Bradley Cooper has skyrocketed to stardom in the last 20 years since making his film debut in David Wain’s cult classic, “Wet Hot American Summer” (2001).
Cooper got his Hollywood bearings in comedies like “Wedding Crashers” (2005), as the jerk boyfriend Sack in the Golden Globe winner for best comedy, and “The Hangover” (2009), as the Wolfpack leader Phil.
After making a stop in the action genre with “Limitless” (2011), it was the one-two punch the following year with Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines” and David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” that clued everyone in on what he could achieve in more substantive, challenging projects. In “Pines,” Cooper stands out in the three-linear narrative structure as ambitious police officer Avery, who takes on a corrupt department and has a troubled son. In “Playbook,” he plays Pat, a man with bipolar disorder who tries to navigate moving back in with his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver) following his release from a psychiatric hospital. The film was not just a financial success, grossing more than $235 million worldwide, but garnered rave reviews from critics. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best actor for Cooper. He and Russell re-teamed the following year for the dramedy “American Hustle,” and Cooper nabbed another Oscar nom for supporting actor.
After executive producing many of his films, he finally received his P.G.A. mark for Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” (2014), the true story of Chris Kyle, who became the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history. The film was a box-office smash and became the year’s highest-grossing film domestically, edging out “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the latter of which Cooper voiced the wise-cracking Rocket Raccoon. For his turn as Kyle, Cooper received two Oscar noms for best picture and actor, which he would also repeat with his directorial debut “A Star is Born” (2018), the fourth remake of the classic story. He sits alongside Warren Beatty (4) and Eastwood (2) as the only filmmakers to have achieved this feat more than once. In addition, he raised his Oscar nominations count as one of the producers for Todd Phillips’ “Joker” (2019).
He could add more noms to his tally with two projects this year. He’s one of the producers on “Nightmare Alley” from Guillermo del Toro, in which he also stars. The other is in his brief but memorable role as Jon Peters in “Licorice Pizza” by Paul Thomas Anderson. Check out the Oscar predictions to see where he and his films rank.
To celebrate his birthday, Variety is ranking the 10 best performances of his career.
Honorable mentions: “Burnt” (2015), “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014), “Limitless” (2011)
Role: Neil Walker
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Annie Mumolo, David O. Russell
The scene that proves it: “I decide what products we let into our stores here.”
In a small but effective role in one of David O. Russell’s post-Oscar misfires, Cooper is almost reminiscent of someone like Dallas Roberts in “Walk the Line,” making an indelible impression, even long after the credits roll. Re-teaming with his co-star Jennifer Lawrence, he makes the most of his time here.
Wedding Crashers (2005)
Role: Sack Lodge
Distributed by: New Line Cinema
Directed by: David Dobkin
Written by: Steve Faber, Bob Fisher
The scene that proves it: Acting like a seal
Cooper rides the line of the “everyman” role that made actors like Tom Hanks so effective and being “too good-looking to attain,” like Brad Pitt in his prime. His outing as the villainous douchebag boyfriend to Rachel McAdams in the 2005 hit comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson swerves through all the a-typical go-tos for these types of roles.
The Hangover (2009)
Distributed by: Warner Bros
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore
The scene that proves it: “Who brought this guy?”
We underestimate the power of comedies and what they can offer our acting landscape. While people may scoff at his outings in “The Hangover” franchise, Cooper was the glue that made the dynamic trio that included Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis work so well. Sequels aside, his inaugural outing was a movie star performance. A small notice of that is right after the infamous group shot walking down the hotel hallway. The way Cooper turns after hitting the elevator button was one of those eye-opening moments that you knew you had just witnessed the birth of a Hollywood sensation.
American Hustle (2013)
Role: Richie DiMaso
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
The scene that proves it: Messing up Irving’s hair
A high-strung but contained role, Cooper’s second Oscar-nominated performance may get lost in some of the film’s narrative abandonment, but his focus and dedication to the swarmy FBI agent who goes rogue brings out the best of his bombastic all-star cast.
Licorice Pizza (2021)
Role: Jon Peters
Distributed by: MGM/United Artists Releasing
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
The scene that proves it: “Do you know who my girlfriend is?”
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age story that harnesses the debut powers of Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, Bradley Cooper’s role is brief, with only about seven minutes of screen time. But my god, does he steal the movie as Jon Peters, the ex-boyfriend of Barbra Streisand. It’s a performance that’s had many calling his work worthy of a nomination (even a win). Only four actors have won with roles under 10 minutes in Oscar history — Gloria Grahame in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), Ben Johnson in “The Last Picture Show” (1971), Beatrice Straight in “Network” (1976) and Judi Dench in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998). So it’s a high hurdle to clear.
The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)
Distributed by: Focus Features
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Written by: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
The scene that proves it: “I have a hard time looking at my son.”
Derek Cianfrance has beauty with words and film structures, something we take for granted. When Cooper teamed up with him, alongside Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes and Emory Cohen for the 15-year journey of a haunted police officer, he showed his natural purity as a performer, unafraid to face the demon that’s inside all of us.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Role: Patrizio “Pat” Solitano
Distributed by: The Weinstein Company
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: David O. Russell
The scene that proves it: “I want my wedding video.”
Cooper’s role can be looked upon as the transitional performance from movie star to one of our most respected actors. He balances his chuckles with an earnest sensitivity, never going over-the-top or playing into the tropes of mental health that can often be exaggerated. While he never had a shot against eventual best actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”), he sits proudly among one of the great acting lineups of the decade that included Hugh Jackman (“Les Misérables”), Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master”) and Denzel Washington (“Flight”).
American Sniper (2014)
Role: Chris Kyle
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by: Jason Hall
The scene that proves it: Meeting Taya
Clint Eastwood’s ode to a military hero has more than a few issues, including on-the-nose dialogue or the inability to hide a fake baby in a dramatic scene. However, Cooper transcends all of that and delivers a purely heart-wrenching interpretation of a complex man who deserves all our adoration and respect. The blockbuster was the highest-grossing film domestically of 2014 and earned him two Oscar nominations for best actor and best picture, something megastars like Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) and Brad Pitt (“Moneyball”) have also achieved.
Nightmare Alley (2021)
Role: Stanton Carlisle
Distributed by: Searchlight Pictures
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan
The scene that proves it: “Mister, I was born for it.” and “I’m bad.”
Cooper slithers into the role of a carny that manipulates all those around him without an effortless drive in Guillermo del Toro’s noir thriller. His chemistry with a flawless Cate Blanchett and beautiful interactions with Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins and David Strathairn only add to his impact. Also a co-producer on the film, he’s utterly worthy of best actor consideration. The 47-year-old’s darkly executed portrayal stands tall as one of the best performances from 2021 and his career.
A Star is Born (2018)
Distributed by: Warner Bros
Directed by: Bradley Cooper
Written by: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters
The scene that proves it: “Maybe It’s Time”
The articulate and visceral interpretation that Bradley Cooper shows in “A Star is Born,” his directorial debut, is off the charts compared to other actors-turned-directors. His immeasurable chemistry with Lady Gaga, who was nominated for two Oscars (best actress and winning for original song), is hard to find in love stories these days. When Cooper was nominated for three Oscars himself (which also had a notable snub for best director), everyone felt that his achievement in the performance realm was worth rewarding. Still, Oscar felt differently, giving the statuette instead to Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”). What makes this performance stand out so much is that even though it’s listed in the top spot of Cooper’s career thus far, you know he has one or two more in him that will top this. Perhaps “Maestro,” his next directorial endeavor as Leonard Bernstein? We’ll see.