Searching around the internet, a fair amount of different definitions for, 'acting,' can be found. One reads, "Temporarily assuming the duties or authority of another." Another calls it, "The art or practice of representing a character on a stage or before cameras." But who needs a definition; You know what acting is, right? It's the ability to morph one's self into a different person or character, the chemeleonic abilities and range of a particular thespian used as a tool to evaluate talent. If we can all agree on that, then allow me to offer a claim on which we just might differ on: Almost no One in Hollywood is a real actor, even the really, really good actors.
For the last several years, I've had to hear One person after another bemoan the minimal acting ranges of comic actors like Michael Cera or Seth Rogen. Even I can't help but observe it upon occasion. What's absurd about this argument, however, is that it ignores the fact that almost every well-known and highly-regarded actor really only does one thing, from Cera's mumbling self-doubter, all the way down to Cary Grant's too-suave-to-be-real besuited gentleman. This article is titled the way it is for a reason: These are screen idols who offer something irreplaceable and specific to their films, which certifies them as great actors, and I have done my best to limit this list to top tier performers only. However, they also hardly ever change up their schtick in any way, which would tend to imply that they can't really act a lick. Here's your list, ordered from most versatile to least:
P.S. Congratulations to Sean Penn, who was so vivacious and great in Milk that, when paired with good old Jeff Spicoli, I feel alright giving him a pass on his near-permanent, 'I Hate the World,' vibe.
15. Paul Giamatti
The Part He Aways Plays: Short-Fused, Ever-Suffering Shouter Who's On the Verge a Breakdown
Examples: American Splendor, Sideways, Shoot 'em Up, Barney's Version, Win Win
As a supporting player, Giamatti can see a few different uses, but thus far into his career, the lovably surly schlub has really only been used One way. It's not easy being versital when your expression eternally suggests that you just smelled something foul, so we should probably expect some more crotchety Giamatti in the future.
14. Carey Mulligan
The Part She Always Plays: Doe-Eyed Innocent Entering into a Cold, Cruel World
Examples: An Education, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Never Let Me Go, Drive
Carey only gets to be this low on the list because she's hardly been in anything yet, but her angel-crashing-down act remains all that we've really seen of her. It's good stuff, but that's a pretty exact box to fit into.
13. Don Cheadle
The Part He Always Plays: Straight-Man Side Kick With a Caring, Gentle Inner-Sould
Examples: Traffic, Reign Over Me, Ocean's Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen, Iron Man 2, The Guard
Need a guy to pal around with the funny/eccentric/charming lead character of your movie? Don Cheadle is here for you, offering just enough charisma to win over the audience, but not enough to distract from that juicy lead role at the center of your flick.
12. Nicole Kidman
The Part She Always Plays: Chilly Personality Who's Noticeably Distanced From the World Around Her
Examples: Moulin Rogue, The Others, The Hours, Cold Mountain, Margot at the Wedding, Rabbit Hole
Aloofness simply wafts off of Kidman, a fact that was used to great effect in last year's Rabbit Hole, but seriously, why so far away, Nicole? I don't care how famous she is, the woman seems like she'd be a bummer to hang out with.
11. Michelle Williams
The Part She Always Plays: Stoic and Strong-Willed Woman In the Midst of Having Her Life Torn Apart
Examples: Brokeback Mountain, Wendy and Lucy, Synecdoche, New York, Blue Valentine, Meek's Cutoff
Williams has been climbing up the ranks of, 'serious actresses,' for a few years now, and there's good reason: The woman can embody a sense of feminine strength better than anyone else working today. She's so good at it, in fact, that no one asks her to do anything else, besides suffer, that is.
10. Leonardo DiCaprio
The Part He Always Plays: Haggard Straight-Shooter Who's Haunted By Innumerable Demons
Examples: The Departed, Blood Diamond, Body of Lies, Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island, Inception, J. Edgar (I know it's not out yet, but have you seen that trailer?)
Leo gets off kind of easy because he showed some real range in his olden days, from his youthful, dashing playboys in Titanic and Catch Me If You Can, to his oscar-nominated work as a mentally handicapped teen in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? But I have One question for you, dear reader: When is the last time that you saw DiCaprio smile in a movie? I for One don't know the answer.
9. Colin Firth
The Part He Always Plays: Timid, Sad, Beautiful Soul Who You Root For Like Hell, But Would Probably Bore You In Real Life
Examples: Bridget Jones's Diary, Love Actually, Mamma Mia!, A Single Man, The King's Speech
To be fair, I have never seen the role that seems to endear most people to the Brit, that being the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice, but, 'lovably meek,' could accurately describe every role that I've ever seen him in. Sure, his King's Speech performance was pretty moving, but sub out the stutter, and what separates it from the rest of Firth's catalog?
8. Kevin Spacey
The Part He Always Plays: Smarmy Smart-Ass Who Just Might Be the Smartest Guy in the Room
Examples: Swimming With Sharks, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, American Beauty, The Big Kahuna, K. Pax (JK), Fred Clause, 21, Casino Jack, Horrible Bosses
Kevin Spacey is probably my very most favorite actor working today, and even I can't deny that the dude is a total one-trick pony. The guy colors inside the lines something fierce; I just happen to be tickled by what he draws. Seriously though, that's a long list of movies to play rough variations of the same shady, sarcastic bastard.
7. Bill Murray
The Part He Always Plays, 1979-1993: Charming Lay-About Who Takes Next to Nothing Seriously
Examples: Meatballs, Stripes, Tootsie, Ghostbusters, Scrooged, Groundhog Day
The Part He Always Plays, 1993-Present: Hopelessly Depressed and Nearly Impossible to Faze
Examples: Ed Wood, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Lost in Translation, The Life Aquatic, Broken Flowers, Get Low
Somewhere along the line, Murray stopped being a haphazard hellion and morphed into the silently solum character that he occupies today (me thinks it had something to do with Wes Anderson), but during both phases, he was mostly only doing that One thing. Having Two different basic characters does perhaps make him more versatile than some actors on this list, but its not like he alternates between the Two. Downer Bill is here to stay.
6. Al Pacino
The Part He Always Plays: Furiously Intense Tough Guy with an Obvious Napoleon Complex
Examples: The Godfather Part's I and II, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, Heat, The Insider, Insomnia, Righteous Kill
This might be my first step onto truly hallowed ground, but this article was always going to upset some people, so I'd might as well get going. Nobody in their right mind would argue that Pacino is the actor today that he once was, and they have plenty of comparable evidence: The dude has been playing the same stressed-out hard-ass for the last few decades, and it's readily evident that his fire started to wain quite a while ago.
5. Russell Crowe
The Part He Always Plays: Heroic Workman Champion With Some Real Aggression Simmering Just Below the Surface
Examples: L.A. Confidential, The Insider, Gladiator, Master and Commander, Cinderella Man, 3:10 to Yuma, American Gangster, Body of Lies, State of Play, Robin Hood, The Next Three Days
Do I really need to explain this One? Few people in Hollywood yearn so deeply to be taken seriously, and Crowe accomplishes his goal by being... well, unfailingly serious. Could you ever, and I mean ever picture that dogged face in a comedy? Because I sure as hell couldn't.
4. Morgan Freeman
The Part He Always Plays: A Wise, Experienced Vet With a Palpable Air of Grace and Authority
Examples: Glory, The Power of One, Unforgiven, The Shawshank Redemption, Se7en, Amistad, Bruce Almighty, Million Dollar Baby, Batman Begins, An Unfinished Life, Lucky Number Slevin, Evan Almighty, Gone Baby Gone, The Bucket List, Wanted, The Dark Knight, Invictus, Red, and as the narrator of everything.
The day that Freeman was cast as God in Bruce Almighty must have been One of the biggest face-palm moments in the history of the movie industry. Even Freeman's occasional bad guys move and talk and act and exude grace in the exact same way as his lovable types. Without a doubt the perfect actor to play the lord on high... but not really too much else.
3. Denzel Washington
The Part He Always Plays: Pacino's Surface-Level Fury, Paired with Freeman's Grace and Innate Sense of Leadership
Examples: Glory, Malcolm X, The Bone Collector, The Hurricane, Remember the Titans, Training Day, John Q, Antwone Fisher, Out of Time, Man on Fire, The Manchurian Candidate, Inside Man, Deja Vu, American Gangster, The Great Debaters, The Taking of Pelham 123, The Book of Eli, Unstoppable
Thought of as a critical and commercial titan of the industry just a few short years ago, Washington has now taken to slumming it up in feather-brained action movies, and even has a pretty hilarious SNL skit dedicated to his complete and total lack of range. The guy can turn up the intensity with the absolute best of them, but he's done it a few too many times in a row to be taken as seriously as he once was.
2. Robert DeNiro
The Part He Always Plays: Serious-Minded Individual With a Steely, Intense Exterior Who Might, Quite Possibly, Be Totally Bat-Shit Crazy On the Inside.
Examples: The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, Once Upon a Time in America, The Untouchables, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Casino, Heat, Sleepers, Jackie Brown, Ronan, Men of Honor, the Meet the Parents movies, Hide and Seek, The Good Shepard, Righteous Kill, Stone, Limitless, Killer Elite
I know, I know, settle down. DeNiro is, without question, One of the greatest screen actors in history who also happens to be a personal favorite of mine, his Raging Bull work serving as my fall-back answer to the question, 'What's the greatest performance you've ever seen?' In a sense, his being on this list is almost a compliment: The name DeNiro is synonymous with not only a certain type of ambience, but also a type of movie, performance, character, and even body language. The man's younger mad-man years are iconic to the point that modern-day DeNiro almost seems like he's trying to act especially like himself. He doesn't have to try too hard.
1. Jack Nicholson
The Part He Always Plays: Jack Nicholson
Examples: Every Movie with Jack Nicholson
Bold statement time: Jack Nicholson is the most distinctive actor in the history of American Cinema. When you sign him up to be in your movie, you're buying a very, very, very particular flavor, One that has led him to Three Oscars, and a variety of other accomplishments. Oh, and you also get Jack Nicholson, a human too unique to ever be even somewhat lost in a character. He's played good, bad, happy, sad, and everything in between, but regardless of the movie, when you look up on screen, you see Jack.