Who is the best Oscar winning lead actor of all time?

Stewart? Poitier? Scofield? De Niro? Day-Lewis? Our chief critic selects a winner from his nominees and reveals who you chose as your peoples champion

The best actor Academy award has always had a totemic fascination. Peter O’Toole was tortured throughout his career by getting nominated eight times without winning, and actually considered turning down a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2003 — at the age of 70 — on the grounds that he was “still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright”. (He never did, though was nominated for the last time in 2007.) Holding the Oscar in your hand is something that many actors daydream about. The first ever best actor winner, Emil Jannings, was the German silent movie actor later disgraced for his propaganda associations with the Nazi regime: when Allied troops entered Berlin in 1945, he is said to have stood in the rubble, holding up his statuette and piteously calling out: “I have Oscar!” His successors have been considerably more respectable, providing performances that have thrilled and captivated movie audiences over decades. Here is my fantasy lineup of best actor nominees in my Oscar-of-Oscars ceremony.

Golden … James Stewart, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. Photograph: Ronald Grant

James Stewart was an aristocrat, or more properly a deity, of the Hollywood Golden Age and his casually excellent performance in George Cukor’s 1940 film The Philadelphia Story is a glorious demonstration, in that pre-method era, not of acting so much as appearing transcendentally to be, on screen. He played the journalist and writer who has a tough, sceptical attitude to high society. The voice, the lanky frame on which suits and tuxes hung with casual grace, the handsome-yet-ordinary face which radiated integrity and easy good humour: it was all classic Stewart. Capra found something more obviously passionate in Stewart and Hitchcock was later to bring out darker tones in his performance but here he was the preternaturally good guy. He made something almost impossible look easy.

Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala, in “Lilies of the Field. Photograph: AP

The performance of Sidney Poitier in the comedy-drama Lilies of the Field is, in its way, atypical: he is not playing a role with the obvious maturity and dignity for which he was to be valued. Here he is a young man, just passing through, who is latched on to by a group of European émigré nuns who have managed to get past the Berlin Wall and into America and are now trying to build a chapel with no money, just an overpowering faith. They chivvy and pester Poitier into being their unpaid oddjob man — at mealtimes, he exasperatedly mutters “feed a slave!” — and he perhaps envies the lilies of the title who neither toil nor spin. It’s a youthful, dynamic performance, pulsing with openness and energy.

Paul Scofield and Susannah York in A Man for All Seasons. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Columbia

The role of Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons was originally played by Paul Scofield on stage, and he transferred all the intelligence, nuance and care of that performance to the screen, along with his beautifully modulated speaking voice. Scofield was such a great actor of theatre and cinema it is a pity that he has relatively few screen credits — but his Sir Thomas More was brilliant. This was in fact his first major film role: the great lawyer and public servant who could not bring himself to endorse Henry VIII’s remarriage to Anne Boleyn but with enormous strategic subtlety did not wish to incriminate himself with demonstrable disloyalty. This was a performance of remarkable depth and detail. (More’s subordinate Thomas Cromwell was played, a little broadly, by Leo McKern — a character Mark Rylance was to make his own in the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.)

Kevin Mahon, Martin Denkin and Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. Photograph: United/Everett/Rex Features

One of the great method performances of modern American cinema, probably the greatest, was Robert De Niro’s inspired portrayal of the brutish boxer Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s classic Raging Bull. De Niro’s performance brilliantly took LaMotta at his own estimation of himself: all the thuggishness, paranoia, aggression, self-pity and wife-beating are all shown, but through the lens of aggrandisement. He is the warrior of the ring. But the stages of his life, like rounds in a boxing match, show a dizzying ascent, and then a grisly fall as he piles on the weight and winds up in prison. This was pure, thrilling instinct in action.

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Photograph: PA

Some actors start, like Olivier, with the external details and then burrow inwards: a little tic or mannerism can unlock a whole world of personality. Could it be that Daniel Day-Lewis did that with the extraordinary voice of Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood? He was the obsessive, driven oil prospector who sounds weirdly like John Huston: he harangues his associates — and bullies and manipulates. Day-Lewis owns the screen in a way very few actors are able to do, with his sheer presence and technique.

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Not since Brando had a performance unleashed such lethal, unapologetic, muscular power — and Brando was the figure De Niro was evoking with his cheesy nightclub act in the film’s final stages. Toxic masculinity was glowing in Robert De Niro’s performance like nuclear waste; it was a thrilling portrayal of someone whose talent for boxing was purely instinctive, and who, when that deserted him, was stuck with his aggression, fear and self-hate. De Niro had superb support from Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent — but this was his moment of greatness in American cinema.

The people’s choice

Peter has had his say on the greatest Oscar-winning lead actor ever. Now it’s time to find out who you, the people, have crowned your champion. We gave readers the chance to select their favourite from Peter’s five nominees, and here’s who they have chosen as their winner:

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Coming up next week …

The big one! Peter will be announcing the winner in the best picture category and the result of the readers’ choice. Vote for your favourite below, and join us on Wednesday for the results.

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