Memorable Performances

This is a collection of notable performances that have mostly went unnoticed. Well, at least in terms of awards anyway. Some will have received Oscar nominations but there are no winners included here. The classic performances always get mentioned throughout the history of cinema like Robert DeNiro in “Raging Bull” or Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” but this list is to bring some focus onto the predominantly unsung performers and, of course, my personal favourites. You’ll notice that a lot will be villainous or tortured characters and, for the most part, supporting roles. There is no particular order at work here and it will continue to be added to…

•Actor: Robert Carlyle.
•Character: Francis Begbie.
•Film: Trainspotting.


Carlyle is an actor that has a range beyond most of UK actors. His co-star here, Ewan McGregor, has went on to be highly successful across the pond, yet Carlyle remains less known and under-appreciated. His character of Francis Begbie is one of his career highlights. He’s a volatile and unpredictable psychopath that gets his kicks through violence. Carlyle manages that rare ability, to be both frightening and fun.

•Actor: Robert DeNiro.
•Character: Louis Gara.
•Film: Jackie Brown.


Regarded by many as the best actor to ever grace the screen, DeNiro now finds it difficult to land a plum role. Here though, Quentin Tarantino found somewhere for him to fit in. He has very little to do and mainly hangs around in the background but it’s testament to his abilities, that with hardly a word uttered, he still commands attention. His depiction of Louis Gara, an ageing criminal that’s constantly high on grass is subtly marvellous. Robert Forster received an Oscar nomination for this film but it was DeNiro that stood out for me.

•Actor: Gary Oldman.
•Character: Drexl Spivey.
•Film: True Romance.


The whole cast of this film were superb and there were a lot of juicy roles throughout, thanks to the writing talents of Quentin Tarantino. However, Oldman’s portrayal of Drexl Spivey, a White Rastafarian pimp is the standout. There’s a real predatory nature to him and despite getting a very limited amount of screen time, he steals the show from under the noses of a very impressive ensemble.

•Actor: Harvey Keitel.
•Character: Lieutenant.
•Film: Bad Lieutenant.


Acting doesn’t get much braver than Keitel’s intense performance as a drug addict and compulsive gambler. He also happens to be a cop who has no qualms about bending the rules. Keitel exposes himself (literally) with full frontal nudity and a particularly disturbing scene of masterbation. The despair and personal suffering of a man, very much on the edge, has rarely been met head-on as Keitel does here.

•Actor: Willem Dafoe.
•Character: Bobby Peru.
•Film: Wild At Heart.


Leave it up to David Lynch to contribute one of the most memorable villains in cinema. Dafoe’s portrayal of hitman/criminal Bobby Peru is deeply unsettling. He’s a man with no redeeming qualities whatsoever and a very dangerous and dark individual. His appearance alone, with teeth too small for his mouth, is off-putting enough and Dafoe has never been more threatening.

•Actor: Tom Cruise.
•Character: Frank T.J. Mackey.
•Film: Magnolia.


Cruise is a very underrated actor. He seldom gets credit when it due but this turn as self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey is an undeniably bruvura performance from him. He wisely plays against type, spouting chauvinistic rants about how to conquer women and how to “turn your friend into a sperm receptacle”. However, underneath his cocksure exterior is a deep vulnerability. This is a role that would, no doubt, upset his legion of female fans but there’s no denying it’s power or his bravery. Oscar nominated but lost to Michael Caine for “The Cider House Rules“.

•Actor: Sean Penn.
•Character: Matthew Poncelet.
•Film: Dead Man Walking.


Before Penn went on to win two best actor Oscars with “Mystic River” and “Milk“, he delivered this powerful performance as Matthew Poncelet, a murderer and rapist on death row, awaiting execution. Penn conveys a range of emotions and manages to humanise a character that has committed a heinous crime. He recieved his first Oscar nomination but lost out to Nicolas Cage for “Leaving Las Vegas“.

•Actor: John Turturro.
•Character: Jesus Quintana.
•Film: The Big Lebowski.


In a film loaded with marvellous performances the wonderful Turturro appears from nowhere and makes a lasting impression as confrontational Latino, Jesus Quintana. He gets one of cinema’s finest introductions; teasingly licking a bowling ball as The Gypsy Kings playing “Hotel California” is overheard. It’s then revealed that this colourful character is, in fact, a sex offender. Turturro appears in two very short scenes but makes a hilarious contribution to a hilarious film. He’s one of the Coens’ greatest creations and there was even some talk of his character having a film of his own.

•Actor: Brad Pitt.
•Character: Jeffrey Goines.
•Film: 12 Monkeys.


Pitt is now focusing more on producing and delivering mature roles but it’s easy to forget how vibrant his performances were in the earlier part of his career. His portrayal here, as Jeffrey Goines, conspiracy theorist and mental patient is one of Pitt’s true highlights. He is full of nervous energy, ticks and has a wild-eyed stare. It’s an absolute treat to watch his insanity unfurl. This marked the first time Pitt was Oscar nominated but he lost out to Kevin Spacey for “The Usual Suspects“.

•Actor: Michael Madsen.
•Character: Mr.Blonde (Vic Vega).
•Film: Reservoir Dogs.


Quentin Tarantino’s debut took everyone by storm but the most talked about was Madsen’s ear-slicing scene as the cold-blooded psychopath Mr. Blonde. Madsen has a brooding intensity that only hints to his characters surprising and disturbing possibilities. He has now been type-cast as dangerous criminals but this is his definitive role and was apparently the brother of John Travolta’s character Vincent Vega from “Pulp Fiction“.

•Actor: R. Lee Ermey.
•Character: Sgt. Hartman.
•Film: Full Metal Jacket.


R. Lee Ermey’s role as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Kubrick’s vietnam film is less of a performance and more of a re-enactment of his former self. He actually was a Gunnery Sergeant in the marines and most of his lines in this film are improved. That being the case, it’s some of the best and most relentless dialogue ever put onscreen. It’s an intimidating show from Ermey and he’s so captivating that the second half of the movie suffers, without him.

•Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio.
•Character: Arnie Grape.
•Film: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.


Before the heights (or depths) of “Titanic” and the stardom that awaited him, DiCaprio done some low-key Indie dramas and produced some fantastic performances. This was his breakout role, in which he plays Arnie Grape, a young teenager with learning disabilities from a large dysfunctional family. Looking back at it now, this is probably his finest performance to date. His transformation is miraculous. Knowing nothing about DiCaprio at this time, I actually thought this young actor may have actually been disabled. His understanding of the character and his limited comprehension was perfectly honed. He received an Oscar nomination but missed out to Tommy Lee Jones for “The Fugitive“.

•Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis.
•Character: Bill “The Butcher” Cutting.
•Film: Gangs Of New York.


In a role that was originally intended for Robert DeNiro, Day-Lewis shines with a ferociousness that maybe only DeNiro could have matched. He is absolutely captivating as the snarling and eccentric Bill “The Butcher” Cutting. Day-Lewis is known for his method approach to acting and immersing himself in the character. This being said, I wouldn’t have liked to be around him during this role, he has an unpredictable intensity that has you on edge whenever he’s onscreen. Oscar nominated but missed out to Adrien Brody in “The Pianist“.

•Actor: Edward Norton.
•Character: Aaron Stampler.
•Film: Primal Fear.


In his film debut, a young Edward Norton caused a Hollywood sensation for his portrayal of Aaron Stampler, an abused alterboy with a split personality who’s accused of murder. It was a knockout performance, that overshadowed the film itself and a great showcase for his acting range. Norton effortlessly shifts from an innocent, boyish character to a violent and abusive one, leaving the audience perplexed as to who to believe. He received and Oscar nomination but it was taken by Cuba Gooding Jr, for Jerry Maguire.

Actress: Kate Winslet.
Character: Tula.
Film: Romance & Cigarettes.


At the start of her career Winslet looked like she was just another English thespian with roles in classic adaptations of Jane Eyre and William Shakespeare. To her credit though, she made some marvellous and risqué choices afterwards. This is one of them. She plays Tula, a seductive, and foul-mouthed mistress in director John Turturro’s impressive urban musical. As fine an actress as Winslet is, she’s never been as much fun as she is here.

•Actor: Mickey Rourke.
•Character: Marv.
•Film: Sin City.


In film loaded with style and hard-boiled characters, it’s Rourke who stands out. He plays Marv, a brutish loner wrongly accused of the murder of a hooker he had fallen in love with. Rourke’s gravelly voice and bulking physique is perfectly suited to this comic-book character. Added to which, it was great to have him back, in the best role he’d had in ages.

•Actor: Viggo Mortensen.
•Character: Frank Roberts.
•Film: The Indian Runner.


It took a while before Mortensen’s name was widely recognised in cinema – thanks to “The Lord Of The Rings” – but Sean Penn obviously noticed his talent (way back in 1991) by casting him in his directorial debut as Frank Roberts, a deeply disturbed and troubled Vietnam veteran. Mortensen’s delivery is heartfelt but he’s also tortured, which lead to him possessing a frightening volatility.

•Actor: Tom Sizemore.
•Character: Jack Scagnetti.
•Film: Natural Born Killers.


Another well written character from the quill of Quentin Tarantino. He may have disowned this Oliver Stone take on his script but his characters are still apparent. Jack Scagnetti is a ruthless maniacal cop and Sizemore brings a real on-edge intensity to the role. He’s fearless and dangerously obsessed in his hunt and begs the question as to whether he’s any less fucked-up than the serial killers he’s chasing.

•Actor: River Phoenix.
•Character: Mike Waters.
•Film: My Own Private Idaho.


Phoenix had already received plaudits for his gentle and emotional characters from “Stand By Me” and his Oscar nominated turn in “Running On Empty” but it was this mature performance as Mike Waters, a narcoleptic, sex-for-hire, street hustler that showed what may have been in store from him – before his untimely death from a drug overdose. Phoenix was developing into a quality actor and this is the evidence.

Actor: Jack Nicholson.
Character: Col. Nathan R. Jessup.
Film: A Few Good Men.


Has there really ever been a time when Nicholson didn’t supply the goods? His role as cantankerous Col. Nathan R. Jessup is a fierce and vehement display. He only has a few extended scenes but his presence pervades the whole film. You can’t wait till he’s onscreen again and his final courtroom showdown is pure hostility. He received an Oscar nomination but Gene Hackman took it for “Unforgiven”.

Actor: Alec Baldwin.
Character: Blake.
Film: Glengarry Glen Ross.


In a cast of fantastic actors Baldwin turns up in a dynamite, 10 minute cameo and nearly walks away with the film. He plays Blake a ‘motivator’, brought in to get the salesmen in line. To do so, he teaches them the basics of sales pitching and doesn’t do it gently. He proceeds to give them all their characters and shouts them down with a vicious ruthlessness. Baldwin has rarely been better and to shine in this films high-calibre cast deserves credit.

Actor: Bill Paxton.
Character: Private Hudson.
Film: Aliens.


During the 80’s and 90’s Paxton delivered some small but memorable supporting roles. His most fun though, was as Private Hudson in James Cameron’s sci-fi sequel. He’s all cocksure bravado to begin with, before becoming a complete wreck when he realises what he’s up against. In a lot of ways, Paxton supplies the comic-relief when there shouldn’t be any.

Actor: Paddy Considine.
Character: Richard.
Film: Dead Man’s Shoes.


Shane Meadows’ “Dead Man’s Shoes” was an excellent film, if only, for introducing me to one of the finest of British actors working today. Paddy Considine’s disaffected veteran, Richard, is relentlessly out for revenge and toys with his victims. It’s a startling showcase for his snarling, intense, DeNiro-esque qualities.

Actor: Kevin Spacey.
Character: Buddy Ackerman.
Film: Swimming With Sharks.


A year before his Oscar winning role in “The Usual Suspects”, Spacey delivered a galvanising performance in this independent drama. He plays Buddy Ackerman, a venal Hollywood executive that verbal abuses his young assistant. He’s the boss that everyone has nightmares about and his tirade of insults are some of the most demeaning ever put on screen.

Actor: Robert Blake.
Character: Mystery Man.
Film: Lost Highway.


Another character from David Lynch’s canon of weirdness is Blake’s Mystery Man, that appears briefly but makes a lasting impression. He really is the stuff of nightmares and has the look to boot. There is a permeating sense of dread throughout Lynch’s film and Blake’s enigmatic character is the epitome of creepiness.

Actor: William H. Macy.
Character: Jerry Lundegaard.
Film: Fargo.


In the Coens’ Oscar winning film, Macy is a real standout. He plays Jerry Lundegaard, an everyday guy that foolishly gets involved with some dangerous people. It’s a great showcase for Macy’s endearing, innocent and bumbling charms and a performance that adds to the (very) black humour of the film. You feel sorry for his character but also can’t help the feeling of… I could have told you so. He was Oscar nominated by lost out to Cuba Gooding Jr, for “Jerry Maguire”.

More to follow…

2 Responses to “Memorable Performances”

  1. Great post about some amazing performances


    • Cheers Vinnie. I started this ages ago and it now seems that other bloggers are doing similar things. I only wish I’d started it as a feature now instead of a page. It would have taken off a bit better I think.


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