5 Screen Performances That Changed the Art Form

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Photo Source: M.J. Gourland/Columbia Pictures Corporation/New Line Cinema/Paramount Pictures

There are great performances, and then there are those destined for acting immortality—the kind that open up new possibilities of the art form for future generations of film lovers and actors alike. Whether employing innovative performance techniques, incorporating technology in unexpected ways, or helping to make the very concept of “great acting” more inclusive, here are five titanic performances that lifted the medium to new heights.  

Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Jeanne d’Arc in “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)

Legendary film critic Pauline Kael once proclaimed that Falconetti’s portrayal of the titular 15th century saint in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece “may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.” The actor brought spontaneity and pureness of feeling to the role, at once enigmatic and instantly recognizable. The impression she left is equally remarkable considering she never made another film. With her haunted, tearful visage, Falconetti showed a century’s worth of actors just how powerful a tool the face can be onscreen.

Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront” (1954) 

When Brando imported the “emotional memory” (aka the Method) technique from New York to Hollywood, he delivered a string of subtle, psychologically rich performances—particularly, his turn as a conflicted longshoreman in this Elia Kazan masterpiece. Brando’s work laid the foundations for the greatest generation of film actors in history, among them Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Meryl Streep. These performers built their careers on expanding on the possibilities of Method acting, using their personal experiences to inform their craft. 

But Brando himself was unimpressed. “Acting is the expression of a neurotic impulse,” he said. “It’s a bum’s life! The principal benefit acting has afforded me is the money to pay for my psychoanalysis.”

Peter Sellers in multiple roles in “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964)

Playing a blandly ineffective U.S. President, a cautious Royal Air Force Captain, and a maniacal ex-Nazi scientist, Sellers’ three-pronged turn in Stanley Kubrick’s satirical nightmare is as audacious as it is nuanced. No wonder he was one of the few actors whom the director allowed to ad-lib.

For Kubrick, who had been forced by the studio into casting Sellers in multiple roles, the actor’s masterful exhibition of comic bravado underlined the absurdity of the film’s exploration of “mutually assured destruction.” “Everywhere you turn, there is some version of Peter Sellers holding the fate of the world in his hands,” the late director said. 

Sellers’ combination of meticulous preparation and inspired improvisation inspired future generations of comic actors to embed themselves in their characters, including Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Steve Coogan. (The latter will step into Sellers’ shoes this year when he stars in Armando Iannucci and Sean Foley’s new stage adaptation of “Dr. Stangelove.”) 

Andy Serkis as Gollum/Sméagol in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001–2003)

At first, Serkis was only meant to provide the voice of the cruelly corrupted Gollum (and his alter ego, Sméagol) in Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy trilogy. The British actor said that his delivery was inspired by the sound of his cat horking up a hairball. But when the director asked Serkis to don a skintight bodysuit covered in sensors so the camera could capture his physical performance as well, a new kind of film acting was born. The master of motion capture has since used the skills he learned from playing Gollum in blockbuster franchises from “The Planet of the Apes” to “Star Wars.” Serkis’ ability to convey genuine emotion via CGI proved that it’s possible to put a soul into the machine. “The emotional content of these performances [lives and dies] by what the actors bring to the roles on set,” the actor told the BBC. “All it basically is is digital makeup.”

Viola Davis as Rose Maxson in “Fences” (2016)

When actor-director Denzel Washington turned August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play “Fences” into a film, he wisely hired Davis to reprise the role that garnered her a Tony in 2010. In the movie, Rose begs her husband (Washington) to recognize her agency and self-worth in one of the most gut-wrenching, soul-bearing monologues of the 21st century. 

The actor’s performance drew a connection between the character’s plea and the plight faced by actors of color everywhere—especially women. Davis not only called attention to Hollywood’s historically uneven playing field; she also struck a blow against the racism inherent in the industry when she won a best supporting actress Oscar for the role. She went on to become one of the few Black female actors—along with Jennifer Hudson and Whoopi Goldberg—to win an EGOT.  

Oliver Jones
Oliver Jones has written for publications including Variety, Details, Us Weekly, and People. He’s interviewed thousands of actors, musicians, and directors, and has covered film, culture, and news for Yahoo!, the Daily Beast, and Los Angeles magazine, among others. Jones has taught film studies at Emerson College since 2012.
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