Every year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences gets together to single out the best movies, performances and craftsmanship, and sometimes they actually get it right. Sure, sometimes it goes the other way, but throughout the history of the Oscars, there are many excellent examples of actors who gave astounding performances for the ages. The types of roles may change, and the acting styles may evolve, but these Oscar-winning actors of yesteryear absolutely deserved their gold statues and remain some of the gold standards for screen acting.
Norma Shearer, “The Divorcee” (1930)
Norma Shearer gives an astoundingly multifaceted performance in Robert Z. Leonard’s “The Divorcee,” as a woman whose husband is unfaithful and decides turnabout is fair play, only to see her role in polite society shift dramatically. What could have been a tawdry and finger-wagging cautionary tale lights up because Shearer explores all the emotional complexity of her struggle to navigate sexist double standards while keeping her dignity intact.
Wallace Beery, “The Champ” (1931)
One of the great tear-jerkers, to this day, “The Champ” stars Wallace Beery as a down-on-his-luck boxer who can’t seem to do anything right, but whose son thinks he can do no wrong. His young co-star Jackie Cooper gets the film’s biggest scene — a climax that would make anyone with a soul choke up — but he’s led there by Beery, playing a character who’s only just barely aware that he’s not a good father, no matter how much he tries to be.
Greer Garson & Teresa Wright, “Mrs. Miniver” (1942)
Winston Churchill allegedly said William Wyler’s “Mrs. Miniver” was more invaluable to the war effort than — depending on who’s sharing the anecdote — a flotilla of destroyers/battleships/etc. It’s a harrowing drama about British life during the Blitz, anchored by an astounding performance by Greer Garson as a wife and mother struggling to maintain some sense of normalcy during fearful times, and brought crashing to reality by Teresa Wright’s incredible, tragic supporting turn as Garson’s daughter-in-law, the other “Mrs. Miniver.”
Harold Russell, “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946)
Harold Russell won two Academy Awards for his unforgettable performance in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” William Wyler’s sprawling drama about U.S. soldiers reacclimatizing to everyday life after World War II. Russell plays Petty Officer 2nd Class Homer Parrish, who lost both his hands in the war, just like Russell himself. It’s a remarkably nuanced and sensitive performance, despite Russell’s lack of on-camera experience, which confronts the often contradictory emotions of a man who wants to get on with his life as though nothing happened, while simultaneously resenting his family for following his lead. For his inspirational turn, Russell not only won Best Supporting Actor but also earned a special honorary Oscar for inspiring his fellow veterans.
George Sanders, “All About Eve” (1950)
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s backstage drama “All About Eve” has one of the finest acting ensembles ever assembled, and earned a record-setting 14 Oscar nominations, including a whopping five Academy Award nominations just for its cast. Somehow only George Sanders won, but his slithering performance as morally corrupt theater critic Addison DeWitt is undeniably one for the ages. Sanders’ air of superiority is suffocating and dangerous, and watching him manipulate one of the most manipulative characters in film history is simultaneously poetic and terrifying.
Audrey Hepburn, “Roman Holiday” (1953)
Audrey Hepburn’s star-making role in “Roman Holiday” could have been a whimsical one-off, but Hepburn infuses this delightful romantic comedy with infectious enthusiasm and absolute sincerity. And, of course, perfect comic timing. As a princess who plays hooky to enjoy life as a normal person, and winds up romancing a newspaper reporter who’s only trying to get the tabloid scoop, Hepburn lets the audience experience a day of non-stop exhilaration while never losing sight of the melancholy fact that all these wonderful moments have to end.
Marlon Brando & Eva Marie Saint, “On the Waterfront” (1954)
Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” is often described as a turning point in motion-picture acting, in which performances began to turn inward and convey new levels of complexity. Watching it today, the film still feels fresh and exciting, as Oscar-winners Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint are in the process of drawing the blueprints for generations of performers to follow. As a dockworker swept into a life of corruption, in more ways than one, Brando practically overflows with inner conflict, and only finds something resembling solace in his relationship with the sister of a man he unwittingly got killed. The moral and ethical layers of “On the Waterfront” are made stickier by their parallels to Kazan’s own history, but Brando and Saint are fully realized, distinct characters whose journey has value whether you know Kazan named names or not.
Sir Alec Guinness, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957)
The madness of war never had an avatar more exquisite than Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, who confuses pride for victory and nearly loses World War II in the process. A prisoner of war, he lets himself be tortured on a matter of principle — a self-serving principle, one that excludes him and his officers from manual labor — and is so impossibly stubborn he psychologically hobbles his captors. And then, just to prove his British greatness once and for all, he decides to build the finest bridge ever built — for the enemy. Guinness understands the absolute self-righteousness necessary to justify Nicholson’s monomania, and the absolute extremes that are necessary to wrestle him back into the real world.
Gregory Peck, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)
The most incredible part of Gregory Peck’s iconic performance as attorney Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” isn’t his unflappable dignity; it’s how little he actually has to work with. Robert Mulligan’s impressive adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel tells the story from the perspective of Finch’s children, who are not privy to Finch’s greatest doubts and fears as he defends a black man falsely accused of rape in Alabama in the 1930s. The nuances of Peck’s performance emerge in brief flashes of emotional reflex, which he repeatedly stifles in order to do the right thing and be the best father possible. His performance looks like it’s built on big moments and iconic speeches, but the foundation is in the fleeting moments of vulnerability.
Barbra Streisand, “Funny Girl” (1968)
Barbra Streisand’s motion picture debut is a dazzler, with a portrayal of stage icon Fanny Brice that makes a convincing argument that Streisand is Brice’s successor. Vaudevillian humor and stunning musical numbers would be impressive enough on their own, but Streisand includes all the insecurity we need to make this larger-than-life character feel like someone we know, love, and want to see succeed. It’s a grand performance about a grand performer, and Streisand absolutely explodes on-screen as she claims Hollywood for her own.
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