Cinema began its life in the late 19th century. Still, it didn’t become the art form we recognize today, with feature-length films capable of telling complex stories, until the early 20th century.
Of course, actors and performers of all kinds were in motion pictures before the advent of feature films. But with feature films came actors who transformed into characters before our eyes for an hour or more and performed a range of emotions, intentions, and actions. The best of the best still live on in legacy and memory.
1. Buster Keaton
Buster Keaton is best remembered for his death-defying stunts but was also a phenomenal actor. Despite, or perhaps because of, the deadpan that earned him the nickname “stone face,” Keaton delivered fantastic performances in over a hundred films, many of which he also wrote and directed. His ability to convey various emotions with a single look while putting his body through ridiculous physical comedy routines made him a star and has ensured that he remains a screen legend.
2. Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford is just as important for her work in the film industry as her work on film. The early movie star was one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the people who give out Oscars) and the creative-owned production studio United Artists.
3. Conrad Veidt
Conrad Veidt originally made waves with his silent performances in German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Man Who Laughs (a performance that inspired iconic Batman villain Joker). Those films and his acting in them have withstood the test of time and are still considered some of the most astounding performances ever.
4. Lillian Gish
Like her friend Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish garnered a loving title because of her talent and superstardom; she was known as “The First Lady of American Cinema.” Her career spanned over fifty years, and she starred in several of the most celebrated and important films of all time, including Intolerance and The Night of the Hunter.
5. Gary Cooper
Gary Cooper began his career in silent films, starring mainly in Westerns and appearing in a small role in Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture, before smoothly transitioning into sound. He continued appearing in Westerns throughout his career, including classics like High Noon, iconic romantic comedies like Ball of Fire, and various other films.
6. Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo’s career was relatively short, given her indelible impact. The actress began making movies in her native Sweden before being noticed. She went to Hollywood, where she quickly became a star and appeared in several highly celebrated films, including Ninotchka and Queen Chsignristina.
7. Boris Karloff
Boris Karloff is known as the monster in Universal’s Frankenstein, a silent performance he makes remarkable with his eyes. But he’s also so much more than that monster. Karloff regularly delivered nuanced and compelling performances in some of the best horror films of the Classical Hollywood era. Oh, and he narrated the best Christmas special of all time.
8. Katharine Hepburn
In a career of over sixty years, Katharine Hepburn mastered comedy in beloved films like Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story and drama in iconic films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. She still holds the record for the most Academy Awards won by any performer, with four, and was named the “greatest” female star of Classical Hollywood by the American Film Institute in 1999.
9. Spencer Tracy
Hepburn worked frequently with her longtime romantic partner, Spencer Tracy, who was also a fantastic actor. Like Hepburn, Tracy starred in a variety of iconic films, including Neo-Western Bad Day at Black Rock, a military courtroom drama grappling with the horrors of World War II Judgment at Nuremberg, and alongside Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He was also the first actor to win Best Actor Oscars in two consecutive years, a record he now shares with Tom Hanks.
10. Judy Garland
Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is such an iconic character that it’s the only thing most people know Judy Garland for. But she’s so much more than that, not only as an actor who starred in the 1954 A Star is Born and Judgment at Nuremberg with Spencer Tracy, among many other films, but also as a talented singer who became the first woman to win the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1962.
11. Edward G. Robinson
While the Oscars can be a helpful guide to some fantastic actors, they aren’t always right. Case in point, Edward G. Robinson, one of the most critically lauded and iconic stars of Classical Hollywood, never received an Academy Award despite frequent fantastic performances. Robinson is likely best remembered now for his touching performance as insurance investigator Barton Keyes in the quintessential noir Double Indemnity.
12. Bette Davis
It’s not just that Bette Davis had a long and successful career that made her so great. It’s that she’s remembered equally for her brilliant work in Classical Hollywood melodramas like Now, Voyager and her “hagsploitation” films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? from the 1960s and ’70s.
13. Humphrey Bogart
Humphrey Bogart is a film noir and romantic icon for his role in Casablanca. He was an incredible actor who could easily switch between tough and vulnerable, and his best performances, like the one in In a Lonely Place, perfectly combined that toughness and vulnerability. That ability earned him the title of the greatest male star of Classical Hollywood from the American Film Institute.
14. Joan Crawford
Like her What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? co-star Bette Davis, Joan Crawford managed to be both an icon of Classical Hollywood’s “women’s pictures” like Mildred Pierce and a queen of the hagsploitation subgenre. In between, she also starred in one of the most celebrated Westerns of all time, Johnny Guitar.
15. Peter Lorre
If Peter Lorre only ever starred in Fritz Lang’s M, in which he plays a serial child murderer, he would still be regarded as one of the greatest actors ever. But he became a star in films by Alfred Hitchcock and a beloved regular in noirs and horror films, including The Maltese Falcon and Mad Love. His distinct appearance and heavy accent sometimes threatened to pigeonhole him; his ability to play soulful and dangerous ensured his legacy.
16. Ingrid Bergman
Speaking of Hitchcock, Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman made three films with the master of suspense. It tells how fantastic her career was that those films aren’t her most significant claims to fame. Bergman starred opposite Bogart in Casablanca and helped introduce the psychological term “gaslighting” with her incredible performance in Gaslight. She also won several awards, including three Oscars (one for Gaslight), two Primetime Emmys, and a Tony.
17. Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton did it all, he played a monster in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and a king in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and throughout his career played nearly everything in between. Known for his scene-stealing ability when he wasn’t the star of a film, Daniel Day-Lewis once called him “probably the greatest film actor of that period of time.” He also directed just one film, which stars three other performers on this list: The Night of the Hunter.
18. Marlene Dietrich
Like Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich was both a beloved actress and singer. She toured often as a live performer and frequently showed her singing ability in films. She was an incredibly charismatic and talented actor who was constantly in demand with celebrated directors, including Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock.
19. Orson Welles
Welles wasn’t just one of the most celebrated directors of Classical Hollywood. He was also one of the most beloved and talented actors. Welles began his career onstage before transitioning to film. Working for the screen, he wrote, directed, and starred in several films considered some of the best of all time, including Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, and acted in films from other filmmakers like Carol Reed’s The Third Man.
20. Lauren Bacall
Lauren Bacall may be most well-known for her incredible chemistry with her husband, Humphrey Bogart, in films like The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not. She stood just as well on her own, starring in comedies like How to Marry A Millionaire and melodramas like Written on the Wind. She also continued to work until she died in 2014, delivering great supporting performances in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and lending her voice to English dubs of international animated films like Howl’s Moving Castle.
21. Cary Grant
Cary Grant never worried about looking like a fool, and that’s part of what made him so brilliant. A talented physical comedian who was just as comfortable looking silly as he was sparring with witty banter, Grant starred in some of the most beloved comedies of the 20th century, including Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. But he was just as capable of serious performances as well. He was a frequent collaborator of Hitchcock’s on several thrillers, including North by Northwest, and starred in the iconic melodrama An Affair to Remember.
22. Barbara Stanwyck
There’s no one like Barbara Stanwyck. She began her career in the early 1930s with a series of boundary-pushing films, including Baby Face and Ladies They Talk About, then became a screwball icon in Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve, then worked in films like Double Indemnity, earning her the title “Queen of Noir.” Amid it all, she made various other films, including Westerns and melodramas, that made her a fan favorite for all moviegoers.
23. Robert Mitchum
Like Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum could move between and beautifully combine toughness and vulnerability. But Mitchum’s physique and ability to use his body differently in different performances made him special. The 6’1” and broad-shouldered actor could use his size to project menace, as he does in The Night of the Hunter, or protection, as in The Lusty Men. Some of his best performances would leave audiences guessing whether he was there to protect or hurt other characters.
24. Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe is perhaps more of a symbol than an actress now, but she only became a symbol because of her incredibly magnetic charisma on screen. From iconic roles in comedies like Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch to her dramatic performances in films like The Misfits, Monroe still draws viewers in with every performance.
25. James Stewart
Early in James “Jimmy” Stewart’s career, he became a star for his performance as the eponymous Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, who takes on corruption in government with an earnest and idealistic view of the American people. By the 1950s, he played morally dubious characters in Westerns like The Naked Spur and Alfred Hitchcock films like Vertigo.
26. Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Taylor’s personal life received, and continues to receive, a lot of attention, but her performances have made her such an enduring figure. The actress delivered powerhouse performances in several of the most successful stage-to-screen adaptations, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She brought her talents to unnerving genre films like Secret Ceremony. Most of all, she was a movie star, and perhaps nothing speaks to that more than her playing the eponymous queen of Egypt in a four-hour historical epic about Cleopatra.
27. Henry Fonda
Like James Stewart, Henry Fonda’s early career saw him play upstanding, idealistic characters like one of the most idealized characters in American history, Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln. He continued to play upstanding moral characters throughout his career, but never without nuance, and delivered one of the best performances of his career doing just that in 12 Angry Men as a juror who argues against all the others that a young man might be innocent. Perhaps most remarkable, given his long history of good guys, late in life, he portrayed a sadistic villain with delight in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.
28. Shelley Winters
Shelley Winters won multiple awards throughout her six-decade career, including two Oscars, a Golden Globe, and a Primetime Emmy. She also starred in celebrated films in various genres, like The Night of the Hunter and The Poseidon Adventure (for which she won her Golden Globe). Her incredible ability to draw sympathy makes her so beloved to this day. No matter how frustrating her character’s choices may be, she’s always able to get the audience at least a little on her side.
29. Max von Sydow
Max von Sydow’s seventy-year screen career included everything from arthouse classics with filmmaker Ingmar Bergman (no relation to Ingrid) to horror classics like The Exorcist and some not-quite-classic science fiction films like David Lynch’s Dune and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But no matter what kind of movie he was in, he always brought a sense of gravitas and complexity to his characters.
30. Liv Ullmann
Another Ingmar Bergman repertory player, Liv Ullman, has starred in some of the filmmaker’s best and most beguiling films, including Persona and The Passion of Anna, delivering some of the most fascinating and moving performances in any of his movies. She’s also given stunning film performances with other directors, including her Oscar-nominated performance in Jan Troell’s The Emigrants.
31. Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando isn’t just a great actor; he also changed acting in Hollywood. He popularized the Stanislavski system of acting and method acting, drawing in audiences with naturalistic performances in films like A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront that were unlike anything else then. His career took some ups and downs, but his performances in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and Apocalypse Now showed that his ability never faded.
32. Shirley MacLaine
One of the most decorated actors of all time, Shirley MacLaine, is almost unassuming in her greatness because so many of her performances are in comedies, or at least dramas with significant humor. Seriousness isn’t the only thing that makes an actor compelling, and MacLaine has been mixing sorrow, anger, and joy with spirit for more than seven decades to incredible effect.
33. Toshiro Mifune
Few filmmakers and actors have collaborated as often as Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa. The actor starred in sixteen of the legendary director’s films, in both lead and supporting roles, delivering brilliant performances that clarify why the director kept casting him. Of course, an actor that good is in demand by other filmmakers as well, and Mifune worked with other Japanese masters like Kenji Mizoguchi as well as international directors like Steven Spielberg.
34. Catherine Deneuve
Catherine Deneuve began acting when she was just twelve, so it’s unsurprising that she had time to perfect her craft. She was already revelatory in some of her earliest performances in films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Repulsion, so it may have been pure talent the entire time. Since then, she’s appeared in over a hundred films and claimed many awards, including two Césars, the French equivalent of the Academy Award.
35. Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier isn’t just one of the greatest actors of the 20th century; he’s also one of the most influential people. Poitier was the first Black person to win an Academy Award for a leading role for his performance in Lilies of the Field, and he starred in some of the most honest films about race in America in the 1960s, including Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He’s not just a towering figure in cinema history for his performances but also a key figure in the history of American race relations.
36. Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn shares no relation with Katharine, making it all the more remarkable that the two Hepburns are some of the finest actresses ever to grace the screen. After winning an Oscar, a BAFTA, and a Golden Globe for her breakout role in Roman Holiday, the English Hepburn starred in several of the most iconic comedies of the 20th century, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady, and continued to deliver equally hilarious and poignant performances throughout her career.
37. Harry Dean Stanton
Not all great actors are movie stars. Most of Harry Dean Stanton’s performances are in scene-stealing or tone-setting roles in a career that spanned sixty years. Perhaps more telling than Stanton’s impressive filmography, which includes vital roles in Alien and Escape From New York, is that so many brilliant directors, including Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter, and David Lynch, regularly cast him in their films.
38. Faye Dunaway
As if playing the eponymous Bonnie in Bonnie & Clyde weren’t enough to cement Faye Dunaway’s status as one of the most iconic actresses of the century, she also starred in the era-defining Chinatown and Network. That she delivered award-winning and deeply affecting performances in these films makes her just as talented as she is iconic.
39. Clint Eastwood
Some may think that because Clint Eastwood is most famous for his Westerns and the eponymous hard-edged cop Harry in the Dirty Harry series, he only knows how to look fabulous with a gun. Eastwood, who is excellent in all those films and capable of imbuing gunslingers with vast inner worlds, is much more than an action hero. He’s also delivered pitch-perfect performances in comedies, romances, and emotionally devastating dramas, some of which he also directed.
40. Meryl Streep
It’s a joke now to say that if Meryl Streep was in a movie in any given year, she’ll receive an Oscar nomination. But Streep’s record, ignoring her stunning amount of awards, speaks for itself. Streep's performances are impeccable, from her astounding early dramatic roles in The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs. Kramer to her willingness to be silly in films like Death Becomes Her and She-Devil in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
41. Robert De Niro
Robert De Niro is regarded as one of the greatest actors of the New Hollywood era for his performances in films from frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, his Oscar-winning performance in The Godfather Part II, and his lead role in the widely lauded The Deer Hunter. But De Niro didn’t stop acting when the ’70s ended, and since then, he’s starred in landmark films, including Heat, Once Upon a Time in America, and Brazil.
42. Diane Keaton
Like Shirley MacLaine, Diane Keaton is so warm and funny that people sometimes forget she’s also one of our most talented dramatic actors, though to be clear, she’s also one of our most gifted comic actors. In her over fifty-year career, Keaton’s garnered her an Oscar, a BAFTA, two Golden Globes, and several nominations for her more serious and delightfully silly work.
43. Harvey Keitel
Harvey Keitel has been a favorite collaborator of Martin Scorsese’s for more than half a century since starring in the director’s feature debut Who’s That Knocking at My Door? in 1967. Since then, Keitel has worked with various other celebrated directors in some of their best films, like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, and Jane Campion’s The Piano.
44. Sigourney Weaver
Ridley Scott has made a lot of great movies throughout his career, but Alien stands above the rest, and a large part of that is because of Sigourney Weaver’s performance as Ellen Ripley. Weaver returned to the character three times and received an Oscar nomination for one of them, ensuring she’ll always be an icon for the franchise. From appearances in comedies like Ghostbusters to dramas like The Ice Storm, Weaver has proven she’s one of our most versatile and compelling performers in any context.
45. Jack Nicholson
Jack Nicholson is one of the most decorated actors of all time (with three Oscars, three BAFTAS, six Golden Globes, and many more awards) and one of the most iconic for his performances in landmark films like The Shining and Chinatown. He’s a singular actor who will always be one of the best at menace and joviality.
46. Frances McDormand
Another incredibly decorated performer, Frances McDormand has collected multiple Oscars, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and Emmys. She’s also one of the most iconic actresses for her Oscar-winning performance in the Coen brothers’ Fargo, highlighting her ability to play humor, determination, and horror in a single role.
47. Al Pacino
Al Pacino’s work in The Godfather films would be enough to land him a place on lists of the best 20th-century actors. He’s also delivered phenomenal performances in major films ranging from Cruising to Heat.
48. Jodie Foster
Jodie Foster was nominated for her first Oscar at fourteen for her performance in Taxi Driver. Since then, she’s won two, one for her performance in the classic The Silence of the Lambs, and received a fourth nomination. She’s known for her ability to play capable, if not always highly confident, women and lend depth to characters in genre films.
49. Anthony Hopkins
Jodie Foster’s Silence of the Lambs co-star Anthony Hopkins also won an Oscar for the film for his immediately iconic performance as Hannibal Lecter. Hopkins has returned to the role in two other films, but like Sigourney Weaver, he’s never been defined by his famous franchise. Hopkins has worked with many great directors, delivering fantastic work in films like David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
50. Julia Roberts
Julia Roberts burst onto the scene in the late 1980s with her performances in Mystic Pizza and Steel Magnolias, the latter of which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. She became the leading lady of the 1990s in romantic comedy films like Pretty Woman (which earned her another Oscar nomination), Notting Hill, and My Best Friend’s Wedding. She’s one of the most charismatic actors ever to grace the screen and uses that charisma to draw audiences in and make them deeply invested in her often lovable but not quite perfect characters.