. In this film, his command of the screen as he subtly parodies the heyday of “Latin lovers” like Gilbert Roland and Fernando Lamas (while deftly unfolding the eroticism within the cliché) would be unmistakably obvious if Depp weren’t so constitutionally averse to being obvious. When he suddenly switches gears to unveil the unhappy man who prefers living in an altered state, Depp holds the screen without any theatrical artifice at all. If that’s the kind of thing that makes him so underrated, so be it. It also makes him great.



Posted on October 20, 2016, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. No way Depp beats DiCaprio – who should probably be #1.


    • Remember, this was written in 1996. DiCaprio had turned heads with a supporting performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and he starred in Romeo + Juliet that year. But he wasn’t really an established leading man yet. Titanic was still a year away and that didn’t exactly earn him a lot of respect. It’s only been recently that DiCaprio has begun to be taken seriously as an actor. Overdue? Yes, but in 1996 he wouldn’t have been in the running.


  2. Wow, just wow; I can maybe make a top three with Gary Oldman, Sean Penn, and Jeff Bridges, but then I’m leaving the other guys out (I’m glad Morgan Freeman’s role in “Street Smart” is mentioned here). I don’t know, this is a great list that myself and some buddies probably would’ve came up with back in October of 1996.


  3. Daniel Day Lewis is probably the best of the bunch. A lot of people are high on DiCaprio, but I don’t think he displays a whole lot of range and versatility – he reminds me a great deal of Nicholson, who for much of his career played Jack Nicholson…

    Kevin Spacey is a notable exemption – see Glengarry Glen Ross ’92, Swimming with Sharks from ’94 (a personal favorite), The Usual Suspects in ’95, and so on… Also Samuel Jackson – who is far more talented than I think most people give him credit for (though he also often eats up the screen playing basically himself, or at least, the character ‘Sam Jackson’).


    • I can’t really disagree with the choice of Daniel Day-Lewis on this list, that’s why a concrete decision would be impossible for me, and would change from hour to hour anyway. These choices are just too damn good, and I definitely can’t be concerned with those who didn’t make this list.


    • An argument could be made for any of them, but I agree with you and for me it’s Daniel Day Lewis. He disappears into his role, is never boring (takes great acting risks in his choices), and always seems authentic.


  4. Denzel is the best of bunch with jack as 2nd. I am surpised tom cruise tom hanks gene hackman dustin hoffman robert duvall and michael caine where not on the ;ist


  5. out of all the actors in the article jack nicholson was only one who had real box office clout back in 1996. the rest where respected actors


  6. Agree with the comment about DiCaprio being better than Depp. Today he would be number one in my view. The comment about him only playing himself only makes sense if you think he is a schizophrenia. All his characters are different.


    • The problem I have with all these so called chameleon actors is that it’s nothing to do with the acting. Laurence Olivia used a different nose in every performance. He would say that when he saw himself in make up he didn’t recognise himself. Most of these chameleon actors if you look close have different noses, check implants, teeth, wigs, ears etc in every part they play. That’s not acting. Yet people go overboard claiming that somehow this is a sublime talent of the actor himself.

      Take Tom Hardy, a good actor, but seriesly overhyped. In the Revenant he is credited for transforming and becoming the part. The guy had a false nose, false teeth, false scars, a bold cap and muck smeared over his face. If I did that I would become unrecognisable. That does not make me a great actor. Credit should go to make up and costume and hair. Not the actor. The only thing Hardy did was add an artificial voice and bend slightly. That was easy as he had weights added to his back to remind him. Again where is the acting.

      Acting is about emotional range. It’s the ability to create a different character internally, not relieving on the external changes of make up, prosphetics, hair, costume and props. Many times I have seen an actor who looks completly different on screen but then as you watch you descover that beneth the external changes they are still playing the same emotions as before. It’s like celebrating the trumpet player in a brass band because he has been involved in so many different songs but when you take away the other instruments playing you realise that the trumpet player is still playing the same 3 notes. You just haven’t noticed before because it’s been camouflaged by the rest of the band. Other actors simply memorise a few traits, a walk, a voice etc. And it often strikes me as artificial. Yes it’s a completly different person and no, I don’t believe in that person.

      For me the great thing about DiCaprio is that he has real range. He can do comedy, pathos, romance, drama. He plays characters as diverse as in Gilbert Grape, Catch Me If You Can, This Boys Life, Blood Diamond, Revolutinary Road, Django Unchained, Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island, Gatsby, Revenant, etc. That’s real range. That’s becoming the part internally and letting it out. There is something in his performances that is real, lived in, believable and raw. Nothing false. With the so called chameleon actors I can always sense something artificial. I can not detect anything genuine or real in the performance. With DiCaprio I can sense layers, I can believe that this person is real, that he had a life leading up to the events of the movie.


      • That’s interesting, Steven, because I tend to just see DiCaprio each time. He has decent emotional range, as you suggest, but to my eyes the depth of character and spark that appears with actors such as Donald Sutherland or Robert Duvall and the sheer virtuosity of an actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Daniel Day-Lewis always keep me riveted and can actually break my heart as I watch. I don’t dislike DiCaprio as an actor at all. He’s pretty good overall. But he’s never personally elicited those kinds of responses in me during any movie.

        You should keep in mind that sometimes actors come to their projects with the ideas for their makeup or costumes already conceptualized to a degree. A famous example is Marlon Brando’s stunning audition for The Godfather in which he rigged the character’s bulldog-like visage by stuffing his cheeks with cotton. The idea is king. I have personally gone to costumers with my own ideas for a character’s look that had never occurred to them at all. That doesn’t mean that the technical people didn’t do great work, but it does mean that you shouldn’t automatically assume that the actor had nothing to do with the design of his character. That would be weird in many cases.


        • I guess it’s a matter of personal taste. Form me Daniel Day Lewis is seriesly overated in that regard. He did nothing for me in Lincoln and I thought he overated in Gangs of New York. I simply didn’t buy him in those roles. (He was however amazing in My Left Foot and In The Name of the father) As they say film is subjective, as is any art forms. I see more depth in DiCaprio and I never see DiCaprio in the role. As Lincoln I was aware that I was watching Daniel Day Lewis. I didn’t mean to suggest that the actor had nothing to do with the make up at all. My point is that make up has nothing to do with the talent of acting and emotional depth or range. In any case each to their own.


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