To see my running list of the hundred greatest movie stars in American film history, click here
All stars are listed with a single film which is particularly important, though not exclusively so, to understanding what makes them vital to American movies.
100) Vivien Leigh / Key film – Gone with the Wind
The chauvinists over at the AFI rated Leigh sixteenth. How do I have the gall to place her one hundredth, just clinging to the list with her fingernails? It’s because Leigh, born in the British Raj and schooled in London, primarily kept her career in British films and on British stages. To the best of my knowledge, Leigh starred in five American movies in her career: A Yank at Oxford, Gone with the Wind, Waterloo Bridge, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Ship of Fools. Suffice it to say that no one else is on this list with fewer than five movies. Leigh makes this list because of Scarlett O’Hara. I mean, Blanche DuBois doesn’t hurt, but she’s here because of Scarlett O’Hara. Gone with the Wind is probably the most popular and most seen movies in America for several decades, and while it’s probably yielded its place to some other picture by now, I think the biggest part in the biggest movie in American history has to count for something. It’s her movie. She’s on screen for nearly two and a half hours in a four-hour epic, and every moment in the story is based on her doings or on people reacting to her. Scarlett O’Hara is, to coin a horrible phrase, a Southern Bellezebub, whose whims become expectations, whose gross fairy tale life meets a low point until, in a different sort of fairy tale, she raises her family up out of poverty by her fingernails. The movie couldn’t have dreamed that anyone would find Scarlett as loathsome as we must find her now, but it’s certainly teed up for us to hate her a little bit from time to time. Shouldn’t we seethe a little bit as she scythes through eligible men while lusting after a better woman’s man, chafe against her churlishness, and generally find the scheming and plotting a little dangerous? Leigh has the space to bring this awful individual to the forefront, but there is just enough practicality in Scarlett-via-Leigh to keep her from being too terrible to ever pull for. It’s a performance well ahead of its time. People my age are used to rooting for Don Draper or Walter White even if we know that we oughtn’t to. People my great-grandparents’ age learned how to do that with Scarlett O’Hara.
It’s possible that a performer as heliocentric as Leigh could never have done quite as many Hollywood pictures as someone a little better at passing it off to other performers. Her performance in giant ensemble picture Ship of Fools is well off the standard even of Streetcar. There are plenty of reasons why her work in that movie is less impressive than her work in her two Oscar-winning performances, but I wouldn’t discount the limiting factor of being one among many as opposed to the whole show. I don’t think it’s for nothing that her three greatest film roles, in Gone with the Wind, A Streetcar Named Desire, and That Hamilton Woman put her as much against as with three of the most potent male stars in movie history: Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, and Laurence Olivier. Without someone that physically powerful and personally charismatic opposite her, the histrionic Leigh style seems likely to gobble up other competitors for the camera’s eye.
99) Ginger Rogers / Key film – Gold Diggers of 1933
That 1940 Best Actress race is one of the more interesting races between actresses in Oscar history. Katharine Hepburn, a previous winner who received her third nomination for one of her defining roles in The Philadelphia Story; first-time nominee Martha Scott reprising her stage role from Our Town; another first-time nominee, Joan Fontaine, in ultimate Best Picture winner Rebecca; Bette Davis, a two-time Best Actress winner on her fifth nomination for The Letter, in a role that had gotten Jeanne Eagels a nomination for 1929. The ultimate winner, in this bevy of brilliant stars? Ginger Rogers, who had spent most of the last decade hoofing it with or without Fred Astaire, in Kitty Foyle. The title role in that film is probably the single most important document of Rogers-without-Astaire, though it’s a supporting role in an ensemble film that I think opens her up. She leads off Gold Diggers of 1933, one of her earlier credits, with a performance of “We’re in the Money.” She’s wearing a bikini. On the bottom half, a giant coin appears to have been glued on so that the face is not that far above, y’know, and then that coin is ringed with smaller ones identical in design. And the top half is sequined, surprisingly matte under the lights; she’s wearing a long garment of the same material over her shoulders. To finish the look, high heels. Which, as far as I can tell, also have the coin on them. At that point why not.
Fun literalism of “we’re in the money” aside, the performance itself requires a basically shocking level of confidence. In those heady pre-Code days you could find women in more risque positions than this without too much difficulty; I return to Miriam Hopkins’ shockingly suggestive performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a movie where you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see a seduction that bold. But Rogers has guts showing up in that outfit, and she displays the poise to rattle off the song’s Pig Latin lyrics in extreme close-up, and she bares the legs of a New York showgirl. It’s supposed to have been no less an authority on class and sex than Katharine Hepburn who said that Astaire gave Rogers class, and she gave him sex. I don’t think you can get to Kitty Foyle without walking a mile in Fay Fortune’s costume heels. The social climber is in Rogers’s performances, whether she does it by ill-fated marriage or by walking a thin line between Broadway comedy and outright burlesque. Maybe it’s a little strong to credit her with doing everything Astaire did backwards and in heels, but I think the case for Rogers would still be a strong one even if the man she starred opposite were a different one more often than he was. In the right context, Rogers was a dominant performer. There’s no question that Kitty Foyle is her movie, and even though she is not actually one of the gold diggers of this film’s title, she is riveting when she’s on screen. I spent most of that (very good!) movie hoping Rogers would supplant one of that trio.
98) Amy Adams / Key film – Arrival
I’m a little nervous about including Adams here given the recent trajectory of her career, not excepting her appearance in that “Imagine” video that shredded my brain among many others in March 2020. On the other hand, two decades on screen have been pretty kind to Adams on the whole. A lot of her film persona is there from the very beginning: the peppy cheerleader from Drop Dead Gorgeous, the haplessly earnest fiancee to Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me if You Can, the chipper pregnant Southern gal in Junebug, the idealistic nun decades the junior of the rest of her cohort in Doubt. Enchanted, her biggest non-sequel/non-superhero hit, goes without saying. But there’s another half to that image, one which seems to be actively wielded against Giselle from Enchanted, and it’s the one which has at this point come to dominate her career. Hillbilly Elegy, Vice, and her collaborations with David O. Russell are, despite some acclaim for each performance, true Oscarbait performances. Six nominations in, Adams has already hit Deborah Kerr’s turf and is dangerously close to reaching Glenn Close territory. Five nominations in under a decade (primarily Supporting) to start without profit, and then…who knows what disappointment lies beyond.
In looking for a film which marries the almost childlike sympathy we have for Adams with the adult seriousness that her roles since 2010 have almost unanimously aspired to, I was very tempted to choose Nocturnal Animals, one of the rare movies which has allowed Adams to be sexy rather than pretty or slutty. In the end, it’s hard not to choose Arrival, a film where she’s still obviously attractive but also troubled throughout so much of the picture. It’s one of the great performances of the decade, one of the rare ones where those annoyingly ubiquitous buzzwords of “grief” and “trauma” actually mean something in the acting. We are primed to believe that Adams’ Louise Banks has lost a daughter to cancer before the girl ever became a woman. Adams, conspicuously female and cool in an environment which is full of men alternately handsome, brusque, and pompous, plays Banks as if there’s always something on her mind just a little further off it than the task at hand with Abbott and Costello. The grief we understand that she carries—that, in the world of the film, she’s always carried—is so much more realistic than the gnashing of teeth and wearing of sackcloth which seems to dominate showier portrayals. Adams remains a great actress, capable of serious character work and lighthearted comedy alike. Had she been born a contemporary of Bette Davis and not of Cameron Diaz, I don’t have any doubt that the same qualities which pulled her through in The Muppets and Enchanted and American Hustle and The Master would have done much the same for her in the studio era.
97) Chadwick Boseman / Key film – Black Panther
I think it’s fair to ask if Boseman would make this top 100 if he were still living. I can sort of hear people not unlike myself wondering how George Clooney isn’t on this list but Chadwick Boseman is, despite having only fifteen screen credits over twelve years. (That four of those are MCU movies, and a couple of them little more than cameos, makes this ground even more slippery.) I think the answer is complicated. I’ll grant that he has one of the thinner CVs of anyone in the top 100 and, unless we’re being really generous somewhere, no great movies. However, and I say this without meaning to be morbid, his death gave us data which we wouldn’t otherwise have had. Barack Obama tweeted the second-most liked tweet of all time, with 4.2 million likes. The tweet that Chadwick Boseman’s family sent to confirm his death, with that beautiful photo of him next to the text of it, has 7.3 million likes. Maybe there are only fifteen films to his name, but I think it’s hard to overstate what Boseman meant to American culture. He played Black icons in music (James Brown), sports (Jackie Robinson), and politics (Thurgood Marshall); even when he wasn’t playing a real guy, that image of Boseman as a great man in the making permeated his performances. He’s there in Draft Day, playing culture guy Vontae Mack. He’s really there in Da 5 Bloods as Stormin’ Norm, in what probably rates as the best performance of his I’ve ever seen. As much as everyone fetes Delroy Lindo for his giant performance, I was always more captivated by Boseman giving, truly, a movie star performance. It was proof that he could carry a film based on the sheer power of his being onscreen, and he was so solid in that film that it made you understand why the four men who survived him seemed to live in his wake.
Of course, there’s only one movie to choose if you’re going to work your way into Boseman’s star image, and that’s Black Panther. While he never had the theater background of Laurence Olivier, Peter O’Toole, or Kenneth Branagh, watching Chadwick Boseman play T’Challa is not an entirely dissimilar experience; you might also look to the often kingly Yul Brynner as a corollary to Boseman’s work in the MCU. The language of the MCU is, haha, not the language of Henry V or even of The Lion in Winter, but I think to watch someone play a king on screen requires command of the screen not unlike what Boseman had going for him in Da 5 Bloods. Part of this, of course, is what the rest of the movie is doing: the other actors look at you, the camera centers you, and so on. But more of it is in physical mien, the handsomeness that Boseman always possessed, the ability to appear bigger than you actually are by projecting bigness. At this point “Killmonger had a point” is a meme, but I also don’t know anyone who watched that fight above the waterfall in Black Panther which ends in T’Challa getting dumped off of it who said, “Boy, I hope Killmonger wins, he has a point.” Even in a movie that’s only so good, that projection of security and steadiness is so well done. When Boseman played against type, as he did in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, that erosion of security into a basically irrational character is what makes that movie turn. It’s a shame that we only got one real example of that version of Boseman.
96) Gloria Swanson / Key film – Sunset Boulevard
I’ll allow that it’s a little bit perverse to call Sunset Boulevard, a film about a very Gloria Swanson-esque character whose desire to return to the limelight makes her crazy, the key picture in Swanson’s career. I say this without meaning to diminish her performances in Don’t Change Your Husband, Queen Kelly, The Trespasser, or any of her other silent pictures; as an avowed Sadie Thompson fan, it hurts a little not to put that triumph in the place of Sunset Boulevard. Her roles in silent pictures, especially once she had reached the point where she was arguably Hollywood’s most in-demand actress, are those of women acting. There’s something metatextual about a film like Sadie Thompson, where this woman with her hidden identity uses her charm, relative attractiveness, and a wardrobe punching above its weight to create an audience that’s dying for more of her. (The smashing wardrobe is a very Swanson touch, even during an era where the best place to create a new fashion was to use the movies; consider that fewer than fifteen years after Sadie Thompson a “Kitty Foyle dress” became all the rage.)
By that standard, then, there’s no movie more metatextual or more sly than Sunset Boulevard, a picture where we get glimpses of old Swanson movies from her heyday, where one of her former directors plays a former director of hers who has become her butler in their barely shared dotage, where famed Swanson collaborator Cecil B. DeMille comes back to be Cecil B. DeMille. Swanson thrives in it. It’s a little staggering that Swanson faded as rapidly as she did during the onset of sound pictures. Maybe part of it was her insistence on controlling her own image, but goodness knows that it’s not her voice that would have been the problem. She’s got such wonderful command of it in Sunset Boulevard, booming it off the palazzo in some sequences and keeping it to low, back of her throat inquisitive tones in others. This is meant to be part of that metatext as well, not so much “Norma Desmond is out on her butt and it’s killing her” but “Norma Desmond can’t understand why she’s out on her butt and it’s killing her.” The vulnerability it requires to play someone so near to yourself—and to do so, in some stretches, almost without pity—is remarkable. Sunset Boulevard combines the best aspects of Swanson’s work, and whether or not it’s kind to her run of silent movies from once upon a time, it’s the one which gives her the most responsibility and the most credit.
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