Critics and mainstream audiences like to create this notion that an actor or actress has to win an Oscar in order for their role to be forever remembered. That’s not true in the slightest. Oftentimes, one doesn’t even need to be nominated for an Oscar in order for others to forever remember an iconic role. For instance, everyone associates Harrison Ford with Indiana Jones or Han Solo. Anthony Perkins is remembered as the murderous Norman Bates. Marilyn Monroe is remembered for her famous flying skirt scene in The Seven Year Itch. What do all of these performances have in common? They are iconic characters who didn’t need an Oscar to validate their significance. They have become a mixture of pop culture and cinematic importance because of what they represent.
By that rationale, the argument can be made that sometimes certain performances can outlive the very films they originated from. That doesn’t go to say that such films have become forgotten. In fact, some of these films are beacons of cinematic excellence. However, what gives such films their emphatic excellence is the performances of actors and actresses who went beyond beyond the expectation or the script and truly embodied the character they were portraying, thus making the film primarily memorable due to them.
Below are 10 such examples of performances that continue to captivate audiences:
Clark Gable as ‘Rhett Butler’ in Gone with the Wind (1939)
It’s remarkable that one of the most iconic roles of all time didn’t win the Oscar for Best Actor. Reportedly, Gable learned of his Oscar loss hours prior to the ceremony and was utterly devastated by the loss. He had every reason to be, considering his role as ‘Rhett Butler’ is one of the most career-defining performances of all-time. Without him, even the stunning performance from Vivian Leigh as Scarlet O’Hara wouldn’t have worked for the film. Gable provided the film its much needed humanity and was essentially the heart of the film. But what most film fans remember most from the film is Gable’s famous line that would forever work its way through the canon of film: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Anne Bancroft as ‘Mrs. Robinson’ in The Graduate (1967)
Anne Bancroft’s ‘Mrs. Robinson’ forever changed cinema’s perception of older actresses with her role as the seductive older woman who lures a very young Dustin Hoffman into bed with her. The role was a huge middle-finger to Hollywood executives who had long claimed that once an actress reached a certain age, she could no longer be associated as a sexy aggressor. That wasn’t the scenario with Bancroft in The Graduate. In a role that easily could have been taboo, Bancroft gave the role intense confidence, making ‘Mrs Robinson’ not only sexy, but calculating with undertones of passive-aggressiveness. As a result of her stunning performance, the role has been continually replicated and sometimes parodied in contemporary films.
Al Pacino as ‘Michael Corleone’ in The Godfather: Part 2 (1974)
If you haven’t guess it already, I am Team Godfather 2. I think the sequel was more complex in its narrative storytelling than the original (not that the original wasn’t already brilliant in itself). What makes Godfather: Part 2 more compelling is the extraordinary performance from Al Pacino, who crafted an impressive evolution of Michael Corleone after the events of the first movie. Pacino was sure to frame Michael as a ruthless mobster, but also humanized him with the conflicts he encounters with his own family. It’s when his work and family dynamic clash that Michael Corleone is given a tragic component to his psyche, much in thanks to Pacino’s willingness to portray his character in such a manner. Pacino’s Oscar loss to the very inferior and forgettable performance from Art Carney (Harry and Tonto) will forever be one of the most egregious Oscar losses of all time, which has been reinforced with ‘Michael Corleone’ being associated as one of the most important characters of all of cinema.
Gloria Swanson as ‘Norma Desmond’ in Sunset Blvd (1950)
It is perhaps one of the greatest performances of all time and continues to captivate audiences because it is near impossible to replicate the performance (with the closest being Dianne Wiest in 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway). Swanson took a huge risk as an actress by starring as the washed-up silent film era actress who is obsessed with making a comeback while slowly slipping into insanity. This risk was primarily because Swanson, herself, was a silent film actress who hadn’t starred in a mainstream film in years. If the film failed, it would have destroyed what little of her career remained intact. Instead, Swanson merged her expressive silent film acting with the then-contemporary style of acting, which offered audiences of the most impactful performances of all time. Some of cinema’s most famous lines, such as “Okay Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup,” came from this very performance.
Humphrey Bogart as ‘Rick Blaine’ in Casablanca (1942)
Casablanca is one of the most famous stories of all-time primarily due to the expert acting from Humphrey Bogart, who essentially carried this film into success. Despite unfairly losing the Oscar in 1943, Bogart’s performance has been subsequently immortalized as one of the greatest male performances in all of cinema. From his trench coat costume at the film’s conclusion to the “If you can play it for her, you can play it for me!” demeanor at the film’s beginning, Bogart’s Rick Blaine is one of the most profound characters because it is a character framed entirely out of love. His initial bitter exterior is from being jilted in the past and his love translates into the ultimate sacrifice by the film’s end. Bogart is so stunningly perfect that the very idea that anyone else could have been cast in the role seems unfathomable.
Audrey Hepburn as ‘Holly Golightly’ in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Audrey Hepburn’s iconic opening of her eating the danish pastry with a coffee while staring inside the windows of the Tiffany’s jewelry store is enough in itself to regard the performance as one of the most captivating of all time. While the movie is a complete deviation from the Truman Capote novella, the one thing that does stay mostly intact is the fragile character study of Holly Golightly, which Audrey Hepburn beautifully took on. She was sure to make the character fiercely independent with undertones of sadness and tragedy. She is what made Breakfast at Tiffany’s worth remembering with her exuberant personality that utterly defied the gender norms that were being perpetuated in the 1960s. Still to this day, Hepburn’s performance as Holly Golightly is regarded as a symbol of female liberation.
James Dean as ‘Jim Stark’ in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Believe it or not, Rebel Without a Cause, the movie that has immortalized James Dean as the ultimate badboy, didn’t garner him a Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Dean’s performance as an emotionally confused teenager who engages in risky behavior to uphold both his and his friends’ honor, is one that has almost been mythologized by critics and fans for its gritty realism. This is a performance of a lifetime and James Dean gave this role more than anyone else could have. This performance further reinforces the genuine tragedy it was losing such an acting great just as his career was starting. While he had other notable performances in his very short career, James Dean will forever be known for Rebel Without a Cause.
Uma Thurman as ‘Mia Wallace’ in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Ever hear the expression, “He/She did so much with so little?” Well, that is precisely what Uma Thurman did with her short performance in Pulp Fiction. Granted the role was written with the usual savvy banter that writer/director Quentin Tarantino is known for, Mia Wallace is one of Tarantino’s most unique characters primarily because she stays within a feminine role that Tarantino has never been able to replicate since. This is because of Thurman’s facial expressions and demeanor speaking louder than the actual words she utters to John Travolta’s Vincent Vega during their ‘date’ vignette of the film. In a film with intense situations and characters, Thurman’s character always seems to be the most memorable of the film because of her character’s poker-face and matter-of-fact style of talking. It can be argued that Thurman’s Mia Wallace is Quentin Tarantino’s most iconic character.
Heath Ledger as ‘Ennis Del Mar’ in Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brokeback Mountain was a revolutionary movie that reawakened the fight for LGBT equality in the United States. The film hinged on the delivery of its two male leads, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, more especially on Heath Ledger. While more film audiences may associate Ledger for his incredible performance as ‘The Joker’ in 2008’s The Dark Knight, the true highlight of his career was as ‘Ennis Del Mar.’ Heath Ledger completely captured the sense of longing, tragedy, and heartbreak that generations of those within the LGBT community felt during an era when they were forced to repress who they loved out of fear of being ostracized or enduring violence. Ledger’s performance of one of severe repression, which continues to remind audiences of a sad period of time when love was denied to many.
Sigourney Weaver as ‘Ellen Ripley’ in Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986)
If you do not know who ‘Ellen Ripley’ is, please rent a copy of Alien and Aliens and give yourself a film education immediately. Do yourself another favor: pretend Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection weren’t made. Trust me, you’ll be doing yourself a great service pretending they don’t exist. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien into Aliens arguably is one succinct performance about an individual who endures a horrific alien takeover of her cargo ship in the first film and then strives to utterly annihilate the alien colony by the film’s second movie. Weaver crafted her character so expertly between movies from survivalist to renegade that film audiences are continually wowed today by her character metamorphosis of strength, courage, and sacrifice. Furthermore, Sigourney Weaver proved to Hollywood that it was possible for an actress to take on the lead in an action/science-fiction movie. Weaver does place maternal elements into her role in the second film, but the true range of her performance is that of a no-BS individual who takes charge immediately to save the lives of those around her. Weaver’s ‘Ellen Ripley’ is one of the most epic characters ever to have graced the action and science-fiction genre.