Every month, our contributors submit lists of ten items based on certain topics. We then feature an alphabetical list of items along with commentary explaining our selections. There will also be an itemized list at the end of each of our individual selections.
In cinema, certain actors tend to play the same or similar roles throughout their careers. It takes a certain kind of talent to be able to try new things and succeed at them. This month, we’re looking at actors that we feel are the most versatile. Among the four of us, we have a total of 35 actors who’ve shown to us that they have what it takes to choose any role and excel at it.
Looking over the list, five names stand out as being noteworthy. These individuals appear on two separate lists. Alec Guinness, Katherine Hepburn, Gary Oldman, Rosalind Russell, and Meryl Streep are the names and all are considered among the foremost actors of their generations and of all time.
After the break, dig into our setups and follow that by reading about each film.
Wesley Lovell: As an actor, what is versatility? Is it the ability to blend into every role, making yourself almost unrecognizable or is it taking on roles that challenge your talents and succeeding at them. My selection of ten individuals is a mixture of these two extremes. No one could accuse Ryan Reynolds of being a chameleon, but he has shown a strong ability to take on different roles that are outside of his norm and excel at them. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Gary Oldman who can tackle any project and utterly meld into the character making you question where Oldman ends and the character begins. This list was a bit difficult for me because I know a lot of strong actors who can do anything, but few that are adept at multiple genres and styles. The end result is a list that I like, but am certain will result in questions from others about how truly versatile these individuals are.
Peter J. Patrick: Versatility used to be most readily defined by an actor’s ability to perform comedy as well as drama or vice versa. Today, the delineation is more likely to be in the types of characters actors are asked to play. From the 1930s-50s, male actors were either gentlemen or tough guys, female actors were either ladies or trollops, rarely did the twain meet in the same performer. That being the case, I found more versatile female actors in the 1930-50s going back and forth between drama and comedy, and more male actors of today given the opportunity to play all kinds of characters while their female counterparts are sadly still pretty much stereotyped.
Tripp Burton: This was another extremely hard list to put together, mostly because versatile can mean so many different things. Does it mean actors who can do many different genres? Or does it mean actors who are like chameleons and disappear into many different parts? Or does it mean actors who can sing and dance and act, or who have other skills that play a part in their performance? In the end, I focused on actors who have a range that never seems to stop, who can be funny and scary, who can break your heart or puzzle you, and who have never let a challenge get in the way of their excellence.
Thomas LaTourrette: When I started out to make this list, I was trying to balance it between men and women, but I finally ended up with six women. I do not know that they are necessarily more versatile than the men, or perhaps they were given more opportunities to show off more sides of their acting ability. As I narrowed down the list, I still had more women than men who just missed out on making the cut too. Five on my list are deceased, but the other five are still active and hopefully will have more chances to show off their diversity. There were a number of actors that were mostly known for either dramas or comedies that made at least one successful film in the other genre, but I was looking for a wider range that that. Peter O’Toole was great in dramas, but was superbly funny in My Brilliant Career. On the other hand, Peter Sellers proved a great physical comedian in the Pink Panther films and was brilliant in Being There. But I didn’t feel that one film was enough to truly show off their versatility, so I looked for wider ranges of films. Some on the list even did musicals, though I am sorry that it did not cover a wider range of them. Writing up this list did make me realize how rare a beast it is that can effortlessly move between the genres.
Amy Adams (1974 – )
Commentary by Thomas La Tourrette – Amy Adams is the closest thing we have to a modern day Katharine Hepburn, a talented actress that has shone in a wide range of roles. After scoring her first Oscar nomination as the pregnant chatterbox in Junebug, she proved to be the perfect Disney princess in Enchanted, singing her way through New York City as a lost fairy tale princess. Few people saw her in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, but she perfectly captured the screwball comedy antics needed for the role. She delved into more serious roles in Doubt and The Fighter, earning nominations for them. Last year with roles in such diverse movies as Nocturnal Animals and Arrival, she continued to amaze with her ability to adapt to many different styles of film.
Alan Arkin (1934 – )
Commentary by Tripp Burton – Although he got his start in comedy as one of the founders of Second City, Alan Arkin has proven through his five decades in Hollywood that he can do just about anything. He can be hysterical, frightening, and devastating, often in the same performance. From the frightening Harry Roat Jr. in Wait Until Dark to the deaf-mute in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter to the floundering salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross to the controlling studio boss in Argo, there is little that Arkin can’t do and he makes every film he is in better for his presence.
Cate Blanchett (1969 – )
Commentary by Wesley Lovell – One of the best actresses of this generation, Blanchett has shown a willingness to tackle any role. She’s done the rounds of blockbusters (The Lord of the Rings and Thor: Ragnarok), hard dramas (Elizabeth, The Aviator, and Carol), comedies (Bandits and Blue Jasmine), and even a few odd choices in between (Hanna and I’m Not There). Each time her fierce commitment and ability to blend into the narrative with seeming ease have made her one of the most versatile and compelling actresses ever.
James Cagney (1899 – 1986)
Commentary by Tripp Burton – James Cagney is responsible for two of the most iconic moments in Hollywood history: screaming “Top of the World, Ma!” as he sadistically blows up a gas tank, and tap dancing across the stage as the all-American entertainer George M. Cohan. Those two images alone are the definition of versatility in an actor. Cagney could do it all, from the charming to the frightening, and he did it all with a grace not often scene on the big screen.
Leonardo DiCaprio (1974 – )
Commentary by Peter J. Patrick – Earning his first Oscar nomination while still a teenager, DiCaprio has had a diverse career from the get-go. Making an early name for himself in This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, he became a superstar at 23 in the worldwide phenomenon that was Titanic. In the twenty years since he’s played everyone from Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can, Howard Hughes in The Aviator to the good cop in The Departed to J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar to Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street to Hugh Glass in The Revenant.
Irene Dunne (1898 – 1990)
Commentary by Peter J. Patrick – Dunne became a star with the touring version of Broadway’s Show Boat, but Hollywood originally cast her in heavy dramas such as Back Street and Magnificent Obsession before musicals like Roberta and the second film version of Show Boat and comedies like Theodora Goes Wild and The Awful Truth proved her versatility. From then on, a smile was never far from her lips even in top tier dramatic fare like Penny Serenade, The White Cliffs of Dover, Anna and the King of Siam, and I Remember Mama.
Commentary by Thomas La Tourrette – Irene Dunne was another actress who seamlessly moved between screwball comedies and serious films in the 1930s and 1940s. I think of her and Katharine Hepburn as the two most versatile actresses of the age. She starred in the original version of the filmed musical Show Boat. She could do screwball comedy, losing then wooing again Cary Grant in The Awful Truth. She was just as good in Theodora Goes Wild, both of which garnered her Oscar nominations. But she easily did drama as well, whether Cimarron or Love Affair. Her favorite film was Love Affair, where she played a star-crossed lover with Charles Boyer. She will probably best be remembered as the loving mother from I Remember Mama, but she should be remembered for being so very versatile.
John Goodman (1952 – )
Commentary by Tripp Burton – It is easy to think of John Goodman as a comedic actor since we first got to know him through TV sitcoms and Coen Brothers comedies. To do that, though, ignores a wide range of film performances, from the chilling (10 Cloverfield Lane) to the dramatic (Flight) to the musical (Blues Brothers 2000) to the charming (Monster’s Inc.). He is an actor with a distinctive look that he has never let get in the way of giving us something new, and he does all of it masterfully.
Alec Guinness (1914 – 2000)
Commentary by Wesley Lovell – With a face that’s instantly recognizable, it might be strange to say that Guinness was a true chameleon, but looking over his wonderful filmography shows you just how impressive he could be and just how many different types of roles he could play quite well. While modern audiences will know him for his role in Star Wars, there are many more performances that have showcased his talent of tackling each genre with ease and brilliance. Whether it’s his early Charles Dickens days (Great Expectations to Oliver Twist), his Oscar-winning performance in The Bridge on the River Kwai, his blind butler in the comedy Murder by Death, or most notably as eight different characters in Kind Hearts and Coronets, there is no question he was a true role master.
Commentary by Thomas La Tourrette – Alec Guinness played serious from the start. Two of his first roles were in adaptations of works by Charles Dickens. Then he floored everyone by playing eight members of the D’Ascoyne family in Kind Hearts and Coronets. If that didn’t show his flair for comedy, nothing would. Although he would not do many comedies, his work shone in both The Lavender Hill Mob and Great Expectations. He would turn in most of his best known work in films by David Lean, most notably as the proper but obsessive Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai. For younger generations he will always be known as the wise sage Obi-Wan Kenobi from the original Star Wars. He returned to Charles Dickens’ work and scored an Oscar nomination at age 73 for Little Dorritt, capping off a long and versatile career.
Jake Gyllenhaal (1980 – )
Commentary by Wesley Lovell – Early in his career, Jake Gyllenhaal might not have seemed like an actor of various talents, but as his career has progressed and matured, he has proven to be a broadly potent presence. With blockbuster type roles in movies like Source Code and Day After Tomorrow, he showed little, but with films like Brokeback Mountain and Zodiac he showed a stronger dramatic side. Then came performances in movies like Prisoners, Enemy, Nightcrawler, Demolition, and Noctural Animals where he’s now proven that he can not only act well, but that he can take on numerous different types of roles and excel in each of them.
Gene Hackman (1930 – )
Commentary by Tripp Burton – Of all of the Actors Studio actors who became movie stars in the 1970s, no one showed quite the large range of versatility as Gene Hackman. He started as a voice of moral authority in films such as The French Connection and The Conversation, but showed that he was just as comfortable as sadistic villains (Unforgiven, Crimson Tide) or put-upon comics (The Birdcage, The Royal Tenenbaums) while still giving us memorable heroes throughout his career. Until his retirement, it seemed like there was nothing that Hackman couldn’t do and he surprised us at every turn.
Tom Hanks (1956 – )
Commentary by Peter J. Patrick – Hanks shot to fame in the TV comedy series Bosom Buddies and made his first big screen impression in comedies like Splash and Big, after which he achieved superstardom in high profile dramas like Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, and Saving Private Ryan while maintaining his comic chops in such films as Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. He’s most impressive of late portraying real-life heroes in such films as Captain Phillips, Bridge of Spies, Sully, and The Post.
Anne Hathaway (1982 – )
Commentary by Thomas La Tourrette – Anne Hathaway started her film career in light comedies like The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted. She began to show more potential for deeper roles in Brokeback Mountain and The Devil Wears Prada. Though none of her earlier work prepared me for her gut-wrenching performance in Rachel Getting Married, she proved beyond a doubt that she could pull off a serious role. She went on to win an Oscar as the poor Fantine in Les Miserables, singing and emoting through the role. She prevents herself from being typecast as the lovable girl next door type when she is willing to spoof on the image in a film like Colossal, where she plays a drunken loser who moves back to her childhood home and then realized along the way that she is tied to a giant monster terrorizing Seoul.
Taraji P. Henson (1970 – )
Commentary by Wesley Lovell – In Hollywood history, it’s common for actors to become typecast and never find a role of distinction again. This is sadly more common among black actors. Sidney Poitier was always cast in roles that required quiet dignity. Morgan Freeman was seldom given rein to move beyond the benevolent father figure persona. Only in recent years has that changed with the likes of Samuel L. Jackson being given the ability to stretch his dramatic and comedic muscles, but Taraji P. Henson might be the best of all. While she had started out in roles that were fairly narrow, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button gave her a chance to break out more. Then with performance on TV in Empire and in movies like Hidden Figures, she’s being allowed to grow as an actress. If 2018’s Proud Mary is any indication, it’s clear that she has a great capacity to blend into anything she’s given, if she can be given a chance.
Katharine Hepburn (1907 – 2003)
Commentary by Peter J. Patrick – Except for Little Women, Alice Adams, and little else, Hepburn’s early dramas fizzled at the box office, keeping audiences from appreciating her first two great comedic roles in Bringing Up Baby and Holiday before the self-deprecating comedy of The Philadelphia Story secured her place in film history. Comedies like Adam’s Rib and The African Queen kept her at the top, as did the dramatic highs of Summertime, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Light in Winter, and On Golden Pond.
Commentary by Thomas La Tourrette – She won her four Oscars in mostly serious roles, but Katharine Hepburn was equally as good in comedies. She proved to be one of the best screwball comediennes in films like Bringing up Baby and the lesser seen Holiday. She showed off a flair for light comedy in a number of her teamings with Spencer Tracy in films like Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike. She could quibble with Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen and Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter. And she could be glorious in some dramatic films like playing the drug addicted mother in Long Day’s Journey into Night. In some ways, she does not get the credit she deserves for the truly dramatic roles she played. From the start of her career she varied between comedies and dramas with a flair that few could.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 – 2014)
Commentary by Tripp Burton – The loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman at the young age of 46 stung so badly not because we wanted to see what else he was capable of but because we knew what he was capable of and what we were going to be missing from him. He could seemingly do anything: he played losers just as well as he played winners, he played lovable as well as he played villainous, and he succeeded in just about any genre Hollywood threw at him. He was distinct yet chameleon-like, able to carry an entire picture, steal it with just a scene or two, or blend into an ensemble and let his co-stars take the limelight. He was one of our greatest American actors of all-time because he could do it all and make it look easy and obvious.
Oscar Isaac (1979 – )
Commentary by Peter J. Patrick – Guatemala-born, Miami-raised Oscar Isaac Hernandez was originally billed as such, but found himself stereotyped in Hispanic roles. Since dropping his last name, he has had a remarkable career which has seen him in a wide range of roles from Joseph in The Nativity Story to the Anglo schoolteacher in Won’t Back Down to the down-on-his-luck 1960s folk singer in Inside Llewyn Davis to the mysterious CEO in Ex Machina to the Armenian medical student in The Promise to French artist Paul Gaugin in the forthcoming At Eternity’s Gate and beyond.
Hugh Jackman (1968 – )
Commentary by Thomas La Tourrette – For people that only know Hugh Jackman as the ferocious Wolverine in the X-Men series, they will be surprised to find that he has conquered many other genres as well. He has won Tonys for his Broadway musicals, but has rarely gotten to show off that side of himself in movies. He played in the serious Les Miserables, but may get to show off a more flamboyant side in the upcoming The Greatest Showman. It may not lead to a second Oscar nomination, but I am greatly looking forward to seeing him as a musical P.T. Barnum. In addition to his work as an action hero, he solidly portrayed a distressed father in Prisoners. He even held his own in a rom-com, wooing Meg Ryan in Kate & Leopold. He has had a few decent roles, but the movies have not totally showed him to his full potential yet, but he has proven adept in many categories.
Jennifer Jason Leigh (1962 – )
Commentary by Tripp Burton – There is something completely modern about Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of the early queens of the indie film movement and an actress who first came to attention as the girl-next-door discovering sex in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, being gang-raped in Last Exit to Brooklyn, breaking down on stage in Georgia, and fulfilling our greatest fears in Single White Female. Since then, though, she has proven herself to be just as comfortable in the early 20th century screwball comedy in The Hudsucker Proxy and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle or the profane Western world of The Hateful Eight. She is never afraid to bare her soul on screen, but she can be charming and funny just as easily as she can be scary or desperate.
Deborah Kerr (1921 – 2007)
Commentary by Peter J. Patrick – Dubbed the English Rose, Kerr became an international star in the British classics The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus. In Hollywood from 1947, they really didn’t know what to do with her until she played against type as an adulteress in From Here to Eternity, after which her great ladies in The King and I, Tea and Sympathy, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, An Affair to Remember, Separate Tables, The Sundowners, The Chalk Garden and The Night of the Iguana all had an extra spark of fire in them.
Angela Lansbury (1925 – )
Commentary by Wesley Lovell – 73 years ago, Angela Lansbury made her screen debut as the maid in Gaslight. She followed this with numerous film roles, all of which she excelled in. In 1962, she took on the role of Janet Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate, which forever altered the impression many had of her abilities. Through various roles on stage and on screen from Sweeney Todd to Beauty and the Beast to Murder, She Wrote to Death on the Nile, Lansbury has shown a great deal of flexibility in terms of what types of roles she can take on and do phenomenally well with. From musicals to comedies to thrillers to dramas, she can and has done just about everything and she succeeds every time.
Heath Ledger (1979 – 2008)
Commentary by Wesley Lovell – Like his Brokeback Mountain co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger had started his career as a heartthrob who was brought in less for his talent and more for his looks. Ledger was a bit like James Dean in that regard. Ang Lee helped show us with Brokeback that he was capable of so much more. In films like The Brothers Grimm, I’m Not There, and his Oscar-winning The Dark Knight performance, he was given opportunity to stretch and it was wonderful to watch. Had he lived longer, we might have seen him do even more maturing as an actor and with those early clues, he might have become one of history’s most versatile.
Jack Lemmon (1925 – 2001)
Commentary by Thomas La Tourrette – One need only look at the Oscars Jack Lemmon won to see the ability he had to work in both comedy and drama. His supporting turn as Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts shows off his comedy chops. Whereas his serious turn in Save the Tiger showed that he was equally as good in drama as a factory owner desperately trying to save his business, and willing to go to any length to do it. He could be the everyman in so many films, whether as the humorous sidekick, depressed father, or grumpy old man and he was so believable in all the roles. He will probably be remembered more for his comedic roles, but he easily shifted to dramatic ones as well. He was one of the best on film.
Shirley MacLaine (1934 – )
Commentary by Tripp Burton – Shirley MacLaine came to Hollywood wide-eyed and bushy tailed, playing the naif so perfectly in The Trouble with Harry, and today has cornered the market on crotchety old ladies in films like Bernie. Along the way, she has done everything possible in Hollywood. She has sung and danced, been in some of our greatest comedies and dramas, held her own against most every star in Hollywood and even done the occasional Western or biopic. Any filmography that includes films by Billy Wilder, James L. Brooks, Don Siegel, Albert Brooks, Hal Ashby, Richard Linklater, Bob Fosse, and Alfred Hitchcock shows an actress who has no limits to what they can do.
Julianne Moore (1960 – )
Commentary by Wesley Lovell – My first encounter with Julianne Moore, at least that I remember, was in The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997. Yet, it was a different 1997 movie that helped me see that Moore had a great capacity to take on myriad roles. In Boogie Nights, Moore played the aging doyen of the porn industry Amber Waves. She followed this up with numerous roles from comedy to drama along the way. She has always shown a willingness to take a role and blend into it even while looking unmistakably like herself. Movies like Boogie, Far From Heaven, Children of Men, Blindness, A Single Man, and numerous others have convinced me that she has a deep reserve of talent that’s at home in anything she attempts and in whatever style she chooses.
Gary Oldman (1958 – )
Commentary by Wesley Lovell – Few actors so effortlessly blend into their characters that makeup becomes an extension of their abilities. I first became aware of Gary Oldman as the love-struck vampire in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. From there, my world was opened up to his brilliance. Unafraid to tackle any role, Oldman has shown a tremendous capacity to envelop a character into his own persona and forcefully project that to the world. Dracula was only one of an array of performances that run the gamut of genres and styles. The Fifth Element, Sid and Nancy, The Contender, the Harry Potter franchise, The Dark Knight, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are but a mere few of the distinctly original work he’s done in so many productions.
Commentary by Peter J. Patrick – Oldman cut his teeth on edgy portrayals of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy, Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, and Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, later playing characters as diverse as Dracula, Beethoven, and Harry Potter’s godfather, Sirius Black. Having given stellar performances in everything from State of Grace to The Dark Knight trilogy, he finally received an Oscar nomination for playing George Smiley in the 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and may well win for playing Winston Churchill in this year’s Darkest Hour.
Ryan Reynolds (1976 – )
Commentary by Wesley Lovell – Bursting into the collective conscience with his role in TV series Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, Reynolds became the kind of heartthrob that could settle into that type of role for the rest of his life and never have to worry about finding work. Yet, he’s worked hard to slough off that appearance over time. Part of that is due to a collapse in his image, but with movies like The Nines, Adventureland, and Buried, it was clear there was more to him than met the eye. He’s appeared in many duds over the years, but just within the past two years, he’s managed to re-emerge as a prominent name in cinema with the vastly different Deadpool and similar but more relatable The Hitman’s Bodyguard. Looking over these various film titles, it’s almost surprising that he can do well in so many different types of roles. While he’s clearly well suited to comedy, drama is definitely within his vast wheelhouse.
Geoffrey Rush (1951 – )
Commentary by Thomas La Tourrette – Geoffrey Rush burst onto the acting scene in Shine, as a driven pianist who suffers a breakdown and eventually returns to playing music. He deservedly won an Oscar for the role, yet I would not have guessed that his career would be so wide ranging. He has held his own against Johnny Depp in the comedic Pirates of the Caribbean series. His ever optimistic theater owner in Shakespeare in Love was a comedy triumph. Then he can become the caring teacher who helps a king learn not to stutter, or a doting father to a little girl in war torn Germany. I have remained exceedingly impressed at his ability to cross between genres.
Rosalind Russell (1907 – 1976)
Commentary by Peter J. Patrick – Russell first made her mark in heavy dramas like Craig’s Wife and Night Must Fall, but soon became a comedy icon with The Women and His Girl Friday, after which she alternated effortlessly between comedy (My Sister Eileen) and drama (Sister Kenny), leaving indelible marks on both genres in the 1950s with Picnic and Auntie Mame. She was the living, breathing embodiment of her line from the latter, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”
Commentary by Thomas La Tourrette – Rosalind Russell also bridged the drama/comedy/musical gap, though her voice was dubbed in her one major musical on film, Gypsy. Her flair for comedy was shown in the effervescent comedy His Girl Friday easily holding her own against Cary Grant. And for many she will always be the madcap Auntie Mame or for the next generation the Mother Superior in The Trouble with Angels. But she could easily slide into dramatic roles, gaining Oscar nominations for Sister Kenny and Mourning Becomes Electric, and probably just missing out on one for Picnic. The dramatic roles will not be as easily remembered as her comedic performances, but she was capable of both.
Barbara Stanwyck (1907 – 1990)
Commentary by Peter J. Patrick – A chorus girl in her teens, Stanwyck made her screen debut in late silent film, but became a star in early talkies such as The Miracle Woman and The Bitter Tea of General Yen, reaching nirvana with Stella Dallas, all heavy dramas, then lightening it up with Ball of Fire and Lady of Burlesque, while at the same time going to a darker place with Double Indemnity. When age began to take its toll, she switched to westerns with TV’s The Big Valley and proved she could sex it up at the age of 75 in The Thorn Birds.
James Stewart (1908 – 1997)
Commentary by Peter J. Patrick – Stewart is often remembered as the boy next door who matured during World War II, but that ignores the fact that he matured right before our eyes two years before the war in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which was seven years before his post-war renaissance in It’s a Wonderful Life. At home in light comedy (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation), heavy drama (Anatomy of a Murder), and tough westerns (Shenandoah), he was at his zenith in two of his three Alfred Hitchcock masterpieces, Rear Window and Vertigo.
Patrick Stewart (1940 – )
Commentary by Wesley Lovell – With a stage and screen career that stretches back into the 1960s, Patrick Stewart didn’t become a major name until he took on the role of Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. In that series, he brought gravitas to a production that had once been thought of as little more than a silly genre franchise. The first time, however, that I saw him as being a genuinely versatile actor was his supporting turn in Jeffrey, a wildly comedic performance that redefined my entire impression of him. After that, it became fascinating just to see how diverse he could make his various roles with drama, comedy, sci-fi, fantasy, and more all easily within his grasp.
Meryl Streep (1949 – )
Commentary by Tripp Burton – It feels like a cliche to include Meryl Streep on a list like this, but at this point it feels like there is nothing that she can’t do. She has three Oscars for a family drama, a historical epic, and a biopic, and along the way has been nominated for musicals, comedies, and dramas. She has also managed to do romantic comedies, action heroines, country-western musicals, and most everything in between.
Commentary by Thomas La Tourrette – When one thinks of Meryl Streep, a series of serious films pop to mind. There is a reason that she holds the record for Oscar nominations which came mostly from her dramas. Most well deserved too, though I might quibble with a couple of them. However, The Hours, A Cry in the Dark, and One True Thing all showed her strengths in anchoring a drama. Mamma Mia! Showed that she is credible in musicals as well. What probably gets overlooked are her comedic performances. She really was quite funny in both She-Devil and Death Becomes Her, turning in better performances than the films deserved. She will always be known as the master of accents, but she has shown the capability of starring in almost any type of film, including taking on armed killers in the River Wild.
Emma Thompson (1959 – )
Commentary by Tripp Burton – Emma Thompson first came to prominence as an actress most comfortable in a corset, pushing the limits of what it meant to be a woman in a particular time in history in films like Howards End, Much Ado About Nothing, and Sense and Sensibility. Today, she seems to have cornered the market on daffy hippie characters in the Harry Potter franchise or this year’s The Meyerowitz Stories (new and selected). Along the way, she has played stern lawyers, curmudgeonly authors, eccentric nannies, and even Hillary Clinton. No matter what she is doing, whether comedic or dramatic, or modern or period, she tackles it with imagination, grace, and a sense that only Thompson could be playing this role.
Robin Williams (1951 – 2014)
Commentary by Tripp Burton – Oftentimes when comedians try to venture into dramatic roles, they still are hampered into roles that utilize their performative qualities while getting a little meat to dig into. Robin Williams managed to tackle roles that used none of his manic comedic qualities, playing soft-spoken villains and mentors just as easily as he could over-the-top lunatics. That means that he left us with a filmography as varied as any in history, managing to balance the raving homeless man of The Fisher King with the chilling stalker of One Hour Photo; the tender psychiatrist of Good Will Hunting with the loud yet lovable radio host of Good Morning, Vietnam; and the wise-cracking Genie of Aladdin with the struggling father of Mrs. Doubtfire. He learned to do it all through his career and never stopped pushing himself out of his comfort zone and into another memorable turn.