Throughout film history, the Best Actor Academy Awards have been the ultimate goal of anyone who has ever called himself an actor. From Emil Jannings up to Will Smith, these performers are part of the immortal history of cinema, achieving the utmost distinction among their peers.
However, as with all things in movie history, Best Actor Academy Awards winners are not equal in every aspect. They were all recognized as being the most effective performers in their winning year, that’s true – but no one can deny that some stars shine brighter than others.
From the 84 Best Actor Academy Awards winners, we’ve picked a selection of 15 of them that stand tall in their field, transcending the limits of stardom to reach veritable cinematic immortality.
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15. Emil Jannings
No list of Academy Awards winners could be complete without the inclusion of Emil Jannings. For his performances in The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh, Jannings became the first actor to ever receive the coveted Best Actor statuette. Not only that, but he’s the only winner in the awards’ history to win for two films in the same year.
According to legend, however, the winner of the first Best Actor Academy Awards was almost an entirely different “person.” Some sources indicate that Rin Tin Tin, the acting dog, got the most votes, but the Academy was worried about what the public would say if a dog got the award.
14. Spencer Tracy
One of the actors with the most nominations for the Best Actor Academy Awards, Spencer Tracy is a true icon of the early days of Hollywood. He finally won his first Oscar in 1937 with Captains Courageous. His second win would come only a year later when he won Best Actor for his role in Boys Town. He is one of two actors who has ever won the Best Actor award in two consecutive years.
13. Gary Cooper
Gary Cooper’s impressive filmography was finally recognized by the Academy in 1941 when he won his first Oscar by playing the titular Alvin York in the film Sergeant York. Cooper belonged to a notable school of acting with strong performances and an understated screen presence – a trademark of the golden age of Hollywood. He would later win a second Best Actor Academy Award in 1952 for High Noon.
12. Laurence Olivier
In 1948, Laurence Olivier won the coveted award thanks to his role as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark in his adaptation of Hamlet. Olivier became one of the select few actors who have won the Best Actor Academy Awards for a character that they themselves directed in a film. While Olivier’s fame was somewhat limited in America, he was one of the most renowned dramatic performers in England.
11. Roberto Benigni
Italian actor holds a rather special place in this list. Not only is his performance in Life is Beautiful one of the most touching performances in a war drama film ever to be released, but he was also the first actor to receive the Best Actor Academy Award for a non-English-speaking role – a feat that still hasn’t been matched.
10. Adrien Brody
At just 29 years old, Adrien Brody is the youngest winner in the Academy Awards Best Actor category. He managed this impressive landmark by starring in the film The Pianist in 2002. After winning against veritable acting icons such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson, Brody cemented his place among Hollywood’s royalty, especially in films that demanded the most out of his dramatic acting prowess.
Brody might be the youngest winner, but the youngest nominee to ever compete for a Best Actor Academy Award was Jackie Cooper in 1931. For his role as Skippy Skinner in the film Skippy, Cooper received a nomination when he was just nine years old.
9. Sean Penn
Renowned actor Sean Penn is one of the few performers to win two Best Actor Academy Awards in the same decade. His first win was for Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, where he plays ex-convict Jimmy Markum. A few years later, Penn would receive the statuette again, this time for 2008’s Milk.
Though his career has had more than its share of controversy, no one can deny Penn’s spectacular acting chops, which have placed him on the list of actors with the most nominations for Best Actor Academy awards.
8. Tom Hanks
Perhaps one of the most well-known names on this list, Tom Hanks is widely regarded as one of the most influential actors ever to appear on the silver screen. His work encompasses almost every genre one can think of, and his work has been more than recognized by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
He’s the only other actor who has won two Best Actor Academy awards consecutively – one for Philadelphia in 1993, and the other for Forrest Gump the following year. Besides those two wins, the actor frequently appears in the nominations of each year’s celebrations, a testament to his stature in the Hollywood hall of fame.
7. Dustin Hoffman
Best known for his immortal interpretation in 1998’s Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman is truly an icon of the film industry. He also joins the prestigious list of artists who have won two Best Actor Academy awards. Hoffman received his first Academy recognition in 1979 when he won an Oscar for his performance in Kramer vs. Kramer.
He would later win the statuette again in 1988 when he appeared in his iconic Rain Man role. For these awards, Hoffman went against some tough competition, including Tom Hanks, Gene Hackman, and even Max von Sydow.
6. Jack Nicholson
While most people would probably remember Jack Nicholson for his roles in The Shining or 1989’s Batman, the Academy has given this legendary actor the most important single award of the night on two different occasions. The first of the two Best Actor Academy awards he obtained for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in 1975.
The second came a bit later, in 1997, and it was for the romantic comedy As Good as It Gets. It’s also worth noting that with his eight nominations for Best Actor, and four more for Best Supporting Actor, Nicholson is the most nominated male performer in the history of the Academy Awards.
5. Anthony Hopkins
In 1991, Anthony Hopkins finally received his first award for his iconic role as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. The Welsh actor is certainly one of the most beloved personalities in the entertainment business, with an extensive filmography that proves his utmost dedication to his craft.
Then, in 2020, Hopkins would make history by becoming the oldest actor ever to win a Best Actor Academy award. At 83 years old, Hopkins won the well-deserved Oscar for his role in The Father.
4. Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix has only won the Best Actor Academy award on one occasion. However, the circumstances surrounding his nomination make this win one of the most notable ones in the event’s history. Against all odds, Phoenix won the award for his work in Joker: the first time an actor had won this award for his role in a superhero film.
With the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the undeniable dominance of the superhero subgenre’s dominance over the worldwide box office, seeing an actor winning the statuette for his work on a movie like Joker could be the sign of things to come in the changing world of mainstream cinema.
3. Leonardo DiCaprio
Depending on who you ask, Leonardo DiCaprio might be the most snubbed actor in the history of the Best Actor Academy awards. With a total of five nominations to the Academy Awards, it was finally The Revenant that broke Leo’s curse.
Since then, DiCaprio was also nominated in the same category in 2019 for his role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He lost to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, but, at the very least, he proved that he still has what it takes to star in a more comedic role.
2. Marlon Brando
As legendary as legends come, Marlon Brando immortalized himself with his career-defining role in The Godfather. Surprisingly enough, that wasn’t the film that got him the first of his two Best Actor Academy Awards – that distinction goes to On the Waterfront, in 1954.
Almost two decades later, in 1972, Brando would receive his second award for his role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Some of his later roles would also be just as iconic, if not that well received by the Academy, as is the case of his part in Apocalypse Now.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis
The only actor in the history of the Best Actor Academy awards to win the contest in three different opportunities, Daniel Day-Lewis features an impressive number of nominations and accolades throughout his notorious acting career.
He received his first award in 1989, thanks to My Left Foot. Then, in 2007, he won the statuette again, this time for his role in There Will Be Blood. Finally, in 2012, he received the last (for now) of his Best Actor Academy awards for his role as President Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln.