10 Best Acting Performances in Steven Spielberg Movies

March 15, 2017
8 min read

It speaks volumes that only a single woman makes into the list of the best performances in the films of Steven Spielberg, making it clear that the gifted director prefers to tell the stories of men in his work. Nothing wrong with that, not at all, but I rarely get caught off guard, and that did catch me off guard. Perhaps it is because I remember constant female presences in his work, but in quick review, they are usually wives, mothers, supporting roles. If the list were longer, Samantha Morton would be there for ‘Minority Report’, as would Sally Field for ‘Lincoln’, and Embeth Davidtz for ‘Schindler’s List’.

Throughout his impressive career, actors in Spielberg films have won just two Academy Awards for their work, and all of them quite recently. Daniel Day-Lewis would win for his astounding ‘Lincoln’ while Mark Rylance would take home the Best Supporting Actor statuette for ‘Bridge of Spies’. Just thirteen actors have been nominated for their work in the master’s films, with many fine performances snubbed through the years. Sadly, actors in a Spielberg film have often been overlooked because they are in a Spielberg film, the thought being that the director is the star, and the actors secondary. Spielberg however will tell you that it is totally wrong. Without the actors in his films, he has nothing, and what he gives them as a director is what every actor dreams of –  freedom and collaborative work with a director who trusts them with his vision. Even prickly actors such as Tommy Lee Jones come away singing his praises.

Though not widely known as an actor’s director, you will be hard pressed to find an actor who does not revere him. I am not sure how the Academy missed nominating Robert Shaw (‘Jaws’), Richard Dreyfuss (‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’), Harrison Ford (‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’), Henry Thomas (‘E.T.’), Christian Bale (‘Empire of the Sun’), Ben Kingsley and Embeth Davidtz (‘Schindler’s List’), Jude Law (‘A.I.’), Samantha Morton (‘Minority Report’), Leonardo Di Caprio (‘Catch Me If You Can’), Lynn Cohen (‘Munich’) and Tom Hanks (‘Bridge of Spies’), but they did.

The best work by actors in a Spielberg film? For me, they are the following.


10. Christian Bale – Empire of the Sun (1987)

An excellent performance from a young boy, Bale superb as Jim, a prisoner of war, left behind accidentally by his parents when they are split up during the evacuation of Shanghai. Left to survive in a Japanese internment camp, he thrives, dealing, conning, hustling, always in motion. Leaving his childhood behind in every way, when he finally looks to the heavens and closes his eyes, they are the eyes of an old man who has lived a very long, hard life. Bale was astonishing and went to become one of his generation’s finest actors.


9. Harrison Ford – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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It was Burt Lancaster who suggested that what Harrison Ford accomplished as an actor as Indiana Jones was something very special. Far beyond the battered fedora and bull whip, Indy is a rogue archaeologist, who in the years before the Second World War is hired by the government to find the Ark of the Covenant before Hitler finds it. It is a grand physical performance, a great chase film, and the greatness of it is that you can imagine no one else in the part. He became one of cinema’s most beloved heroes.


8. Liam Neeson – Schindler’s List (1993)

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Oskar Schindler is a towering businessman, a member of the Nazi Party, who brilliantly works his magic with the Jewish businessmen to finance a factory that will allow him to profit from the war. He shamelessly wines and dines the members of the Nazi Party to gain their trust, and is permitted to hire eleven hundred Jews. When he realizes the Nazis are exterminating the Jews, he spends his fortune protecting “his Jews”, going broke in the process. Nelson is ambiguous, we never know what makes him tick, but it is an undeniably fine performance, his final moments with his Jewish workers extraordinary in its raw power. A good man in the most horrible of times.


7. Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies (2015)

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As the Russian spy captured by the Americans and used as a pawn and a bargaining tool, stage actor Mark Rylance is a revelation. Melancholic, knowing what it could mean to be sent back (death), the sad-eyed actor creates an unrepentant character who believes in his work, and is a Soviet patriot. The lovely friendship that develops between him and the lawyer (Hanks) hired to defend him is gentle, slowly built, but genuine because they see each other as men. I love his line, “would it help?”


6. Tom Hanks – Saving Private Ryan (1998)

For his role as the stoic Captain Millar, it is said that Tom Hanks asked pages of his dialogue be removed as he felt he could act the moments and that his character was a man of few words. It was a perfect decision, and Hanks was superb in the film, allowing the audience to see the carnage, the horrors of war through his eyes. One of the actor’s best performances, his eyes say so much throughout, letting us see into his very soul. His breakdown after the death of the medic is shattering, fully allowing us to see the impact of war.