If we stuck to the statistics and statuettes, this list would read like a ‘who’s who’ of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Spencer Tracy. Warren Beatty. Burt Lancaster. Gregory Peck. And yet, none of these names appear below. Why? Because the world of acting — of cinema and television — has moved on.
Think about it. Today, modern performers must brave new mediums and platforms; battle against countless other actors and work to an extremely high standard to even break through. Camera technology has also sharpened up, improved to a point where it can capture the smallest smirk or subtlest eyebrow raise. Acting, then, has had to improve alongside it.
So, from Robert De Niro to Viggo Mortensen, many of our best actors of all time are still working today. Below, we’ve tallied their awards, picked their finest moments and explored their acting styles. Take a look…
Robert De Niro
Acting style: De Niro’s a classic method actor. Before he plays a role, he must first go to exceptional, extraordinary lengths to inhabit the character — often anchoring his performance in real life experiences.
Most memorable role: From Raging Bull to Taxi Driver, there are plenty to choose from. But we’d have to single out his visceral, vengeful turn as criminal Max Cady in the 1991 thriller Cape Fear; where De Niro is as physically threatening as he is malicious.
Awards: He’s won two Oscars (one Best Actor, one Best Supporting Actor — and been nominated 7 times for acting). Add to that a Golden Globe win, and a handful of wide-ranging BAFTA and Primetime Emmy nominations.
Acting style: Not only has Bale undergone complete physical transformations for many of his roles, the method actor also allegedly refuses to befriend his co-stars — in case the friendships cause him to laugh on set.
Most memorable role: Though perhaps best known for playing Batman, as well as American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, we’d offer up either 2006’s The Prestige — or Bale’s performance as real-life racing driver Ken Miles in the recent (and underrated) Ford v Ferrari.
Awards: He won an Oscar from his first nomination, for 2011’s The Fighter. Since, he has been nominated another three times. He also won a Golden Globe for 2019’s Vice, and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for 2014’s American Hustle.
Acting style: Brando was perhaps the most famous proponent of the Stanislavski Method; the idea that actors should stimulate emotional experience from the scene itself — rather than recalling experiences from their own lives.
Most memorable role: A Streetcar Named Desire, perhaps. Or The Godfather. But it has to be Brando’s turn as Colonel Walter Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; an education in blending sheer terror with human pain.
Awards: Two Best Actor Oscars (for 1954’s On the Waterfront and 1972’s The Godfather). Three BAFTA awards (the successive years of 1952, 1953 and 1954). And four Golden Globes (including two chosen-by-the-public Henrietta Awards).
Daniel Day Lewis
Acting style: Daniel Day Lewis is probably the most famous method actor in history. In the past, he has learned the Czech language, been bound to a wheelchair, gone to jail and caught pneumonia for the sake of his performances.
Most memorable role: It may not have been one of his three Oscar-winning performances, but our pick would be Day Lewis’ turn as malevolent, moustachioed Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese’s epic crime drama, Gangs of New York.
Awards: Easily the most decorated actor on this list (or off it), Day Lewis has landed a record three Best Actor Oscars, four BAFTAS for Best Actor in a Leading Role, two Golden Globes and three Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Acting style: Olivier was one of the original practitioners of Marlon Brando’s favoured Stanislavski Method. The English actor also incorporated spiritual realism, emotional memory and fierce self-analysis into his work ethic.
Most memorable role: He made a mean Roman senator in Spartacus and directed a trio of incredible cinematic Shakespeare adaptations, but we’d opt for Sleuth — where Olivier plays a mercurial mystery writer opposite a young Michael Caine.
Awards: Nominated for eleven Oscars, Olivier won four during the course of his career — including two honorary awards. Add to that two BAFTA awards, five Emmy awards, three Golden Globes — and even a Tony Award nomination.
Acting style: Nicholson, a man who has embodied many diverse, distinct roles, uses a relaxation technique devised by theatre practitioner Lee Strasberg to get into character. In a nutshell, he puts his body and mind in ‘neutral’, before starting them back up as someone else.
Most memorable role: There are almost too many to choose from. The Shining springs to mind initially, as does Nicholson’s turn as The Joker in Batman. There’s also The Departed, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and A Few Good Men. But we’d go for a more mellow turn; Nicholson’s misanthropic Melvin Udall in 1997 romantic comedy As Good as It Gets.
Awards: Like Daniel Day Lewis, Nicholson has three Oscars (but only two for Best Actor). Add to that three BAFTA awards, seven Golden Globes and even a Grammy (for an audiobook of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’) and you’ve quite the trophy cabinet.
Acting style: Like Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali is an actor who came onto the scene relatively recently — and immediately scooped up two Oscars; one for Moonlight, and the second of Green Book.
Most memorable role: His first major role came in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — but our pick for Ali’s most spell-binding performance would be a decade down the line, when he stepped into the embroidered tunic of Dr. Don Shirley in Green Book.
Awards: Ali’s already got two Best Supporting Actor Oscars tucked under his belt, as well as a BAFTA award, a Golden Globe and a Primetime Emmy. Add to that his three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and he’s well-established as one of the greats.
Acting style: Mortensen is a non-method method actor. His approach changes with every wildly varying role — but his depth and flexibility remain constant. Unlike other method actors, he breaks character between takes.
Most memorable role: Green Book, co-starring Mahershala Ali would be up there. As would A History of Violence, Falling and The Road. We’d have to go for Captain Fantastic, however; Mortensen’s performance a portrait of a man juggling grief and responsibility.
Awards: Although nominated three times for the Best Actor Oscar, Mortensen is yet to lift an Academy Award. But he will. The same goes for BAFTAs and Golden Globes. But, with chops like these, it’s only a matter of time…
Acting style: Aggressively method. Before playing opposite Laurence Olivier in 1976’s Marathon Man, Hoffman allegedly stayed awake for 72 hours straight to correctly portray his character’s tiredness. “My dear boy,” Olivier said to him, “why don’t you just try acting?”
Most memorable role: Despite this ferocious commitment to the art, Hoffman has given us Rain Man, The Graduate, Tootsie, Kramer vs. Kramer and countless other masterpieces. Our favourite? All the President’s Men — if not for Hoffman’s hair alone.
Awards: With seven Oscar nominations to his name, Hoffman has won two Best Actor awards. He’s also bagged six Golden Globes, three BAFTA awards, two Emmy Awards and has been nominated for a Tony.
Acting style: Don’t think Williams makes the cut? Go and watch Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Will Hunting (in that order) — and think again. Williams had unbelievable range, and delivered every character with heart and believability.
Most memorable role: Almost certainly Good Morning, Vietnam. No film showcased the actor’s stunning versatility as well as this 1987 comedy-drama, in which Williams plays real-life Armed Forces Radio Service DJ Adrian Cronauer.
Awards: Williams had been nominated for four Oscars before his untimely death in 2016 — and won one for Good Will Hunting. He also had two Emmy awards, six Golden Globes, five Grammy awards, two MTV awards — and a Kids’ Choice Award. Talk about range.
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