Ray Milland – The Lost Weekend (1945)
A recurring theme you’ll see in this list is a Best Picture winner being accompanied by a Best Actor victory for the the films leading star. It’s a common occurrence in the history of the Academy Awards and one example, maybe the best example, is Ray Milland’s performance in Billy Wilder’s Best Picture winning The Lost Weekend.
Ray Milland’s gut wrenching performance is one of the best of it’s particular decade for many of the same reasons that the film is. Milland’s broken approach to his character is tender, and causes a mix of sympathy and frustration for the troubled soul he’s playing. But it’s never short of impact and much like the film, is an example of grounded storytelling in a time when really Hollywood’s focus was drawn more towards glamour and magic.
Daniel Day Lewis – There Will Be Blood (2007)
2007 was a fantastic year in film, Paul Thomas Anderson and The Coen Brothers gave us two of their best, Paul Greengrass’ Bourne Ultimatum closed off an iconic trilogy and for the most part there was a consistent fluctuation of solid filmmaking. The year was of the same calibre with it’s performances, Marian Cotillard, Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett and especially Viggo Mortensen all gave some of the best work of their career. But it was the legendary Daniel Day-Lewis who stunned once again with his visceral performance as Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
While Day-Lewis is no stranger to villains, playing the violent Bill Cutting in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) just five years earlier, his aggressively power hungry performance in There Will Be Blood is the epitome of pure evil. What really makes the character despicable though, is how much he can resonate with the audience and in turn, be so human. This kind of character work can only be delivered by one of the finest actors of all time, and by a director at the top of his game. It wouldn’t be an Oscar list without Daniel Day-Lewis, and Daniel Plainview is definitely one of the actors greatest accomplishments.
George C. Scott – Patton (1970)
While 2007 was one of the better years in film, 1970 finds itself on the other end of the spectrum, being one of the most disappointing. It had the ever nostalgic Aristocats, Robert Altman’s unique war comedy M*A*S*H, and Bob Rafelson’s stunning anti-narrative Five Easy Pieces. Other than that it was a relatively quiet year making the Academy Awards a much more difficult one. The one thing to take from 1970 though, is George C. Scott’s powerful performance as General Patton, a controversial leader of men and his time in World War II.
Patton, as a film, is a prime example of a performance elevating the entire film and essentially carrying it, and despite winning Best Picture it should be George C. Scott’s commanding performance that should stick in the mind. Scott’s presence alone on screen is so distinguished, and dominating each scene with vigour and charisma speaks volumes about the actors skill. A good actor can dominate scenes, but a great actor dominates with purpose while capturing the essence of their character, and that’s exactly what George C. Scott does.
Robert De Niro – Raging Bull (1980)
Although Raging Bull lost the major award of the night to Robert Redford’s tender relationship drama Ordinary People, it can rejoice in that fact that it’s leading man won Best Actor. Not only that but it’s the first and only instance where the legendary Scorsese/De Niro collaboration has lead to such success. While the film itself is one of Scorsese’s best, it’s also a career highlight for one of the greatest, and most decorated actors of all time.
Jake La Motta is by no means a hero, and De Niro plays the role with aggression but most importantly, he tears apart the character and finds qualities in his refusal to quit, humanising the character in the process. Along with John Hurt, who was nominated in the same year for The Elephant Man, Robert De Niro’s performance will mostly be remembered for the commitment to the role and physical change. While this is an important part, it can never be understated the emotionality and underlying self consciousness he captures effortlessly.
Anthony Hopkins – Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Silence of the Lambs made history at the 1992 Academy Awards, joining It Happened One Night (1934) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), by becoming the third film to win the ‘big five’. While all the awards won are completely deserved, it’s Anthony Hopkins’ chilling performance that will forever standout as the birth of the iconic character Hannibal Lecter. Despite being nominated against worthy opponents, there was no one else that could possibly win, and rightly so Anthony Hopkins walked away with the award.
Hopkins packs more into a 16 minute performance than most actors dream of in an entire film length, and while usually such a short time on screen shouldn’t even merit a nomination, to this day there hasn’t been a performance quite like it. As soon as the character is introduced and his dead eyes linger into the camera, you can already tell that Hopkins has tapped into something severely special and unexpected. If you need proof of what kind of impact the performance had, watch Anthony Hopkins accepting his award and the thunderous applause of admiration from his peers.
Casey Affleck – Manchester By the Sea (2016)
The most recent win on the list, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea was an actors dream. Being a film that’s shining star is the script, it’s important to balance the particular personality of Lonergan’s dialogue with the emotional levity that the performance demands, something that Casey Affleck gets down to a tee.
What Affleck brings to the performance is what’s under the surface. While he plays it as deadpan, it’s his ability to capture the inner demons of Lee Chandler that really make the performance one of the best in a long time. Not just that, but along with the script, Casey Affleck harnesses each scene and even allows himself to use his character for humour. If there was a particular scene to pick out for his performance, watch the aftermath scene taking place in the police station, a heavy sequence that doesn’t just demand tears but confusion, anger, and numerous other emotions that Casey Affleck absolutely nails from beginning to end.
Ernest Borgnine – Marty (1955)
Not only does Marty have the distinction of being the first American film to win Best Picture and the Palme D’Or, but it shows a real change in Hollywood. In a time that epitomises escapism through Musicals and Westerns, the world was shocked to see a small drama about class and relationships win so big. Marty is such a loveable piece of cinema that can thank it’s warmness and whole-hearted tone to it’s two leading stars, especially Ernest Borgnine, who along with the film managed to walk away with gold at the Academy Awards.
Borgnine is a face that seems to span so many years of cinema, he’s cropped up in so much over the years it almost makes it impossible to not know his face. But one of his only leading roles comes from Marty, as he plays a loveable brute, of whom the film’s title is named after, and he does so with such understanding. His whole approach to his character is so encompassing of what it means to be working class, self-hated and most importantly a hopeless romantic. This is not a commanding performance, nor one that relies on charisma, but what the role of Marty is, is the personification of everything Marty as a film stands for, and it cannot be understated enough how well Borgnine captures it.