Energize Your Directing with the 20 Best Acting Scenes of All Time
Art and Experience:
Are these the greatest acting scenes of all time?
While this post is about the acting in the scenes, that’s also a strong indicator as to what kind of writing works best. If you’re wondering how to write a scene in your screenplay, check out our post, but also dig into these scenes and see what makes them work for you.
The great thing about this list, though, is that it spans all of cinema and covers the gamut of types of movies and performances. It will remind you of those genius moments that stay with you forever.
Some of these I’d forgotten about entirely. Thinking about them reminds me of the power of great acting in cinema.
Getting great performances out of actors is a bit of a magic trick, owed to many factors beyond a director’s control. There is the old line that most good directing happens in the casting, and it’s not an unfair point. Hand great actors great material, and the director should just get out of the way.
But knowing the right actor for the material, when to get out of the way and when to step in, and what to say? That’s all in the director’s hands.
Here is the complete list, from Taste of Cinema:
20. Goodfellas – “I’m funny how?”
This is perhaps the quintessential Martin Scorsese scene:
Often quoted, imitated, and referenced. Even in this fun Ray Liotta Chantix commercial recut… this scene stands out among all of cinema history, certainly. Pesci’s character is a ticking time-bomb of sudden carnage. Is he joking? Or is he about to murder someone?
Yet when it comes to Scorsese. I’ve always been partial to the “Did you fuck my wife” scene in Raging Bull myself.
The scene features Robert DeNiro as the ticking time bomb, and this scene is the beating heart of the story about Jake LaMotta’s self-destructive tendency. It reveals his need to destroy everything around him, including the people who love him most. It’s more connected to the greater movie to me than the Goodfellas scene. But it’s certainly less quotable, and less dependent on the performances alone to make the meaning.
19. Jules and Jim – Catherine and Jules console each other
The complex nature of the trio’s relationship in this Truffaut classic comes to the fore in this scene. What is a simple scene between the two of them takes on bigger meaning about the relationship and the past, simply through the gestures and delivery of the two stars.
18. An Autumn Afternoon – Before the wedding
Yasjiro Ozu was known for his “slow burn” type of storytelling. Letting simple lives and actions play out before us, revealing through the course of the movie the pain of everyday existence. This is a scene between a father and daughter before a wedding, and all the complexity and subtext about this moment and what it represents is here, in the performances.
17. Umberto D – Umberto and Flike’s almost demise
I’ll be honest, I’m not thrilled to see Umberto D on the list over The Bicycle Thieves. This is certainly a powerful scene with a dog, and that’s going to tug at all our heartstrings, but it’s hard to think about Vittorio De Sica and not think about the finale in The Bicycle Thieves.
If you’ve never seen the movie, wait until it’s playing at a revival theater and check it out. Also, skip down to number 16, Network.
After the entire movie has been spent trying to recover a stolen bicycle they desperately need for a job, Antonio and his son Bruno reach rock bottom. Antonio attempts to steal a bicycle himself, only to be caught. Bruno watches as his father is humiliated, and just before he’s carted off to jail, the bike owner chooses not to press charges, seeing young Bruno sobbing at his father’s side.
Bruno and Antonio then walk away, Antonio finally breaking down into tears himself, when Bruno reaches up to hold his father’s hand. They disappear together into the crowd.
The power of the scene rests almost entirely on the acting of a child. Pretty impressive stuff.
16. Network – Max confronts Diana
Network boasted an extremely talented ensemble, one of the best actors’ directors ever in Sidney Lumet, and arguably the greatest screenwriter who ever lived at his absolute pinnacle, Paddy Chayevsky.
If you’ve never watched Network, watch it. If you have, read Mad as Hell by David Itzkoff. It’s an incredible read about the masterwork.
This scene is powerful, certainly. But I don’t know how to pick just one scene from Network. To me, the whole movie is a study in how to write great drama, and how the actors perform in it is perfect the whole way through.
15. There Will Be Blood – “I drink your milkshake!”
Daniel Day-Lewis belongs on this list. He’s provided us with so many excellent performances over the years. This scene certainly stands apart in terms of it being the culmination of a movie that seems to survive on the strength of his characterization.
14. M – Hans’ self defense
Peter Lorre is known mostly for being an excellent character actor who appeared in many memorable roles for Warner Bros. in the 1940s and 50s. He starred in M years earlier, playing a child murderer who somehow becomes somewhat sympathetic when pleading his case of insanity. It’s a testament to what Lorre could do that he pulls it off even a little bit.
13. 12 Angry Men – Juror #3 is convinced
Another movie from director Sidney Lumet. Lumet was famous for doing a good deal of rehearsing with his actors and letting his scripts breathe. He seemed to bring out the best in the best, which is no small feat. 12 Angry Men takes place entirely in one jury room, while the twelve men deliberate. Lee J. Cobb plays juror #3 and is the last holdout, finally being convinced to change his mind by himself in a revealing and powerful monologue that takes him through a wide range of emotions. It’s theatrical, it’s impressive, and it’s definitely some of the greatest acting ever captured on screen.
It’s one of those things you hope people don’t try to imitate, because it’s one in a million.
12. Casablanca – Rick and Ilsa on the runway
You must remember this?
This list seems like a film theory professor’s syllabus, which is why it’s so interesting to note that it’s designed to feature great performances. Bogart, known more as a hard-boiled detective type than an actor’s actor, delivered the goods in this one. Ingrid Bergman provides the perfect foil to Bogart’s tough gruff exterior, because she can barely hold back “all the feels” as Rick lays the reality of the situation on her.
It’s no accident that this is one of the most-quoted scenes in movie history. Even if you haven’t seen it, you probably would recognize Bogart’s dialogue.
11. The Deer Hunter – Russian Roulette
Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken are POWs stuck playing Russian roulette together. The scene is chilling, maddening, horrifying, and unforgettable. You have to remind yourself that these two actors made these insane stakes feel real, and that it was just performance, because every second simmers with tension.
10. The Grapes of Wrath – “I’ll be there…”
John Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl novel, through John Ford’s viewfinder, starring Henry Fonda. To call this movie, and scene, an American treasure is not hyperbole.
The whole movie is a great example of how well Ford uses framing and black and white. Ford didn’t always seem to care all that much about his actors and their performances. But as the iconic Tom Joad, Fonda didn’t need much help. In this scene, his final monologue to his mother, Fonda and Joad both transcend the medium. This becomes the spirit of something much larger. Just as words can come off the page, this performance seems to come off the celluloid.
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc – Joan confesses
This film is perhaps the birth of the close-up, and this performance in this scene is why the shot became so critical to creating emotion in visual storytelling. Renee Falconetti only played one part in movie history, this was it, and it’s still one of the most important ever.
8. The Leopard – The Ballroom Scene
This is a 45-minute scene where Burt Lancaster tells the entire story through his own understated performance. He takes in the way the world has changed around him, internalizes it, and we experience it all through his emotions.
7. Gertrud – Gertrud reflects
Another goodbye scene, this movie rests heavily on the strength of Nina Pens Rode’s performance. It’s hard to imagine performing a scene where a character doesn’t die, but truly contemplates and embraces their impending end, and all that it means.
6. Dodsworth – Sam leaves Edith
It’s a lesser-known American classic, but this is another powerful scene between a couple falling apart. The two actors have to navigate the moment without dipping into melodrama, as Taste of Cinema aptly points out.
5. Nights of Cabiria – Cabiria’s Walk
Similar to the ending of The Bicycle Thieves, Federico Fellini leaves us with a very bittersweet moment. Cabiria isn’t leading an easy life, and just when it seems like maybe things might break her way, she is crushed once more. The final moments see her rebound, and despite the crushing despair inside her, she has the strength to look up and smile through the tears, facing the future boldly.
I can’t help but think it’s a callback to the next scene on the list…
4. City Lights – The Blind Girl sees the Tramp
Charlie Chaplin is Hollywood’s first great star. He was also Hollywood’s first great director. City Lights might be his masterpiece. The final scene of the movie combines the sweet sadness that Chaplin managed to evoke in his best scenes and best work, all on his face. You might think of him as a talent limited to pratfalls, comedy, and a silly costume. Charlie Chaplin was much more. He was the first cinematic artist, because he was the first person to infuse movies with humanity.
This final moment, a little smile, is echoed in many final moments later on. From Fellini to Woody Allen, many of the great filmmakers wanted to capture this kind of optimism through pain just the way Chaplin did.
3. Scenes From A Marriage – Final argument before divorce
Lots of couples arguing on this list. This might be the title bout though. Ingmar Bergman’s movie and this scene, in particular, reveal a side of relationships and marriage that can destroy the people in them.
2. The Godfather – Michael and Vito in the yard
Another all-timer, this scene reportedly wasn’t always in the film, but was shot and added in later, written by Robert Towne. The scene shows the passing of the torch between Michael and Vito.
More than that, it shows the tragedy of Vito’s life. He’s old, dying, and he didn’t live to see things go right. The son he wanted to see stay out of the business is now running it.
“We’ll get there, Pop,” reassures Michael, in maybe the least reassuring tone ever.
1. A Woman Under the Influence – Mabel breaks down
John Cassavetes is a filmmaker who knew acting, and he made movies about people. He was one of the original indie darlings, with movies that stressed performance, had a grittier aesthetic, and emphasized humanity. Gena Rowlands’ breakdown in this scene is painful to watch, and it’ll stay with you.
Do you disagree with the rankings (of course you do!)? Let us know in the comments.
Which scenes were left off, or what do you know about any of these productions that illuminates some of the genius behind the end product?