To see my running list of the hundred greatest movie stars in American film history, click here
To start this project, I began with about 750 names which I knew I’d need to pare down to 100. On my first pass, I only eliminated about 300 of those names, which is a sign of how tough it was for me to boil this list down. I’ve done a few projects like this now, and getting this down to fifty men and fifty women was about as agonizing as anything else I’ve ever tried to fit into the annoying little shoebox of “100.” At the last stage, I was trying to cut about a dozen men and about twenty women. While I won’t bore you with the full starting list or even the last 130 names, I do want to name the next ten men and the next ten women who could have been on this list; I may have the ego to make a list like this, but I don’t have the ego to suggest that there isn’t room for leeway. They will be listed alphabetically, because it was hard enough to get the 100 names I kept into any kind of order.
The case for Christian Bale is not just that he was Batman for three well-received movies, nor is it the career that stretches back to his time as a child actor in the 1980s, nor is it the near-guarantee that he’ll get an Oscar nomination for whatever he does, nor is it the way that he works with auteurs (who are generally pretty shaggy auteurs, but whatever). It’s that Bale signifies “good technical actor” to general audiences as much as any other performer currently working in English. I don’t think I know anyone who’s seen The Machinist, but I do know that lots of people can name that as the movie where he lost all that weight. Maybe Vice was a kind of turning point, where you start to hear some of the rumblings that his Dick Cheney is less an interpretation and more an SNL-style caricature without the sound of chortling 20-somethings in the background. Bale is a remarkable performer, even if I find him a little sludgy here and there, to say nothing of how often he’s in just-okay movies. He wound up being one of the last names to fall off the list; my guess is that with another couple decades of performances under his belt he’d be a shoo-in for a 2031 version.
Lionel Barrymore is the closest any Barrymore got to this list, and it’s genuinely a shame that I couldn’t find a way to get him there. One of the relative few who managed to take a successful career in silent movies and go even further in talkies, Barrymore was as good with doomed men (Sadie Thompson, Grand Hotel) as he was with quirky characters (You Can’t Take It with You) and icons of capitalist evil (It’s a Wonderful Life). It’s almost kind of a shame that he’ll always be best remembered for playing Mr. Potter, because as good as that performance as a craggy curmudgeon is, it’s significantly less fun than his part as Martin Vanderhof in You Can’t Take It with You as a weird, stubborn individualist who simply refuses to sell his house. You Can’t Take It with You is not close to a good movie, but Barrymore drags that thing towards respectability, and has to have been the major reason it won Best Picture for 1938.
Ernest Borgnine was, let’s be frank, pretty ugly. But when God was giving out looks, he gave Borgnine a little something extra with that smile the size of a city block. Being able to reach back and find that beam gave Borgnine more, and may well have saved him from years of just playing the heavy (although he certainly did more than his share on that front). He’s in your dad’s favorite movies: The Flight of the Phoenix, Ice Station Zebra, and The Dirty Dozen. He’s in your dad’s favorite critic’s favorite movies: Johnny Guitar, Bad Day at Black Rock, and The Wild Bunch. And he’s in Marty, riding that smile in half and three-quarters alignments for one of the most sympathetic and lovable performance I’ve ever come across. He’s a little too supporting actor to really be in the mix for a top 100 spot, but he was wonderful nonetheless.
If this were an activity with a championship belt as opposed to a flat top 100, Ellen Burstyn would have been the elephant in the room from 1971 to 1974. That run, including brilliant performances in The Last Picture Show, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Exorcist, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, is undeniable. It’s hard to find a run of four consecutive performances that good, full stop. She’s also had some real longevity, picking up an Oscar nomination for Requiem for a Dream in 2000 and being on the longlist for Supporting Actress in 2020 for Pieces of a Woman. Unfortunately, Burstyn is more professional than star, and while the peak is outstanding, there’s too much of her career which was spent on television or in movies that have all but faded from memory for her to have made the list.
Okay, hear me out on this, because I also can’t believe that I don’t have George Clooney in this top 100. He’s been starring in major movies (and good ones!) for twenty-five years, has won a competitive Oscar, and is one of the great movie stars of the 21st Century. Here’s the case against George Clooney. First, I think he’s probably more famous for being famous than he is for his performances. Clooney is a very good actor, but he’s also an okay director, a humanitarian, and a tabloid fixture. He is so famous that I know who Amal Alamuddin is. How many times have your conversations about George Clooney centered on him as an actor versus “It’s crazy how much hotter he got once he got older,” and why is the second so much more common than the first? I’m not going to downplay how good he is in Michael Clayton or O Brother Where Art Thou? or how charismatic he is at the center of Ocean’s Eleven or how natural he is in Up in the Air. I like George Clooney, but I encourage you to take a gander at his filmography as an actor. There are a lot of flops in that filmography, and while there are some wonderful performances I just struggle to think of how I can put him ahead of some of the people in this post, let alone the people on the actual list.
Robert Downey, Jr.
The last person I cut from the male stars list on the original go-round, which doesn’t necessarily make him 51. There are two people below him alphabetically and a couple other men who were on the list until they weren’t. The case for Downey is probably the shortest case of anyone’s: Iron Man. If you think his ten years as Iron Man—and the influence that that performance had on a decade of male blockbuster performances—make him one of the fifty biggest male stars in American movie history, I don’t blame you. Obviously I’m almost to that point myself, but I veered away for a couple reasons. First, the “shortest case” business is genuinely kind of a problem when your competition is “every other leading man in Hollywood history.” Second, Downey and the MCU are sort of like Derek Jeter and the Yankees. Yes, he’s the best player, the most important guy, the reason his team is at the top of the standings, but also…people would have come out to root for the Yankees anyway, right? His performance as Tony Stark in Iron Man stands as a remarkable contrast to the regular superhero performances which had preceded it, the Sherlock Holmes stuff was fine if practically forgotten ten years later, and we’ll always have Zodiac.
One of my favorite actresses from the ’30s and ’40s, and the original woman who got run down before she could get to the top of the Empire State Building. Dunne had such range, and was given a wide latitude to perform that range by the studios. In The Awful Truth I think she is as much a match for Cary Grant as any woman who ever entered that screwball chamber with him. She is deliciously devious in that movie, tricking their dog Mr. Smith in court in order to get custody of the little fella, and later on playacting as Grant’s socially maladjusted sister in order to break up his impending nuptials with his new society girl. Yet as sly as she is there, in movies like Cimarron (yuck) or I Remember Mama (yay) there is nothing in the least ironic or conniving in those performances. There’s a switch she was able to flip between teasing and earnest, but in the best of her work there’s a kindness, almost a simplicity, in the characters she played.
Holly Hunter is not the first person who comes to mind for this particular problem of “I can’t include her whole body of work,” but here we are. Because I am a stickler about only including movie performances in American movies, I have to leave out her work in The Piano. She is tremendous in The Piano, expressing frustration or anger or fear with her face and arms so clear that you can almost hear Hunter’s actual voice. If she had The Piano, there’s a chance that she might have been able to wriggle onto this list on the strength of two performances, both of which have to be on the shortlist of the best of their respective decades. I’ve said multiple times that I think Hunter in Broadcast News is probably the best performance by any woman, and maybe the best performance period, of the 1980s. The Piano being from New Zealand really cramps her case, and that doesn’t even consider that I can’t bring in the Canadian Crash. Hunter also suffers from my self-imposed rule against voice performances in animated movies; this means that neither Incredibles movie (and her performance in that first one is terrific) can be part of the calculus. I love her work; the problem is that much of her best work is ineligible.
This is the Clooney argument again, but on ‘roids. Angelina Jolie has been one of the most famous people on the planet for about 60% of my life. I don’t think anyone doubts her ability as a performer, nor do I think anyone doubts her ability to open a film. She was through on the original version of my list, and then as I was looking through her filmography to see what I might write about, I found myself at a loss. Maleficent? Changeling? Girl, Interrupted? Salt? (Maleficent actually makes for a fairly interesting commentary on Jolie’s forbidding, beautiful image, but hey, I don’t have to write that.) Fame is not unimportant to my list here, but once again, if I wanted this just to be “Who was on the cover of People most?” or “Who has the highest peak Q score?” then I could have looked that stuff up. Jolie is absolutely one of the key movie figures of the 21st Century, but she is emphatically more important as a Hollywood figure, and that’s not really what I’m measuring.
On the other hand, Jessica Lange is sort of the opposite of Jolie. Obviously Lange is a hugely famous person in her own right, but in 2021 that fame is probably more from her work on television (American Horror Story, Feud) than it is from her film performances. She reminds me a little of Ellen Burstyn in that you can see her seeking out different kinds of challenges as she got older, or maybe different kinds of money or security or environments. Anyone with two Oscar wins got extra consideration for me, and Lange has not just the wins but four other nominations besides. On the whole I decided to play it a little safer on the evaluation for Lange; she ends up like a number of other actresses with serious critical and industry bona fides but who I don’t know is a name like, I dunno, Diane Keaton is a name. With actors who are around more for their talent than their fame, I needed some iconic performance to lift them over the edge. With apologies to an excellent movie career, I’m not sure that Lange has iconic in the bag.
One of the cuts that makes me feel like a bad person, because as in any list of American cinema which isn’t given over to the true experts, silent films get kind of have a hard time getting noticed. Lloyd, one of the great comic actors of any era, gets a tough break here despite my own personal fondness for him; on the whole I think I’d rather watch him than Chaplin or Keaton. His everyman is not like Chaplin’s Tramp or Keaton’s figures with aspiration; to some extent, to watch Lloyd is to watch a nice boy from the suburbs try to do a little more than someone who’s only a nice boy from the suburbs ought to attempt. In The Freshman, that Eddie Attaboy persona is in full feather, and you’re sort of exhausted watching him try so hard to be the BMOC while quietly hoping that this slightly clueless dude will be able to make good. I feel sort of basic not including Lloyd, who was a great box office success in his own day and whose films have lasted to the present, but he stands as a very near cut.
I tried desperately to get Karl Malden onto this list, but in the end I couldn’t keep him on the list honestly. Like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Malden could be anything but really handsome. He made it easy for us to make believe that he was tough or weak, smart or stupid, kind or cruel. His particular wheelhouse was always going to be basically okay guys overshadowed by men with bigger personalities: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Cincinnati Kid, Baby Doll. His two performances which stand out most to me, though, are offshoots of that type. The more famous performance is from On the Waterfront, where he plays a socially minded priest and just about steals the show from Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, and Lee J. Cobb with the passion of his monologues. But the one that stands out most to me is his accented performance as Captain Wessels in Cheyenne Autumn, as a jovial military officer who follows regulations all the way past the letter of the law regarding his Native American captives. It’s an uneven film, to say the least, but there’s a look in Malden’s eyes in one scene that signifies as much true horror as any I’ve seen before. A tremendous actor with a number of strong credits. Like Hoffman, Steiger, and Cobb, he is a very near personal favorite who rates in the 99th percentile of all screen actors who ever lived by skill, and like all three, he’s not in the top 100.
Julianne Moore has been on a pogo stick in terms of this list, and in the final consideration I can’t find a spot for her no matter how much better Safe is than almost every other movie in American history. Like Lange, Moore doesn’t have a major performance for the hoi polloi, and like Lange, her Best Actress victory comes in something of a lesser-known movie (Blue Sky for Lange, Still Alice for Moore). It doesn’t help that the two major sequels to big blockbusters which star Moore, The Lost World and Hannibal, are pretty mediocre movies far from the quality of the originals. I don’t think there’s another person who I would have rather seen on the list more than her. At Moore’s best, her characters are so vulnerable and damaged without ever relying on the tropes of Oscar try-hardism. Watch her in Safe or Boogie Nights or Short Cuts and there’s fear and shrillness and hyperbole but never ever an overacted scene. An absolute master who, you know what, is too good for this list anyway.
How close was Paul Muni to making this list? I was typing in someone else’s name to go into this post, decided it was insane I wasn’t including him, and then doubled back and knocked off the lowest-rated man in my top 100. Thus Paul Muni ends up here, as one of my most difficult cuts. He was one of the greatest actors to ever star in a Hollywood film and ahead of his time in so many ways. There’s a naturalism to his performances which is absent from so many of his peers’, who were still trying to get down off the stage and in front of the camera. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang may not even be the most seen performance of his from 1932—he was the lead in Scarface that same year—but the whole of what he brings to the part is so special. He does everything in that role. He is glum with personal despair, naive and gullible at believing the prison system will take the deal laid out in his home state. “I steal!” is one of the great endings of all time, and Muni’s line reading there, one of the rare times in the picture where he goes for Watteau rather than Riis, is endlessly affecting. For best actors he would be a shoo-in, but alas, it’s not that kind of list.
Like Moore, a candidate for that 95-100 space. Unlike Moore, Pfeiffer has serious box office receipts and wider name recognition. There are multiple films she’s been in where her performance has garnered universal acclaim, like The Fabulous Baker Boys or The Age of Innocence. Watching Batman Returns, you kind of have to marvel at her ability to just go for it. There’s a stretch in that movie where it’s really just her on screen, and she has to act like an honest-to-God crazy person the entire time as she makes the Catwoman costume and is surrounded by like, mewling cat noises. It’s bonkers stuff, and I don’t think there’s any way to make it make sense. But by jingo, Pfeiffer makes it absolutely compelling, as she has been so often in so many movies. I’m sure I’ll say this again, but once you get past about 85 on the list it’s sort of a free-for-all, and I think as much as any other actress there’s a real chance I look back at Pfeiffer’s exclusion and wonder what on earth I was doing.
Maybe a little bit too much his generation’s Karl Malden in that he could be anyone as long as that anyone wasn’t tall. I’ve seen a lot of people turn their back to the cameras and go off into their destinies. In Notorious, the way that Rains turns around and goes back into his house where he knows his Nazi friends are waiting for him is as profound as any shot of Clint Eastwood or William Holden’s back. He was a truly brilliant actor, and that period from 1933 to 1946 is one where he’s ubiquitous in great movies and great in them too. There’s a good case to be made that Captain Renault of Casablanca is the great supporting performance in American movies, and Renault imbues that character with so much humor but also a relentless ugliness that keeps him from being just Bogie’s jokester buddy. Rains is a little unlucky, for the purposes of this project, that his career took him to British movies. A Lawrence of Arabia would do wonders for his standing, I think, even in a smaller part.
It was hard to keep Spacek off the list, but like another Oscar-winning redhead with a penchant for playing vulnerable women who I’ve already talked about, it’s possible she’s just too good for it? Most of what I said about Moore carries over for Spacek as well, except she actually does have what I’d call an iconic performance in Carrie, and her Oscar-winning performance in Coal Miner’s Daughter probably has more purchase today than Moore’s, who won it a quarter-century later. There are showier roles than this one, but Missing stars Spacek in one of the most effortlessly normal performances I’ve ever seen from a big star. She’s just a normal woman in that film, which has to be one of the most difficult roles for a Hollywood actor to perform, but never for a second do you doubt that Beth Horman is just another woman who would strongly prefer to have lived an anonymous life without the tragedy that struck it with full force.
Truly one of the key figures of ’80s mainstream cinema in the United States, I include Turner here for her own sake—that stretch in the ’80s after Body Heat where she does Romancing the Stone, Prizzi’s Honor, and Peggy Sue Got Married is bizarre and wonderful in equal amounts—but she also stands in for a number of performers who were waylaid by illness or death. Turner seems like she might have been able to carry her stardom into the ’90s in a real way if it hadn’t been for the rheumatoid arthritis that left her unable to walk, let alone act. A longer career would have done wonders for Turner’s placement here, as it would have done for women like Carole Lombard or Jean Harlow or Jeanne Eagels, who died during the primes of their careers. Obviously Turner is better off than that, but in her heyday you could find a sort of breathlessness in her image that never crossed the line to infantilization.
If you’ve been in movies in seven different decades, then you absolutely merit consideration. That Walken has been outstanding in most of them is more grist for this mill. There’s a soulfulness to his ill-fated characters in the Cimino epics, The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate. He’s remarkable in King of New York and a scene-stealer in Pulp Fiction. He plays two flavors of dad in Catch Me if You Can (sketchy) and Hairspray (space cadet). The voice does a lot of work for Walken, especially the older he gets and the more people do impressions of him on late-night. I think there’s value in that distinctiveness; Walken’s voice is sort of like Borgnine’s smile or Malden’s nose, something which instantly announces the presence of a superlative and unmistakable performer in the cast.
The strength of Alien would probably have been enough to get Sigourney Weaver over the edge and into the top 100 if it weren’t a British movie. If you think Alien is sufficiently American, then I invite you to headcanon Weaver into this list. Otherwise she’s on the outside looking in a little bit, regardless of her position (which I don’t think I’d even dispute) as the First Lady of Sci-Fi. Yet the performance of hers that I come back to second—y’know, after Alien—is actually from Working Girl. I don’t think Working Girl is even particularly speculative, but that performance as a tough, defensive executive is not so far away from the tough, defensive woman in Aliens or the tough, defensive woman in Avatar. The girlboss has been in vogue in American movies this last decade. I think the highest compliment Weaver’s performances can receive is that you never for one second think there’s something as demeaning as that in her performance. She has command and presence, and, as in Working Girl, sometimes those aren’t enough to cover up for a weakness in personal character.
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[…] 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 […]