10 Brilliant Acting Performances Defined by One Look

I LOVE LOVE this idea from Brittani that I came across earlier this week that I had to take part.

“Sometimes a simple look an actor gives is nothing short of brilliant,”

I totally agree with her sentiment. Sometimes the quietest, most subtle look or gesture has the power to generate the most emotional response, no words necessary.

It made me think of some of those scenes and really, there are SO many examples that it’s tough to narrow it down to just 10. The fact that I remember these scenes despite the length of time that’s passed since I’ve seen it means they definitely left a big impression on me. In fact, from time to time I still look on youtube to watch that particular scene again. Ok so technically there are 11 here, as I paired up one of them, but I think it still count as one as it happens in the exact same scene where the two actors interact with each other. Anyway, here goes:

Christian Bale in Equilibrium

Bale_Equilibrium

I always have a fondness for this dystopian sci-fi thriller despite its flaws. Bale’s Preston came too late to save the woman he loves from being incinerated… and he had to watch her die right in front of him. Bale’s expression of utter despair just breaks my heart. It’s one of my favorite Bale performances from all the amazing work he’s done, even if the film itself is far from perfect.

Emily Blunt – Jane Austen Book Club

Blunt_JaneAustenBookClub

I LOVE miss Blunt and she adds so much gravitas and emotional complexity to her character of a French teacher going through an unhappy marriage. She’s just about to have a rendezvous at a motel with a hot, young student but something precludes her from taking another step. I don’t remember much about the entire film but I always remember this scene.

Toby Stephens – Jane Eyre (BBC – 2006)
Toby_JaneEyreI have to include at least one out of a plethora of Toby’s masterful scenes as Rochester. The no-wedding scene is definitely one of the most emotionally-charged. Rochester’s anguish is so palpable here when ‘bride in the attic’ secret’s been revealed. He was so close to finally be with the woman he loves, but in a single moment, that elusive happiness is snatched away again. As cheesy as it sounds, there’s such mesmerizing beauty in his look of pain and agony. It takes a real craftsmanship to bring such tortured soul persona so beautifully and Toby does it with aplomb.

Angela Bassett in Waiting To Exhale

Bassett_WaitingToExhale

Fireman: Ma’am, were you aware that your car was on fire?
[Bernadine nods her head while smoking a cigarette]

Fireman: Ma’am, did you start this fire?
[she puffs smoke and plainly looks at him]

Fireman: You know, it’s against the law to burn anything except trash in your yard.

Bernadine: [flicks off ashes from her cigarette] It is trash.

Miss Bassett is simply awesome, period. It’s been over a decade since I saw this film but I never forget Bernadine’s rage and heartache when her husband leaves her. She’s crestfallen, but yet she never loses that bad-ass sensibility. Her look says it all, ‘Don’t mess with Bernadine.’

Russell Crowe in The Insider

Crowe_TheInsiderI’ve always believed that Crowe got robbed of his Oscar in this film. As fantastic as his portrayal of Maximus was, the way he completely disappeared into Jeffrey Wigand is nothing short of astounding. This scene at the hotel room is mesmerizing, powerful and heart-wrenching and Crowe only communicates with his body language. There’s a bit of a dream sequence here that was crafted masterfully by Michael Mann, but it’s Crowe’s stillness and inner tumult that you won’t soon forget.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave

Chiwetel_12YearsASlaveThis scene is one of the most haunting, which is saying something given how many heart-wrenching scenes there are in this film. At first Solomon didn’t join the other slaves singing Roll Jordan Roll, but somehow, halfway through the song, he started singing. His facial expression stirs up so much expression as I watched it. It’s as if he’d reached the lowest point of his life, losing all hope of ever escaping his fate as a slave… all the grief, desperation, anger and sense of helplessness is all there. Yet there is a glimmer of defiance in him, a flicker of hope still left in him that gets him through another day. Ejiofor deserved an Oscar win just for this scene alone.

Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday

Peck_TheHolidayThe finale remains one of the most beautiful and poignant film endings ever. And I think Peck’s facial expression conveys so much. The restrained tears in his eyes, the rigid way he’s standing, it takes so much out of Joe not to say how he feels about Ann. Yet his expression speaks louder than words could ever do.

Kate Winslet in Titanic

Winslet_TitanicIt’s been ages since I saw Titanic but for some reason, this subtle scene of Rose during dinner with her family and Cal still stands out to me. There’s this glazed look on her face, like she finally stops caring about her privileged life that feels more and more like a prison. “That fire is gonna burn out,” Jack tells her at one point and it’s as if it finally sinks in that he is right and she wants out.

Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator

Joaquin_GladiatorThis is truly one of the greatest scenes in film history IMHO. There’s just so much going on in this scene on psychological and emotional level. Of course Crowe is simply astounding in his ‘Maximus Decimus Meridius’ monologue but one thing that always struck me is Commodus’ stunned reaction. His lips quiver, eyes wide open with shock and his whole body trembles with a combination of rage and fright. It’s like ‘WTF! How could you still be alive?’ He knew at that moment, everything he’s planned so carefully is in shambles. As Lucilla said, at that moment, a slave did become more powerful than the Emperor of Rome, and it’s all written in Commodus’ face.

James Cromwell & Kevin Spacey in L.A. Confidential

Cromwell_LAConfidential

Spacey_LAConfidential

There are certain phrases in movies that will forever be stuck in my head. “Rolo Tomasi” is one of them, and thanks to both Cromwell and Spacey for creating such an iconic and chilling scene. That’s the name Exley (Guy Pearce) gives the unknown murderer of his father just to give him a personality. “Have you a valediction, boyo?” Capt. Dudley Smith asked the dying Sgt. Jack Vincennes. It’s a powerful and totally unexpected response, and one he never thought would eventually lead to his own demise. Even nearing death, Jack still manages to deliver quite a blow to Dudley.


Well, what do you think of my picks? Please share your own picks of great acting defined by one look.

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65 thoughts on “10 Brilliant Acting Performances Defined by One Look

  1. Brittani

    I love your picks! Chiwetel Ejiofor killed me in that scene. I actually just got that particular scene on HBO the other day, and it’s still powerful.

    1. Hey thanks for the great idea! Yep indeed, Chiwetel is absolutely brilliant throughout but esp. in that particular scene. Poignant, powerful and mesmerizing, I was rooting for him to get Best Actor win.

  2. Ted S.

    I only 5 of the films you listed there, Equlibrium, Titanic, LA Confidential, The Insider and Gladiator. Can’t say I remember those scenes from the list but they all have great performances, I always believe that the reason Nolan hired Bale to play Bruce Wayne/Batman was because of his performance in Equilibriam, American Pyscho and Shaft.

    I think the only one look performance that I really remember was from Inglorious Basterds, it’s when Fassbender’s character realized that he and his team aren’t leaving the bar alive. His reaction was just perfect, pretty much how most people will react when realizing you’re going to die. I love this scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfiNVTPqWPY

    1. You don’t remember those scenes from the five movies? WOW, that’s quite surprising, esp. LA Confidential & Gladiator as those are so iconic.

      I remember the bar scene but it was more of a collective performance, not just a single person. I remember thinking how stupid Fassy’s character was though, for not knowing how to gesture the number 3 the German way. Alas, it cost him and his team dearly.

      1. Ted S.

        Yeah I can’t say I remember that much from most of those films, I’ve only seen The Insider twice, Equilibrium and Titanic once. Love LA Confidential but I only remembers Crowe’s intense performance. I’m in a minority who thought Phoenix was a miscast in Gladiator and was even more surprised when he got nominated for an Oscar.

        Oh no I meant the moment when he realized he’s doomed and his eyes just flickered, that was awesome. But I agree that everyone in that scene were excellent. I had no clue about German’s gesture either so I would’ve been dead too if I was in his position, lol.

  3. Great idea, Brittani and Ruth! I may have to do a post like this in the future too. Ooo, my emotions swell just looks at some of these pictures. Having seen Roman Holiday not that long ago, I really remember that look from Gregory Peck in that scene. It’s perfect.

    Chiwetel Ejiofor is just incredible in 12 Years a Slave. That scene is such a memorable one, it makes me want to cry when I think about it.

    And Christian Bale in Equilibrium. I’d agree that one of my favorite roles of his!

    I have to think about my picks . . . maybe I’ll write my own post soon!!

    1. Hello Kris! Hey you should do your own list, I’m sure everyone has a different set. Peck is sooo good as Joe Bradley wasn’t he? That finale will stay with me forever, it’s just so sad & so beautiful.

      I’ve been a fan of Chiwetel for some time and that performance just cemented his talent as a force to be reckoned with. And yeah, Bale is very Bond-like in Equilibrium, yet he also nails the emotional/dramatic scenes when no words are spoken. I don’t care for the movie as a whole but his performance is still my fave!

  4. Cool topic Ruth.

    For me, in my mind, there’s one look that stands above the rest. The look that Denzel Washington gives Matthew Broderick in Glory when he’s getting flogged is just haunting. You see the horrible scars on his back when they tear the shirt off his back and he just takes it barely blinking as he stares intensely at Broderick. A single tear rolls down his face… it gets me every time I see it. I remember seeing it in the movie in the theater and thinking during this scene… wow, he just won the Oscar… and of course he did.

    1. Ted S.

      Good one Dave, I love that scene in Glory. I’m not a big fan of Swick’s films, I think most of them were so preachy.

  5. jackdeth72

    Hi, Ruth:

    Excellent choices and critiques all the way around!

    Kudos for Cromwell and Spacey in ‘L.A. Confidential’.

    Personal inclusions would be Walter Matthau’s tired, vindicated smile after Martin Balsam’s sneeze in the final seconds of the original ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’. And Robert Redford’s victorious, though befuddled, “So. What do I do now?” from ‘The Candidate’.

    1. Ted S.

      Jack, that scene from the original Taking of Pelham was awesome! Wish I thought of it, the way Matthau reacted was like “I gotcha!”. Haha!

    2. Hi Kevin! I really need to see the original Taking of Pelham, as I thought the remake was meh. As for The Candidate, is that another 70s thriller that Redford did, never heard of that one before.

  6. Joaquin Phoenix was amazing in Gladiator, he was my pick to win supporting oscar that year.
    I always remember the ending of Mystic River, when Kevin Bacon looks at Sean Penn in a knowing way.
    Another is the street scene in Blue Is The Warmest Color, when they exchange glances, and it’s kind of love at first sight.

  7. This is just so fantastic. As I told Brittani, the art of capturing something in one look for me makes the performance magnificent – it’s actually no longer a performance, it is an actor becoming his character and reacting and being this character. I am planning a post as well, completed with actual gifs of the moments and it’s lovely – and challenging – because there are so many actors who managed to do that.

    I love your choice of Winslet the most. Titanic gets a bad rep but I love that movie – it’s perfect, it has everything. But if anyone deserved Oscar there it was Winslet. She has so many amazing moments like the one you chose. For me the one which stands out is when that guy who told her about the rescue boats tells her do you remember what I told you about how many of them are and she slowly brings her hand to her mouth, petrified because she realizes how many people will die. She is not so much frightened for her life but she is paralyzed by the tragedy of it all. It’s such a fantastic performance.

    1. Thanks Sati! I can’t wait to see your list! I was looking for some gifs but didn’t have enough time to find ’em, but yeah having those is definitely more powerful.

      Yeah, Titanic is still a wonderfully-acted film even if the story is kind of cheesy. Somehow the actors manage to elevate the story w/ their performances, esp Winslet who is just astounding. The film is really more about her than about Jack and rightly so. You’re so right that in that moment you mentioned, she was aghast by the tragedy of that night, not so much worrying about her own life. She captured so much emotion in that film, her range is incredible even at such a young age.

  8. That scene from Waiting to Exhale is awesome…. “that is trash”… Bassett just kills it. I also loved the moment where she bitch-slaps Kelly Preston once she realized that her shit-head ex-husband has taken away her money. That is a woman that…. NO ONE…. should fuck with.

    I also love that look from Emily Blunt in The Jane Austen Book Club as she was my favorite performance in that film.

    1. Glad you agree about Bassett and Blunt, esp the latter as most people haven’t seen that film. I love both actresses so much, they’re just incredible!

  9. This is such a great list that I can’t really think of anyone to add right away. The other scene I love with Spacey in LAC is when he’s asked why he became a cop and he replies he can’t remember. So truly befuddled. And yep, Crowe was ROBBED for INSIDER…I’ve always thought that that’s why he won the next(?) year. I think EQUILIBRIUM is one of the first films you and I ever talked about and as you say, with good reason. Plus chemistry to spare. Oh Mr. Bale

    1. Hello Paula! There are so many great scenes in LA isn’t there? Glad we agree on The Insider and Equilibrium! Ahah yeah, the latter is Bale at his hottest, I could watch him there over and over, sooo mesmerizing. And the scorching chemistry between him & Emily Watson… oh my [fan self]

  10. Great post. I think you’ve done Brittani proud (if I may speak for her). I’m especially glad to see Angela Bassett get some love. Her work in Waiting to Exhale is criminally overlooked.

    1. Hi Wendell! Oh I hope Brittani think so 😉 I think Bassett is so underrated overall but she really was the best performer in the entire Waiting to Exhale ensemble. I also love all her scenes w/ Wesley Snipes!

  11. Great list! I hope to fill out a similar post to Brittani’s, and may have to alternate your choice for Kate Winslet in Titanic. Her close-ups in that film are amazing.

  12. Interesting topic. The first one I thought of when I read the title was Halle Berry at the end of Monster’s Ball. In the course of a few seconds as she sits beside Billy Bob Thornton and looks at him we see multiple emotions go over her face letting us know exactly what she is thinking.

    Another one that just came to mind is Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice as she stares at the bust of Darcy in his home. We see love, regret, longing, self-flagellation, and resignation in just a single look that lasts only a few seconds.

    1. I haven’t seen Monster’s Ball yet but sounds like Berry deserved her Oscar then 🙂

      Oh I was thisclose to including Keira and Matthew Macfadyen in P&P, but the scene where he helped her to the carriage and they both were struck by the touch of their hands. But that scene you speak of is great, there’s a lot of emotion going through her as she stares at Darcy’s statue… which makes the next scene when they meet even more moving.

  13. What a great list of memorable looks. I knew Toby’s Rochester had to be on there the minute I saw that headline. His look really does say it all. I also like the 12 Years A Slave look, that really was profound and it was almost as Chiwetel uses those looks throughout the whole movie to convey his feelings versus his own words. Which is pretty striking when you think about it. LA Confidential is still one of my fave movies, love that you chose something from that film. I was just watching Good Will Hunting the other night and the look when Robin Williams’ character is telling Matt Damon’s it is not his fault, and he just looks at Robin and starts weeping, that was great.

    1. Oh I just had to include Toby. I miss him so much being deprived of him the last couple of weeks! I rewatched some clips of JE and of course all my love for him came back in an instant 😉 Chiwetel is an incredible actor, I’m glad he got to show his chops in 12 Yrs A Slave. Oh yeah, that scene in GWH is very memorable indeed, perhaps Damon’s career best even to this day.

  14. Ooo, what a great idea Brittani! Great choices too Ruth. There are some looks that just speak for themselves. My favorite actors are the ones who don’t need dialogue to convey an emotion.

    1. Inspired Ground, I took second the look at the end of Psycho. I went back and re-watched it. The superimposition of “mother” with the dialogue only adds to the brilliance of what Perkins is doing there. If you mute the sound, the slow push in on his face is still pretty incredible.

      It reminded me of another great look. It’s at the end of The Omen, Damien (Harvey Stephens) turns to the camera and slowly smiles. Now if you take that shot out of context and take out the music it just looks like a young boy, with a cherub-like face, smiling. But in context of who he is, what he’s done and who he’s standing next to… it’s just chilling. It still gives me goosebumps. Even though he’s just a young actor and you can’t really compare him to the actors listed above, it’s a look that stayed with me since I was a little Catholic schoolboy in the 70’s.

    2. Hi Andina, long time no see 🙂 That smirk Perkins had at the end of Psycho is soooo creepy! He seems like a nice guy in real life so he’s definitely a great actor.

  15. Very cool post Ruth! It’s the sign of a great actor if they can convey so much emotion and feeling just by giving a single look. I can’t comment on most of them but the scene you mention in 12 Years a Slave is heart wrenching.

    1. Hi Chris! I love actors who could do so much in the most subtle way. Chiwetel definitely shows his chops in 12 Years A Slave, though he’s done lots of great work before that.

  16. Brilliant post! I love the Ejiofor, Peck, Phoenix and Cromwell/Spacey mentions. Crowe is excellent in The Insider, but I really need to rewatch it.

    1. Crowe is simply astounding in The Insider. There are sooo many scenes worth including from that film. There’s a brief scene when he saw a bullet inside his mailbox and that’s memorable as well.

  17. Great post!! I can agree with you in all of those as I haven’t seen most of them, mine are:

    Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto as that one is the movie that makes me a fan.
    Benny in Sherlock. I think his role as Sherlock is still the best among all his works.
    Satoh Takeru in Kenshin, his real personality is totally different to Kenshin but he pulls it off awesomely.

    I can go on but too busy to think more, so those are my top 3

    1. Hi Nov! Cillian certainly has that ability to convey much with subtlety. I like Benny’s Sherlock as well and yeah, his facial expressions are fun to watch! Not familiar w/ Takeru unfortunately.

      1. He’s in the movies I have been reviewing lately 🙂

        He sure shows a lot improvement since the first time I saw him. I actually like him more than Benny now.

    1. Hi Alex! I really think that The Insider is grossly overlooked. It’s not a showy role as some others that Crowe has done, but it certainly a masterful piece of work. I hope Ejiofor gets to show his chops in future roles after 12 Years A Slave!

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