Great Oscar-Winning Performances
The Oscars aren't always given out to the right actors at the right time, but sometimes the Academy nails it. Here are some of the best performances that are still award-worthy.
Vivien Leigh,' A Streetcar Named Desire' (1951)
Leigh's better-known Oscar-winning role might be as tempestuous Scarlett O'Hara, but as Tennessee Williams' fragile Blanche DuBois, she breaks our heart.
Marlon Brando 'On the Waterfront' (1954)
We all know Brando's famous "I shoulda been a contender," speech from this Best Picture Winner. But watch the whole movie: His naive ex-boxer character is uncommonly gentle with his pigeons, distractingly flirtatious with Eva Marie Saint (who also won an Oscar) and tough as nails when facing down mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Brando somehow missed out on an Oscar for "A Streetcar Named Desire," but his performance here is equally iconic.
Rita Moreno, 'West Side Story' (1961)
EGOT-winner Rita Moreno is on fire as Anita while belting out "America," but if that's the only scene you know from the movie, please watch the whole thing. She gives one of the most layered performances you'll ever see in a movie, musical or otherwise.
Sophia Loren, 'Two Women' (1961)
Hollywood didn't really know what to do with sexy Sophia Loren, but Italian cinema showcased her entire incredible range. She deservedly won Best Actress for her role as a single mother trying to survive during World War II. She's brilliant throughout, but really earns that award in the last 30 minutes. Devastatingly good.
Gregory Peck, 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1962)
As a kindly single father and the most upright, decent lawyer in any movie ever, Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch forever has a place in our hearts.
Ruth Gordon, 'Rosemary's Baby' (1968)
That meddling neighbor who just means well? Ruth Gordon puts a subtly sinister spin on this stereotypical role as seemingly kind-hearted senior citizen Minnie, who takes Rosemary (Mia Farrow) under her care. We can't imagine anyone else in the role.
Gene Hackman, 'The French Connection' (1971)
Hackman's performance as unorthodox cop Popeye Doyle is as riveting as the movie's nail-biting chase scene. And you have to love that little wave he gives to the suspect he's been chasing when the jig is finally up. Hackman went on to earn another Oscar for "Unforgiven," and is now, sadly, retired.
Marlon Brando, 'The Godfather,' (1972)
In what is actually more of a supporting role, Brando lends his legendary gravitas to Don Vito Corleone, making him one of the greatest film characters of all time. Paramount didn't want the sometimes controversial actor and he didn't want the Oscar, but this movie masterpiece wouldn't be the same if someone else had played the Don.
Robert De Niro, 'The Godfather, Part 2' (1974)
In what is still a cornerstone role for De Niro, he brings a bristling, quiet menace to young Vito Corleone, laying the groundwork for the powerful Don he'll become. It's a tall order to match one of the greatest Oscar-winning performances of all time, but De Niro delivers.
Jack Nicholson, 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' (1975)
As the anarchic Randle Patrick "Mac" McMurphy, Nicholson embodies the entire anti-establishment, counterculture mood of the time. The movie rightly swept the Oscars, including earning Nicholson his first Best Actor Oscar.
Christopher Walken, 'The Deer Hunter' (1978)
In this Best Picture winner, Christopher Walken's Russian-roulette-addicted Vietnam vet, who is a shattered man after his time as a POW, remains one of the most haunting portrayals in cinema. If you only know him from Tarantino films, "SNL," or videos where he dances, watch this ASAP.
Sally Field, 'Norma Rae' (1979)
As an under-educated, working-class woman who decides to stand up for unionization, Sally Field is galvanizing. unforgettable and heroic.
Robert De Niro, 'Raging Bull' (1980)
De Niro gave this role his all, training with the real Jake La Motta and even gaining 60 lbs to play the boxer in his later years. Need a reminder why he's considered one of the greatest living actors? Watch this.
Meryl Streep, 'Sophie's Choice' (1982)
As a damaged Holocaust survivor who made the most devastating decision imaginable, this is Streep at her very best. The role required her to speak three languages and become dangerously thin. It's one of the all-time great film performances and, by itself, would cement her status as acting royalty.
Daniel Day-Lewis, 'My Left Foot' (1989)
Daniel Day-Lewis won his first of 3 Best Actor Oscars for his role as wheelchair-bound artist and writer Christy Brown. Beyond the challenging physicality of playing someone with cerebral palsy, he conveys the character's sense of humor, his anger, and his impatience. 30 years (and 2 Oscars) later, he's now retired, which is a crying shame.
Denzel Washington, 'Glory' (1989)
The towering talent that is Denzel Washington was never more fierce than in this Civil War drama. The whipping scene still has us shook, 30 years later.
Whoopi Goldberg, 'Ghost' (1990)
Okay, this Oscar is partly making up for "The Color Purple" oversight, agreed. But Whoopi's fake psychic helps ground this otherworldly romance. And tell me you don't quote "You in danger girl," on a regular basis.
Kathy Bates, 'Misery' (1990)
Truth be told, we're still kind of afraid to be alone with Kathy Bates after this terrifying performance as one writer's far too devoted "number one fan."
Jeremy Irons, 'Reversal of Fortune' (1990)
As real-life accused murder Claus von Bülow, Irons is appropriately stiff, shady, and aloofly aristocratic. Our favorite moment is when he's told by his legal team, "You do have one thing in your favor: everybody hates you." While slightly taken aback, he drolly replies, "Well, that's a start."
Joe Pesci, 'Goodfellas' (1990)
We'd have given everyone in "Goodfellas" Oscars if it were up to us, but as volatile Tommy DeVito, Pesci walks off with the movie. The brilliant, tense "Waddya mean I’m funny?" scene was improvised, by the way.
Anthony Hopkins, 'Silence of the Lambs' (1991)
Hopkins had been acting since the '60s, but when he stepped into the shoes of this cannibal psychopath, one of film's greatest villains was born. He conveys both Lecter's savagery, his laser-sharp intelligence, and his biting (ha!) sense of humor with uncanny ease. He went on to play Hannibal twice more, but it just wasn't the same.
'Silence of the Lambs' (1991)
This 1991 crime thriller is best known for making Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter into an iconic Hollywood villain. But while the film itself isn't based on any particular crime, both Lecter and Ted Levine's character Buffalo Bill are inspired by several real-life serial killers. For example, Buffalo Bill shared Ed Gein's compulsion to fashion skin-suits out of his victims and Ted Bundy's habit of luring victims into his vehicle. As for Lecter, it's believed that a Mexican doctor named Alfredo Ballí Treviño was writer Thomas Harris' primary source of inspiration.
Marisa Tomei, 'My Cousin Vinny' (1992)
When Marisa Tomei was announced as Best Supporting Actress (over such major actresses as Vanessa Redgrave), a lot of people thought it was some kind of mistake. No mistake. (Especially now that we know the Academy will say something if the wrong winner is announced.) Her ditzy, glitzy Brooklyn girl steals the show as the unlikely expert whose testimony saves the day in this comedy favorite. And she's since been nominated twice more, which is even more vindication.
Martin Landau, 'Ed Wood' (1994)
Landau finds just the right note between tragedy and humor as aging horror icon Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's love letter of a biopic. We're still mad the orchestra cut off Landau's acceptance speech at the Oscars!
Frances McDormand, 'Fargo' (1996)
As pregnant cop Marge Gunderson, McDormand is as unflappable and no-nonsense as they come, whether dealing with shifty suspects, giving into morning sickness, or stumbling onto gruesome crime scenes. It's one of the perfect marriages of actor and role.
Cuba Gooding, Jr., 'Jerry Maguire' (1996)
Hard to say which we enjoy more, Gooding's performance as dancing football star Rod Tidwell or his exuberant Oscar acceptance speech for the role.
Robin Williams, 'Good Will Hunting' (1997)
Robin Williams always excelled at being zany. But in this drama, he's not only funny and compassionate as a troubled student's counselor, but he shows us hints of his character's own deep despair. And we'll never forget his humble joy at winning this much-deserved award.
Hilary Swank, 'Boys Don't Cry' (1999)
Swank upset favorite Annette Bening (nominated for "American Beauty") with her stunningly raw performance. In this true story, she plays Brandon Teena, who was brutally murdered in rural Nebraska. Swank went on to upset Bening again with her Best Actress win for "Million Dollar Baby." Sorry, Annette!