Film Firsts | Acting Performances With a Significant Impact

For all the accolades and praise film directors and screenwriters receive, an acting performance alone can make or break a picture most of the time. Even in a film panned by critics or cinephiles, an outstanding character portrayal can still be recognized among all the rest of an otherwise unwanted film.

Whether it’s highlighted during award season, fodder in a podcast, or in friendly discourse on the Internet, sometimes just one actor can make a film memorable by the merits of their talent. For better or worse, sometimes these iconic performances can be synonymous with an actor for the rest of their career.

It’s our first official #FilmFirstsFriday and thanks to a resounding response by all of you wonderful followers and readers (and a 43% overall share of votes), I asked our MoviesMatrix squad which acting performance had a profound effect on them. Here’s what they had to say.

Which acting performance was your #FilmFirst having a significant impact on you?

Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society (1989)

Renowned acting performance from Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society
Source: Touchstone Pictures/Silver Screen Partners IV

Shawn: Robin Williams as Mr. John Keating in Dead Poets Society.

Each student in that film had their own character development, plot line, story angle, and personal tragedy. Yet, when they meet Mr. Keating, they realize how connected they were to “make their lives extraordinary.” Williams’ acting performance was the connective tissue for each boy in that film and watching him navigate from child-to-child making an indelible impression in each of their lives was fascinating.

The movie impacted me in ways I was not prepared to experience, but watching Robin Williams go far beyond a comedic stage and execute that kind of drama with painstaking accuracy and visceral action was extraordinary to me.

Jack Nicholson, The Shining (1980)

Source: Warner Bros./Hawk Films

Todd: Jack Nicholson‘s amazing acting performance as Jack Torrance in The Shining.

This role and acting performance solidified Nicholson in the mainstream and as one of my all-time favorite actors. His haunting spiral into madness is personified through his creepy nuances and commanding physical presence. In addition to his subtle intelligence and natural charisma, Jack delivers a once-in-a-generation acting performance. Anyone that has seen this film knows, it’s a film that really gets under your skin.

(Even Stephen King knows that much about this movie.)

Harvey Keitel, Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Source: Live Entertainment/Dog Eat Dog Productions

Loretto: Harvey Keitel‘s acting performance in Reservoir Dogs shook me to the core.

Much like the introduction of Quentin Tarantino‘s film directing debut, this acting performance was a literal slap to my very young face.

Without any sort of context or backstory, the audience is thrust into a car with Keitel as he frantically tries to keep his bleeding companion calm. Personally, I was lost in his panic and compassion. I didn’t know what was happening, but Keitel grabbed my attention and had me invest my emotions.

As the film progressed, I was pleased to see the sheer range the talented Keitel was able to convey. From intense “wanna-throw-fisticuffs” anger to calm bad-ass cool, Keitel’s acting performance was the key highlight of many in Reservoir Dogs. Was his friend “gonna be okay”? I wasn’t sure but thanks to Harvey Keitel, I sure did hope so.

Christian Bale, The Machinist (2004)

Source: Filmax Group/Castelao Producciones

Sonny: When I saw Christian Bale in The Machinist at a young age, I was completely in awe.

Think about the body transformation he put himself through just for the part. He completely embodied the character he portrayed with so much commitment. I had chills every time he was on the screen. It showed me that actors don’t just turn up and pretend to be a character, they transform themselves. I started following his career very closely after that and it’s safe to say he’s had a highly successful one.

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (2008)

Source: Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics/Syncopy

Michael: Like many people my age, the first performance to have a significant impact on me was Heath Ledger‘s Joker in The Dark Knight.

I was already into films and into the idea of movie-making (thanks to Jurassic Park) but I think Ledger’s acting performance was when I started thinking of it less of an entertainment and more as an art form.

It was a year after the first time I watched the Oscars and coming out of The Dark Knight I felt transformed. I never knew movies could be that good and Ledger’s performance was a huge part of that. The Joker was always one of my favorite villains as a kid but because Ledger’s Joker was more than just a “good Joker.” The power he commanded was something I had ever seen up until that point.

Hearing about method acting because of Ledger’s portrayal, I began to study in order to learn the very art of acting. I followed the award-season chatter with a great interest for both the film and Ledger. I wanted to see him win all of the acting prizes and every article I read that suggested Ledger could lose I got a knot in my stomach. Ledger’s acting performance in The Dark Knight was the first time I had seen something that I originally just took as a great cartoon villain and turned it into something unforgettable.

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