Better than AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars Introduction

I’ve been doing this bit about “Better than” for just about every series I do, but I can tell you before we get to anything else that this will be better than AFI’s version of this project. That’s because my version will actually have one hundred movie stars. In 1999, the AFI skimped on the “extra” fifty stars and gave us twenty-five men and twenty-five women. I’m sure you can critique a lot about the list and the commentary I write up for it, but no one can accuse me of false advertising based on the number of actors I write about.

There are probably more mathematical ways to create such a list, like coming up with a formula which takes total box office over a career and then multiplies that by the number of Oscar nominations but divides it by the number of miles between the star’s birthplace and the Prime Meridian Line. I could also grade on a rubric of qualifiers, which I think is silly for entirely different reasons; you can’t put down a number value for something you can’t actually quantify. However, coming up with “Who’s a great movie star?” is an entirely different question than “What’s a great movie?” and so I do have an embarrassingly lengthy list of considerations and regulations which guided this project.


  1. This is based on films. What kind of stardom someone brings as a musician, theater or TV performer, director, whatever, is immaterial to this list. (Also immaterial: tabloid fame, fame for fame’s sake, or other things that happen to the beautiful people we see in the pictures.) To pick an example out of thin air, let’s take Peter Falk. The guy was Columbo on television for years and dozens of episodes. Columbo is not part of the calculus, and so we’ll have to judge Peter Falk solely on A Woman Under the Influence, Pocketful of Miracles, Mikey and Nicky, and so on. Because it has never been more difficult to figure out whether something is a “movie” or a “television movie,” we’ll have to take individual cases as necessary. On a more concrete note, Robert Redford does not get props because he went on to be a successful director, Cher’s music career before and during her film career did not go into my calculus, and so on.
  2. This is based on American* films. So to take Peter Falk again, who turns out to have been a felicitous selection, his turn in Wings of Desire, a West German movie, won’t count here either. Peter Falk’s prospects are not looking so hot. (I tend to be a little stricter than most about what qualifies as an “American” film. For reference, Peter O’Toole’s performance in Lawrence of Arabia is one of the greatest performance ever captured on film; it is a British movie and it doesn’t contribute to O’Toole’s case.)
  3. This is based on live-action** American narrative feature films***. So to take some heat off Peter Falk, who does not deserve the microscope his career has just gone under, let’s think about Tom Hanks. Hanks has four credits voicing Woody. None of those credits matter to this list. As for the features, the AFI made forty minutes the “tall enough to ride” measurement for their list, so I’ll adhere to that. As for the narrative features, I’m not counting what these people do in documentaries or truly avant-garde pictures, but that was not really a problem as I was putting this together.
  4. The AFI had some weird considerations about who got to be on their list based on when they debuted, if they were dead, etc. I have no qualms about including people whose career is still ongoing, but I’m not giving them credit for what they might turn into or anything. If Kelvin Harrison or Zendaya are among the 100 greatest stars in American film history as their careers stand right now, that’s all well and good, but if their credits at publication don’t support that, I can’t project out to 2040 to imagine what they might become. On a very different note, untimely deaths have to be judged based on what movies they finished before those untimely deaths, rather than what they could have been after the fact.
  5. I need to have seen or been able to see the movies these people appeared in for them to qualify for this list. I have no doubt that Theda Bara was as marvelous as all the records say she was, but there aren’t that many Bara movies left to go on, and so, spoilers, she’s not on the list.
  6. No groups, no pairs, just individuals. You come onto this list the way you come into this world: alone. If this feels like a weird thing to have to clarify, the AFI puts the Marx Brothers as their twentieth male “star.” I love the Marx Brothers, but they are four stars and not one.
  7. In the interest of literal equality, this list will include fifty men and fifty women. Maybe I think the woman ranked fifty-first is a bigger or better star than the man ranked fiftieth; it’s bad luck. However, I will be ranking everyone on the same list as opposed to two separate ones, so if you want to call me sexist in one way or another based on how that shakes out, I’ve left that door open for you.

Considerations (in no particular order)

  • This is not a list of the best actors. This is a list, in the vein of its predecessors, of the greatest stars. A list of the best actors is not the same as a list of the greatest stars. Think about the AFI’s original list, where they have John Wayne a spot above Laurence Olivier. I don’t think there’s any question that Olivier was a superior actor, but I’ll buy that Wayne was a bigger star. With that said, acting ability still matters because that’s got something to do with being a movie star, perhaps even more than simple fame. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that Daniel Day-Lewis or Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Muni is the greatest screen actor in American movie history. It’s another thing entirely to suggest that any of those guys is a bigger movie star, for the purposes of this list, than Clark Gable.
  • Obliquely related to that idea is that headlining movies is important. Supporting roles are well and good, and I’ll absolutely consider them, but this list is going to be biased more towards leads.
  • This is not a list of the most profitable people at the box office. Again, if I wanted to just rack that stuff up, I would have spent more time with Google and a calculator. Or, better yet, have left that to someone on the Internet who no doubt has all the adjusted box office information for every big star from the past 120 years.
  • I believe that the quality of the films you were in has to mean something to the greatness of a star, especially the further we get up the list. This is not something that everyone buys, and I respect that. It doesn’t mean everything, obviously, but if Actor A was maybe a little less famous but had a better group of films in her past than a more famous or a more talented Actor B, then I’ll go with Actor A. (If this sounds like Michael Murphy is guaranteed a spot in the top 50 because of his roles in several of the best films of the ’70s, hold those horses and read the thing about headlining movies again.) If you want to think about this at a 45-degree angle, Peter O’Toole once said that great roles made great actors, and I tend to agree with that position.
  • The best Hall of Fame candidates in sports combine peak with longevity. Obviously, not everyone gets both peak and longevity. I’d rather have peak in a candidate for this list. To be clear, though, putting James Dean eighteenth on this original list has more to do with him as a pop culture icon than a movie star with three roles, and they’d need to be some special kind of three roles to get there.
  • I realize this sounds a little precious, but my ultimate deciding factor at every stage was, “How essential are this actor’s performances to telling the story of American film?” That is in itself a bigger question than “Who are the one hundred greatest stars of the American cinema?” It’s a loaded one as well, one which I recognize is going to reify mainstream Hollywood cinema rather than independent cinema or cinema which stands in opposition to white filmmakers or bourgeois filmmakers or male filmmakers. If you ask yourself what the one hundred greatest American movies are, who the one hundred greatest American directors are, or even who the one hundred best actors in American movies are, I think it is far easier to transcend some of the limits that this idea of “great stars” carries. This is a list which is definitionally going to reflect the racism and sexism of American movies, which reflect the racism and sexism of American culture. “How essential are this actor’s performances to telling the story of American film?” is sort of a backhanded compliment, and there are many performers on this list whose beliefs and behavior hardly live up to any decent standard. That question is also why this list has 100 people on it whose work feels meaningful to me, and to millions of others in this country and across the world.

tl;dr – The perfect candidate to top this list would be a world-beating performer with a long list of credits over some years, with multiple iconic performances which have stood the test of time. She would be a real box office draw and would be well-known and well-remembered as a great actor.

The list, finally completed, is below. Before you get to the list itself, you can preheat how angry you’ll get at it by checking out some of the near misses, which I wrote up here. As I’m writing for the actual project, I’ll update and link to new posts as we go along. Enjoy!

1) James Stewart

2) Bette Davis

3) Katharine Hepburn

4) Jack Nicholson

5) Meryl Streep

6) Cary Grant

7) Charlie Chaplin

8) Tom Hanks

9) Robert De Niro

10) Marlon Brando


11) Ingrid Bergman

12) Humphrey Bogart

13) Gene Kelly

14) Harrison Ford

15) Clark Gable


16) Judy Garland

17) Tom Cruise

18) Greta Garbo

19) Sidney Poitier

20) Henry Fonda


21) Arnold Schwarzenegger

22) Denzel Washington

23) Elizabeth Taylor

24) Leonardo DiCaprio

25) William Holden


26) Gary Cooper

27) John Wayne

28) James Cagney

29) Audrey Hepburn

30) Al Pacino


31) Joan Crawford

32) Paul Newman

33) Lillian Gish

34) Fred Astaire

35) Dustin Hoffman


36) Marlene Dietrich

37) Barbara Stanwyck

38) Spencer Tracy

39) Julia Roberts

40) Jack Lemmon


41) Burt Lancaster

42) Gregory Peck

43) Brad Pitt

44) Robert Mitchum

45) Gene Hackman


46) Eddie Murphy

47) Robert Redford

48) Jean Arthur

49) Faye Dunaway

50) Steve McQueen


51) Jane Fonda

52) Kirk Douglas

53) Buster Keaton

54) Mary Pickford

55) Viola Davis


56) Grace Kelly

57) Shirley MacLaine

58) Warren Beatty

59) Montgomery Clift

60) Shirley Temple


61) Fredric March

62) Keanu Reeves

63) Robin Williams

64) Jodie Foster

65) Cate Blanchett


66) Natalie Wood

67) Robert Duvall

68) Julie Andrews

69) Mae West

70) Charlize Theron


71) Sandra Bullock

72) Edward G. Robinson

73) Daniel Day-Lewis

74) Lauren Bacall

75) Johnny Depp


76) Diane Keaton

77) Claudette Colbert

78) Mickey Rooney

79) Barbra Streisand

80) Olivia de Havilland


81) Sally Field

82) Will Smith

83) Norma Shearer

84) Frances McDormand

85) Marilyn Monroe


86) Doris Day

87) Nicolas Cage

88) Glenn Close

89) Rosalind Russell

90) Kate Winslet


91) Winona Ryder

92) Laura Dern

93) Gena Rowlands

94) Shelley Winters

95) Whoopi Goldberg


96) Gloria Swanson

97) Chadwick Boseman

98) Amy Adams

99) Ginger Rogers

100) Vivien Leigh

35 thoughts on “Better than AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars Introduction

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