Actors read between the lines of a script to become their characters. They service the material and elevate words into experience. The great pretenders are not just pretending, they are living. Actors are not playing a character; they are a character. Similar to method acting, an actor’s portrayal of a character that is so aligned with the actor’s personality goes beyond make-believe. The stage presence is natural. Separating the character from the actor is impossible. A leading man and his role are simply one and the same, a force of charisma.
10 Cool Hand Luke (1967) – Paul Newman
Cool Hand Luke stars Paul Newman as the hard-luck World War II veteran Lucas Jackson. One night, Luke cuts parking meters in half while intoxicated. He is sentenced to two years in a Florida prison, where he works in a chain gang. Luke defies authority, standing independent of the guards and warden who became their jobs. Luke belongs to no one but himself.
9 From Russia with Love (1963) – Sean Connery
From Russia with Love stars Sean Connery as the dapper British spy James Bond. The MI6 agent has killed Dr. No, a member of the international crime syndicate SPECTRE. Its members plan a revenge trap for Bond by having him obtain a Lektor cryptography device.
Donald Grant, a trained killer, aids Bond in retrieving the Soviet Intelligence cipher machine until he can steal it. Using the element of surprise and smooth action, Bond takes little time to outwit his espionage foes with style.
8 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1973) – Jack Nicholson
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest stars Jack Nicholson as sex offender Randle Murphy, who pleads insanity to avoid forced labor. He is sent to a mental institution under the repressive guidance of head nurse Mildred Ratched.
The patients are intimidated by her, but Murphy rebels and inspires the men in his ward to assert themselves. Despite their limitations and past lives, Murphy was crazy enough to show them one truth. Even when people call you crazy, it doesn’t mean that you are.
7 Philadelphia (1993) – Denzel Washington
Philadelphia stars Denzel Washington as personal injury attorney Joe Miller. He meets senior associate Andrew Beckett, who has been wrongfully dismissed by his law firm on account of his AIDS diagnosis and sexuality. He believes his employer “misplaced” his documents, allowing them to terminate him under false pretenses. Seeing the similarities to racial discrimination, Miller defends Beckett in court.
6 Scent of a Woman (1992) – Al Pacino
Scent of a Woman stars Al Pacino as retired Vietnam veteran, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade. He is a blind, irascible alcoholic, placed in the care of prep student Charlie Simms. Frank admits to Charlie that he has a bucket list he wants to complete before committing suicide. While the two men in different seasons of their lives get to know each other, Frank decides to live with Charlie’s encouragement and honor his friend’s integrity.
5 Casino (1995) – Robert De Niro
Casino stars Robert De Niro as gambling handicapper Sam Rothstein. He is hired by the Chicago Outfit to manage operations at Tangiers Casino. Mob enforcer Nicky Santoro is sent to support Sam, but his string of robberies and criminal acts puts everyone under the gun by law enforcement. Sam tries to keep the Mafia happy and the casino’s dealings discreet, but ends up blameless. He did his job well, not for praise, but for greedy hands that never fed him.
4 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) – Clint Eastwood
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly stars Clint Eastwood as a nameless drifter known as Blondie. He cons towns out of their bounty by delivering and then freeing his accomplice, Mexican bandit Tuco Ramirez. They both grow tired of each other until a dead man’s tale of Confederate gold piques their interest. A hunt for the gold brings mercenary Angel Eyes into a Mexican standoff, where Blondie has a trick up his sleeve and gives himself a priceless name.
3 To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) – Gregory Peck
To Kill a Mockingbird stars Gregory Peck as the single father and lawyer Atticus Finch. He is a disciplined role model for his son Jem and daughter Scout, advocating for equality and the peaceful exchange of beliefs.
Tensions in their racist Alabama community rise when Atticus defends African-American Tom Robinson who is accused of sexually assaulting Caucasian girl Mayella Ewell. Atticus knows he is beaten by an all-Caucasian court, but he protects Tom’s innocence against a racist society anyway.
2 Casablanca (1942) – Humphrey Bogart
Casablanca stars Humphrey Bogart as American expatriate Rick Blaine. During World War II, Rick runs his nightclub in Casablanca, Morocco, while refugees seek asylum in the neutral United States. German Nazis and other political parties congregate at Rick’s establishment, making patrons uneasy.
One gives Rick transit papers guaranteeing a flight to German-occupied Europe and neutral Portugal. Rick must choose who gets their freedom: his ex-lover Ilsa Lund or her husband, a Czechoslovak Resistance leader, Victor Laszlo. The decision makes a nonpartisan Rick political for all the right reasons.
1 The Great Escape (1963) – Steve McQueen
The Great Escape stars Steve McQueen as Captain Virgil Hilts, one of many Allied POWs captured in a Nazi Germany war camp. Hilts is a relentless escapee who gets caught every time. He and his compatriots devise a plan to escape through a series of tunnels instead. Their attempts are noble yet dangerous, as not all men make it out alive. Hilts may have lost the war, but his will to break free always won.