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Top 40 best performances of the 1980s

by Released : 2023-09-26

1. Gene Hackman as Jack McCann (Eureka,1983) 

Not only the best performance of the 1980s, but argubally the best performance of all time! Hackman is a towering force in this movie channeling Orsen Wells from Citzen Cane and outshines his performance in French Connection. Hackman recvied no awards recongiton for this role due to the film being a huge flop. Jack McCann is the richest man in the world, but Hackman plays it like he has nothing.

2. John Heard as Alex Cutter (Cutter's Way, 1981)

Heard is so captivating that he outshines Jeff Bridges as a disfigured military veteran. Alex Cutter is a tortured drunk, boisterous, and impossible to ignore. Similar to Kurt Russel’s character “Snake Plissken” (Escape from New York, 1981)

3. Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull, 1980) 

Only Travis Bickle from (Taxi Driver, 1976) rivals this performance De Niro went through immense physical change for the film gaining 60 pounds. He rightfully won an oscar for his role.

4.  Jack nicholson as Jack Torrance (The Shining, 1980)

Although different from the Stephen King Version Stanley Kubrick’s film is a classic thanks in large part to Jack’s crazy performance. Nicholson received numerous oscar nominations in the 1980s, but oddly enough his two most iconic performances from the decade Torrance and the Joker received no awards fair.

5. Linda Manz as Cebe (Out of Blue, 1980) 

Linda Manz sadly only did three theatrical films before retiring and moving to a trailer park. She recently passed away from lung cancer and leaves behind a fascinating career full of what ifs. Here she gives one of the best child performances ever, projects maturity and a counterculture vibe not seen since the late 60s.

6. John Lone as Pu Yi (The Last Emperor, 1987)

John Lone broke barriers by being nominated for the Golden Globe for best actor for his role as Pu Yi, however he was robbed of an oscar nomination. Lone conveys a range of emotions, while also playing the character in dramatically different stages in his life. All while maintain a certain level of poise and dignity.

7. Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis (Great Balls of Fire, 1989) 

Jerry Lee Lewis hated the book which the film was based on and not surprisingly disliked the movie when it was released. Although he did praise Dennis Quaid’s performance and ability to capture his piano mannerisms. Quaid practiced for hours to improve his singing, dancing, and piano technique, while also working closely with Jerry Lee Lewis in preparation for this role. As a result he completely disappears in the role and rivals  other great musical biopic performances: Austin Butler in Elvis (2022), Taraon Egerton in Rocketman (2018), Rami Malik in Bohemian Rhapsody (2017),  Val Kilmer in the Doors (1991), and Garey Busey in Buddy Holly.

8.  Al Pacino as Tony Montana (Scarface, 1983)

Scarface was torn apart when released and Pacino was even nominated for a Razzie. But, the film remains a classic and is Pacino’s most iconic performance. Perfectly capturing the over the top volatile nature of 1930s gangsters.

9. Mickey Rourke as Hank Chinaski (Barfly, 1987)

In the early to mid 1980s Hollywood adored Mickey Rourke despite numerous box office flops and controversial off-set behavior. Never one to be typecast, Rourke shunned his good looks and pretty boy image to completely disappear in this role. Here he plays a grotesque obnoxious drunk based off the life of Chad Bukowski.

10.  Dennis Hopper as Frank Boothe (Blue Velvet, 1986)

Hopper, known for his crazy antics is terrifying as Boothe even coming up with the idea to use the nitrogen tank, one of the scariest uses of a prop ever.

11. Bob Hoskins as Harlod Shand (The Long Good Friday, 1980)

This performance borrows from the volatile characters of 1930s gangster movies combined with some British flavor. ong before Joe Pesci was this small brutish gangster in the vein of Al Capone or Tony Soprano.

12. Mickey Rourke as Stanley White (Year of Dragon, 1986) 

There were many cop films in the 1980s. Here Mickey defies that genre by playing a fierce irish cop with secretly a strict moral compass. He just cares too damn much!! Rourke is a powerful force in the film and commands every scene he’s in.

13. Kevin Kline as Otto (A Fish Called Wanda, 1988) 

Kevin Kline won the oscar for this role which combines amazing physical comedy with that of a crazy energy of a young Richerd Dreyfuss mixed with the blood lust of a psycho killer. A hilarious but violent character, something that only Kline could only accomplish.

14. Takeshi Kitano as Azuma (Violent Cop, 1989) 

Takashi Kitano directed and starred in this film which helped usher in a new age of Yakuza movies in japan. Here he’s calm, cool, collected oozes confidence combined with slick style. Similar to Steven Mcqueen mixed with the badass tendencies of Clint Eastwood. Kitano feels in control of every frame of this film.

15.  Christopher Walken as Brad Whitewood (At Close Range, 1986)

Christopher Walken is menacing based on this horrifying true story. Sean Penn, who is also fantastic here is overshadowed by Walkens brilliant sadistic performance of a career criminal father who doesn't care for his sons.

16. Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer (Good Morning Vietnam, 1987) 

Robin williams combines his best elements here comedy, but also drama. The zaniness of the radio scenes could only be perfect by perfect  comedic timing which Robin possesses. He also brings a level of sweetness and optimism to the role. But, is just as capable in the dramatic moments. 

17. Kathleen Turner as Peggy Sue (Peggy Sue Gets Married, 1985) 

Nominated for an oscar for her work Turner starts the film playing a mother with a grown child although 31 at the time is able to capture the weariness of a middle aged divorcee. Than in the flashback scenes is convincing as an 18 year old not because of her beauty but because of her ability to combine the nativity of youth with the reality of adulthood.

18. F. Murray Abraham as Antonlio Salleri (Amaedues, 1984)

A master of the stage, Murray Won the oscar for this role, sadly his career stalled after, but found respect and a second life in the 2000s as a T.V. actor.

19. William Dafoe as Jesus (Last Temptation of Christ, 1988)

When everyone thinks of the 1980s and Dafoe they might think of his Oscar nominated turn in Platoon. Film fan’s might point to his excellent performance as a sadistic drug dealer in To Live and Die in L.A., but in this film Dafoe gives a career best performance and has a mythical quality to him. The best portrayal of Jesus put to screen.

20. Robert De Niro as Rupert Punkin ( The King of Comedy, 1980)

Critics didn't understand this film when it came out, clearly an inspiration of j oker. De Niro combines the loneliness from previous characters to perfectly portray a pathetic failed comedian and a very deranged man.

21. John Lone as Joey Tai (Year of the Dragon, 1985) 

John Lone first golden globe noomianton. Here he is the perfect foil to Mickey’s officer Stanely white. As the effortless cool gangster whose tranquility hides his sinister nature much to the annoyance of White, who sees Tai’s true self and does not fall for his polished image. 

22. Matt Dillion as Bob (Drugstore Cowboy, 1989) 

Matt Dillion draws from his cool angry riddled teen characters from previous films and combines it with the depravity/ cynicism of a drug addict.

23. Tom Hulce as Mozart (Amadeus, 1984) 

Tom Hulce was nominated for the oscar for this and is perfect as the energetic childish buffoon like genius Mozart.

24. Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic (Born on the Fourth of July, 1989)

Besides Magnolia (1999) Cruise has never been better. In the start of the film he plays the optimistic bright eye characters used to Cruise playing, but when he is disfigured and horrified by his actions in the Vietnam War is when Cruise truly shines.

25. Robet Loggia as Byron Mayo (An Officer and a Genetlmen, 1982) 

Robert Loggia steals scenes everywhere in the Sopranos and in Scarface. Although he was nominated for best supporting actor in Jagged Edge (1985)- (appearing in the film for only around 15 minutes), here in even less time Loggia makes just as big of an impact. Only in the first 8 minutes of this film Loggia has great chemistry with gere and leaves a presence felt throughout the rest of the runtime as the drunk sex obsessed absentee father.

26. John Ligthow as Burke (Blow Out, 1981) 

John Lightow is terrifying as a secret government agent with serial killer-like behavior and tendencies.

27. River Phoneix as Danny Pope (Running on Empty, 1988)

River Phoenix is heartbreaking here and was The youngest actor nominated for an oscar

29. Nic Cage as Al and Mathew Moddine as Birdy (Birdy, 1984)

Can't mention one performance without mentioning the other. Modine and Cage are like brothers in this film due to their insane chemistry. Cage chipped his teeth and lost over 30 pounds for this film. Starts the film off as jacked handsome confident teen by the end plays a broken veteran Modine a year before he would bulk up for Vision Quest (1985) plays the sensitive simple skinny kid who later believes he's a bird which Moddine is able to capture with astounding body movements

29. Wiiliam Peterson as Richard Chance (To Live and Die and LA, 1985)/ James Woods as Loyd Hopkins in Cop (1988).

Here William Patterson defies what it means to be an FBI agent, later getting Manhunter a year later because of this role. Harken back to Friedkin's other cop movie French connection. He plays a fierce revenge-bent  cop looking for the man who killed his partner. Patterson is electric as this antihero unlike other cop roles- James woods would later give a similar excellent performance in Cop (1988).

30. Ray Liotta as Ray Sinclair (Something Wilid, 1986) 

Before Goodfella Ray Liotta broke out with this film one of the best debut performances ever. Here he plays an unhinged maniac ex-boyfriend. In his short screen time he steals the entire film. He’s sexy, playful, and dangerous. Reminiscent of old greaser roles and the unhinged characters he would play later in his career. Ray liotta is a unit in this film and acts like he's going 10000 miles a minute. A beefy angrier more violent James Dean.

31. Eric Roberts as Paulie (The Pope of Greenwitch Village, 1984)

Eric Roberts was nominated for the oscar for Runaway Train (1985) and is also great in Star 80 (1983). Here he has some of the best chemistry ever put to screen with Mickey Rourke. The crazy energy in this film is kind of like a coked up Jimy carrey. Robert’s character continues to make baffling decisions, but is endlessly likable.

32. Robert Downey Jr. as Julian (Less Than Zero, 1987)

 RDJ admitted in his recent documentary Jr. (2021) that Less Than Zero was the film that got him addicted to hard drugs. Here you see him descend worse and worse into hard drug habits. His addiction put in full raw display he steals the entire film and gives a heartbreaking performance. RDJ later commented idl how we ‘finihinsed this film”.

33. James Cann as Frank (Theif, 1981)

Thief Blu-ray - James Caan

A simple film and character is elevated by Cann’s electric energy in this film. Every second, every frame, every still Cann’s character is alive you can feel his energy radiate off the screen.

34. Robin Williams as John Keating (Dead Poets Society, 1989) 

Robin Williams first dramatic role that showed his acting range and that he was more than a comedian.

35. Cary Elwes as Westley ( The Princess Bride, 1987) 

Here Elwes channels Errol Flynn and the old swashbucklers characters from silent films. A Charismatic performance full of energy and heroism.

36. Laura Dern as Connie (Smooth Talk, 1985) 

Laura Dern’s first leading role and one of the best young performances ever she's only 16 here. Perfectly captures the  vulnerability and fear of youth, while also desperate to be an adult. Dern shows maturity beyond her years in this riveting turn.

37. Christopher Reeve as Richard Collier (Somewhere in Time, 1980)

Just with a glance Reeve is able to capture something here. His chemistry with Jane Seymour (who he was embroiled in a romance offset with) is superb. Similar to Superman he is able to convey earnestness and gentleness.

38. Robert De Niro as Louis Cyprhe/ Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel in (Angelheart, 1987)

Can't mention one performance without the other mickey is perfect as an old school hard boiled detective. Perfectly capturing a grim confused state throughout the film. De Niro gives one of the creepiest performances of all time.

39. Gena Rowlands as Gloria (Gloria,1980)

Film Forum · GLORIA

Gene Rowlands was nominated for an oscar for this role and plays one of the toughest no-nonsense female characters in film history

40. Donald Sutherland as Henry Faber (Eye of the Needle, 1981)

Eye of the Needle (1981) Clip - out on BFI Blu-ray 24 September | BFI -  YouTube

Sutherland is creepy, romantic, and slippery as a ruthless Nazi spy with one of the coolest weapons in film history.

41. Howard Rollins as Coalhouse (Ragtime, 1981)

Ragtime - Publicity still of Howard Rollins

The second Black Man to be nomminated for best supporting actor and his debt film performance