The best actors become someone else entirely once they step onto the stage or into the camera frame. Their performances are so convincing that audiences are moved to tears or laughter—sometimes making fans think they aren’t acting at all.
Some of these actors have been performing for decades. They’ve perfected their craft, while others are just starting out but are already blowing us away with their talent. Without a doubt, these 10 celebrity performances moved everyone in the audience.
10 Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Randle Patrick McMurphy was a criminal who fakes insanity to skip out on prison. He serves his sentence in what he thinks will be an easy mental institution.
One of the most iconic actors to be on the big screen, Jack Nicholson, gave an unforgettable performance as McMurphy. At first, he seems like a disruptive force in the institution until he eventually starts to care for the patients and rebels against the tyrannical Nurse Ratchet.
He stands up against abuse and leads the other patients in outbursts as he tries to improve their lives. When Nurse Ratchet deals the final blow, it’s hard not to feel immense anger at how bad the situation is for these patients, especially knowing that there are really people like her out there.
The fo;m won multiple awards, and Nicholson’s performance was paramount to its success. His acting is so convincing that it’s hard to believe he isn’t still living in the asylum, struggling to bring hope. Nicholson, “we wouldn’t leave you here like this.”
9 Meryl Steep in Sophie’s Choice
Meryl Streep is quite possibly the most celebrated actress of all time, and for good reason. She has an incredible range and can play any type of character imaginable. In Sophie’s Choice, she plays a Holocaust survivor struggling to deal with her trauma.
Her performance is so powerful that it will leave you feeling heartbroken and angry. She flawlessly depicts the pain and suffering of her character, and her performance is truly moving. This film earned Streep an Oscar nod.
Her performance is still one of the most emotionally taxing for audiences to watch. Because of Streep, the term “Sophie’s Choice” has transcended from just a movie title. It’s become the modern colloquialism for the old rock and a hard place.
8 Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad
“Say my name.” If there’s one unforgettable character from a television drama, it’s Walter White from Breaking Bad. Bryan Cranston gave an incredible performance as a chemistry teacher who turned to cooking meth to provide for his family after being diagnosed with cancer. Cranston won multiple awards for his role in Breaking Bad. His performance is considered one of the best in television history.
Cranston skillfully portrayed the transformation of Walter White from a mild-mannered man to a ruthless drug lord. His performance was so convincing that it’s hard to believe he isn’t actually a criminal. In reality, Cranston is one of the nicest people you could meet—like when he randomlyhis biographies in book shops for fans.
7 Denzel Washington in Training Day
In Training Day, Denzel Washington gave an unforgettable performance as a corrupt cop who takes a young rookie under his wing. Denzel took home an Oscar for his role in this film, and his performance is still one of the highlights of his already impressive career.
Washington’s performance is so convincing that it’s hard to believe he isn’t actually a bad guy. He perfectly captures the character’s mystery and charisma while also making him seem dangerous and unpredictable. And for this film, we actually have Washington himself to thank for making this so unforgettable. Heimprovised many of his own lines in the movie.
6 Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men
Javier Bardem gave a chilling performance as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. Earning himself an Oscar for his role in this film, his performance is still one of the most terrifying to watch. He played a sociopathic killer who is tracking down a man who has stolen his money. The lack of emotion Bardem shows as he kills almost every person he comes across leaves you feeling uneasy.
Bardem’s performance is so unnerving that it’s hard to believe he isn’t actually a psychopath. His spot-on portrayal reflects the character’s cold and calculating nature, making him seem like a real threat. As in, if you were to meet him in public after watching this movie, you’d seriously consider turning around walking the other way.
5 Jamie Foxx in Ray
Ray Charles himself once said, “I never wanted to be famous; I only wanted to be great.” So it’s fitting that the biopic starring Jamie Foxx would be a truly “great” performance. Foxx gave an incredible performance as Ray Charles in Ray. He captured the musician’s pain and suffering while also showing his immense talent.
Ray Charles’s life was filled with tragedy. He was born with glaucoma and became blind at the age of seven. He struggled with addiction for most of his life, and he lost many of the people closest to him. Still, he was able to find incredible success as a musician.
Foxx won an Oscar for his role in this film, and his performance is still one of the best biographical performances to date. Jamie perfectly captures Ray Charles’s spirit and talent, making him seem like a real-life legend.
4 Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland
In The Last King of Scotland, Forest Whitaker gave an outstanding performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He perfectly captured the character’s brutality and charisma, making him seem like a real monster.
Whitaker won an Oscar for his role in this film. No surprise there—his performance is chilling. He disturbingly revealed the character’s lack of empathy and complete disregard for human life. His performance is truly terrifying, and it will leave you feeling disturbed long after the credits have rolled.
3 Stephanie Beatriz in Brooklyn Nine-Nine
“What kind of woman doesn’t have an ax?” Not Rosa Diaz, that’s for sure. Stephanie Beatriz gave a hilarious performance in Brooklyn Nine-Nine as Detective Diaz. She is a tough, private, but secretly caring detective who struggles to show her real emotions.
Stephanie Beatriz’s performance is one of the best in sitcom history. She portrayed the rough and gritty personality for eight seasons, making her seem like a genuine person.
So when people see her when she’s not acting, they struggle to believe that Diaz wasn’t her real personality—especially since her real voice is practically an octave higher than her character. Beatriz’s performance has earned critical acclaim for her work on the series. She is also a talented singer staring in Encanto as Maribel and In the Heights.
2 Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Starring in a movie primed for strong emotional reactions is always a gamble. But Chiwetel Ejiofor didn’t hold anything back as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.
Ejiofor’s performance is so powerful that it’s hard to see him in anything else without remembering Solomon—but maybe that was the point. Ejiofor was nominated for several awards for his role. His performance is still one of the most moving to watch. He embodied the character’s pain and suffering while showing his immense strength.
In fact, his performance moved him so much that in an interview he did with Entertainment Magazine, he said, “It took me a little while, even in a practical sense, of coming out of that experience, of being able to turn up at dinner parties and not just be talking about man’s inhumanity to man. It took me a little while to re-enter society.”
1 Ben Kingsley in Gandhi
Ben Kingsley has been acting since the late 1960s, so nobody’s shocked to hear us say he’s an extremely talented actor. He’s played pivotal roles in almost every genre and still appears in major box office hits like Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Iron Man 3.
But one of Kingsley’s most masterful performances came from his role as Mahatma Gandhi in Gandhi. He was completely committed to the role and encapsulated Gandhi’s spirit, vulnerability, and quiet strength.
Kingsley has a stage presence that pulls you in, masterfully toying with audience emotions. Director Isabel Coixet said of Kingsley, “He can be British, American, Sikh—he can be anything. You ask Ben to play a chair, and he could play a chair!”
Ben won multiple awards for his portrayal of Gandhi, including an Oscar, BAFTA Film Award, and a Golden Globe. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, it’s one classic that everyone should watch.