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2023 Summer Reading Challenge: 100 Great Film Performances You Should Remember - John DiLeo

100 Great Film Performances You Should Remember - But Probably Don’t (2004) John DiLeo

Limelight Editions

Paperback, 416 pages

Includes table of contents, preface, photos

ISBN 9780879109721

(Photos below are not taken from the book.)

“Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields were comic geniuses, but couldn’t we simply call them great comic actors? How long can I stand the fact that Joel McCrea and Ida Lupino are not the screen icons they deserve to be? How many people even remember who Kay Kendall was?”

- John DeLio

John DiLeo knows his stuff. Not only that, he knows how to look at sometimes neglected classic films - even those that aren’t all that good - and find exceptional performances from actors who were lauded (if not idolized) for lesser work in more popular films. The important word in this book’s title is “should.” We should remember the 100 performances selected by DiLeo, but we probably don’t because we either never saw them or have been so caught up in the classics that get shown over and over. So don’t be surprised when you run across an actor’s name paired with a film you’ve possibly never heard of.


When you pick up a book covering great performances you know you’re going to see certain names, and you do. But you might be surprised that Greta Garbo appears for her performance in a movie that’s not Ninotchka (1939), Queen Christina (1933), or Camille (1937). Fred Astaire’s chapter spotlights a film that doesn’t costar Ginger Rogers. Edward G. Robinson gets an entry not for Little Caesar (1930), Double Indemnity (1944), or Key Largo (1948), but for…

Well, you’ll have to read the book.

Again, recall the book’s title. This volume isn’t necessarily about an actor’s greatest performance (yet sometimes it is), but ones you should remember. This gives us all a great excuse to track these films down and see if we agree or disagree with DiLeo, which is part of the fun.

Myrna Loy in... ???

Most entries begin with some background about each star, what made them memorable, why this particular film might have been ignored or forgotten, and why it deserves rediscovery. DiLeo argues why the particular performance is noteworthy, whether the actor stepped out of his/her comfort zone in playing it, or was possibly paired with a director who was able to enhance an aspect of the actor’s talent that had previously been untapped.

Many of the entries focus on performances that are understated or atypical for a particular actor. Audiences (and the Academy Awards) love to praise and reward actors who give impassioned, showy, and even pyrotechnic performances, but to underplay a role is a sure-fire way to get yourself ignored. In this book, many such actors finally get their due for performances that don’t shout, “Hey, look at me!” but rather cause us to reflect long after the picture is over.

The book is loaded with wonderful performances and great writing. Again, DiLeo knows his stuff, and his wealth of knowledge and insight is clear throughout. Plus I can’t thank him enough for pointing out a performance by Robert Duvall that most people have forgotten or have never seen. (I will give you one spoiler and tell you that I believe it is the best adaptation anyone has made of a William Faulkner story.)

Do yourself a favor and pick up this and other books by John DiLeo. You won’t regret it.

Although the films in the book cover the period from 1920 to 2000, 80% of the book focuses on films from the classic era (through the 1970s), so I hope Raquel will let me slide on this one!

This review is part of the 2023 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!

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93 views2 comments


Raquel Stecher
Raquel Stecher
Jul 21, 2023

I'll definitely let this one slide! It sounds like such an interesting book. We always talk about the greatest hits but so many actors have notable performances in movies that we should know about but maybe don't. I enjoyed your review. And thanks for the teasing because that really made me want to pick up the book and find out which movie was paired with those actors!

Jul 21, 2023
Replying to

Thanks, Raquel!

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