Darling, you were dreadful! The best and worst big-screen performances of all time

What makes cinema acting great – or awful? As Harry Styles raises eyebrows in two new films, our film critics name the portrayals that really blew them away

How terrible is Harry Styles in Don’t Worry Darling? Not very, sadly. Despite the lip-smacking about his reportedly awful performance, he turns out to be borderline competent – even quite cleverly cast – in Olivia Wilde’s drama, which is out this week.

Still, fans of the formidably awkward can take comfort in his turn in My Policeman, a love triangle weepie out next month. Here, he is catastrophic. Lines thud. School-play stiffness hobbles his every move. He’s blank, shallow and embarrassing.

And his co-stars – including Emma Corrin and Rupert Everett – are somehow sucked into this black hole of charisma and ability; no mean feat given he doesn’t even share scenes with the latter.

In Don’t Worry Darling, by contrast, Florence Pugh, who plays Styles’s wife, continues to be brilliant, despite this anxious amateur gaping at her. She carries him along, and the film too; a powerhouse firefighter scooping puppies in a burning kennel.

So what is it about Pugh in Don’t Worry Darling that’s so commanding and Styles in My Policeman that makes you want to call the cops? We asked Guardian film writers to dissect exactly what makes a great movie performance – and a terrible one. Catherine Shoard

Hadley Freeman

Great: Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List

My therapist would have some thoughts on why I, a Jew, am obsessed with Fiennes’ performance as SS officer Amon Göth. But no one has better captured the inhumane psychopathy and very human stupidity of the Nazis, and Fiennes – always sniffling in this vanity-free performance – is enthralling. When he’s not on screen, you miss him and you dread him.

Terrible: Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral

Yes, “Is it still raining, I hadn’t noticed” is bad. But MacDowell’s entire performance is devoid of charisma whereas the rest of the film is bursting with charm. The tedious monotone, the vacant expression – she’s a character with no character, so why is Hugh Grant in love with her? And how could he choose her over Kristin Scott Thomas? It makes even less sense than Grant’s hair.

Andrew Pulver

Great: Pete Postlethwaite in Distant Voices, Still Lives

Terence Davies’ 1988 masterpiece may be the most perfect British film ever made. It combines relentlessly beautiful stylisation with angry kick-in-the-throat protest to amazing effect. Most of its charge is buried in Davies’ resentment of his real-life father, conceived for the film as a terrifying figure alternating between sadism, petty torture and moments of unexpected gentleness. Postlethwaite, then really a bit-part guy in TV shows, puts together an absolutely electrifying performance amid Davies’ radical camera angles and sublime long-takes. Career-transforming in the best way.

Terrible: John Malkovich in Rounders

A terrible accent can stink out any movie, holding the entire thing hostage even when the actor concerned is keeping entirely stumm. Most bad-accent attention is devoted to the likes of Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks, or Don Cheadle in Ocean’s Eleven, but connoisseurs of radioactive terribleness should really check out Malkovich’s turn as a Russian mobster in this 1998 poker-school thriller. Sounding as if he has a mouthful of tar and marbles, Malkovich wrecks an otherwise stellar film with a vintage late-90s cast (Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Famke Janssen, Gretchen Mol); you’ve really got to hand it to him.

Cath Clarke

Great: David Bowie in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence

It’s a straighter, less quintessentially Bowie part than his alien in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. And yet in Nagisa Ōshima’s 1983 second world war movie, Bowie is all snaggle-toothed strangeness and subversion playing an army major of the “tofficer” class in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. I don’t know if the film holds up today, but the scene where Bowie is buried up to his neck in sand haunted my childhood.

Terrible: Robert De Niro in Little Fockers

To be fair, it was a funny joke in Meet the Parents back in 2000: Robert De Niro channelling all that thermonuclear intensity into the role of a paranoid ex-CIA agent who toilet-trains his cat and keeps a lie-detector test at home to grill prospective son-in-laws (“Have you ever purchased pornographic material?”). By film number three, however, for Focks sake.

Peter Bradshaw

Great: Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter

David Lean’s Brief Encounter is occasionally mocked by unbelievers for its stiff upper lip, but it is a great film and Celia Johnson is wonderful as Laura, the middle-class postwar housewife who has an unhappy platonic affair. She is subtle, restrained, refined, tragically dignified and genuinely passionate. Her performance is especially compelling in her silent soliloquy of wretchedness: “This misery can’t last … not even life lasts very long …”

Terrible: Henrietta Vincent in Brief Encounter

Celia Johnson’s niece, Henrietta Vincent, played her nine-year-old daughter, Margaret, in this film and her one line is outrageously wooden and stilted. Supposedly, Margaret has been quarrelling with her brother Bobbie about whether to go to the circus or the pantomime for Bobbie’s birthday, and Vincent speaks in a nasal drone: “My birthday’s in June and there aren’t any pantomimes in June …” Afterwards, just before the cut, you can see her glance flick away from Johnson to Lean behind the camera as if to ask: was that all right? The answer – much as I love this film and everyone involved – is no.

Ryan Gilbey

Great: John Boyega in Detroit

Initial signs suggest that John Boyega, as the security guard Melvin Dismukes, will be the hero of Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the 1967 Detroit riots. In fact, he is merely a helpless witness to the savagery of racist cops. Boyega’s performance amounts to an ongoing reaction shot with tremors of stifled panic. It’s no small thing for a young actor to play an impotent role with such conviction, which makes him brave as well as brilliant.

Terrible: George Clooney in The American

Playing against type as a taciturn assassin, George Clooney fails in his bid to become the new Steve McQueen. The Sunday-supplement gloss that has won him lucrative advertising contracts is fatal here. When he broods, he simply looks sulky. With no plausible interior life, he has all the presence and charisma of a Nespresso pod.

Anne Billson

Great: Cameron Diaz in The Counsellor

I initially recoiled in horror from Diaz’s harsh performance in Ridley Scott’s jet-black cautionary tale, but subsequent viewings convinced me that this is one of the most implacable femmes fatales in cinema. Her affectless delivery of Cormac McCarthy’s line “The slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining” is as chilling a coda as you’re ever likely to hear.

Terrible: Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet

The worst thing about Kenneth Branagh’s plodding film of Shakespeare’s longest play is his own performance. Repeatedly ignoring his own advice to the Players to dial it down, he splits the ears of the groundlings, tears passion to tatters, and generally comes across as a whiny Kevin the Teenager playing to the back row of the gods.

Mike McCahill

Great: Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi

One of 2022’s greatest performances. As the real-life figure of Ganga Harjivandas, the self-improving sex slave who became queen of Mumbai’s 1960s red-light district, Bhatt makes complete emotional sense of a rollercoaster character arc. Her extraordinarily expressive dancing in drum number Dholida tells its own story: veering from communal celebration to personal desolation, it’s a walloping three-minute tabulation of everything this woman has gained and lost.

Terrible: Gordon Ramsay in Love’s Kitchen

He was an established screen personality, so Ramsay’s apparent discomfort before the camera in this culinary-themed Dougray Scott romcom proves doubly puzzling: he barely seems up to playing himself, let alone mouthing banalities about trifle. Director James Hacking quarantines this minor existential crisis in clean single shots, hoping it won’t spoil his other ingredients, but it was no-stars all round.

Steve Rose

Great: Lupita Nyong’o in Us

Few actors are called on to play the victim and the antagonist in a horror movie. Nyong’o does such a fantastic job here that it is easy to forget it’s the same actor playing both Adelaide, the terrified but plucky mom, and her doppelganger Red – a horrifically unnerving creation with a crooked smile and a voice from the depths of the uncanny valley. She should have won two Oscars!

Terrible: Jared Leto in House of Gucci

People talk about actors “disappearing into the role” – this was the exact opposite. The net result of Leto’s layers of prosthetics, bad hair, loud clothing, scenery-chewing hamminess and a “shaddap-a-you-face” Italian accent was to throw you out of the fiction and remind you that he was just a guy pretending to be another guy, and doing a really terrible job of it.

Adrian Horton

Great: Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

Anchoring a franchise, especially one as subversive as The Hunger Games, is a tall order, one Jennifer Lawrence more than met. Indomitable yet vulnerable, unflappable under pressure yet vibrating with panic, Lawrence is convincing both as a fighter and as an unwitting celebrity grappling with stardom. Never has she proved her ability to hold the centre better.

Terrible: Tom Hanks in Elvis

Tom Hanks commendably went against type as Colonel Tom Parker in Elvis – one of America’s most likable actors as an infamous show-business vampire, a straightforward villain. And he made some terrible choices. The cartoonish accent? The leering? It’s a mess, all the more so compared to Austin Butler’s uncanny Elvis. For an actor who specialises in Everyman portrayals, Hanks’s performance here is a bizarre caricature.

Xan Brooks

Great: Jack Lemmon in The Apartment

Lemmon’s note-perfect turn as an ignoble office drone is the great screen performance that first springs to mind, which is strange because twitchy, garrulous CC Baxter isn’t the obvious natural candidate for anything. Cinema typically mistreats or misrepresents the world’s beta-men. Lemmon, though, paints a grand Shakespearean tragedy off a palette of browns and greys.

Terrible: Daniel Radcliffe in the Harry Potter films

The joke’s on us: he’s laughing all the way to the bank. Nonetheless, Radcliffe was mesmerisingly dreadful in the billion-dollar film series: a clenched, perky emptiness, borne around the set by the greats of British acting as if he were the central prop in some fiendish drama-school exercise. Your co-star is a house brick; now convince us that it’s Jesus.

Leslie Felperin

Great: Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve

Barbara Stanwyck is like the Terminator of golden age Hollywood acting: a perfect mimic, killer comic instincts, capable of ripping your heart out if necessary. She gets to do it all in The Lady Eve playing Jean, a grifter in a sparkly bolero top (costumes by Edith Head), who plays a con on Henry Fonda’s brewing heir but then falls for him. It all goes wrong, but she comes back a year later pretending to be an English noblewoman named Lady Eve, and the ruse works precisely because while she makes no attempt to physically disguise herself, her entire manner, voice and carriage are different. Stanwyck plays all the layers, roles within roles, with unmatched machine precision.

Terrible: Edith Massey in John Waters’ films

In this YouTube package, Edith Massey endearingly says she “never went to no acting school”, but at least she always tried to do her best when playing such immortal roles as Edie the Egg Lady in Pink Flamingos, Queen Carlotta in Desperate Living, the deliciously named Cuddles Kovinsky in Polyester, and herself as a bartender in Multiple Maniacs. Bless her, she wasn’t even good at that last role. She bleats all her lines like a dyspeptic goat, dresses age-inappropriately with gusto, and is a kind goddess of acting ineptitude – precisely the qualities that make her so iconic in Waters’ deliberately trashy shock cinema. Sometimes bad acting has a place.

Guy Lodge

Great: Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot

For years, the legend stuck about how “difficult” Monroe was on the set of Billy Wilder’s pitch-perfect farce, creating the impression that her droll, vulnerable turn as luckless lounge singer Sugar Kane was a director-crafted accident. Well, enough of that: there is as much wily genius in her timing, her body language and her shorthand character detailing as there is in Jack Lemmon’s and Tony Curtis’s more generously lauded turns.

Terrible: Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady

Sometimes the very worst acting comes from the very best actors; on occasion, that paradox can even confuse people into throwing awards at it. Take Meryl Streep, who won her third Oscar for her absurd mechanical waxwork of Margaret Thatcher, a gorgon-esque prosthetics showcase that careers wildly between two irreconcilable approaches: high-camp caricature and a hollow attempt at humanisation.

Phuong Le

Great: Edana Romney in Corridor of Mirrors

With her jet-black mane and brooding eyes, the now-forgotten Edana Romney exudes a frightening magnetism in this sumptuous yet eerie cautionary tale, which she also co-wrote. In projecting the slow abandonment of one’s identity, her third and final performance on the big screen evokes the pleasure – and the terror – of romantic submission.

Terrible: Richard Burton in Bluebeard

In this delightfully garish, exploitation-tinged 1972 reimagination of the classic wife-killing tale, the formerly robust Richard Burton is a block of granite drained of any campy instincts. Unlike Vincent Price, who effortlessly integrates his stage-training into this more lowbrow fare, Burton’s homicidal maniac is as lifeless as his unfortunate victims.

Phil Hoad

Great: Caleb Landry Jones in Nitram

The recent performance that has blown me away the most. The idiosyncratic Jones can’t fail to be interesting on camera, but here he takes it to a new level. He could have slipped into grotesquerie playing Martin Bryant, the Tasmanian waster who murdered 35 people in Port Arthur, but every tic and outburst feels psychologically grounded. Jones shows the man’s dysfunctions alive and crawling underneath the skin.

Terrible: Jared Leto in Suicide Squad

How is it possible to jump the shark playing the Joker? Kudos to Jared Leto, today’s king of try-hard thesping. Where Heath Ledger’s scuffed-up twitchiness fitted the realpolitik of the Christopher Nolan films, and Joaquin Phoenix impeccably fleshed out the character’s emotional compulsions, Leto’s expressionism – which amounts to lots of head-rolling and heavy breathing – is completely hollow and related to nothing more than his own ego.

Stuart Heritage

Great: Tom Hanks in Cast Away

Many other actors, if handed Cast Away’s impossible list of requirements (hold the audience’s attention alone; lose a tremendous amount of weight; somehow make us all sob uncontrollably over a lost volleyball) would make uncomfortably heavy work of the task. Not Tom Hanks, though, whose performance couldn’t have been more effortless. This is true star power.

Terrible: Tom Hanks in Pinocchio

Again, any actor would have to summon the depths of their training to be any good in Disney’s new Pinocchio movie – you try expressing a convincing emotion against an invisible wooden puppet! But many of them would at least be able to hold a consistent accent during it. Hanks’s Geppetto is not only syrupy and off-putting, but also only intermittently Italian. It’s a bizarre turn, especially from an actor as reliable as Hanks.

Guardian film critics

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