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100 Essential Male Film Performances

Part 1: Life Support
Part 2: The Dark Side
Part 3: The Classics You Should Have Seen By Now
Part 4: From Page to Screen
Part 5: Under the Radar

Edited by Matt Mazur and Produced by Sarah Zupko

Editor's note: This week PopMatters is re-running several of our favorite features of the past year or so. In early August, we will be updating our best performance list with a new set of performances. In the meantime, enjoy our original 100 picks of the best male performances.

Related: 100 Essential Female Film Performances

I am probably the last person who should be putting together a list of essential male film performances.

However, after greatly enjoying working on PopMatters’ 100 Essential Female Film Performances, it seemed very unfair to leave the “dude” end of things hanging. In the interest of parity and equality (and also obsessive-compulsive symmetry), I set out on an adventure that took me to some very unexpected places, where I really had to force myself to think about what the most essential male performances were and why, for perhaps the first time. I have spent my entire life worshipping at the altar of actresses, what do I know from actors?

It turned out that putting together the “yang” to the “yin” was an extremely enjoyable task. Immediately, ankle-deep in film history, I noticed that even on my list of essential male performances, there were still several representations of feminine energy, via a host of gay, bisexual, and transgender characters. These unique representations of non-traditional masculinity afford a rich opportunity to those actors that play them, to fly in the face of gender norms and heterosexist film conventions (though the actors do still tend to be straight). Gay, bi, and trans characters, films, performers and performances are usually forgotten on most mainstream “best-of” lists like this, male or female, so the addition of as much diversity as possible, in terms of queer characters, was important to the construction this time out.

There are 18 queer performances here and the actual definition of “queer” in the cases of some may be debatable. In addition to wise-cracking sidekicks, villains and other mentally disturbed gay characters, there are closeted romantic leads and even “a 32-year-old, ugly, pock marked Jew fairy”. Whenever possible, I tried to give shout-outs to actual GBT performers and directors. That particular list is very short, but thankfully has been growing lately with many directors, gay and straight, exploring gender and sexuality in a much more honest way then was allowed by classic cinema.

One such trans performance of note was given recently by an openly gay man who achieved a rare film world trifecta: he was screenwriter, director and writer on his project and received much critical adoration (if not impressive box office receipts). This kind of acceptable (even encouraged), masculine over-achieving is another recurrent theme in the world of essential male performances that could not be fairly assessed when pasting together the female roster. The list of women who have written and directed themselves to great heights is nearly non-existent. From the female list, only Ida Lupino in The Bigamist directed herself, and historically, when other women take on all three major roles in their productions (Barbra Steisand, anyone?) they get vilified or portrayed as being over-ambitious, while male stars generally reap major rewards for this kind of challenge and are never referred to as “bitch” when asserting their authority.

White male privilege aside, some of the greatest comedians of our time, Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton among them, happened to direct their own finest performances. Some critics might even argue they directed all of their finest performances. Several actors listed, including Harvey Fierstein, wrote their own indelible, original characters and then realized them for the big screen. In keeping with the themes of the gender lines being blurred on the male list, actor-playwright Fierstein plays a drag performer in the adaptation of his Broadway success, Torch Song Trilogy, which itself is an important achievement that has been sorely overlooked in the recent history of queer cinema.

Rarely are queer characters or topics equated with popularity at the box office, which brings us to the proverbial discussion of the (mainly heterosexual) male acting pantheon, an intangible entity that perplexed me greatly when creating the female list. I found the line between the male and female star turn to be much more ambiguous. Whereas in the previous round, I singled out why Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich epitomized the general kind of “big”, personality-based acting I wanted to avoid, I couldn’t help myself from choosing an unhinged Jack Nicholson in The Shining over his more generally-revered work in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest -- even though this is the kind of ‘star-persona-as-performance’ kind of acting that I claimed to dislike when assessing a woman’s work.

In addition to the Nicholson conundrum, there was also the Brando/De Niro/Pacino problem. Pretty much any piece of acting done by these men could be considered a classic. For Brando it came down to A Streetcar Named Desire and the brave '70s-era reinvention that I ended up choosing instead; though I could just as easily have written about several other equally-noteworthy turns in little seen gems like John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye. For Pacino, fortunately, all I had to do was look to his amazing body of work during the '70s as I not only wanted to avoid the phrase “Hoo-ha!” in this feature at all costs, but also because I also find the quality of his artistic output to have severely degenerated since that decade, with a few possible exceptions. De Niro is one of my personal favorite actors, someone who has consistently given himself over to his characters, fearlessly, since the beginning of his storied career. While he too has wavered a bit in the last few years, at least in terms of choosing interesting roles, the final decision for his entry was at first tough to settle on, but ultimately obvious: it would have to be a Martin Scorsese film that carried him to glory. But which of their eight collaborations is most essential?

It is no surprise that Martin Scorsese that dominates the male list, as far as directors go, with four entries, while only one of his actresses placed in the last round. On the female list there were five performances directed by the great Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman, but here only two of men register. Other directors with multiple actors mentioned include Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, and David Cronenberg -- none of whom were represented on the female list. Only two films from the female list found their way onto this one, making for a total of 98 new films discussed and 99 new performances: Akira Kurasowa’s Ran and Silence of the Lambs are the two films that merited a second look (one for, you guessed it, a transsexual performance, rather than the predictive choice of actor from that film). Out of this list, 29 were nominated for Oscars but only five would eventually win the statuette.

Once again, I tried to be somewhat conscious of international cinema with not only some Japanese, Swedish, and American stories represented, but also a handful of British basics, Taiwanese, Indian, Cuban and Italian characters. Sweden dominated the female list, but this time, that honor goes to Deutschland, with special attention paid to the staples of both classic and contemporary German cinema. In addition, it was pointed out to me that my female list was very drama-heavy (big surprise, right?), so I tried to pay more attention to different genres this time out. I wouldn’t say that I think Robert Englund’s turn as freaky Freddy Kruger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series is necessarily award-worthy, in the traditional sense, but no respectable list of great characters from “The Dark Side” would be complete without him. Freddy is a horror icon, vital, and as such, his inclusion is absolutely essential.

So, without further ado, please enjoy this slightly gay, trans-global exploration of quality male acting, and, although I shudder to think at some of the greats I might have inadvertently left off in favor of some more off-the-beaten-path choices, please write in with your comments, favorites, criticisms, and your own “essential male film performances”. Queens, queers, and Germans: please move to the front of the line.

-- Matt Mazur

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