Who's the Best Actor in Hollywood?

Eight different writers fashion eight different arguments to convince you why eight different performers are each the best actor working in Hollywood films today.

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Jeff Bridges

by Stephen Rebello

Confronted with an actor with as true an aim, as quintessentially American a look, as rock-steady a vibe as Jeff Bridges. I try not to drive myself nuts imagining the uses to which great, dead movie directors might have put him. Sure, the minute Bridges burst on the scene, many strong directors of the '70s and '80s knew enough to get him --Coppola, Cimino, Rafelson, Pakula, for instance. Too bad they never fully got him. Bridges, after all, sits squarely in the tradition of such great American sides of beef as Gary Cooper, Joel McCrea, Robert Mitchum and William Holden: unfussy, quietly persuasive, straight-shooting guy's guys of the sort whose inborn, affable cockiness shades into pained disillusion as the years wear them down.

I don't think it's coincidence that some of his finest work--and full-tilt Bridges stands right alongside the very best--unfolds in retro, throwback con-texts. He's spectacular as the big-dumb-and-full-of-cum high school jock in The Last Picture Show, a black-and-white heartbreaker in which the wayward Texas wind seems to cry John Ford... George Stevens... Howard Hawks. He evoked Brando and Garfield playing the brash boxing contender in Fat City, working so fluidly for the old giant John Huston it suggests how at ease Bridges might have been in the director's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Misfits or The Asphalt Jungle. He's also brilliant as the failing upward scammer in Cutter's Way, utterly contemporary yet marinated in the brine of noir. His aging lounge musician in The Fabulous Baker Boys feels coolly bebop, tragically hip, desolate. Even his lesser films are often homages if not remakes, reminders of the days in which he would have rightfully ruled in the business: Hearts of the West, King Kong, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Against All Odds, Stannan (an Oscar nomination), Wild Bill (a deserved nomination denied him).

It strikes me as supremely fucked that, in a time when Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell luck into hits. Bridges may be fated never to star in a through-the-roof smash. Forget how he was talked up to play Batman and Robin Hood, couldn't he have been, shouldn't he have been, the guy in Fatal Attraction and Basic instinct instead of, say, the guy in Jagged Edge? Think how he could have juiced up Romancing the Stone, Wall Street, The Prince of Tides and The Bridges of Madison County when he was doing, instead, American Heart, Blown Away and White Squall. Search him out working at peak form as a guy shaken to the core by near-death in Fearless. You'd be hard-pressed to catch him acting; he breathes his characters. Nearing 50 and having logged about as many films, he's Hollywood's sexiest, most reliable, least-tapped resource. Where in hell are Scorsese, Tarantino, Figgis and Spielberg when a guy needs them?

Morgan Freeman

by David Thomson

He is an actor who really only began to be himself around the age of 50 -- that alone would be remarkable, for so many American film actors have as tough a time being middle-aged on screen as they do in real life. He has never yet been called upon to carry a film on his own--surely a measure of stardom--and no one would shame him by putting his salary at the eight-digit level. Yet no one, I think, would dispute the claim that he is one of our largest, most serious and best actors. Very few others have such extensive and natural ties to the wealth of being human.

Put it that way, and you might guess that Morgan Freeman was English. Of course, he is not. But he is black, which is still a greater handicap. And even someone praising Morgan Freeman should note those roles he has had because of his color. Thus Glory and Driving Miss Daisy (in both of which he is very good) require that he be black, and owe their existence as art or entertainment to the various ways in which we are in retreat from our prejudice against black people. That doesn't diminish or belittle such films, but it helps explain how some black casting is a gesture, like affirmative action. Freeman's forlorn black judge in The Bonfire of the Vanities exposes the tokenism possible in such a state of affairs.

But what is really magnificent about Freeman is that on a few occasions he has played men with such force, depth, guile, spirit ant! uniqueness that we hardly notice their color. The pimp in Street Smart was one of these, so frightening a blind viewer would have felt threatened. Then there have been his roles in Unforgiven and The Shawshank Redemption. But for many of us, Freeman made himself most clear and extraordinary as the older cop in Seven, a movie in which he had to represent wisdom, experience, decency and hope (unfashionable things) and made them so fresh and touching that the lack of Academy recognition was proof that racism is only a subset of stupidity. Morgan Freeman could play Lincoln--which other actor of the proper age has more command of Lincoln's battered honesty?

Gary Oldman

by Michael Atkinson

Some actors are chickenshit -- you can read it in their eyes, their stock mannerisms, their reliance on self-mythologizing material--and some are utterly fearless, digging their incisors into the meat of human experience like cheetahs after a 50 mph zebra run-down. Of these, Gary Oldman is the rogue prince, so dazzling, brave and scary that the movies he's in can rarely keep up. He's brilliant and dangerous, extraordinarily gifted and always spoiling for a dustup. Whether as Beethoven or Sid Vicious, Dracula or Oswald, you sense that you could never deter him, that he's running on raw will. In True Romance he took a small, quaint Quentin Tarantino idea -- a white hood who thinks he's black--and made him genuinely chilling. In State of Grace, he took an ordinary gang thug and made him as real and fearsome as a freeway smackup. There's no lying in his eyes--even in The Scarlet Letter, he meant every ridiculous word. Like his best roles, Old-man is never dull or lazy or less than desperate and vivid. His finest hour may still be capturing the blind doom of punk's most authentic martyr in Sid and Nancy, but even in bilge like The Professional and Romeo Is Bleeding. Oldman means business in a way those movies can't handle. He's mesmerizing because he doesn't seem to care if we're watching--he's wreaking havoc because his blood is boiling, and we had better just step out of the way. There's never been a Dracula as whacked out and wrenching; imagine another actor declaring war on God in hoarse Romanian and drinking the blood bled from a stone cross, and making you believe it. Old-man is a ledge-walker; there's no sanctity-of-the-acting-craft piffle, or cheap movie star endearments. Just the electricity of risk.

Jack Nicholson

by Joshua Mooney

Jack's shit-eating grin is so fearless, it makes me realize how lucky I am to be a man. Could any actor give me more? Of course, I am not Jack. Jack is the one plus ultra against which all men measure themselves and fall short. But when I can jack a little Jack into my bloodstream, I feel a surge of total confidence. And any women in the room begin stirring uneasily in my direction. There are two templates of his Cheshire Cat-got-the-canary smile. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, after an inane question from the shrink, Jack leans back, eyebrows quivering with merriment (eyes and mouth work together as an extremely dangerous team), and looks from right to left, beaming at imaginary com-padres as if to say, "Can you believe this guy? Thinks he's gonna outfox R.P. McMurphy. Ain't that somethin'?" In Wolf, his wife wakes him after 20 hours of sleep (the werewolf is taking over) and asks him how he feels. Jack licks his chops, savoring the canine bile in his mouth like a connoisseur of madness, thinks for a moment and then says, "I feel... good." And the grin slowly crawls across his face--the perfect portrait of a shy book editor who wakes up to the wonderfulness of becoming Jack. The grin is the heart of so many roles, so vital to the animus of Jack, whether that be madness (The Shining--great work, I don't care what anyone says) or cartoon evil (Batman's The Joker), or the crushing acceptance of all your failures as a man (Five Easy Pieces). Is it ironic, then, that my role model's characters so often end in isolation, tragedy or death (The Passenger, Five Easy Pieces, A Few Good Men, Chinatown, Easy Rider, etc.)? Jesus, no. Jack knows the hand is always already dealt. And that grin can so easily turn downward, into the snarl of a cornered beast: "Now you've gone too far, my friend. Don't you know the world is shit? I'm doing my part. I'm Jack. You got anything--anything--to put against that? I didn't think so."

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