Each year the Academy faces the challenge of selecting the very best performances of the previous year. Imagine the plight of Oscar voters in a year like 1987 when Michael Douglas’ performance as a ruthless financial shark in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” won the best actor nod and Marcello Mastroianni’s bittersweet, complex performance as an aging roue in Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Dark Eyes” lost.
Or digging back further into Oscar’s illustrious past, try choosing between Bette Davis in 1950’s “All About Eve” and Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.” Perhaps that’s why the nod that year went to Judy Holliday’s comic brilliance in “Born Yesterday.”
If it weren’t tough enough to pick the best out of one year of noteworthy screen work, Variety presented an even greater challenge to a selected group of industry insiders who between them had netted beaucoup Oscar noms and asked them to celebrate the best of the best: the top Oscar-winning performances of all time.
To help us in this daunting task we asked several of filmdom’s top actors, actresses, directors, writers and producers to tell us which winning performances stand out for them, and why.
For these pros, the following players’ great screen roles stood the test of time:
Robert De Niro, “Raging Bull” (1980)
Robert De Niro’s brutal portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta was several respondents’ choice for the all-time top performance by an actor. Producer Marvin Worth, who netted a best pic nom for “Lenny” in 1974, says, “He took the part to an unbelievable level. It was almost psychotic to get that far out.”
“It was just the best film of its decade,” says director Richard Linklater (“Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused”).
Marlon Brando,”On the Waterfront” (1954)
Actors Brian Dennehy and David Paymer (“Quiz Show”) say Brando’s performance was one of the reasons they became actors. Ed Pressman, producer of “Reversal of Fortune” and “Wall Street,” which both took best actor awards, describes Brando’s stint as “the paradigm acting performance.”
Fredric March,”Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1932)
Writer/director Steven de Souza says Marsh’s dual performance is his all-time favorite. “You saw hints of the beast in Jekyll and hints of the gentleman in Hyde,” he notes.
“Besides being a phenomenal, multifaceted performance,” says de Souza, “he was the only actor to win for a role in horror or science fiction.” De Souza recently wrote and directed the Universal/Columbia co-release” Street Fighter.”
John Wayne, “True Grit” (1969)
Actor Brian Dennehy singled out Wayne’s role as the one-eyed marshal hired by Kim Darby to avenge the death of her father. “I still marvel at the subtlety of the performance, especially considering the power of Wayne’s personality,” says Dennehy, who co-stars in the upcoming “The Stars Fell on Henrietta” with Robert Duvall.
Ernest Borgnine, “Marty” (1955)
Veteran director/producer Howard W. Koch picks Borgnine’s portrayal of the Bronx butcher with the face of a bulldog and a heart of gold in the Paddy Chayefsky-scripted romance. “You really felt for him,” says Koch, “this homely character who never had a date. As with a lot of people, his beauty shines through as you get to know him. In this world, if you’re not good looking you’re not much; people put too much emphasis on appearances.” In addition to his countless feature films, Koch was the producer of eight Oscar ceremonies.
Vivien Leigh, “Gone with the Wind” (1939)
Director Martha Coolidge picks Leigh’s Scarlett in the Civil War classic for “the range and depth of the performance both technically and emotionally.” She adds, “She is one of the great sympathetic-but not sweet-women in the history of the cinema, a real character.” Coolidge directed “Rambling Rose,” for which Laura Dern received an Oscar nomination.
Anne Bancroft, “The Miracle Worker” (1962)
Bancroft’s characterization of Helen Keller’s mentor, Annie Sullivan, inspired Lindsay Crouse. “It is one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen,” says the actress. “The way she was able to inhabit the character-a woman who was quite tough-with such passion, rung tears from me. I admired her lack of vanity and the great taste and simplicity with which she gave herself over to the part.” Crouse was nominated for her supporting role in 1984’s “Places in the Heart”
Julie Christie, “Darling” (1965)
Several people we spoke with picked Christie’s portrayal of the man-eating model in John Schlesinger’s swinging ‘ 60s drama. “It was a glimpse of the real world, ” says Ed Pressman, “Sexy, sophisticated, exciting. She was an idol to me, a real heartthrob. She was also of a new generation, a shift in the wind, the way Brando was in his time.”
Jodie Foster, “Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
Foster’s second Oscar-winning role, as the tough-but-vulnerable FBI agent, was actor-writer-director Rusty Cundieff’s first choice. “It’s just a great performance, ” says Cundieff, the writer-director of “Fear of a Black Hat.” “And it’s a strong woman’s role, as opposed to an actress playing a sidekick to a man. It could as easily have been a man’s part, though you would have lost some of the sexual tension between her and Anthony Hopkins.”
Greer Garson, “Mrs. Miniver” (1942)
Writer/director J.F. Lawton sites Garson’s “warmth and strength” as the mother of a British family in the midst of the London Blitz. “It’s not an obvious role, not a lot of scenery chewing, ” says the “Pretty Woman” and “Under Siege” screen scribe. “It’s all about subtlety. She transforms herself from a superficial woman who loves to shop into the strength and backbone of the family-and of the country, in a way.”
Jack Nicholson, “Terms of Endearment” (1983)
Nicholson’s role as Shirley MacLaine’s boyfriend in the 1983 James L. Brooks tearjerker is producer Marvin Worth’s pick for best supporting actor. “It was so real, ” he says, “the way he went from laughter to tears to abusive to charming without being mannered in the wrong ways. Of course, Jack’s always a little over the top.”
“He wasn’t afraid to let it all hang out,” adds Jennifer Tilly, currently on several “best of ‘ 94” lists for her role in “Bullets Over Broadway.” “Some actors might have tried to soften the character to make him smaller. He went all the way with it.”
Joe Pesci, “GoodFellas” (1990)
Actor David Paymer describes Pesci’s portrayal of the sociopathic hood in Martin Scorsese’s mob flick as “just phenomenal.” He cites Pesci’s “total commitment to the role, his fearlessness, his willingness to take risks at all times.” Paymer himself, nominated as supporting actor in “Mr. Saturday Night” (1992), is set to play supporting roles to three Oscar winners-Al Pacino, Michael Douglas and Gene Hackman – in the coming year.
Walter Huston, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948)
“It’s my favorite movie,” says actor/director Richard Benjamin of John Huston’s film about three impoverished prospectors who strike it rich in Mexico. “I was always crazy about Walter Huston; he’s such a wonderful actor: so real, so unmannered. And he was able to play so many completely different roles over the years.”
Actor Bruce Davison, nominated for his supporting role in “Longtime Companion” (1990), calls Walter Huston “the heart and soul of the movie.”
Christopher Walken, “The Deer Hunter” (1978)
Actor Eric Stoltz singled out Walken as the small-town Pennsylvania kid who becomes a Russian-roulette playing POW in Michael Cimino’s Vietnam War film. “I must’ve seen this film 10 times, and I’m always fascinated and mesmerized by his work. I think Mr. Walken is an American treasure and should be offered every script ever written because he’s so unbelievably talented.”
Harold Russell, “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946)
Though never trained as an actor, the handless veteran was mentioned by both Robert Allan Ackerman and Bruce Davison as the best supporting actor. “There’s such a purity there,” says Davison, “It’s just a very moving performance.”
Eva Marie Saint, “On the Waterfront” (1954)
Saint’s debut performance as the sister of a murdered longshoreman was writer Eric Roth’s favorite in the supporting actress category. “There was something very American about her,” says the “Forrest Gump” scripter, “something very pure and wholesome that made a great contrast to Bran do’s rough character. There’s a lot of dignity, but she’s also very sexy.”
Jessica Lange, “Tootsie” (1982)
Lange’s role as the love interest in Sydney Pollack’s gender-bending comedy was writer/director Eleanor Bergstein’s choice for supporting actress. “You look at this beautiful blonde, this soap opera star, and you assume you know all you need to know about her, ” says the “Dirty Dancing” scribe. “But underneath you find she’s a working single mother with a slight drinking problem who’s struggling to live an independent life. At the same time she’s breaking her heart trying to maintain this image the rest of the world has of her.”
Maggie Smith, “California Suite” (1978)
Jennifer Tilly notes the depth of Smith’s character in the comedy about four sets of guests at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “She comes off brittle and abrasive but she’s soft and vulnerable underneath,” says Tilly. “I also just love smart women who know how to insult people. I cried, and when you can make someone cry doing a Neil Simon script you know you’re a great actress,” adds Tilly.
Dorothy Malone, “Written On the Wind” (1956)
“As a child I was as obsessed with the Oscars as I am now that I vote for them,” says director John Waters. His favorite Oscar-winning role is Malone as Robert Stack’s lustful sister in the Douglas Sirk Texas melodrama. “I’m a big Dorothy Malone fan, I love everything about her,” says the “Serial Mom” helmer. “I first saw the film when I was 10.1 didn’t get all of the irony but I knew there was something special about that movie and I rooted like crazy for her to win.”
Jo Van Fleet, “East of Eden” (1955)
“I saw it as a kid and the performance really frightened me,” says director Robert Allan Ackerman. “I had this recollection of her completely dominating the film. When I saw it recently I realized she was hardly even in it. Her scary evocation of a mother really stays with you, even though she’s probably not on screen for more than 15 minutes.” Ackerman directed two-time Oscar nominee Susan Sarandon in this year’s highly-touted drama “Safe Passage.”