The Top 25 Leading Performances Of All Time

by Walter Frith | created - 13 Jan 2011 | updated - 22 Mar 2011 | Public

This is a not a gender specific list but a mixed one encompassing the top male and female performances of all time in my humble opinion.

1. Vivien Leigh

Actress | A Streetcar Named Desire

If a film were made of the life of Vivien Leigh, it would open in India just before World War I, where a successful British businessman could live like a prince. In the mountains above Calcutta, a little princess is born. Because of the outbreak of World War I, she is six years old the first time ...

For her performance as Scarlett O'Hara in 'Gone With the Wind' (1939). Leigh died young at 53, but she gave the world the ultimate screen heroine who thrives in a pre-war and post war environment and maintains her selfish interior and feminine exterior in order to survive. Still the top grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation.

2. George C. Scott

Actor | Patton

George C. Scott was an immensely talented actor, a star of screen, stage and television. He was born on October 18, 1927 in Wise, Virginia, to Helena Agnes (Slemp) and George Dewey Scott. At the age of eight, his mother died, and his father, an executive at Buick, raised him. In 1945, he joined the...

For his performance as General George S. Patton in 'Patton' (1970). It's the best war biography of all time.

3. Marlon Brando

Actor | Apocalypse Now

Marlon Brando is widely considered the greatest movie actor of all time, rivaled only by the more theatrically oriented Laurence Olivier in terms of esteem. Unlike Olivier, who preferred the stage to the screen, Brando concentrated his talents on movies after bidding the Broadway stage adieu in ...

For his performance as Stanley Kowalski in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' (1951). One of the first great performances of the method actor and who was robbed of an Oscar because the winner that year got one for a "body of work".

4. Peter Sellers

Actor | Being There

Often credited as the greatest comedian of all time, Peter Sellers was born to a well-off English acting family in 1925. His mother and father worked in an acting company run by his grandmother. As a child, Sellers was spoiled, as his parents' first child had died at birth. He enlisted in the Royal...

For his performances as a U.S. President, a British military officer and a mad German scientist in 'Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb' (1964). A little known fact about this film is that director Stanley Kubrick asked Sellers to play a fourth part in the film as the Major aboard a B-52 bomber. The part went to Slim Pickens after Sellers told Kubrick it would be too much to handle.

5. Ben Kingsley

Actor | Gandhi

Ben Kingsley was born Krishna Bhanji on December 31, 1943 in Scarborough, Yorkshire, England. His father, Rahimtulla Harji Bhanji, was a Kenyan-born medical doctor, of Gujarati Indian descent, and his mother, Anna Lyna Mary (Goodman), was an English actress. Ben began to act in stage plays during ...

For his performance as Mahatma Gandhi in 'Gandhi' (1982). His performance stirred the conscience of film goers and those with any soul whatsoever.

6. Daniel Day-Lewis

Actor | There Will Be Blood

Born in London, England, Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis is the second child of Nicholas Blake, Poet Laureate of the U.K., and his second wife, actress Jill Balcon. His maternal grandfather was Sir Michael Balcon, an important figure in the history of British cinema and head of the famous Ealing ...

For his performance as Christy Brown in 'My Left Foot' (1989). His unsympathetic performance as a man with cerebral palsy was a welcome change to characters with a physical handicap that the movies made us feel sorry for.

7. Laurence Olivier

Actor | Rebecca

Laurence Olivier could speak William Shakespeare's lines as naturally as if he were "actually thinking them", said English playwright Charles Bennett, who met Olivier in 1927.

Laurence Kerr Olivier was born in Dorking, Surrey, England, to Agnes Louise (Crookenden) and Gerard Kerr Olivier, a High ...

For his performance in 'Hamlet' (1948). The doomed prince of Denmark.

8. Al Pacino

Actor | Serpico

One of the greatest actors in all of film history, Al Pacino established himself during one of film's greatest decades, the 1970s, and has become an enduring and iconic figure in the world of American movies.

Alfredo James Pacino was born on April 25, 1940, in the Bronx, New York, to an ...

For his performance as Sonny Wortzik in 'Dog Day Afternoon' (1975). Pacino carries the entire film on his back in what is perhaps the best anti-hero performance in modern cinema.

9. Marlon Brando

Actor | Apocalypse Now

Marlon Brando is widely considered the greatest movie actor of all time, rivaled only by the more theatrically oriented Laurence Olivier in terms of esteem. Unlike Olivier, who preferred the stage to the screen, Brando concentrated his talents on movies after bidding the Broadway stage adieu in ...

For his performance as Terry Malloy in 'On the Waterfront' (1954). The scene in the back of the taxi with Rod Steiger playing the part of his brother is one of the greatest acting scenes in movie history.

10. Peter O'Toole

Actor | Lawrence of Arabia

A leading man of prodigious talents, Peter O'Toole was raised in Leeds, Yorkshire, England, the son of Constance Jane Eliot (Ferguson), a Scottish nurse, and Patrick Joseph O'Toole, an Irish metal plater, football player and racecourse bookmaker. Upon leaving school, he decided to become a ...

for his performance as T.E. Lawrence in 'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962). This is the most smashing and impressive debut performance in movie history.

11. Gregory Peck

Actor | To Kill a Mockingbird

Eldred Gregory Peck was born on April 5, 1916 in La Jolla, California, to Bernice Mary (Ayres) and Gregory Pearl Peck, a chemist and druggist in San Diego. He had Irish (from his paternal grandmother), English, and some German, ancestry. His parents divorced when he was five years old. An only ...

For his performance as Atticus Finch in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1962). This performance speaks for itself. No words are necessary.

12. Robert De Niro

Actor | Cape Fear

One of the greatest actors of all time, Robert De Niro was born on August 17, 1943 in Manhattan, New York City, to artists Virginia (Admiral) and Robert De Niro Sr. His paternal grandfather was of Italian descent, and his other ancestry is English, Dutch, German, French and Irish. He was trained at...

For his performance as Travis Bickle in 'Taxi Driver' (1976). This character's social isolation in the big city is truly frightening to watch. He believes he is doing the right thing all along and it is a thoroughly convincing performance and De Niro loses himself in this performace better than any other he has ever given and IS the character.

13. Katharine Hepburn

Actress | The Lion in Winter

Born May 12, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut, she was the daughter of a doctor and a suffragette, both of whom always encouraged her to speak her mind, develop it fully, and exercise her body to its full potential. An athletic tomboy as a child, she was also very close to her brother, Tom, and was ...

For her performance as Ethel Thayer in 'On Golden Pond' (1981). Ms. Hepburn is considered by many as the greatest actress of all time and as late in her career as this performance was, she had the right stuff of the actress she was 40 to 50 years before that and redefined the word resilient. She won her 4th leading Oscar for this. Still a record.

14. Jack Nicholson

Actor | Chinatown

Jack Nicholson, an American actor, producer, director and screenwriter, is a three-time Academy Award winner and twelve-time nominee. Nicholson is also notable for being one of two actors - the other being Michael Caine - who have received Oscar nomination in every decade from the 1960s through the...

For his performance as private eye J.J. Gittes in 'Chinatown' (1974). This is Nicholson's most clever performance. He has a mostly calm demeanor throughout it and a constant understanding of how to execute the character's intelligent style of investigation.

15. Dustin Hoffman

Actor | Rain Man

Dustin Lee Hoffman was born in Los Angeles, California, to Lillian (Gold) and Harry Hoffman, who was a furniture salesman and prop supervisor for Columbia Pictures. He was raised in a Jewish family (from Ukraine, Russia-Poland, and Romania). Hoffman graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1955, ...

For his performance as Michael Dorsey in 'Tootsie' (1982). This is Hoffman's best performance, hands down. He even fooled those close to him dressing up as a woman in preparation for this role.

16. James Stewart

Actor | Vertigo

James Maitland Stewart was born on May 20, 1908 in Indiana, Pennsylvania, to Elizabeth Ruth (Johnson) and Alexander Maitland Stewart, who owned a hardware store. He was of Scottish, Ulster-Scots, and some English, descent. Stewart was educated at a local prep school, Mercersburg Academy, where he ...

For his performance as John 'Scottie' Ferguson in 'Vertigo' (1958). This is considered the best performance ever given by an actor that wasn't nominated for an Academy Award. A truly magnificent performance about a man finding his hidden strength.

17. Paul Newman

Actor | The Hustler

Screen legend, superstar, and the man with the most famous blue eyes in movie history, Paul Leonard Newman was born on January 26, 1925, in Cleveland, Ohio, the second son of Theresa (Fetsko) and Arthur Sigmund Newman. Paul's father was Jewish, the son of emigrants from Poland and Hungary; he owned...

For his performance as Fast Eddie Felson in 'The Hustler' (1961). His performance is thoroughly convincing as a man who struggles to gain the respect of others and the respect he lacked for himself.

18. Marlon Brando

Actor | Apocalypse Now

Marlon Brando is widely considered the greatest movie actor of all time, rivaled only by the more theatrically oriented Laurence Olivier in terms of esteem. Unlike Olivier, who preferred the stage to the screen, Brando concentrated his talents on movies after bidding the Broadway stage adieu in ...

For his performance as Don Vito Corleone in 'The Godfather' (1972). Brando excels in a role that he created from scratch and few inventions of a character have been more multi-layered than this one. His character's speech, gestures and expressions are the stuff of what might be the greatest leading iconic character in movie history.

19. F. Murray Abraham

Actor | The Grand Budapest Hotel

Academy Award-winning actor F. Murray Abraham was born on October 24, 1939 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and raised in El Paso, Texas. His father, Frederick Abraham was from an Assyrian Christian (Antiochian) family, from Syria. His mother, Josephine (Stello) Abraham, was the daughter of Italian ...

For his performance as Antonio Salieri in 'Amadeus' (1984). A large part of his character's performance in the film is spent talking to a priest in one room and telling a story from past to present. It shows a man's tortured soul that you feel sympathy for even though you really shouldn't.

20. Alec Guinness

Actor | Star Wars

Alec Guinness was an English actor. He is known for his six collaborations with David Lean: Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (1946), Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948), Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor), Prince Faisal in Lawrence ...

For his performance as Col. Nicholson in 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' (1957). Guinness played very close to himself in this role and let one of the seven deadly sins, pride, get the better of his tragic character.

21. Sidney Poitier

Actor | In the Heat of the Night

A native of Cat Island, The Bahamas (though born in Miami during a mainland visit by his parents), Poitier grew up in poverty as the son of farmers Evelyn (Outten) and Reginald James Poitier, who also drove a cab. He had little formal education and at the age of 15 was sent to Miami to live with ...

For his performance as Virgil Tibbs in 'In the Heat of the Night' (1967). As a police forensics officer from Philadelphia, he is forced to work with a bigoted sheriff and his staff in a small southern town. Poitier's character shows remarkable dignity and self worth as he works to a successful conclusion while battling the ugly face of racism.

22. Audrey Hepburn

Actress | Breakfast at Tiffany's

Audrey Hepburn was born on May 4, 1929 in Ixelles, Brussels, Belgium. She was a blue-blood and a cosmopolitan from birth. Her mother, Baroness Ella Van Heemstra, was of a Dutch descent, and her father, Joseph Victor Anthony Hepburn-Ruston, was born in Úzice, Bohemia, and of an English and Austrian ...

For her performance as Princess Ann in 'Roman Holiday' (1953). A performance about the splendor of youth as a young princess gets to experience a taste of the real world.

23. Joan Crawford

Actress | What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23, 1905, in San Antonio, Texas, to Anna Belle (Johnson) and Thomas E. LeSueur, a laundry laborer. By the time she was born, her parents had separated, and by the time she was a teenager, she'd had three stepfathers. It wasn't an easy life; ...

For her performance as Mildred Pierce Beragnon in 'Mildred Pierce' (1945).

24. Jack Lemmon

Actor | The Apartment

Jack Lemmon was born in Newton, Massachusetts, to Mildred Burgess LaRue (Noel) and John Uhler Lemmon, Jr., the president of a doughnut company. His ancestry included Irish (from his paternal grandmother) and English. Jack attended Ward Elementary near his Newton, MA home. At age 9 he was sent to ...

For his performance as C.C. Baxter in 'The Apartment' (1960). His portrayal of a working class hero trying to get to the top of the ladder at work might be the performance that more people can relate to than any other I have ever seen.

25. Gloria Swanson

Actress | Sunset Blvd.

Gloria Swanson went to public schools in Chicago; Key West, Florida; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her film debut was as an extra in The Fable of Elvira and Farina and the Meal Ticket (1915). From the following year on, she had leading roles in pictures for Keystone, then a year with Triangle, and, in...

For her performance as Norman Desmond in 'Sunset Boulevard' (1950). This is one of the few "over the top" performances in movie history that works as an aging star of the silent film era sees her career and life fade with each passing year with the invention of the talking film, eventually driving her to insanity.