The Best Performances in Stanley Kubrick Movies, Ranked

Stanley Kubrick was one of Hollywood’s most prominent and promising directors, with many considering him to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Kubrick’s genius extended to the various faculties of filmmaking, ranging from artistic performance to production design and everything in between. Due to the high volume of Kubrick’s genius, it’s easy to get lost in the mesmerizing worlds he created through his films, bypassing the master filmmaker’s genius when it came to extracting authentic performances from his actors, no matter the professional or personal cost it came at. Here are some of the best performances in Stanley Kubrick’s movies.


10 Kirk Douglas – Paths of Glory (1957)

United Artists

Paths of Glory is the manifestation of Stanley Kubrick’s heartfelt anti-war commentary. The revolutionary filmmaker presents Kirk Douglas as a lovable Colonel Dax, a French commanding officer that’s tasked with defending three scapegoats in his squadron after a botched offensive that occurred within the French army in 1916. Kirk Douglas delivers a sensational performance, as the eccentric French officer, with moments of vulnerability and moments of thunderous strength.

Vincent D'Onofrio as Pyle getting yelled at by the drill instructor.
Anchor Bay Films

In a continuation of his love for all things anti-war, Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is more raw and direct in its approach compared to Paths of Glory, which is a mix between a courtroom drama and an anti-war movie. In Full Metal Jacket, the gloves come off and Kubrick depicts the full scale of the horrors of war, through a bunch of naive recruits, with one of them being Pvt. Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). Pvt Plye is overweight and slightly dimwitted, a tendency that put him on the radar of his sadistic drill sergeant Hartman… Onofrio portrays Pyle with helplessness and an eerie sense of stillness, reminiscent of a calm before the storm.

Related: The Most Traumatizing War Movies of All Time, Ranked

8 Leon Vitali – Barry Lyndon (1975)

Leon Vitali in Barry Lyndon
Warner Bros.

Leon Vitali was one of Kubrick’s closest collaborators, serving as the director’s personal assistant on multiple projects. In Barry Lyndon, Vitali stepped in front of the camera to play the role of Lord Bullingdon. Being Barry Lyndon’s sidekick for the best of the first part of the film, Lord Bullingdon comes to his own when Barry marries his wealthy mother. Vitali plays Bullingdon with an empathetic and holistic approach, stirring within the audience a glimmer of relativity.

Matthew Modine as Joker
Warner Bros. Pictures

One of the few recruits that survived the ordeal of war, haunted by its abundant inflow of trauma was Pvt. Joker (Mathew Modine). At such a young age, Modine had the immense maturity to portray Joker with a distubed yet Stoic sense of ease.

6 Peter Sellers – Dr Strangelove (1964)

Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Columbia Pictures

In Kubrick’s satirical take on nuclear warfare, Peter Sellers plays three different and distinct roles. He plays an RAF exchange officer, the U.S President, and an eccentric wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi. Sellers is so convincing and different in all three roles, it’s difficult to spot that it’s actually one person playing three different roles.

Related: Best Movies About the Cold War, Ranked

R Lee Ermey Full Metal Jacket
Warner Bros. Pictures

Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) is the source of all things pain and discomfort for his recruits. An abusive sadist that derives pleasure from tearing away any streak of individuality from his boys, the drill sergeant is so evil and obnoxious, he brings with him an aura of irritability as soon as he enters the frame.

4 Nicole Kidman – Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Warner Bros.

Eyes Wide Shut revolves around a middle-aged couple, who experience marital disharmony when Alice (Nicole Kidman) admits to her husband Bill, about having sexual fantasies about another man she recently met. Disturbed by this revelation, Bill roams through New York seeking out sexual encounters himself. Nicole Kidman does a stellar job of acting as a strong and subtlety disturbed person, cold and calculated about her expressions and emotions, causing a constant degree of unease whenever she appears on-screen.

Related: Best Nicole Kidman Performances, Ranked

3 Shelley Duvall – The Shining (1980)

The Shining
Warner Bros. Pictures
EMI Films
Columbia Pictures

Shelley Duvall really outdid herself on The Shining. Her character literally spiraled on-screen and off-screen as Kubrick put her through the wire to seek out the most real and raw performance from her. The actress was subjected to various degrees of torture, which threw her within the depths of her own psyche and concocted one of horror’s best performances, ever.

2 Malcolm McDowell – A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Based on Anthony Burgess’s best-selling novel of the same name, Kubrick’s film follows a band of rouges as they torment the streets of London in a dystopian future. The rouges, or as Alex (Malcolm McDowell), who’s the leader of the groups, like to call them, the droogs, are put in a rehabilitation program and that’s when the true horror of the film begins. In terms of performance, the Alex starts off as a loud, brutal hunter, preying on the weak and eventually transforms into a meek weakling himself.

1 Jack Nicholson – The Shining (1980)

A scene from The Shining
  • Warner Bros./ Columbia-EMI-Warner Distributors

Jack Nicholson’s genius in The Shining is there for everyone to see. Right from his introduction, the Academy Award-winning actor eludes signals off madness and eccentricity. Even in his normal conversation with the hotel manager and his wife, Jack’s suppressed evil is evident. His descent into madness is inevitable yet surprising, as he drags the audience with him as he dives nose deep into a sinister well of insanity.