A lot of the best performances in cinema have come to light from very dark places. This is especially true in the case of portrayals of mental disorder or plain psychopathy. These portrayals are easy bait for the Academy since they offer the performers opportunities to show off their acting skills. And if you look at just the sheer number of actors who have won — or been nominated for — Oscars over years, you realize how much the Academy loves rewarding the performances portraying mental disorders. Below are 10 such great performances of a mentally challenged person that won Oscar.
10. Nina Sayers: Natalie Portman – Black Swan (2010)
The movie offers a glimpse into the obsessive nature of artists as they strive to achieve their goals. Natalie Portman’s Nina is a devotee of the medium of ballet. Suffocated by her mother, a former ballerina, Nina struggles with competition when she bags the lead spot. Nina realizes that while she may embody the White Swan, the character’s Black Swan alter ego is exemplified by Lily. This leads to a messy friendship between the two but Nina spirals out and her inner Black Swan rises in a beautiful finale in this Darren Aronofsky masterpiece.
9. Dr. Jekyll: Fredric March – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
In the first horror film to win an Academy Award, Fredric March plays the genius Dr. Henry Jekyll. He believes that man has two distinct sides; a good one and an evil one. He figures that by separating them, humanity will be liberated and he sets up chemical experiments to prove it. He develops a potion that sets the evil side free and consequently transforms him into a horrendous beast, Mr. Hyde. As Hyde terrorizes the city, Dr. Jekyll realizes that he must stop the experiment but how can he act against a part of himself. While the acting is remarkable, Fredric must also be commended for the heavy makeup he wore that almost damaged his face. It is a brilliant portrayal of an exaggerated split personality, especially for the time the movie was made in.
8. Lester Burnham: Kevin Spacey – American Beauty (1999)
While Kevin Spacey has portrayed many psychotic characters like in ‘Se7en’ and ‘The Usual Suspects’, this is a testament to his performance in a more subdued role. The movie follows Lester’s family which at least on the surface looks like an ordinary happy family. But every member has darker pursuits, especially Lester. His midlife crisis culminates in him becoming infatuated with his daughter’s friend. The story pays tribute in some ways to Vladimir Nabokov’s literary classic, Lolita in theme and in content. The apparent beauty dissolves as the obsession grows creepier and Kevin Spacey inspires a subtle creepiness that feels weirder because he can be a normal man with a very repulsive secret. A silent psycho is probably worse than an outspoken one.
7. Anton Chigurh: Javier Bardem – No Country for Old Men (2007)
Another gem in the filmography of the Coen Brothers, ‘No Country for Old Men’ follows a hunter as he becomes the hunted after happening onto 2 million dollars in a drug deal gone wrong. In his pursuit is the psychotic assassin, Anton Chigurh who kills anybody in his way to get the money. Javier Bardem gives a performance of his lifetime as the straight-faced killer who even kills innocent bystanders with a unique murder weapon. The now-iconic emotionless killer is assured to give you nightmares for weeks.
6. Eve White: Joanne Woodward – The Three Faces of Eve (1957)
Joanne Woodward portrays a shy young mother, Eve White who suffers from headaches and black outs. When she goes to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Luther, a different personality emerges, quite literally. Eve Black is a fun-loving, cheerful woman. With more sessions, another personality, Jane emerges, thus ‘The Three Faces of Eve’. Dr. Luther finds ways to resolve the situation by going through Eve’s early life as the three personalities keep changing in this great performance by Joanne Woodward.
5. Dr. Hannibal Lecter: Anthony Hopkins – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The movie follows FBI agent, Clarice played by Jodie Foster, as she investigates a serial killer dubbed Buffalo Bill. The key to solving the case lies in the head of a former psychiatrist, Dr. Lecter, currently locked up in maximum security isolated prison for cannibalism. With every meeting between Clarice and “Hannibal the Cannibal”, his mind games get tougher to grasp which leaves her uncertain whether to follow his words. The unreliability of Hannibal’s words makes it a mind-bending journey down the rabbit hole.
4. Annie Wilkes: Kathy Bates – Misery (1990)
The movie follows a bestselling author Paul Sheldon after he is incapacitated in a car crash. A former nurse, Annie Wilkes played by Kathy Bates who claims to be Paul’s biggest fan rescues him and brings him into her remote cabin in the mountains. When she finds out that Sheldon is killing off her favorite character from his novels, she reveals a crazy side of her. The author plans his escape as Annie grows more violent while she forces him the change the story according to her will.
3. Aileen Wuornos: Charlize Theron – Monster (2003)
Based on a true story, ‘Monster’ follows Aileen Wuornos as a prostitute who killed seven men in a span of two years. The movie depicts her downfall from a woman trying to build a decent life. Facing failure at every step, she starts working as a prostitute who lures men for sex and robs them. When one client fights her, she kills him in self defence and discovers a new way to make money; simply killing men and taking their money. Charlize Theron portrays the serial killer with a blood-curdling performance.
2. Nurse Ratched: Louise Fletcher – One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
There aren’t many characters that can simply make you lose faith in humanity. Nurse Ratched is the biggest example of that category of characters. The film follows McMurphy played by Jack Nicholson who plans to get out of working in the prison by acting insane. But when he is sent to a mental asylum with a tyrannical head nurse, it becomes his goal to get out of there and troubling the nurse while he does it. Nurse Ratched, though, is cold and heartless and fed power by her authority over the inmates. Ratched has become a symbol for the evil in humanity that rises from the corruption of power and authority. Louise Fletcher’s performance is so iconic and brilliant that the American Film Institute named her the fifth-greatest villain in film history.
1. The Joker: Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight (2008)
A lot has been said about this movie and every aspect of the movie has been analyzed to death. This movie has been touted as The Joker’s movie and that may be quite apt. The Joker, through his planned chaos, leaves the city’s only savior in turmoil. Every aspect of his plan warps your brain like when he puts the lives of innocent citizens in the hands of prisoners and vice versa. But The Joker’s biggest accomplishment lies in the way he proves that nobody is completely good, by breaking Harvey Dent’s soul leading him to lash out and embody what he fought against. The Joker balances grand moments and subtle instances of quick wit to show himself as a frightful foe. The Joker’s chaotic as well as detailed plans illustrate him as an extreme psychopath. The Batman plays second fiddle in a movie he lends his name to, which speaks to the greatness of Heath Ledger’s performance as the best mentally disturbed character that won him a posthumous Oscar award.