1. Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
This was the performance that gave me the idea for the post. Seeing Peter Yates' long-lost treasure for the first time, I was stunned at the transformation Mitchum had made. A stock tough guy of 40s and 50s noirs, his trademark was his cool aloofness. He was hardly "method" by any means, and though he was always a magnetic screen presence you could never quite tell if he was playing detached or was just bored. As the title character in Eddie Coyle, however, he transmutes that into a totally naturalistic, world-weary character with a bit of warmth. Instead of playing a cool guy on top, he's now at the bottom being kicked around by life.
2. Shirley Temple in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)
Temple pretty much wrote the book on child stardom, being the top box-office draw for three years in the 30s. She started acting at age 5 and was essentially done at age 21. Most will always remember her as a bouncy little girl, but if you want a glimpse at what could have been if she stuck with Hollywood, check out this screwball comedy. As a lovelorn teenager, Temple demonstrates alarmingly good comedic timing and holds her own opposite Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. But then she simply had to go and help the world or something...lame.
3. Cary Grant in Charade (1963)
Cary Grant never truly stopped being Cary Grant - but there were a few different degrees. Take Classic Grant and subtract about 50% of the roguish flirtatiousness, because he's older now and that would be gross, and you get Older Grant. In earlier drafts of the screenplay, Grant's character was much more aggressive with Audrey Hepburn, so he only agreed to take the role if she was made to be the aggressive one. It worked. Grant still has every ounce of charm, just in a more refined way.
4. Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952)
The transition to sound ruined a lot of careers, but Chaplin's was not among them. He clung to silents well past their general extinction, but when he did give sound a whirl (or rather, dialogue - Modern Times was playing around with sound effects in 1936) with The Great Dictator, he proved to be every bit as effective. TGD still relied heavily on physical comedy, however, so the real surprise was his delicate acting style of the two films mentioned above. Hearing Chaplin speak seems almost blasphemous at first, but once you get used to it he appears to operating in a distinct British comedy style - think Oscar Wilde. In Verdoux he is the title character, a soft-spoken Bluebeard who marries and murders rich women for their money so he can support his "real" family. In Limelight, he goes self-reflexive to play an aging vaudeville star in a downright melodrama. The weariness of years of clowning hangs from his face, and his gives his ballerina protege sweet advice about life. You can't really say you know Chaplin until you've seen his later roles in addition to his manic early ones.
Faced with casting the role of Irene Hoffman, a woman who became infamously wrapped up in a case of "racial pollution" for having alleged relations with a Jew during WWII, someone thought to cast Judy Garland and that someone was brilliant. Known in the 40s for her super-bubbly, virginal roles in musicals, she packs a huge punch to the gut as an old, beaten-down woman who, though not Jewish herself, was another of the Holocaust's many victims. Acting-wise, this was probably much less of a stretch for Garland than her cheerful roles, due to her miserable, drug-addled personal life. Whatever the case, it's a knockout.
6. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Okay, admittedly I haven't seen Swanson in any of the films from her peak years in the silent era. But I don't have to in order to make my point - it's a simple fact that during these years, Swanson almost always played a sexy vamp. The profound inversion of her persona that results in Norma Desmond is one of the more genius moves in the history of cinema. Is she playing herself? Does Gloria Swanson really sit around all day and watch her old movies in a decaying mansion? Maybe! She was astoundingly prolific during the silent era, but struggled for roles afterwards. This movie could be a virtual documentary for all we really know.
7. Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Typical blustering and pathetic Jack Lemmon character + time = more blustering and pathetic. Where he was just kind of a pitiable nerd in The Apartment, by GGR the years added to his persona make him a full-fledged sad sack. Not that that's a bad thing - few do sad sack better than Lemmon. His performance punches your heart in the face.
What are your favorite post-prime performances?