Listing About: Great Male Performances of Classic Film.

Recently, R.D. Finch over at The Movie Projector posted a list of what he believes to be the greatest classic film leading performances by male thespians. Reading his list, I found that I agreed with several of his choices, and with a few others, liked the performer but thought the actor was better in a different role. I mentioned in the comments of his post that I might do one of my own (as I think I’ve amply proven in the past, I never can resist the urge to make lists of all sorts), so here goes …

Like R.D., my list will stick with performances in classic films, as that is my bread and butter. And my list is comprised predominantly of American and British actors, as my exposure to classic film from other countries has been rather minimal up until now. There’s also a rather healthy mixture of dramatic and comedic roles on my list (personally, I think critics often overlook just how difficult it can be to produce a convincing comedic performance–in my experience, it’s much more difficult to make someone laugh than it is to make them cry!).

The list is in no particular order other than how the actor and the role occurred to me.

Echoing R.D.’s choices:

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956)
Robert Mitchum as Rev. Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960)

Incidentally, this screenshot from the end of City Lights is perhaps my favorite image in the history of cinema. Brilliant.

Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp in City Lights
Joel McCrea as John L. Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
William Powell as Nick Charles in The Thin Man (1934)


My own additions to the list:

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train (1951)
Cary Grant as Dr. David Huxley in Bringing Up Baby (1938)
James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Jack Lemmon as Jerry/Daphne in Some Like It Hot (1959)
Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954)
Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942)
Henry Fonda as Charles “Hopsie” Pike in The Lady Eve (1941)
Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon (1952)

Harold Lloyd as Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)
Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944)
Sidney Poitier as Noah Cullen in The Defiant Ones (1958)
Buster Keaton as Johnnie Gray in The General (1926)
Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

William Holden as Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (1939)
Joseph Cotten as Charles Oakley in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Montgomery Clift as George Eastman in A Place in the Sun (1951)

Peter O’Toole as King Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968)
Spencer Tracy as Adam Bonner in Adam’s Rib (1949)
Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Breno Mallo as Orfeu in Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro, 1959)
Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)


I’m sure there’s some that I have left off the list that will occur to me later on–lists like this invite additions, after all, and in the entirety of film history, there are so many wonderful performances from which to choose. All in all, I feel very strongly that each of these 30 actors produced unparalleled work in these particular roles, making the films featuring them that much stronger, and that much more enjoyable.

At any rate, it begs the question–were you to create your own list, who would make the cut?

3 thoughts on “Listing About: Great Male Performances of Classic Film.

  1. A very well thought out list, and a very agreeable one too. I adore Grant in Bringing Up Baby which is my favorite comedy of all time.
    Fun post!

  2. Brandie, a great list. There’s not an undeserving performance on there! I considered every one of these, and in the cases where you chose the same actor but a different performance, nearly all were my second choice. The one on your list above all others I wish I had included is Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot.” I don’t know why I left him off, especially as I used him as an example of the great comic actors who got more attention for their serious turns. Interestingly, just the films, not even considering the performances, make a fantastic list on their own.

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