Actors love to give great performances. Apart from the obvious glamour and glory come awards season, doing reliable work helps build up a strong reputation and pad out the resume. Lord knows countless great actors have given great performances… but rarely are they brave. Rarely do they shock.
Shocking performances are a scarce commodity. Hollywood has a way of making actors look beautiful even at their ugliest. Astute actors, managers and agents know that a career can suffer if an actor takes on an unsympathetic role. At the same time, giving a brave performance in a controversial or taxing role can make a career, and land a performer in the cinematic hall of fame.
The actors on this list all pulled off that feat—giving brilliant performances that also shocked audiences. For some, their careers suffered, while others went on to even bigger stardom. Either way, all of these performances should be seen, dissected and debated by critics and audiences alike, not to mention acting students. Rarely have performers shown this kind of abandon, this level of untamed, raw emotion. Each took a huge risk and gave a great performance—the kind that can shock, and the type of performance that shows courage above all else.
These are the The 15 Most Shocking Performances Ever Filmed.
15. Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet
Rossellini had only two film credits to her name—both of them minor roles—when David Lynch approached her about playing the lead in a new mystery film he’d written and directed. Initially, Lynch wanted Helen Mirren in the role and asked Rossellini to act as a go-between (Mirren and Rossellini having just worked on a film together), but then found Rossellini even more captivating. The daughter of acclaimed Italian director Roberto Rossellini and the Oscar-winning actress Ingrid Bergman, Isabella found the script compelling, but didn’t know if she could handle the role.
The movie was Blue Velvet, and the role was that of Dorothy Vallens, a nightclub singer who’s son was kidnapped by a vile gangster, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). To keep her son alive, Dorothy submits to regular and ritualistic rape by Frank, but as a masochist, also finds herself turned on by the whole situation. The part called for an actress to perform a brutal rape scene as well as several graphic sex scenes. Moreover, she would need to appear totally naked on camera.
Rossellini took the role, and critics regard Blue Velvet as something of a latter-day masterpiece. Directed with style and flair by Lynch, the film works not because of his quirky sensibilities, but because of Rossellini’s jaw dropping contributions. Rarely has another actress displayed such glamour and shame on screen, or shown as much courage in her performance. Rossellini’s career suffered somewhat from the shock of Blue Velvet, which is a cruel joke: hers is a sincere and brave performance, and Oscar should have taken notice.
14. Tom Hanks in Philadelphia
AIDS had ravaged the world by the early 1990s. Government indifference had condemned millions of people around the world to death as science struggled to find a cause and an effective form of treatment. By 1993, Hollywood had decided to speak out. Director Jonathan Demme, hot from the success of his Oscar-winning effort The Silence of the Lambs and devastated by the death of a friend from AIDS, decided to tackle the subject head-on.
Hollywood, for all its liberal posturing and reputation, had dragged its feet to confront the subject of AIDS. Studios feared that audiences would avoid a film that dealt with such a sensitive and depressing subject, or that focused on a key demographic ravaged by the disease: gay men. Censorship had long prevented openly gay characters in films, and homophobia within the industry could ruin an actor’s career simply from playing a gay character.
Enter Tom Hanks, a respected actor known for comedic roles in The Burbs and Big, the latter even earning him an Oscar nomination. Tinseltown let out a collective gasp when Hanks agreed to take the part of a gay lawyer dying of AIDS. The resulting film, Philadelphia, met with rave reviews, especially for Hanks’ sensitive and fearless performance. Though gay audiences today debate the merits of the film, and its shortcomings—scenes of characters living with AIDS were somewhat toned down, while scenes of affection between Hanks and his on-screen boyfriend played by Antonio Banderas landed on the cutting room floor—Hanks’ Oscar-winning turn continues to attract only admiration.
13. Bruno Ganz in Downfall
Audiences who know Ganz’s work only from Hitler reaction meme videos are missing out: that actor gives one of the best performances in recent memory in Downfall. A German film, the movie follows the last days of Hitler’s life during the collapse of Nazi Germany as recounted by his secretary. Once lauded as a military genius and master statesman, Hitler’s madness has become apparent, as has his physical deterioration. With the Soviet army just miles away, Hitler realizes the war is lost.
Ganz does something remarkable with his performance. As one of the most-oft seen real-life figures in the movies, films like to treat Hitler as something of a cackling supervillain. Ganz does the opposite: he makes Hitler into a real person, which makes the character all the more terrifying. Watching Hitler in moments of fatherly kindness, or playing with children on the floor reminds viewers of the banality of evil, and how Hitler could con the German people into supporting a tyrannical mass murderer. To be clear, Ganz in no way makes the character sympathetic; on the contrary, his Hitler barks orders and spews anti-Semitism with the same chilling cruelty the real man must have had. The character does become pitiful however, and in so doing, Ganz makes him into a three-dimensional man, capable of kindness, and of leading a nation in genocide, and to ruin.
12. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard
Gloria Swanson had become one of the biggest stars in the world and one of the most beautiful women in history courtesy of her thriving career in silent films. With the coming of sound—and with the coming of middle age—Swanson vanished from the screen, holed up in her Hollywood mansion. All but forgotten by audiences, she quietly dreamed of making a return to film when writer/director Billy Wilder asked her to screen test for the lead in his new film Sunset Boulevard.
Sunset Boulevard told the story of a starving writer who becomes something of a male playtoy for an aging, former silent film queen. Despite the role earning great acclaim, Wilder had terrible trouble finding an actress who would accept it. Mae West had turned it down, fearing that playing a washed-up has-been would hurt her career. Former silent film star Mary Pickford found the role vile and rejected it outright. Norma Sheerer did the same, as did Greta Garbo.
Swanson took the part amid rumors that the role had been based on her real life, something she and Wilder always denied. It’s somewhat distressing now to think that at age 50 (younger than Meryl Streep or Sharon Stone), and with beauty as exceptional as Swanson’s, she could be considered old or haggard! In her performance, Swanson didn’t hold back, unafraid to play Norma as selfish, narcissistic, vain and emasculating. Hers is one of the finest performances in history.
11. Peter Lorre in M
While Hollywood labored under the censorship of the Hays code, European cinema had no trouble taking on sensitive and horrific subjects. Leave it to the German director Fritz Lang, the auteur behind Metropolis and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, to make one of the screen’s first horror stories about a serial killer. Titled simply M, the movie became an instant classic, owing in no small part to its star: Peter Lorre. Lorre would go on to great success in American films like The Maltese Falcon and Mad Love.
His star-making turn in M, however, qualifies him here. Lorre plays Hans Beckert as a man torn by his own compulsions—he hates that he murders children, but finds it too exhilarating to pass up. As the police struggle to identify this serial murderer, a group of homeless beggars recognize Beckert as the monster he is and kidnap him, putting him on a makeshift trial with the city’s criminal underworld as judge and jury. In his scenes before the court, Lorre delivers a jaw dropping performance, begging for his life, all the while, claiming he has no choice but to kill children.
Lorre’s unflinching courage cemented his career with M: in the early days of film, before criminal profiling and Court TV had made serial killers into a mini-industry, he had the insight and instincts to make Beckert into a disgrace of a man, but one fully aware of his actions. Lorre would spend the rest of his career typecast in crazed villain roles, though becoming a horror legend in the process. The status, while earned, is somewhat unfair: Lorre was more than just a horror star—he was one hell of an actor.
10. Brian Cox in L.I.E.
Brian Cox had worked consistently on film and stage for years before he got his breakout role in L.I.E. He’d become the screen’s first Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, and showed off his Scottish heritage in Braveheart and Rob Roy. In 2001 though, he took a massive risk, playing a seductive pedophile in L.I.E.. Cox played Big John (the “BJ” hilariously intentional; it becomes a recurring theme in the film), a charming, older military man who loves women, but also preys on young boys. In a breathtaking twist, Cox plays Big John as a likable guy—at least to the point he can be likable. He’s a monster, yes, but he also wants to befriend the boys he seduces.
Cox’s choices add an intriguing layer to the character. In the case of Paul Dano’s Howie, a boy with an absent father, does Big John want him only for sex, or for friendship too? What about Scottie (Walter Masterson), Big John’s 19-year-old longtime ward, who John treats more like a servant? The ambiguities in Cox’s performance make it spellbinding, if totally creepy at the same time. He plays the role without excusing his character’s loathsome behavior, or without making him into a one-dimensional fiend. The performance shocked Hollywood, and Cox soon had become a sought-after character actor, taking roles in X2, Troy and The Ring.
9. Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry
Hilary Swank had a strange career prior to 1998. Before that year, she’d toiled in minor TV roles, including a stint on Beverly Hills 90210 that ended prematurely. Her biggest shot at stardom, the title role in The Next Karate Kid, had bombed at the box office, both in terms of ticket sales and critical notice. She took a role in a small independent film more out of necessity than attraction, and boy, did she get more than she bargained for.
The film was Boys Don’t Cry, a biopic of transgendered 20-something Brandon Teena, who lived as a man in southern Nebraska. Teena had lived as a man there for several years before his friends discovered his transgender status; two of them later raped and killed him. In the 1990s, hate crimes and transsexualism were hot button issues that few films (or actors) would take on. Swank, however, immersed herself in the role.
To prepare, the actress began lifting weights, cut her hair, and wearing men’s clothing—essentially living as a man herself for months before filming. The film called for Swank to appear nude on camera, as well as participate in several graphic, brutal rape scenes. Her fearlessness in the role paid off, however: Boys Don’t Cry opened to rave reviews, and Swank became a star, winning a Best Actress Oscar.
8. Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
Sometimes a character doesn’t require an actor to appear nude or undergo physical strain to attract controversy: sometimes, actors get scared of playing a character totally, unredeemably vile.
Case in point: Nurse Mildred Ratched in the film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The film version of the popular novel had labored for years in development hell before producer Michael Douglas signed Jack Nicholson to star and Milos Forman to direct. Casting the female lead—also the chief villain of the piece—proved almost impossible. Major actresses like Ellen Burstyn and Jane Fonda had both rejected the part as anti-feminist, while character actresses Anne Bancroft and Angela Lansbury found the character too awful to play. Enter unknown actress Louise Fletcher, who had only a handful of credits to her resume.
Fletcher didn’t fit the novel’s description of Ratched; the book described her as a butch, stout, ugly bruiser. Fletcher, however, was a beautiful woman, and used her good looks to her advantage. Along with embodying the cool, calculating and sadistic intelligence of the character, Fletcher wasn’t afraid to bring a flirtatiousness to the role, playing Nurse Ratched as spiteful of Nicholson’s McMurphy, but also aroused by their slave-master relationship. Fletcher’s performance continues to earn universal acclaim today, and besides winning an Oscar for her work, the AFI named her one of the best villains in movie history.
7. Anthony Hopkins in Nixon
Speaking of unredeeming, awful, inhuman beasts…
Anthony Hopkins had already played a cannibalistic monster and netted an Academy Award for his work in The Silence of the Lambs when he accepted the part of another inhuman maniac: Richard Nixon. Nixon, of course, remains the only President in US history to resign. His administration had become so scandal-ridden, courtesy of illegal bombings in Cambodia, a gang of thugs operating out of the Oval Office, and a break-in at the Watergate Hotel, that Nixon had to resign or face removal from office.
Any other movie might have tried to soften Nixon’s well-reported paranoid behavior or bizarre quirks. But with Oliver Stone taking on writing and directorial duties, Nixon became a portrait of a disturbed and vindictive man undone by his own idiosyncrasies. Anthony Hopkins doesn’t shy away from Nixon’s loathsome qualities either, playing him as, by turns, petty, vengeful, manipulative and yes, even tender and loving. His Nixon becomes a complex maze of neurosis and love, particularly of the women in his life—his mother (magnificently played by Mary Steenburgen), wife (Joan Allen, who matches Hopkins with her own intensity) and daughters. A lesser actor would have reduced Nixon to a blustering caricature or misunderstood genius. Hopkins plays at both without reaching either extreme: he’s not afraid to babble and bawl in the floor, or to beam with love.
6. Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
Oscar did take notice when longtime screen siren Bette Davis took on the role of a former child star. From the start of her career, Davis showed little vanity in her performances, taking the role of an unredeeming rake in Of Human Bondage and a spoiled brat in Jezebel. She’d already won two Academy Awards by the 1960s, though her career had slowed by then. The studio system that stabilized acting work had begun to crumble, and as an aging woman, Davis had trouble finding good parts.
In 1961, though, Davis did find a great part, and few other actresses could touch it. The thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane cast Davis as former child star Jane Hudson, an alcoholic and depressive has-been who spent her childhood adored and her later years overshadowed by her more beautiful actress-sister Blanche (Joan Crawford, Davis’s longtime rival). A horrible drunken car accident left Blanche paralyzed, forcing Jane to become her sister’s keeper. Then one day, Jane plots a comeback.
Though occasionally and unfairly pegged as a camp classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a true descent into madness, and a chilling thriller. Davis’s performance as a woman teetering on insanity anchors the film, and the actress didn’t hesitate to wear thick baby doll make-up, or perform scenes of pathetic desperation. It’s one of the greatest performances on film.
5. Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show
How many actors become breakout stars for playing a seductive, horny, bisexual transsexual wearing fishnets…in a musical?
Well, at least one…Tim Curry. Curry had a good mix of recording success and a career as a stage actor in Britain when he landed the role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the original stage production of The Rocky Horror Show. His performance had become so talked about that he actually repeated it in Los Angeles and New York to great acclaim. Then Hollywood came calling…
But wait, you ask? What’s so impressive about Curry playing the same part he’d had on stage in a film version? How brave is that, really?
It’s damn brave is what it is! Curry was totally unknown to movie audiences when he took the part again in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Playing a role as flamboyant and outrageous as Frank-N-Furter to small crowds every night on stage is one thing, but performing the role on film for millions of people—both born and unborn—to see is another. Curry didn’t hold back in his work, giving one of the most lauded and memorable performances in history. The Rocky Horror Picture Show continues to have an active following to this day, due in no small part to Curry’s shocking—and sensational—performance.
4. Chloe Sevigny in The Brown Bunny
Performing a sex scene in a film is one thing—actors might have to appear naked and perform as if in the throws of passion. But what about a real sex scene?
Writer/director Vincent Gallo had already become something of an indie darling thanks to the success of his film Buffalo ’66. When he announced that he would write, direct and star in a new film about a heartbroken man opposite Chloe Sevigny, his then-girlfriend, it seemed like a perfect match. Still, audiences seeing the film might wonder if Sevigny knew what she was signing up for.
The Brown Bunny follows a motorcycle racer named Bud as he embarks on a cross country journey. He has several strange encounters with women along the way, though he appears obsessed with Daisy, a woman from his past. When she appears in his hotel room one night under the influence of drugs, she performs oral sex on Bud before vanishing.
As Daisy, Sevigny’s role in the film is small but vital. Perhaps most difficult for the actress, Gallo insisted that the scenes of oral sex not only be graphic, but not be staged. The film, needless to say, attracted wild controversy, and though Sevigny received good reviews, she was dropped by her talent agency thanks to the graphic content of the movie. Her career has since recovered, perhaps because viewers appreciate the courage she showed in The Brown Bunny.
3. Charlize Theron in Monster
Charlize Theron might just be the most beautiful woman alive, but in the early 2000s, the world knew her as little more than a pretty face. Her career had stalled, and she ended up typecast in “pretty girl” roles in films like Mighty Joe Young and The Devil’s Advocate. In 2003, she decided to take a risk in a small, independent biopic about the so-called “America’s First Female Serial Killer,” Aileen Wuornos.
Wuornos had operated in Florida in the 1990s as a prostitute and killed at least seven men. All the while, she kept a lesbian lover. Theron took the part and began a physical transformation: the actress reportedly gained 30 lbs., and underwent extensive prosthetic make up to resemble Wuornos. The actress also let herself sink into Wuornos’s frenzy, taking on her insane mannerisms and speech patterns. For an actress of extreme beauty, Theron showed no fear or vanity in her work. Roger Ebert said the performance surpassed ordinary acting, becoming “embodiment.”
Monster proved a watershed moment in Theron’s career. The success of the film and critical lauds for her shocking performance catapulted her from the Hollywood B-list to the top of the showbiz heap, and she nabbed an Academy Award for her work.
2. Ned Beatty in Deliverance
Rape scenes are difficult enough for actresses to endure, but what about when the victim is a man?
Deliverance hit screens in 1972, directed by British auteur John Boorman. Based on a popular novel, the story followed a group of four men who take a canoe trip down a Georgia river and end up terrorized by a group of backwoods hicks. One scene called for one of the men to get raped by a local, inspiring the popular phrase “squeal like a pig.”
Actor Ned Beatty knew he’d have to perform the scene when he signed on to the film, and didn’t let the nudity or emotional stresses dissuade him from taking the role. The result became one of the most horrific scenes in all cinema, and Beatty earned praise for his bravery. Deliverance opened to strong reviews and went on to become one of the biggest hits of the year. The film also scored big during awards season, nabbing three Oscar nominations. Of all the praise though, the strongest was for Beatty, who began a long and prestigious career as a great character actor. He prefers not to discuss Deliverance today, as he doesn’t want the shocking nature of his performance to upstage the rest of his work. Still, his work in the film ranks among some of the bravest ever put to screen.
1. Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List
Before Lord Voldemort and Red Dragon made Fiennes into a go-to man for creepy villain roles, the actor played a real-life creep and true villain: the Nazi Amon Goth, steward of a Polish concentration camp. Director Steven Spielberg cast Fiennes in the part because of his “evil sexuality.” By turns, Fiennes could appear friendly and seductive, before his eyes would turn cold and his expression would harden. Fiennes also gained 28 lbs. for the part, and heavily researched the activities of the real-life Goth.
Schindler’s List opened to spectacular reviews and outstanding box office receipts, a feat rendered all the more impressive considering the subject matter. Fiennes became a true Hollywood star, and earned an Oscar nomination for his work. The film often appears on best of all time movie lists, due in large part to Fiennes’s performance: had he showed any fear in playing his psychopathic character, it would have lessened the impact of the film as a whole. The actor later recalled his own conflicted feeling when getting into character. Fiennes said he came to know Goth as a pathetic monster, a man of inexcusable acts for whom the actor, never the less, felt an unusual emotion: pity.
Can you think of any other actors who truly impressed in their performances? Share in the comments!