If you put 100 people in a room, and they’d all been watching movies since, say, the 1970s (this is to eliminate the whippersnapper effect), and you asked them to name the ten greatest living American film actors working today, these names would probably be on all but a few of the resulting lists:
Robert De Niro
That they’re all white and almost all men obviously reflects opportunity as much as talent. But talent they got. They make the list by sheer numbers of amazing film moments amassed over years and years, movie after movie. I say “moments” rather than “performances,” because I think we remember a few brilliant, authentic moments and call the whole thing a great performance, as long as there’s an arc to it and there aren’t fake moments to undercut the brilliant ones.
From Robert Duvall’s first movie role in “To Kill A Mockingbird” (and all he had was a moment), through the big leads like “The Great Santini” and “Tender Mercies,” right on up to the old-codger supporting roles he’s getting today, he seems never to have committed an inauthentic moment to film. As with De Niro and Newman, it never looks like acting. He just seems to be living in front of a camera.
Pacino does seem like he’s acting sometimes, but it’s usually when he’s enjoying himself so much that the scenery tastes good to you, too. And Meryl Streep, well, it’s just a privilege to live in a time when you can watch such a superb actor try so many different things. Anybody who pulls off “Sophie’s Choice” and “Silkwood” and “Out of Africa” and “Ironweed” but also “Postcards from the Edge” and “The River Wild” and “Adaptation” and that Lemony Snicket movie, for the love of God... That’s better range than any of the guys have. Pacino has the widest range of the male actors on the list.
So who else? And by what criteria? I didn’t put Jack Nicholson on there, because as much as I’ve enjoyed watching him over the years, he’s like a jazz musician who has a few arpeggios that he leans on in every solo. Likewise, Gene Hackman. And I didn’t include James Gandolfini or Edie Falco, because their titanic, greatest-TV-acting-of-all-time performances are, after all, on TV.
For a long time, I’ve felt that the greatest living actor might be Morgan Freeman. The range issue is still there, but you never doubt him for a second and he confers some kind of deep, dignified humanity on everything he touches, even in otherwise lame movies. He’s a black, male version of Vanessa Redgrave, who I don’t get to include because she’s not American. But damn. I might add Wes Studi, who’s never going to play the lead in a comedy, but should have gotten an Oscar, a lifetime achievement award, and a MacArthur grant for “Geronimo,” if you ask me.
But then, if we were just going to base it on one huge, stunning performance, the whole list would be different. Billy Bob Thornton would probably make it, and so would Terrence Howard, and so would Heath Ledger. Wait, Heath’s not American. He should get honorary citizenship for “Brokeback Mountain.” But if I let him in, I have to let Christian Bale in. We don’t want a coalition of the top billing.
For overall greatness established over at least a couple of decades, I’d have to fill out the ten with Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn, Sissy Spacek, Ed Harris, maybe Denzel. Or maybe Viggo. Or maybe John Cusack. Phillip Seymour Hoffman? Or the most abundantly gifted of them all, maybe, Robert Downey, Jr.
If range were the main criterion, my top ten would be:
1. Meryl Streep
2. Robert Downey, Jr.
3. Dustin Hoffman
4. Kevin Kline
5. Jamie Foxx
6. Sean Penn
7. John Cusack
8. Parker Posey
9. Christopher Guest
10. Sissy Spacek
Except for Parker Posey and maybe Jamie Foxx, I think they’re all at least 40. It takes time to establish range. I wonder if Clooney should be on there. Not a long track record, but from “Out of Sight” to “Good Night and Good Luck” to “O, Brother, Where Art Thou?” Still, he’s always kinda Clooney.
And of course, I left out my relatives. Employees of the Lotto and their families don’t get to play.
Who else did I miss?