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The Best Actor of Our Generation?

brent johnson looks at who could possibly be the best actor(s) of our generation …

My co-workers and I had a debate today. It started with a conversation about Leo DiCaprio. One of my fellow newspaper reporters declared him the second-greatest actor of the last 20 years.

‘Who’s No. 1?’ I asked him.

‘I don’t know,’ he said.

We laughed. But it got me thinking: Who is the greatest actor of our generation? (Our generation being the people currently in our mid-to-late 20s. Call us Generation Y.)

I’m thinking a modern version of what Brando was in the ’50s, Nicholson in the ’70s, Streep in the ’80s: strong, assured, risk-taking, energizing.

Below are some candidates, with their pros and cons.

Let’s start with Leo. A child actor turned heartthrob turned respected thespian. He was robbed of an Oscar for scarily channeling Howard Hughes in The Aviator. He was robbed of an Oscar nomination for his cold-yet-vulnerable cop in The Departed But No. 1? Not if you count his last few roles — which have him treading the let’s-see-how-brooding-I-can-get waters.

How about Denzel Washington? Two Academy Awards. A muse for Spike Lee. A master of charm. But he’s also a master of dud action films. Points deducted. (And his Oscar for Training Day? Russell Crowe deserved it more for A Beautiful Mind.)

Okay, so what about Mr. Crowe? A few years ago, I would have bestowed him with this honor in a millisecond. But as I mused in a recent post of mine, can anyone recall the last great performance he’s given? Sadly, my once-favorite actor has slipped.

Julia Roberts? Ms. Pearly Whites has the box-office clout and is People magazine royalty. She also can act with attitude and confidence. But she’s often a rom-com bore. And something about her is grating to me.

Kevin Spacey? Has two Oscars. I’ll give him the one for The Usual Suspects. Great role — and the center of one of the best final scenes of any movie, as one of my co-workers pointed out. But really, his range is limited: He plays Kevin Spacey in nearly every other performance.

Sean Penn? Also has two Oscars — and the stern power of Brando and the risque flair of DeNiro. But he’s only gotten hot in the last decade or so.

Hillary Swank? Another Oscar two-timer. And she was stirring in both roles — Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby. But name another smashing performance from her.

Matt Damon? Love the guy. He’s confident, yet not cocky. He’s consistent. He can write. And he’s criminally underrated. But it seems too soon to call him the best.

Don Cheadle? Also underrated, with great range. He can be serious and funny — he’s a friggin’ hoot in the Oceans franchise. But again, doesn’t have enough iconic roles.

Kate Winslet? She’s like a new-age Meryl Streep: She can skip around accents, gain an audience’s attention and sympathy, tear into a meaty scene. But was she really THAT good in Titanic? She even bordered on annoying in Revolutionary Road.

Tom Hanks? Seemed like a sure thing for this title about 15 years ago. Back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia and Forest Gump. Endless, everyman appeal. But what was his last stirring role? Saving Private Ryan? He’s more like a modern-day Paul Newman: classic but not overpowering.

Frances McDormand? Gave maybe my favorite female performance: as a whip-smart, pregnant heroine cop in Fargo. She’s a consistent burst of quirky fun. But she doesn’t have the heft to make her burn brighter than some of her more powerful peers.

Robert Downey Jr.? He’s quickly becoming my favorite actor to watch. He’s a blast: witty, quick, acerbic, adept with a British accent and oozing with charm. Plus, he proved with Tropic Thunder he’s a lot more than just the smirking playboy of Iron Man. But he doesn’t have a robust body of work yet. He also needs to flash a bit more range.

George Clooney? My favorite actor — who often is criticized for playing George Clooney. Hardly. He has greater range than you think — check out Syriana and Burn After Reading. And he can carry a film with Cary Grant-like grace. But he doesn’t have the wow factor of the next guy …

Daniel Day-Lewis? His turn as the menacing-yet-charismatic Bill The Butcher in Gangs Of New York may be my favorite performance of the last 20 years — and he didn’t even win the Oscar. But the recent performance he did win for — Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood — was a hammy re-hash. (There, I said it. Am I the only one who thought that?)

Now, after careful thought, I’ve arrived at who may be my top two:

Johnny Depp? He’s the Beatles of acting: endlessly eclectic, with a different twist to every performance. And his roles are uber-iconic: Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Jack Sparrow. It’s a shame he doesn’t have an Oscar. But sometimes, doesn’t it seem like he’s just acting crazy? Hello, Alice In Wonderland.

Cate Blanchett? I didn’t think of her at first, but it makes sense. She’s eclectic, too. Hell, she played Bob Dylan with flair. Her acting is subtly effortless. But she did take home her Oscar for the one performance that irked me: her mimicking take on Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator.

I’m not going to pick. But I would like to hear from you. Anyone else have a choice for the greatest?



  1. I would have said Brad Pitt. Even if the movie sucks, he is excellent in it. However, since he isnt on this list, Ill vote Depp for the same reason.

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