Australia’s 50 greatest actors (10 to 1): From Peter Finch to Cate Blanchett

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
6 Min Read
Hugely talented, these actors are the best of the best.
Hugely talented, these actors are the best of the best. Credit: Illustration: Olivia Desianti

These actors are at the pinnacle of Australian acting, a group that has found fame and acclaim on the world stage and at home.

Here are the top 10 from The Nightly’s list of Australia’s 50 greatest actors.

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains the name and image of a deceased person, used with the permission of his family.

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10. PETER FINCH

Like compatriot Heath Ledger, Peter Finch is the only other person to win a posthumous Oscar in an acting category, in Finch’s case, for best actor in Sidney Lumet’s Network. His performance as the incendiary firebrand TV newsman is one of the most memorable in cinema history – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”. Born in London, he moved to Australia as a child and was discovered on a Sydney stage by no less than Lawrence Olivier. He went on to find acclaim in The Nun Story opposite Audrey Hepburn and Far from the Madding Crowd with Julie Christie.

Must watch: Sunday, Bloody Sunday (DVDs on eBay), Network (digital rental), Raid on Entebbe (DVD on eBay)

Perter Finch in Network
Peter Finch’s iconic scene in Network. Credit: Supplied

9. MARGOT ROBBIE

Margot Robbie has come a long way since her early days on Neighbours. She is now both a superstar on screen and a powerhouse producer behind the scenes, putting her heft behind projects including Promising Young Woman, streaming series Maid, and, of course, Barbie. That she managed to make an iconic plastic toy feel relatable and grounded is a testament to how she builds a connection between her characters and the audience. An exuberant and committed performer, she commands your attention anytime she’s on screen.

Must watch: Barbie (digital rental), The Wolf of Wall Street (Netflix, Prime, Stan), Babylon (Binge, Paramount+)

Margot Robbie stars in Barbie
Margot Robbie was also a producer for the Barbie movie. Credit: Warner Bros

8. BEN MENDELSOHN

Ever since he arrived as the troubled Trevor in The Year My Voice Broke, Ben Mendelsohn, or Mendo, as he’s affectionally known, has always drawn audiences in with his magnetism. Attracted to thorny and complex characters, he had already impressed with a raft of performances ranging from coming-of-age stories such as Cosi and dark dramas such as the tortured Ned in Beautiful Kate. It was his sinister turn in Animal Kingdom that made the rest of the world take notice and from then on, it was game on, including his Emmy-winning role as chaos agent Danny in Bloodline.

Must watch: Animal Kingdom (Stan, SBS), The New Look (Apple TV+), Babyteeth (Netflix)

The New Look is streaming on Apple TV Plus
Ben Mendelsohn as Christian Dior in The New Look. Credit: Supplied

7. DAVID GULPILIL

From the Mandhalpingu clan of the Yolngu people, David Gulpilil was a pioneer of Indigenous representation on Australian screens. Discovered as a 16-year-old dancer in Arnhem Land by director Nicolas Roeg, he made his debut in Walkabout, a sincere and naturalistic performance that coursed with raw talent. He went on to impress audiences with the likes of Storm Boy, Mad Dog Morgan and Rabbit-Proof Fence. His later collaborations with Rolf de Heer in The Tracker, Charlie’s Country and Ten Canoes would be a creative salvation.

Must watch: Rabbit-Proof Fence (Netflix, Stan, SBS), Walkabout (Netflix, Prime, iView, Shudder, AMC+, Brollie) and Charlie’s Country (TenPlay)

David Gulpilil in My Name is Gulpilil
David Gulpilil in My Name is Gulpilil. Credit: Supplied

6. RUSSELL CROWE

On paper, Russell Crowe is a New Zealander but given he’s spent 80 per cent of his life here, we have well and truly claimed him as one of our own. With stellar performances in the likes of Master and Commander, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind, Crowe has come to stand in for a certain masculinity which combines dignity and subtlety. But, of course, his range also includes the brash anger of Romper Stomper and the cheeky swagger of comedy The Nice Guys.

Must watch: 3:10 to Yuma (Netflix, Stan), The Insider (digital rental) and Gladiator (Netflix, Binge, Paramount+)

Russell Crowe in Gladiator.
Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Credit: Supplied

5. JUDY DAVIS

An awards magnet, Judy Davis has enjoyed great success both at home and around the world, starting with her commanding performance in iconic film My Brilliant Career, the movie that put her on the map. For the next four decades, Davis would impress with her gifts for emotional rawness and her comedic timing – no one could deadpan a line of dialogue quite like Davis. She worked with Woody Allen five times, and embodied the many demons of Judy Garland in a miniseries biopic.

Must watch: My Brilliant Career (Stan), Husbands and Wives (digital rental), A Passage to India (Prime)

TOD TV Mystery Road
Judy Davis in Mystery Road season one. Credit: Supplied

4. HEATH LEDGER

Heath Ledger’s death at 28 was tragic because his family and friends lost someone close to them. For the rest of the world, we were robbed of his talent and the work he would’ve done that garnered him so much respect in the short time he shared his gifts with the screen. Early on, his raw energy and spark was evident in teen series Sweat and fan favourite 10 Things I Hate About You. In a short few years, he came into his power and left an indelible mark as a repressed cowboy in Brokeback Mountain and as a villain in The Dark Knight.

Must watch: 10 Things I Hate About You (Disney), Brokeback Mountain (Binge, Paramount+) and The Dark Knight (Binge, Foxtel, Stan)

Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.
Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. Credit: Supplied

3. TONI COLLETTE

One of the most consistently excellent and prolific Australian actors, Toni Collette has a ridiculously long list of fantastic performances, ranging from winning comedies such as About a Boy, Little Miss Sunshine and Muriel’s Wedding to the downright terrifying in Hereditary and The Sixth Sense. Just revel in her slapstick talent in Mafia Mamma, a silly movie with no other redeeming elements. If you’re looking for something with the full Collette power, there’s always The United States of Tara, in which she convincingly portrays a woman with dissociative identity disorder and her seven alternate personalities. Now that’s versatility.

Must watch: The United States of Tara (Stan), Unbelievable (Netflix) and Muriel’s Wedding (Foxtel, Stan)

Toni Collette in Netflix show Unbelievable
Picture Netflix
Toni Collette in Unbelievable. Credit: Netflix

2. NICOLE KIDMAN

When Nicole Kidman winks at the camera in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, she’s daring the audience to come along on a journey with her, even if she’s playing an ambitious, sociopathic weather girl. In the decades since, the versatile Kidman has made bold choices in roles including as the world-weary cop in Destroyer, a grieving mother in Rabbit Hole, an insufferable writer in Margot at the Wedding and the tragic lover Satine in Moulin Rouge. In more recent years, she has focused on exploring the hidden pain of privileged middle-aged women in TV series such as Big Little Lies and Expats.

Must watch: To Die For (SBS), Moulin Rouge (Disney) and Destroyer (digital rental)

Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies
Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies. Credit: supplied

1. CATE BLANCHETT

There is no range beyond Cate Blanchett’s reach. She can make you cry, she can make you laugh, she can make you fall in love and she can make you feel as if you’ve been transported from your cinema seat into whatever make-believe world she’s in. Whether that’s as the young Elizabeth, the gutsy reporter in Veronica Guerin or when her full sensuality and vulnerability is on display in the intoxicating Carol. She is a class act and a master of great nuance. With two Oscar wins from eight nominations among many other accolades, Blanchett is an incredible ambassador for Australian creative talent, and you just know that even when a project might not meet your expectations, she always will.

Must watch: The Aviator (Binge), Carol (Netflix, iView) and Tar (Netflix, Binge)

Cate Blanchett stars in the critically-acclaimed Carol, which will screen as part of Film Harvest next Wednesday.
Picture: Supplied
Cate Blanchett is luminous in Todd Haynes’ Carol. Credit: Cameron Myles/Supplied

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