Better than AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars: 86-90

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.

90) Kate Winslet / Key film – Titanic

A somewhat difficult actress to include here because of how much of her work is transcontinental rather than American. Even a film like Sense and Sensibility, directed by the Taiwanese Ang Lee and made by American production companies, is British enough to elicit whimsical squees from Anglophile college freshmen. In the end I’ve given her the benefit of the doubt about some films (The Holiday, The Reader) and for me, that’s enough to go on. Even though she’s not even fifty, Winslet always seems like she might be reinventing herself yet again. There’s the young woman discovering sex or, often as not, discovering some weird sex in the ’90s and early 2000s. There’s a brief foray into the MPDG with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, frequent placements in period pieces that have started to fade out in the past decade or so. Flat-out lead performances have started to bend more toward supporting roles acting alternately as the conscience (Steve Jobs) or the spleen (Divergent) of a movie. To the best of my knowledge, she has never worked with the same director twice. There were some tense moments in the mid-aughts where people worried that Winslet was going to become the next Glenn Close, and then a win for The Reader, a film that I think everyone but me hates, erased those fears and stunted the pattern of being nominated every other year. In a career that may reasonably last another thirty years, it is almost impossible to know what Winslet will do next.

Titanic is almost a trite place to highlight in Winslet’s career, I think, somehow even more trite than choosing Titanic as a place to highlight Leonardo DiCaprio’s. What fascinates me about her role there is that it’s genuinely her movie. The film is centered on Rose’s story, even if Gloria Stuart passes the baton to Winslet well into the movie’s runtime, and the responsibility for developing of that character is almost entirely Winslet’s. When Jack comes to Rose on her part of the boat to tell her that she’s “no picnic” and a “spoiled little brat, even,” Winslet’s image comes into flinty focus. Winslet has made a career out of playing difficult women, and it starts in those performances she gave as a young woman. (We have to exclude the wonderful Kiwi film Heavenly Creatures for that, but, haha, she plays someone real difficult in that one.) In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne is a real piece of work even if you find her unapologetically romantic worldview appealing. The same is true in Titanic, where she plays someone with real worldliness and sophistication that frequently crosses the line to snobbishness. And as is so often the case in other pictures where she plays a woman bearing some true spiritual ugliness, watching her come to terms with that is marvelous stuff. Not every line reading in Titanic is an instant classic, but there’s some pleasingly cathartic venom in “I’d rather be his whore than your wife.”

89) Rosalind Russell / Key film – Gypsy

Russell is an exceedingly rare actress in many ways. Even within an urbane post-Jazz Singer cohort, Russell was emphatically one of the classiest screen presences going, and still you get the sense that if you transposed her spirit to the ’90s she would have been perfectly content to get slimed on Nickelodeon. There’s an openness to humiliation, or at the very least chastisement, which you can find in her films and which is far more often rewarded in the work of beautiful men like Paul Newman or Leonardo DiCaprio. In Craig’s Wife, one of her earlier starring turns, she is absolutely frosty and gets some well-received comeuppance at the end because of it. In The Women, a film where she’s been thrown into a feeding frenzy with every other woman star on the MGM lot, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford get to keep some dignity while Russell is frequently the butt of the joke. Years later, in Picnic, there’s a terrific romantic subplot featuring her as an old maid schoolmarm who waits and waits for Arthur O’Connell’s character to want to marry her; it’s a performance which does not flatter vanity, and to my eye it’s a performance which absolutely steals the movie away from its presumed stars, an in-his-prime William Holden and terribly young Kim Novak.

Maybe this is why some of Russell’s best performances—and more than that, some of her best-loved performances—are from the years after she turned fifty. (Of her costars in The Women, I’m not sure any can say the same. Shearer had been out of pictures for a decade, the same was basically true of Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine, and Crawford stans will point to earlier roles than Johnny Guitar or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) There’s Auntie Mame, of course, which cemented Russell as someone more than capable of playing a grand old dame at the drop of a hat. Given what I’ve already said, I prefer her in Gypsy, which is a film that gives her more to work with. The one-liners are back, maybe with a little more aroma on them than they had in something like His Girl Friday. Cue “You know, we could get a nice refund on this if we’d ever paid for it.” Rose Hovick can be glib and can do the gags, but there’s also an unending stream of hurt in a woman who believes herself passed over, and that river rises in one of the great songs to punctuate a picture. “Rose’s Turn” is, in Russell’s hands, our way into pitying someone who doesn’t deserve our sympathy. It’s Rosemary from Picnic all over again, but backed by music and played to a hilt that few other actors have been able to play to.

88) Glenn Close / Key film – Dangerous Liaisons

Glenn Close wouldn’t be higher on this list if she had an Oscar, but hypothetically she would be higher if there wasn’t something of a gap in her 1990s where she decided to do more work in theater. Maybe a couple more movies during her Damages days would have lifted her. If this were a list based purely on talent, Close would have to be further up. We can and should talk about her five Oscar nominations in the 1980s as a sign of massive industry respect, but what I think has been lost a little as she’s continued racking up Oscar losses and compounding those with performances of “Da Butt” at the ceremonies is how good she was. When Tom Hanks’ character from Sleepless in Seattle declares that Fatal Attraction “scared the shit out of me” as well as “every man in America,” he’s not referring to a situation like the one Michael Douglas gets into. He’s referring to Alex Forrest, and referring to a truly unhinged performance from Glenn Close. Alex is presumably pretty nutty in the screenplay, but it requires enormous, possibly even unique, levels of vengeful energy on the part of the person playing her to get a horror movie out of that treatment. That is Close’s movie, a genuinely special display of wrath and bile which makes almost no sense (or gets real offensive) if you think about it for more than five seconds, but the display itself is memorable.

In any event, that’s why I prefer Dangerous Liaisons as a movie to Fatal Attraction, and Glenn Close’s performance as Merteuil to the rest of her work that I’ve seen. It falls short of being a great movie, but that is emphatically not Close’s fault. The ultimate punishment that Merteuil gets, a vast booing condemnation from high society that chases her back screaming to her boudoir, is followed with a great intimate scene. Hollywood actors don’t often do as well when there is an authentic stripping away of what makes them beautiful. In the wrong light, without the right makeup, without CGI musculature, years of artifice can be swept away never to be recovered again. In the wrong light and without makeup, middle-aged and defeated, Close is sublime. Her Merteuil is the final casualty of all of her scheming, a little too near to the Rube Goldberg boobytrap that she set up for fun in her garage, and we can see the explosion in close-up. In this, the most intimate and implacable shot, Close has always been outstanding.

87) Nicolas Cage / Key film – Con Air

When I was in college, I had this running joke with a friend after we’d seen the commercials for Cage’s upcoming Season of the Witch one too many times. “I will take the girl,” Cage says. “If she is not what you say, she will not be yours to burn.” We would challenge each other to say that line without cracking a smile, which is what Cage does in that film. It literally took us months to accomplish this task. This came after one of my friends in high school just could not get over the fact that an upcoming Nicolas Cage movie was called Bangkok Dangerous. To this day I have seen neither movie. I think this is sort of instructive for viewers of a certain age, especially people like me who just weren’t old enough to see Nicolas Cage as an enormous action star in the ’90s. He’s been making movies for nearly forty years now and he has an oeuvre a mile long, which is to say he works like he’s under the whip of a Zanuck or Selznick (rather than the IRS or whoever else he owed millions to). There are bound to be some stinkers in the mix for anyone who works that often for that long, even if Cage’s batting average is probably lower than you’d like to see. Say what you will about the guy, but I don’t think you can question that when he goes for it, he does not hold back even a little bit. I find that incredibly admirable. There has to be a place for someone who wants to reach back and throw one hundred miles an hour every single time in the movies. In five separate decades now, that someone has been Nic Cage as often as not. He’s reaching back when he does that voice in Peggy Sue Got Married, when he’s asking someone about a hypothetical situation in which they might PISS! BLOOD! in Matchstick Men, when he’s playing Johnny Blaze and modeling some of his behaviors after his pet cobra in Ghost Rider. There’s a boundlessness as well in his despairing characters. Cage goes hard in Bringing Out the Dead, one of Martin Scorsese’s most underrated pictures which finds much of its success in its haunted and hopeless lead. It’s not just that he’s nuts in so many of these pictures, but that the full-bore quality of his acting so often brings about a wonderful performance.

Con Air brings out some of the best in Cage and some of the worst, which means it is the perfect Nic Cage movie. Cameron Poe is Southern. This may not seem like a particularly interesting note, but Cage’s hillbilly voice is so unexpected that it would give me that jump scare treatment when I hadn’t heard him for a little bit. It’s not what I think I would refer to as especially good accent work, but it’s my personal favorite version of Nic Cage’s refusal to accept half-measures. Out of all those giddily hyperbolic Bruckheimer flicks from the ’80s and ’90s, Con Air has a case for doing the most. Putting John Malkovich in here certainly helps, and giving Steve Buscemi carte blanche to play a murderer who seems more space cadet than steely sociopath is good too. But this movie has to build from somewhere. Cage’s Cameron is a military veteran with a good heart and a protective streak, and while he is emphatically the most normal guy aboard the Jailbird, he is also so ridiculous (the hair! the punching! the voice!) that he sets a tone for absolutely everything else in that movie to meet, from Malkovich to the set design to, sure, an exploding jet on the Vegas Strip.

86) Doris Day / Key film – Pillow Talk

One of the enormous box office draws of the ’50s and ’60s, what never fails to shock me is that Day’s movie career just kind of ended in 1968. As far as I can tell, the cutoff has to do more with her personal life and a host of unknown financial obligations which weren’t her fault, but all the same her movie career began in 1948 and ended exactly two decades later. Nor are there all that many unambiguously good movies in her career to look back on. What brings her here despite a fairly brief career and a relatively thin CV is a basically indisputable status as a persevering icon; surely she is more familiar to audiences today than her predecessor in singing onscreen and alliteration alike, Deanna Durbin. Day is a clear image regardless of what your familiarity with her filmography is: slim, blonde, the little boop of a nose, a bell-like voice and a newscaster’s diction in non-musical speech. While there are certainly some interesting diversions in her work—The Celluloid Closet does a nice job pointing out some of the lesbian overtones in Calamity Jane, and Pillow Talk would have been risky business even if Roy Scherer were as straight as Rock Hudson—for the most part, wholesomeness prevails. The legend of Day getting offered Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate is well-known, and whether her husband rejected it or she did seems almost beside the point. Doris Day as we knew her from the pictures was such a Girl Scout that she could never have come close to appearing in The Graduate, a film released in her nineteenth year of twenty on the big screen.

Doris Day quite the first singing star who we’ve gotten onto the list, but the first star who could hardly have appeared in a movie without singing. Pillow Talk (which got her the only Oscar nomination for acting in her career) is such a film, made in the second half of her film career, a romantic comedy where she plays an interior decorator being chased by Tony Randall and Rock Hudson, who looks like he could use Randall as a putter. For one thing, she sings the opening theme (“Pillow talk! Pillow talk!”), which seems like an easy way to squeeze her in, but then she even gets a chance to sing in the context of the film. While she and Hudson are on a date, she is given the music to a song that the band at the bar is performing, and thus we get a chance not just to hear Day’s performance of the truly execrable “Roly Poly” but also the spoken line “He’s a fat one!” I have seen this movie a few times now, and each time it is almost unwatchable. But who else in the American cinema could have led that song, which is liable to get stuck in your head for a week?

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