Beth is a professional author and mom. Autumn is her favorite season of the year, as long as it isn't commercialized to death.
What Does It Mean to "Own" a Role
Some days ago an acquaintance and I were talking about films and movies when the subject of our favorite performances came up. Not surprisingly, we had some agreed favorites as well as argued favorites. We also discussed some of what we thought were the very best owned portrayals in film history. By owned we were referring to actors/actresses who gave such a tremendous performance with a certain character that we just can't imagine anyone else ever topping them in any remake imaginable.
After the discussion, I began to think about my personal choices for best-owned movie roles, compiled a list, and narrowed it down to the top 33 to present here. Why 33? No particular reason, except that I'm kind of fond of that number. Some of the names on this list won't surprise anyone, but I'm sure a few of them probably will. Some of these performances are from movies I didn't even particularly care for. However, all of the individuals mentioned performed exemplary work and I feel they deserve a place on the list.
From #33 to #1:
33 - Alan Rickman as Severus Snape
Yeah, the dark, gothic, misunderstood professor of the dark arts from all those Harry Potter films. While all the actors were great in these movies Rickman alone truly reached out and seized his character. And what a deliciously job of seizing he did. Why, it's almost magical!
32 - Whoopi Goldberg as Celi Johnson
Film buffs may remember The Color Purple best as the film Oprah didn't win something for, but as delightful as her performance was, Whoopi Goldberg carried this powerful drama. It wasn't easy, either, for Celi Johnson was quite an unassuming character, but darn it, that was the main theme of the story, wasn't it? Goldberg used the exact kind of subtle nuances of expression and voice pitch not to just get Celi's story's told, but to tell it with unforgivable impact. And, yes, she was nominated for an Oscar in '85 for this role -which she should have won, by golly. That's ok though. When I think The Color Purple I think Whoopi Goldberg. And I can't even recall the name of the actress who took the Oscar home that year, so what does that tell you?
31 - Max Von Sydow as Antonius Block
From The Seventh Seal, released in 1957.
While returning home from the Crusades, the knight Antonius Block discovers his homeland has been ravaged by the plague. When confronted by Death Antonius challenges Him to a game of chess in the hope to get home and see his wife and child.
This film -for all its dark and menacing visuals and dialog- is beautiful in its theme that love and family are immortal. But almost as beautiful as the message is Von Sydow's performance as the battle-weary but devoted husband. Basically, Von Sydow took a two-dimensional character and turned him into one of the most sympathetic and human of characters to appear on the silver screen.
30 - Leslie Nielsen as Lt. Frank Drebin
All the way from the short-lived television series Police Squad and into the multi-sequel Naked Gun films, Leslie Nielsen played the fumbling and disaster-baiting Lt. Frank Drebin. Known and loved for his deadpan comedic style, no one but no one else could have ever pulled off the Drebin character like Leslie Nielsen. And I hope nobody ever tries!
29 - Kathy Bates as Molly Brown
From the 1997 blockbuster hit, Titanic.
Titanic is a high-quality film in itself, but I think Bates truly gave the best performance of the whole thing with her portrayal of the legendary Molly Brown. Down-to-earth, just like the real Molly Brown was supposed to be; it will always be Ms. Bates' portrayal I think of when I hear the word "unsinkable".
28 - Robert De Niro as Frankenstein's creature
A role that's been done on screen well, mediocre, and downright poorly by numerous others. But only De Niro managed to instill this on-screen role to the rightful level of pathos and human circumspection as he possessed in the original novel. Even as this was the best adaptation of the novel ever filmed, De Niro's brilliant performance in Frankenstein stands on its own merits. And with apologies to the memory of the extremely talented Boris Karloff, I'm afraid Mr. De Niro snagged this role away from you, sir.
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27 - Michael Clark Duncan as John Coffey
Michael Clark Duncan as the unfairly convicted prisoner with the gift from The Green Mile.
Duncan did an outstanding job in making the strange and maltreated John Coffey one of the most phenomenal characters ever brought from the page to the silver screen. You really can't think of the Stephen King story and not think of Duncan's tender portrayal, sorry it just can't be done.
26 - Frank Oz as (the voice of) Yoda
It wasn't the dialog, the costume, or even the person who wore the costume that made Yoda from the Star Wars movies an icon of pop culture. It was the voice and puppeteer-talents of the multi-pitched and whimsical Frank Oz, proving you don't have to make an actual appearance on film to craft the most memorable character from an entire overly-commercialized series. Well done have you, Mr. Oz.
25 - Al Pacino as Michael Corleone
as much as the idea of playing The Godfather might have seemed a commercialized romp for a lesser actor, Mr. Pacino wore this role as if a second skin. I very honestly can't see anyone else taking this persona from its literary requisite of reluctant youth to violent, domineering mobster with the brilliance of persuasion Pacino did. Enough said!
Well, except maybe that Pacino also looked awfully hot in those expensive suits and Italian shoes...
24 - Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau
Steve Martin is a talented guy, but sorry, when it comes to The Pink Panther there is only one real Inspector Jasques Clouseau and that was the versatile and self-deprecating Peter Sellers. In fact, there is only one true director for the Pink Panther films and that was Blake Edwards. I know it, you know it, and even this guy knows it, though I suspect he's a little more forgiving toward those Pink Panther-maker-wannabees than I am.
23 - Louise Fletcher as Nurse Rachet
this role of the unattractive and seemingly callous antagonist in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest couldn't have been a very appealing one for any typical Hollywood actress, which is part of the reason I suspect the previously not-well-known Fletcher landed the part. And Fletcher played down her good looks and mantled the starchy, aloof personality of Ratchet with a convincing efficiency that few actresses have come close to rivaling. The movie was made not only for Oscar stats history but Fletcher's portrayal cemented her a well-deserved place in iconic legend.
22 - Anthony Hopkins as Titus
Hopkins exceeded all expectations in playing this title character from Shakespeare's most violent and emotionally-charged play, Sure, the themes of this story were (and are) so taboo and the characters so utterly non-PC that Hollywood seemed almost afraid to acknowledge it. But like most other characters Hopkins has taken on he excelled where lesser actors dare not touch. And this time he entirely owned his character, from Titus's battle-tormented psyche to his compulsion for perversely ingenious acts of revenge. Hollywood may still be cringing, but what the hell, folks, this is why it's called acting.
21 - Darren McGavin as Old Man Parker
Before Bob Clark began filming A Christmas Story, a certain actor named Jack Nicholson was interested in the part as the father. However, the paycheck just wasn't as spectacular as what Nicholson or his agent had in mind and the role went to McGavin. Thank goodness! In the hands of a talented scene-stealer like Nicholson, the movie just couldn't have been the ensemble-balanced charmer it turned out to be. And McGavin, with his understated treatment of Old Man Parker, pegged an astutely crafted tapestry of befuddled and heartfelt dialog that as far as we know is still hanging over Lake Michigan and the rest of the movie-going world. Simply one of the best film portrayals ever!
20 - Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter
What? Sir Anthony Hopkins is listed a second time? Well, I can't very well overlook an actor who could take a dime-store novel character and make him one of the most easily recognized (not to mention esteemed) monsters in movie history, now can I? Hopkins gave us what could have been your average thriller killer and turned him into a lovably snobbish and diet-fascinating persona, the likes of which just simply can never hope to be duplicated and certainly never topped. Yep, all pun unintended, Anthony is delicious as Hannibal Lecter!
19 - Max Schreck as Count Orklok
You know it's a mesmerizing film performance when decades later Hollywood makes a movie about that mesmerizing performance. This is what happened with Max Schreck, star of the 1919 silent film, Nosferatu, and legend-turned-into-bigger-legend in Shadow of the Vampire made in 2000.
Gothic and dripping with surreal visuals, Nosferatu was the first genuinely scary horror film. But it couldn't have achieved this without Schreck's all-so-real portrayal of Orlov. And sure, while Nosferatu is basically the Dracula story we have to forgive the change of title as Bram Stoker's descendants were still around at the time and weren't too keen on the whole film industry. But even with the change of name, this movie is still downright chilling. And what other film can claim that kind of bragging right nearly a century after its release?
18 - Andy Griffith as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes
There's only one thing scarier than a cannibal or vampire and that's a wheel'n and deal'n media pundit. Andy Griffith played such a character in Elia Kazan's 1957 drama, A Face In The Crowd. The plot revolves around a rowdy guitar-picking radio entertainer (Rhodes) turned groomed and sleazy political king-maker. This drama was acutely realistic and Griffith breathed into his role the exact blend of good looks, shallowness, and ruthless duplicity it demanded. If you've never seen A Face In The Crowd I recommend you do; just be forewarned that once you've seen it you may never be able to watch The Andy Griffith Show with the same sense of innocence again.
17 - Laurence Olivier as Ezra Lieberman
Laurence Olivier was arguably the greatest actor of the last century. His stage performances drew admiration from all over the world and his screen career went on for decades. But one performance, in particular, I feel Mr. Olivier owned like no other came from the adaptation of Ira Levin's The Boys From Brazil. In this film version, Olivier played Nazi hunter, Ezra Lieberman, who, on a tip from an enthusiastic younger Nazi hunter, sets off to Brazil on the tracks of the infamous SS physician Dr. Joseph Mengele. The discovery of the project Mengele has been working on for decades makes for good science-fiction as well as moral drama. Altogether an unforgettable story with charged performances by both Olivier and Gregory Peck. But Olivier transformed himself completely into a different person for this role and gave a Lieberman that could have stepped straight out of the pages of the novel!
16 - Sylvia Chang as Xiang Pei
Chang played Xiang Pei in the Shanghai segment of The Red Violin, and unfortunately short was that significant portion of this beautiful drama. But her role as a woman forced by politics to give up her treasured violin is remarkable, perhaps all the more so for the depth of character Chang put into those few on-screen minutes. Few other actors make this kind of impression on such an abbreviated appearance but she did it and so I say she owned that role!
15 - Leonard Nimoy as Spock
Whether in the television series or in the later film spin-offs, Star Trek had only one Spock. Nobody else could have poured into this character the amount of consistent form, energy, and droll humor it took to play him again and again. Whether Spock is called upon to use his logical, detached intellect, sacrifice himself for others or just sling a straight-faced snark at his favorite doctor, he will always be remembered by the face and accomplished craft of Leonard Nimoy.
14 - Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert
In one of the most intense and shocking films of its time, Peter Lorre captivated audiences worldwide with his portrayal of a child killer in the 1931 film, M. The role of Hans Beckert was inspired by a series of real-life crimes committed by German serial killer and rapist, Peter Kürten. In a time when most actors would have shied away from such an "ugly" role Lorre, who was then known for comedic roles, took the job on and gave a mercilessly convincing portrayal of human evil and pathos. The performance brought him global recognition and won him critical praise that echoes down to this day.
13 - Robert Shaw as Quint
Already acclaimed for his thespian prowess on stage and screen, Robert Shaw was not the first choice to play the crusty deep-sea fisherman in the film adaptation of Peter Benchley's JAWS. But once Steven Spielberg cast the experienced Shaw that was all she wrote. His Quint, with the New England bluster and former Marine temperament, has been spoofed and parodied since the release of JAWS, but for good reason. Shaw owned the character, lock, stock, and chum line.
12 - Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote
Hoffman played Truman Capote in this biographical drama revolving around Capote's research for his book, In Cold Blood. It was a difficult role to manage as Capote was known for his alternating extremes of self-absorption, neediness, creativity, and ego, and in the time this story is set Capote was challenged to analyze his own motives and capacity for compassion. But Hoffman was able to weave these complex traits together to portray one of the most fascinating writers that ever lived. And even as the film itself had its flaws, Hoffman presented a flawless performance that I'm sure even Capote would have applauded.
11 - Morgan Freeman as Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding
Playing a prison felon can't be the most enticing of roles around, but Freeman stunned audiences and critics alike with his portrayal of one in The Shawshank Redemption. Freeman gave a seemingly breezy performance for a role that demanded an uneasy marriage of cynicism and hope. I emphasize the word "seemingly" here because I just don't believe a man with Freeman's well-known level of decency could take a role like this without a lot of psychological tasking. So I acknowledge that Mr. Freeman owned this role and thank him again for helping make this film such a joy to watch.
10 - Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega
Dustin Hoffman played a convicted counterfeiter in the riveting prison-escape film Papilion. Based on the memoir by Henri "Papilion" Charriere, an escapee from the infamous Devil's Island penal colony, Hoffman's role was as friend and collaborator to the title character played by Steve McQueen. While this movie marked probably what was McQueen's best work, Hoffman still stole the show with his optimistic yet fatalistic portrayal of the Dega. In an industry full of prison escape movies Dustin Hoffman landed not only the juiciest felon role ever offered, but gave the character a faceted personality rarely seen on film ever.
9 - Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes
It was in playing the psycho Romance fan opposite James Caan in the screen adaptation of Misery that the world first became acquainted with Kathy Bates' exemplary acting talents. All else is history, but more importantly, the character of Annie Wilkes will always be identified with Ms. Bates. And being a romance author myself (under another name), be assured this acclaim doesn't come comfortably.
8 - Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands
When it comes to this humorously bizarre Romantic comedy, I can never decide if Johnny Depp was born for this role or if the role took birth for him. Either way, he did an incredible job as the artificially created man with the big heart and almost as big shears-for-hands. No one can hear the words Edward Scissorhands and not think of Depp. Despite the numerous roles he's played over the years, it is this one that landed Depp a permanent place in movie history and audience hearts.
7 - Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castavet
Nothing has the capacity for instilling fear like the unexpected. And no one made the unexpected more fun than Ruth Gordon with her portrayal of this seemingly harmless neighbor in Roman Polanski's adaptation of Rosemary's Baby. What made Gordon's performance so extraordinary is that we all know a Minnie Castavet: nosy, talkative, pushy, and yet, by all appearances, willing to go out of her way and then some to be a friend. Gordon gave all these qualities to her character, all with a natural ease that made it more horrific when the devilish truth emerged. Although Gordon passed away some time back, she was a great actress and this was definitely her signature performance!
6 - Agnes Moorehead as Mary Kane
Any actress who can set the ambiance for an entire movie with only a sliver of on-screen time has my applause. Agnes Moorehead got this with her portrayal of the destitute and selfless mother in Citizen Kane. Orson Welles may have made and starred in this timeless drama but Moorehead was literally spellbinding here -and yep, years before she was Endora on TV's Bewitched!
5 - Nicol Williamson as Merlin
Merlins come and Merlins go, but no actor dazzled audiences with his own interpretative portrayal of King Arthur's magician-like Nicol Williamson. According to rumor Director John Boorman secretly cast Williamson for this pivotal role in Excalibur against the desires of studio heads who were afraid the eccentric British actor would bring more trouble than he was worth. True or not, what Williamson did bring the film was a charisma that lent to the otherworldly feel of the magical tale. While other actors have played Merlin well, no one else has even come close to doing it with the believable and purely paganish charm Williamson did.
4 - Ben Kingsley as Gandhi
If your aim is to make a biographical classic then you need a leader who knows how to separate himself from ego and define his subject. Director Richard Attenborough and crew succeeded in this when they cast then little-known Ben Kingsley in the title role of Gandhi. Released in 1982, the film was years in the making and boasted an array of top-notch talent, a well-researched script, apt music, and a perfect location. Even without Kingsley, this production would have ended up memorable. But Kingsley's flawless performance was what made Gandhi one of the greatest films ever made.
3 - Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump
The script was daring, the subject matter at once darkly humorous, romantic and sentimental. But what could have been only a fling in experimental filmmaking turned out instead as an ensemble-perfected masterpiece. Tom Hanks played the title role of the 1994 release, Forrest Gump; the story of a mentally challenged man who experiences some of the best and worst life has to offer and comes out with his determination intact. Hanks brought to the role a combo of subtle humor, charming sweetness, and physical energy. The result was a character who was quickly embraced by audiences across the world. Forrest Gump has become an icon of optimism without ego, thanks to the defined portrayal by a very unique and accomplished actor.
2 - Joaquin Phoenix as Merrill Hess
Released in 2002 and boasting lead actor Mel Gibson, the movie Signs was promoted as a horror drama. The plot revolves around faith-challenged Reverend Graham Hess and his family at a time when the earth is being invaded by unfriendly aliens. The script for this film was mature and the casting was good, but the film did have its flaws: Gibson's magnetic presence at times overshadowed the storyline and there were technical bloopers here and there. In the end, Signs turned out an entertaining film but far from excellent.
What this movie did have was one of the most unexpected and stunningly convincing performances of all time with Phoenix's role as the Reverend's brother, Merrill. Now Phoenix has excelled in other roles before and since, but here he made a Merrill completely, utterly faithful to the character. From the subtle Mid-western accent to the natural gestures and nuances of speech and emotion, Phoenix's character was one that could easily be any unremarkable 20-something guy-next-door. Yes, this character had nothing particularly special going for him, and near the end of the movie when it's up to Merrill to save the family he goes about it like any other ordinary man might, without any hint of Hollywoodized bravado.
Playing extraordinary people in a convincing way takes talent enough. But to play the everyday guy and do it in such a way as the audiences can completely identify with him, well this takes a rare talent. Joaquin Phoenix shed all ego and formula technique for this character, and in doing so gave the world a performance beyond quality.
1 - Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale
I don't personally know anyone who has not seen The Wizard of Oz. It has been shown on television for decades on one network or another. For many, it has become a staple in the family DVD files, and for others (like me) the year just isn't complete without re-watching The Wizard of Oz at least once. When discussions arise about the movie classics someone is sure to mention this film. It is stirring, sentimental, beautiful to watch, and humorous. A devotion to craftsmanship went into the stage props and scenery, and the creators notably utilized what was considered high-tech in those days. The scriptwriters and directors went out of their way to create a story of pure quality, while at the same time abstaining from the pubescent (and painfully cheesy) themes that were so prevalent in family movies at the time. And one of the most significant aspects of filmmaking was the choice of actors.
When it came to the lead role the first choice for the pivotal character of Dorothy was popular child-star Shirley Temple. Contractual obligations prevented this from happening, but the truth is generations of fans are all the happier it turned out this way. Temple was cute and she could sing a tune, but the alternative studio choice was an older girl with a natural look. Judy Garland was also a budding actress with a richer, more mature, and expressive singing voice. But it was her beautiful interpretation of Over The Rainbow that seized the audiences' attention and held their earnest admiration. And once the song hit the radio airwaves, Ms. Garland was elevated from young film star to recording star sensation.
The Wizard of Oz would have been a highly entertaining film with or without Judy Garland. But her contribution made it one of the most beautiful and cherished films ever made. Other actresses may play Dorothy Gale from Kansas on stage or screen, yet none of them compare. For delighted generations of movie watchers, there has been and only can be one Dorothy, for there was only one Judy Garland.
Beth Perry (author) from Tennesee on July 04, 2014:
kotobukjake, yep that is the nature of them :) I do like Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. You mentioned some other quite memorable ones, too. Thanks so much for dropping in and I appreciate your thoughts!
kotobukijake on July 04, 2014:
Great hub, and some truly interesting choices here. I FULLY agree with Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, Robert Shaw as Quint, Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey, Peter Sellers as Inspector Jacques Clouseau, and several others. However, naturally any list such as this will have omissions, and I myself could easily run up another 33 or so that should have made the list. Instead, I'll list 20 others that "owned" their roles:
Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight
John Goodman as Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (and also as Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink)
Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski
William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo
Cary Elwes as Westley in The Princess Bride
Mandy Pantinkin as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride
George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Willem Dafoe as Max Schrek in Shadow of the Vampire
Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind
Sean Penn as Emmet Ray in Sweet and Lowdown
John Cusack as Craig Schwartz in Being John Malkovich (and also as Hillary Van Wetter in The Paperboy)
Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones (and as Han Solo)
Sean Connery as Henry Jones, Sr. (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
Maggie Smith as Muriel Donnelly in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (and as Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies, and as Constance Trentham in Gosford Park)
Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/ Iron Man
Samuel J. Jackson as Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction (and as Carl Lee Hailey in A Time to Kill)
Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus (and as God in Bruce Almighty)
Steve Buscemi as Seymour in Ghost World (and as Carl Showalter in Fargo)
Christopher Walken as Frank Abagnale in Catch Me if You Can (and as Hans in Seven Psychopaths)
And of course the lovely Scarlett Johnasson, who "owned" the role of Charlotte in Lost in Translation, among others
There are SO MANY other possible options, but this is the nature of making lists, yes? Anyway, great hub, and I'll have to check out the few roles on it I've missed.
Amanda from Maryland on June 22, 2013:
Great hub! Molly Brown is definitely one of the best characters! Bates completely embraced that role.
Daryln Cochrane from New York, NY on March 17, 2012:
Great picks! I forgot all about Dustin Hoffman in Papilion. I read the book first and then saw the movie years later. Awesome. I love movies and I am always interested to hear what others have to say about actors and the roles they play. Nice hub. Voted up and interesting!
moviecast on August 21, 2011:
Congratulations for posts I liked are interesting.I will visit you anymore.
smcopywrite from all over the web on August 06, 2011:
great hub. there are some actors that just can play a role that seems to have been written specifically for them. they make a movie seem so close to real life that its unbelievable. i am looking forward to your next review.
Beth Perry (author) from Tennesee on July 13, 2011:
Thank you Eiddwen, that's so sweet :)
Eiddwen from Wales on July 13, 2011:
This is a brilliant hub and your obvious hard work has certainly paid off.I now look forward to reading many more by you.
Beth Perry (author) from Tennesee on July 12, 2011:
Beth Perry (author) from Tennesee on July 12, 2011:
Hi basil4lyf and thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.
I've seen The Orphan and while I thought the film was very well made, I just wasn't as impressed enough with Fuhrman's portrayal to include her.
On Ledger's role in that Dark Knight movie, I'll be honest with you, I've tried to watch it three times. Each time I've had interruptions; the first time with a family member coming down ill, the second time with company stopping by for a visit and the third time the kids got wild and I spent the rest of the evening getting them ready and tucked in bed. By the time they got there I was too pooped to pop. Its almost as if fate is saying "Nope, you're not going to see this one", LOL! But thanks again for reading the hub :)
Beth Perry (author) from Tennesee on July 12, 2011:
You know, when I was a little girl that Wicked Witch scared the bejesus out of me. My Mama got a free Wicked Witch hand puppet in a box of Tide once and put it in my toy box. She thought I'd like it, but I didn't open the toy box up for months, lol.
Dexter Yarbrough from United States on July 11, 2011:
Great hub and outstanding assessments!
basil4lyf on July 11, 2011:
K now this list cannot be complete without mentioning Heath Ledger's role as Joker n Isabell Fuhrman in The Orphan. But i like the way you laid out the details n expatiated on them. I have admit though Anthony Hopkins was pretty good in d Hannibal series. Great hub
Lenore Robinson from Delaware on July 11, 2011:
Beth, what a fabulous hub! All great picks! The Wizard Of Oz is my all time favorite also. While I love Dorthy, and worship Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton's "Wicked Witch of the West" gets me every time! Thanks for sharing