This is getting hard. I wanted to leave room for James Stewart and George C. Scott. I wanted at least one Nicholson or Pacino. I toyed with the idea of leaving spots empty for all the actors I no doubt forgot. But, lists must be made, and so here are my 10 nominees for the greatest performance by a lead actor (OF ALL TIME!).
Humphrey Bogart (In a Lonely Place): We all know Bogart could be cool (Spade and Marlowe). We all know he could be weak and disturbed (Fred C. Dobbs and Captain Queeg). But as Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray's underrated gem, he is both, and then some. Extra points for playing a violent screenwriter.
Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York): One day, and it may not be long, Mr. Day-Lewis may be considered the greatest actor in the history of film. He is certainly building the resume for it. As Bill "The Butcher" Cutting in Gangs of New York, he may be too good, because he blows his co-star/rival Leonardo DeCaprio out of the water, so that you can't possibly believe their final show-down would really last more than about 10 seconds. He is what holds together a hugely flawed, yet very entertaining movie.
Robert DeNiro (Taxi Driver/Raging Bull): Following in the method footsteps of Dean and Brando, DeNiro continued the evolution of American acting. These are the two powerhouse performances, but there are many others. Late in his career, he began doing comedy and revealed another aspect of his formidable skills.
Cary Grant (His Girl Friday): He never stopped doing comedy, though there was no kind of role he could not play. Howard Hawks had the idea to change the Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur play The Front Page into a battle of the sexes. He was smart enough to get Charles Lederer to write the supremely witty adaptation. And he was even smarter to get Grant to play Walter Burns, the fastest talking newspaper man the world has ever seen.
Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie): Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis were very successful playing two men in drag in Some Like It Hot. But they were clearly men in drag. Robin Williams was very funny as Mrs. Doubtfire, but he was also a wee bit scary. Hoffman nails both Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels. And that's the non-sexual meaning of "nails."
Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry VIII): Laughton may have given more great performances than any actor in the history of film. His extravagant Henry never manages to stray too far over the top to make us lose interest and the comic highlights are glorious. Just watching him eat is a treat. Seeing him lose at cards to real-life wife/companion Elsa Lanchester... well, that is sublime.
Anthony Perkins (Pyscho): Though he had a long career with many worthwhile parts, it was hard to cast Perkins. He was too quirky and skinny and edgy to be a big-time leading man. But Norman Bates was supposed to be quirky and skinny and edgy, and Perkins made him into the most endearing villain we have ever seen. (This spot could just as easily have gone to Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, but Hopkins only wore a dead man's face as a mask while Perkins did the entire dead mother get-up.)
Takashi Shimura (Ikiru): Most Western audiences only know Akira Kurusawa from his samurai pictures. But he made contemporary Japanese dramas as well, and several are excellent. Shimura could play the hell out of a samurai (two years later, he was Shimada, the samurai leader in Seven Samurai). He could also play the hell out of a terminally ill government paper pusher who desperately wants to build a children's park before he dies. It is among the most poignant performances in film, and never once becomes cloying or sentimental.
Ralph Richardson (The Fallen Idol): While we are on the subject of potentially cloying sentiment, how's this for a premise: A young boy worships the family butler. When the butler comes under suspicion of murder, his primary concern becomes protecting the boy's psyche. The boy, fortunately, was quite good. And Richardson, as the butler, did exactly what Shimura accomplished as mentioned above. (This spot could just as easily have gone to Anthony Hopkins as James Stevens, butler supreme in Remains of the Day, but in the end, alliteration won out.)
Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Conformist): If you have seen Amour, go back and watch The Conformist and marvel at Trintignant's range and stamina. It is a role that at times seems almost static, yet has remarkable nuance in posture and expression. Clearly, the opportunist Clerici is the most intriguing petty fascist we have seen on film (at least until Anthony Hopkins plays one).
This year's actual Oscars are getting in the way this week, but that won't stop me from opining and pontificating on the all-time actresses next week.