Every year has its fair share of great performances. Backing out even further, every decade is defined by films, filmmakers, and certain actors. Sometimes, a film thrives on the ensemble (Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas). Other times, it relies heavily on one central, singular performance. From the drunks to the derelicts, to the terminally ill, here are the greatest performances of the 90s, the greatest of a decade more diverse than some might remember.
Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas (1995) – Up to this point in her career, Shue had been the go to 80s girlfriend/girl next door type we all fell in love with in Adventures in Babysitting and The Karate Kid. But as a hard-edged, vulnerable prostitute Sera in Leaving Las Vegas, Elisabeth Shue managed to shed that saccharine charm to embody a wounded soul. Less the hooker with a heart of gold, and more a broken human being in need of a real connection, Sera finds a connection in Nicolas Cage’s far more broken Ben. It speaks to her own psychological fragility that the only life Sera can invest in is a life that cannot be saved Shue’s raw turn is an eye-opening revelation, and an inversion of the prototypical hooker cliches in film.
Harvey Keitel, Bad Lieutenant (1992) – It was an interesting decade for Harvey Keitel. When he wasn’t dominating scenes both big and small in Tarantino flicks, Keitel was diving headlong into some challenging and, often times, disturbing indie waters. Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is the deepest, darkest rabbit hole any actor could ever imagine, and Keitel is hypnotizing as the worst cop to ever grace (or defile) the screen. Addicted to drugs, booze, and gambling, and lost in a world of self-loathing and desperation, Keitel’s unnamed detective is impossible to turn away from, no matter how unsettling his precarious situations may become.
Holly Hunter, The Piano (1993) – Hunter’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Ada McGrath was a tricky performance for one of the more underrated actresses of all time. But she was up for the task. As a mute pushed into an arranged marriage, Hunter and director Jane Campion substitute dialogue with the power of glimpses, glances, and all the emotion that can be conveyed with the physical rather than the spoken. It is a towering achievement from Hunter.
Edward Norton, American History X (1998) – Derek Vinyard is not a two-dimensional white supremacist in a simple tale of hate and redemption, no matter how upfront he is about his vile hatred for the non-white world. He speaks loudly, as does the ten-inch swastika on his sculpted chest, but Edward Norton’s portrayal of Derek is so vibrant, so layered, so very detailed, it’s a shame he lost the Academy Award in 1998. Derek is a bright kid whose anger was misdirected after his (racist) fireman father died in a black neighborhood. The arc of Norton’s character is fascinating, up and down, and it goes through arguably more evolutions than any other character in film history.
Tom Hanks, Philadelphia (1993) – For all the wonderful performances Tom Hanks gave the world in the 90s, cementing his status as one of the greatest of all time, it was his first of two consecutive Academy Award winning performance that still resonates the loudest. His role as Andrew Beckett was a timely performance, it helped put a very familiar face on the AIDS epidemic in America, and Hanks’ physical transformation is compelling, heartbreaking, unforgettable.
Anthony Hopkins, Silence of The Lambs (1991) – Sure, the idea of Hannibal Lecter may have gotten sullied over years of diminished sequel returns, but the debut of Hopkins in the role is still captivating. It’s a seminal performance in film history, and it resurrected Hopkins’ film career. Despite not appearing in the film more than twenty minutes or so, Lecter looms over each and every scene like an all-seeing, all-knowing monster lurking in the shadows. Jodie Foster may deserve to be on this list alongside Hopkins, but I contend Hopkins brought the best out of Foster in the film; her evolution was spurred by Hannibal the Cannibal.
Frances McDormand, Fargo (1996) – The Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, in a career chock-full of masterpieces, is a tale of seedy criminals, kidnapping, murder, and overall despicable human beings doing despicable things to one another. It could have been a bleak, hateful film shot in a charming locale, were it not for the performance of McDormand as Marge Gunderson. Marge is the moral center of the picture, a loving wife, expecting mother, and wonderfully bright police officer. McDormand’s performance is the most important on this list, because without her conviction to be a great human being the entire film around her falls apart.
Ralph Fiennes, Schindler’s List (1993) – I love The Fugitive as much as the next person. And I think Tommy Lee Jones was fantastic in his role as Sam Gerrard, the U.S. Marshal hunting down Richard Kimble. But his win over Ralph Fiennes is still one of the most egregious errors in Oscar history. Nazi Captain Amon Goeth was one of the cruelest humans to ever live, and Fiennes embodies him with menace and psychotic zeal. Clearly, Goeth’s used the force field of war as a way to satisfy his serial killer tendencies. It is a volcanic, monstrous performance, one that stings your eyes and stamps your memory forever.
Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas (1995) – Bookending this list with the two lead performances in Leaving Las Vegas feels right, as it was a movie thriving almost exclusively on watching these two characters fight against their own survival. Cage’s turn as Ben, an alcoholic hell bent on drinking himself to death in Sin City, is anything but one note. It is sad and bleak, no doubt, but much like alcoholics it bounces from peaks to valleys. There are surprisingly funny moments in Cage’s performance, followed by quick outbursts of anger, late-night convulsions, and so much booze. No matter how painful watching Ben’s fall may be from moment to moment, Cage invites us into this man’s last days, asking us not so much to judge as to observe, and maybe make our own conclusions as to what brought him to this place. Cage has never been better, and I doubt he will ever be this great again.