Honorable Mention: Like the actresses, there were countless names that showed up here for me. We have a few actors who just barely missed the cut (Michael Caine, Al Pacino, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Dustin Hoffman all spring to mind, but their careers were too inconsistent for my tastes). We have a few actors who don't work enough or don't quite have the body-of-work I was looking for, but the talent is very, very real (James Dean, Daniel Day-Lewis). There's a few actors whom I've always thoroughly enjoyed, but for whatever reason I've still got too much missing in their filmographies to really make the jump here for them (Alec Guinness, William Powell, Robert Mitchum, and Fredric March all come to mind). And finally, there's some younger actors I adore, but I'm not quite there yet to call them one of my twelve favorites, even though they're appointment viewing at this point for me (Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender, Michael B. Jordan, Oscar Isaac, and Channing Tatum are all actors I give myself a pass to see in pretty much any film). That being said, here's our Top 12.
Oscar History: As an actor, which is the focus here (there are several men who moonlit as directors throughout their careers on the list, but you don't get extra credit for that in the countdown), Beatty is 0/4 in terms of Oscar. However, he is also a 14-time nominee, getting cited for writing, producing, and directing in addition to his four Best Actor nods, and won Best Director for Reds and then the Thalberg in 1999.
First Impressions: Beatty, like several actors on this list, has never really made a kids movie. My first interaction with Beatty was strangely at a young age, though, as my brother and I would regularly play with a Dick Tracy colorform toy at my grandmother's religiously, though our focus was less on Beatty's oversized image (it always bothered me that he wasn't proportional to all of the other Dick Tracy characters), but instead on Madonna and her glamorous silhouette, which as a young gay child was far more fascinating to me.
Why the Love: Beatty is rarely onscreen (in some ways he's similar to Day-Lewis up-top), but when he is, he's always the beautiful, driven dreamer. He somehow combines the beauty of a young Mel Gibson with the actorly determination of Montgomery Clift, and he isn't shy about making his characters flawed, potentially even unlikable, and making you uncomfortable for wanting to still pursue them (think of Splendor in the Grass or Reds). All-in-all, he's one of those screen presences that even when he's leering into bombast, he's insanely watchable.
My Favorite Performance: Surely this is Bonnie and Clyde. Beatty has made a lot of movies that I enjoy, but he's never been sexier, more vulnerable, or stronger than as Clyde Barrow.
Missing Piece: I would have to say Bugsy as it's perhaps the last truly significant film of his career, and a film that many people expected to win the Academy Award for Best Picture when Silence of the Lambs pulled off the upset.
Marlon Brando (1924-2004)
Oscar History: 8 nominations/2 wins (On the Waterfront and The Godfather)
First Impressions: I want to say that my first impression of Brando was either seeing him, randomly, in kitsch wall art while shopping at our local K-Mart, or perhaps it was (in fact) the first movie I really remember catching him in, which was A Streetcar Named Desire, a movie that profoundly changed my life.
Why the Love: Where to begin? Brando was a complicated genius, one who spent long periods of his career making, arguably, crap (name a decent Brando film from the 60's or 80's-I dare you), but when he was on there really is no one in the world of the movies that can compare. Brando, at his best, could portray a sensitive vulnerability unmatched by other actors, a combination of raw, animal lust and a brooding desire (word choice intentional).
My Favorite Performance: Streetcar contains my two favorite onscreen performances, period, and I doubt that that ever changes. It's weird when you have Terry Malloy, Don Corleone, and Paul from Last Tango in Paris on-deck to relegate them to lower tiers on the podium since they're all landmark pieces of acting, but there's just no topping Stanley Kowalski.
Missing Piece: Like a few actors on this list, I've actually seen most of Brando's major performances, as well as a few that he'd probably wish I'd forgotten. I'm going to go with Viva Zapata, one of only two Oscar-nominated turns of his that I'm still missing (the other being A Dry White Season), as it clearly had some ardent fans.
Oscar History: 7 nominations/2 wins (The Godfather, Part II and Raging Bull)
First Impressions: My first impression of Robert de Niro was actually a film that I didn't really like, but my parents did (which was rare when I was a kid) called Awakenings, a film that I truly should watch again as I have little memory of it other than I didn't care for the picture.
Why the Love: You'll notice that Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino didn't make this list, but de Niro, the third leg in the "once brilliant, now largely coasting on our considerable movie memories" portion of their trio, does. That's because de Niro is, when he's at his peak, the best of the three. A marvelous actor, his streak in the 1970's and 80's is unmatched by most actors-it's hard to imagine a rawer bunlde of energy. He's earned comparisons to Brando, but while Brando played off of his sexuality and fluidity, de Niro is nerves and live wires, electric in the way that he commands the screen at his peak.
My Favorite Performance: Taxi Driver. I could easily say Godfather Part II and Raging Bull (you're going to have a hard-time convincing me he doesn't deserve three Oscars), but Taxi Driver is just an extraordinary piece of work, and quintessential de Niro.
Missing Piece: I have only missed one of de Niro's Oscar-nominated turns, so I will say Cape Fear, a film that I'm actually curious about as it was on the precipice of de Niro going into his "cash in on the legend" phase.
Oscar History: 1 nomination/1 win (for acting, Douglas has only won for Wall Street, though as a producer he also won a second trophy for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)
First Impressions: This one is easy in terms of remembering because it was a quintessential part of my childhood. So many of our relationships with movies are forged by our parents, and for me I saw Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile countless times growing up because they were two of my mom's favorite movies. Hence a very early appreciation of Michael Douglas.
Why the Love: Douglas is a great everyman, and may have been the most vibrant and relevant actor of the 1990's, despite his strange lack of an Oscar nomination during that period. Like de Niro, he kind of phones it in lately but when he was on-top of himself, he was even better than his famed father: a movie star panache combined with a wonderful, actorly approach. Douglas will always be one of those rare male actors I loved unabashedly, even when he felt down for the count.
My Favorite Performance: Surely The American President-his Andrew Shephard isn't Jed Bartlett (few creations are, and President Bartlett had multiple seasons to grow upon me), but is more appropriate for a film setting and manages to breed that rarest of cinematic products-an intelligent, competent romance between two equally-savvy human beings without resorting to motifs, but instead keeping them smart. It's a triumph, and shows off Douglas' rather sharp comedic skills, which are often under-utilized.
Missing Piece: I want to say Basic Instinct-there's a few holes I have in Douglas filmography (Falling Down and The China Syndrome also feel like they're toward the top of this list), but Stone at her peak with Douglas at his seems like something I'd have trouble turning down-it's coming up in the Netflix queue.
Oscar History: 2 nominations (sadly no wins, but Schindler's List and The English Patient both are strong crutches to lean upon)
First Impressions: I think it'd have to be The English Patient in terms of actual cinema-Fiennes didn't start doing fare for younger audiences until later in his career, at which point I was an adult proper and saw all of his films anyway. I do distinctly remember his nomination in 1996 and getting into much ballyhooed conversations with people who didn't remotely care about such things over whether it was pronounced Rafe or Ralph.
Why the Love: Ralph Fiennes is the most electric actor currently working in the cinema this millennium, save for perhaps a Shawnee, Oklahoma native we'll get into in a minute. Fiennes is always on-point and interesting, even when he's got a film that appears to require him to be just stately and British (Harry Potter, James Bond), and when he's doing his dramatics, he's dynamite. Think of how M. Gustave, Amon Goeth, and the murderous, profane Harry are all played by the same man-he exhibits a range that rivals Streep in the 1980's. That Oscar consistently has looked over such wonders is a bit of a stain on their reputation, but at least we have those movies to revisit until the end of time.
My Favorite Performance: Fiennes is one of those actors I love pretty much every time he leaves his trailer, so I feel a little cheap saying that forever and always Count Laszlo de Almasy will remain, eternally, at the top of my list of favorite performances from the Brit. And yet, his maddening, marvelous look at love and the obsession of attaining it even despite the dangers that it proposes is something I cannot deny.
Missing Piece: I've actually seen most of Fiennes' work-he's one of those actors I've given a free pass to for over a decade and rarely miss anything that he puts out. I'd probably go with something very early in his career then, like Wuthering Heights or Quiz Show, as ones that I'm missing but I've seen over 50% of his filmography, which is something that as a general rule is hard to achieve without trying.
Oscar History: 2 nominations (Grant never won a competitive Oscar, but he did pick up an Honorary one in 1969)
First Impressions: Weirdly my first interaction with Grant was with one of his last films, in Father Goose. I was visiting my aunt with my family, and my mom/aunt both were wildly excited while flipping the channels when they saw the film was just starting on a cable channel. I remember being underwhelmed, mostly because I was very young and didn't actually get what was going on onscreen.
Why the Love: Grant eventually became a taste I couldn't get enough of, though, after that initial screening. He may not have been a great actor in the sense of Brando or de Niro, constantly transforming himself onscreen but he was a man who knew exactly how to pick elegant and charming scripts over-and-over again, giving us decades of marvelously charming roles. It's hard to deny that Grant, whenever he's onscreen, was a bubbly delight to view, and he seemingly did the impossible, finding ways to have chemistry with performers as diverse as Mae West, Kate Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Sophia Loren.
My Favorite Performance: Like I said, Grant's best performance seemed to be playing the same role over-and-over again, the public's persona of himself. However, if I had to nail down one specific role it'd be The Philadelphia Story, which is my favorite of his movies and where he even outdoes eventual Oscar winner Jimmy Stewart, the rare time where the Best Actor winner wasn't better than one of his male coleads in the same picture (perhaps the only time? Share another if you can think of it in the comments)
Missing Piece: I've seen almost every Cary Grant film of note, quite frankly, save one-somehow, in all of my years of watching movies, I've never watched His Girl Friday despite every intention of doing so. I feel guiltier about this one than any other missing piece on this list-perhaps I'll make a point of it this week?
Oscar History: 2 nominations/1 win (The Dark Knight)
First Impressions: My first impression of Heath Ledger was that he was the most beautiful man I'd ever laid eyes upon in The Patriot. He was gloriously handsome in the film, making it one of the first times where I actually noticed someone who wasn't the star of a picture and pinpointed him to be a major player-I was right, though considering 10 Things I Hate About You had come out the year before I was beaten by a number of other people in this regard.
Why the Love: Ledger is the person on this list with the scantest filmography, but honestly-he was fast-emerging prior to his death as the quintessential actor of his generation, in my opinion, and even the body-of-work that he left behind was challenging and fascinating. He was one of the first actors that I became obsessed with while they were working-I would go to whatever film that he made, even as young as a teenager, just because it featured Ledger. To this day, he is one of only two cinematic images that adorn the walls of my apartment (the plane sequence in Casablanca being the other), showing how much he still means to me, nearly ten years after his death.
My Favorite Performance: Ennis is too good to ignore, a challenging look at the ways that our lusts and our loves haunt us, even as we grow old or must deny that they happened just to move on with our lives. I still can't believe that a movie so exquisite exists
Missing Piece: Like Fiennes, I've seen well over 50% of Ledger's filmography and most of the biggest hits. I suspect, though, because I have such a continuing fascination with him that I'll eventually see them all. The one I'm looking most forward to is Casanova, as it was always fun to see Ledger let out his playful side.
Oscar History: 10 nominations/1 win (for The Color of Money, though it's worth noting that Newman is that extremely rare actor who has not one but two Honorary statues, for lifetime achievement in 1985 and the Hersholt in 1993).
First Impressions: It was The Sting, a film that I have actually not seen since I first saw it some twenty years ago (I'll surely have to revisit it for the OVP). I remember loving it, particularly the ending, but considering my taste in films as I've gotten older I'm not confident that that would hold.
Why the Love: Paul Newman is perhaps what Heath Ledger could have aspired to become-a proper thespian in the body of a matinee idol, Newman is the quintessential guy who could act, but you couldn't get past that mug of his. That's a shame if you think of him as just a pretty face, because Newman consistently stole most of his films, almost all of which he played the lead, and frequently brought a movie star's panache along with some genuine depth-of-character. He's intensely watchable, outside and in.
My Favorite Performance: This is actually tricky for me, because while I love most of his work, I've never seen the performance that stands out as "this is my Paul Newman" in the way that Brando or Fiennes has for me. I think I'm going to go with Hud, if only because that's a wonderful movie, one that combines his flare for danger with his intense sexuality, and he has a marvelous screen partner in Patricia Neal to accentuate what he's doing in the film. I could be convinced it should be others though.
Missing Piece: I have never seen The Hustler. I'm aware of the shame this brings to my name.
Oscar History: 12 nominations/3 wins (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets)
First Impressions: "Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?" For those who get that reference, you'll know why Jack Nicholson is a lifelong affair, something challenging that also is constantly electric, a headliner with the razor-sharp focus of a persistent player on the boards. For those that don't know the reference, they started making superhero movies before 2005-please investigate.
Why the Love: Who doesn't love Jack? Honestly-the man is one of the most consistently watchable presences in the history of cinema, and unlike de Niro/Pacino, he actually kept challenging himself for most of the latter half of his career, scoring that third Oscar that alluded Bob (and severely alluded Al). Nicholson may occasionally over-indulge in his reputation as a batshit crazy screen presence, but he had the bonafides from early in his career (that he occasionally brought out just to prove he still had it in places like About Schmidt) to be both a caricature and a great actor. Also, he usually made really good movies-taste in scripts should not be discounted here.
My Favorite Performance: It feels weird not to go with something like The Shining or Cuckoo's Nest, since those are the roles that are kind of hallmarks of Nicholson's career, but I can't pick anything other than Jake Gittes in Chinatown. This is Jack when he's still proving himself as one of the great screen presences, so he holds back in moments he later would have partook in some scenery, and that restraint adds to the menace of one of the truly perfect films.
Missing Piece: I've seen most of Nicholson's most important roles, but I am missing Five Easy Pieces, which I'm actually confident is toward the top of my Netflix queue so that's coming up pretty quickly. After that, maybe Prizzi's Honor?
Oscar History: 3 nominations (As an actor, though Pitt is 3/1 with producing, as he won for 12 Years a Slave, and had the Academy not changed the rules he should have been included as a nominee for producing The Tree of Life as well)
First Impressions: Joe. I always pronounce that name the way that Anthony Hopkins did in Meet Joe Black. I remember being struck while watching it that Pitt was both one of the most beautiful men I'd ever seen and how much more I was enjoying this film than all of my classmates, who found it dull and listless while I found it terribly romantic and moving. I haven't revisited it in many years, but I do believe it was one of the first times I realized it was okay to have an opinion different than the popular one, a critical moment in an appreciation for the movies.
Why the Love: Pitt, more than any other actor, gets the free pass when it comes to me seeing his movies-with two exceptions (at least one of which is on my Netflix queue), I've seen every film he's done for over fifteen years, and have just been in awe of his Adonis-like determination. Pitt is, like Newman, an actor that perhaps is too beautiful for him to initially be taken seriously but he is also a consummate performer, finding challenging, subdued ways into all of his characters-he's the rare guy that can headline an action film and add an actor's sensibilities to the role, giving us more for our ticket price. I'm forever in love with him.
My Favorite Performance: A few actors on this list I hadn't actually thought before about what my "favorite" performance is of theirs, and Pitt is one of them. Argh-it's such a tossup between Assassination of Jesse James and The Tree of Life (both his peak for different reasons) that I'm not going to choose-if you force me to in the comments, I might relent in hopes of getting more interaction on the blog.
Missing Piece: I've seen, as I mentioned, almost every film of Pitt's for the past fifteen years. However, a bit of his earlier work still alludes me (though even there it's not much), and one of those that I'm thrilled to eventually get to see is 12 Monkeys, his first Oscar-nominated turn.
Oscar History: 5 nominations/1 win (The Philadelphia Story, though he also won an Honorary Oscar in 1984 for his general contributions to the movies)
First Impressions: Like so many of us, my initial introduction to Jimmy Stewart was as George Bailey, a worthy first chapter for pretty much anyone as Stewart was an actor I instantly fell in love with, the way he distinctly pronounced every sentence (I've said "Mary, Mary" like him for so many years that I can't even remember when it started) and found his heart at the end of the picture. How could you not fall in love?
Why the Love: Stewart long has received comparisons to another actor that I fell in love with in my youth, though he was current at the time, Tom Hanks, but let's face facts here (with all due respect to Tom): Stewart is a more interesting performer and better actor. While Hanks frequently traded on his nice-guy persona, Stewart found a balance between maintaining it and occasionally making us uncomfortable in it. Look at, say, the way that he abandons all hope in It's a Wonderful Life despite him being a genuinely good guy or how he looks back with anguish on his failures in Liberty Valance. He found a way to challenge the audience while still remaining Jimmy Stewart.
My Favorite Performance: Like Nicholson, it feels somewhat like cheating to go with Stewart's most atypical classic role, but how can you turn down Scottie in Vertigo, the film where Stewart completely abandons his nice guy image (something he likely could only do once quite effectively), but does so in such a way as to make a cinematic masterpiece.
Missing Piece: Anatomy of a Murder is the final major film of Stewart's filmography I've never seen, and was his final Best Actor nomination so the OVP will eventually steer me there.
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Citizen Kane, though he was also nominated for writing and directing the movie, and would win an Honorary Oscar in 1970)
First Impressions: It would be Rosebud herself as my first impression of Welles, an actor who loomed very large early on for me, but also quite small, in the same way as Vivien Leigh since his most famous role so overshadowed everything else in his filmography.
Why the Love: Welles is a champion of the screen, a truly great thespian who occasionally indulged his reputation more than he should have (remember those wine commercials, not to mention Transformers?), but when he was on (which was most of the time), he was stupendous, a consummate actor whether or not he was behind the screen directing himself. To limit yourself to Charlie Kane might be understandable, but would deprive you of one of the great screen icons.
My Favorite Performance: I mean, it's the greatest film of all-time for a reason, so I think I have to put Citizen Kane, but it's worth noting that Oscar could have had a Swanson/Davis style match of acting master classes in 1958 had they simply nominated Stewart for Vertigo and Orson Welles for his "wilderness period" opus Touch of Evil. Throw in Harry Lime in The Third Man, and Welles arguably should have had three acting Oscars, even though he never got one.
Missing Piece: Perhaps Chimes at Midnight, which actually just came out on Netflix disc and so this might actually happen after years of trying to track it down.
There you have it-my dozen favorite actors. There's a lot to go over here, so head to the comments and let me know what you think-did I make the right calls in performances, missing pieces, and especially in the twelve men I listed? Who would you have found room for? Share below!