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.
85) Marilyn Monroe / Key film – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
A minor spoiler alert…out of the top 20 stars (both male and female) from the AFI’s original list, the only one who is not a top 50 star on my list is Marilyn Monroe. It’s because the movies count more for me than name recognition or pop culture icon status, and the movies are both relatively few and not necessarily winners. She’s just not usually the best part of those movies. She was a very fine comic actress, but in her best movies someone else is doing the heavy lifting: Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot, Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In a movie that truly centers her, such as Bus Stop, the results are pretty far from scintillating. Nor do I think a longer career would have given her all that much more to work with, as eminently tragic as the circumstances leading to her death were. I would believe that there was another decade for Carole Lombard, but I’m not so sure there was another decade for Monroe, at least not as the biggest name on the marquee. Although her screen persona is so different from Lombard’s, I think the comparison is apt in terms of fame as well as in terms of their effectiveness as actors. At their best, both women were screamingly funny; it may be a cosmic coincidence that Monroe’s last film was made opposite Lombard’s widower, but there’s meaning in it.
As much as I adore her in Some Like It Hot, and with apologies to The Seven-Year Itch, which gave us one of the iconic film images period, it’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes which best serves an astutely developed star image. Monroe specialized in the dumb blonde, a woman who tap dances on “daffy” and when she slips does so right onto “braindead.” Lorelei Lee is out to marry rich, and is fully cognizant of the advantages she has which would get the attention of a Rockefeller. There’s a practicality in her; I love that line where she tells her prospective father-in-law she doesn’t want to marry his son for the son’s money, but to marry his son for his money. (I mean…duh!) “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is a catchy little ditty and a terrific opportunity to put Monroe in a hot pink dress against a pure red backdrop. It’s also a cutting statement on how quickly men drop women, and how property is a better hedge against age than amour. It’s the perfect song for Monroe. Later in the film, that same man who she flat out told she was working for his money compliments her on her smarts. “I can be smart when it’s important,” Lorelei tells him, “but most men don’t like it.” Monroe may have been the most desired woman in America during the 1950s, but anyone who doesn’t foreground her slyness next to her sex appeal is doing it wrong.
84) Frances McDormand / Key film – Nomadland
With two Oscars for Best Actress, Frances McDormand would probably be hovering somewhere between 49th and 60th among actresses on my drafts. With three, McDormand makes a case for being the American film industry’s most revered actress since Katharine Hepburn. She’ll never be a great box office draw, I can’t imagine her as an action hero, and even when she was playing someone whose sex life was meaningful to the character, she had a tendency to be outshined by co-stars. (I’m thinking of Short Cuts, where Frances McDormand’s broken relationship with Peter Gallagher is played for laughs while there’s some frontal nudity from the likes of Julianne Moore and Madeleine Stowe.) But there’s room for someone who has made a career out of being a great actor, and more importantly, there’s room for someone who Hollywood has decided full-throatedly to be a great actor.
The movies are not necessarily all that good—out of those three films she won Best Actress for, there’s one god-tier picture, one okay one, and one truly godawful mess—but McDormand is undeniable in them. If you think Burn After Reading is inhumane and abrupt, you still have to respect McDormand’s portrayal of a woman obsessed with getting the money for plastic surgery. If you think Three Billboards is racist and ridiculous, you still have to raise an appreciative eyebrow for McDormand’s still credible performance as the toughest of tough broads. Even the names in those Oscar-winning roles suggests something a little old-fashioned in the way that the Wild West or Dust Bowl is old-fashioned: Marge, Mildred, Fern. Who would really be surprised if she racked up another win for playing Lady Macbeth? And how many people would you rather see play that role in the movies anyway? In Nomadland, the Shakespeare clashes with the lived-in quality of McDormand’s roles in very literal ways. A woman from a Nevada factory town ends up sounding like she’s studied declamation and rhetoric when she rattles off one of Shakespeare’s sonnets; it doesn’t work for me all that well, but that’s the McDormand guarantee. No matter how proletarian her character is, the performance will still summon up a toothy, ragged dignity. What makes Nomadland cohere has nothing to do with its ideas (lol) or its screensaver cinematography. It’s McDormand in the scenes she didn’t win an Oscar for. It’s the way she bustles around doing her series of odd jobs at national parks or Wall Drug. It’s the way she floats peacefully down a river, finding an authentic connection with the natural world in a way that no cinematic shots in the Badlands of South Dakota can match.
83) Norma Shearer / Key film – The Women
It’s tempting for me to pick Marie Antoinette instead of The Women for Shearer. After all, she was the queen. At once emblematic of tremendous sophistication, and we can take that word to mean just about anything we care to. If they put Shearer in a movie about dirt-poor coal miners, she’d wear pearls and speak with that perfect Canadian diction. Shearer was a sophisticated businesswoman; she married the boss, Irving Thalberg, at Hollywood’s ritziest studio, MGM. I’ll buy that there was more there than simple opportunism, but Shearer was one of the canniest stars of the ’20s and ’30s. Every star had her own preferred way of being lit and shot, but few of them worked around a physical defect like Shearer’s strabismus, which is still only occasionally visible in her films. (It’s worth noting that Shearer made about as many silent films as she did talkies, which is abnormal in the extreme.) There’s the other kind of sophistication as well, for Shearer on screen always knows what sex is and, just as importantly, how to make it so boys come back for more. It’s not for nothing that her Oscar was for The Divorcee, where she marries one man and then dallies around with his married friend after indulging for some time in parties. When the Hays Code was implemented, Shearer went from playing women with rich sex lives to women who elicited famous boners: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Juliet, Marie Antoinette. The Women is the best of both worlds for Shearer, the last hurrah for a star who left the pictures at 40. It’s a film where Shearer, although subjected to the indignities of a divorce and the requisite stay in Reno, gets to come out on top. She does so by winning her former husband back despite the fact that he’s decided to marry Joan Crawford. Regardless of whatever names Crawford’s Crystal has for Shearer’s Mary (there’s a name for these women not used “outside of a kennel”), the queen is aces at the end of the picture.
82) Will Smith / Key film – Hitch
Smith is paying some penalty here for a fairly short prime, some really not-so-good pictures, and the fact that he will probably be just as famous for Fresh Prince as anything else. (The second one isn’t even that much of a criticism, to be honest. Contemporary actors who aren’t Nic Cage won’t work as much as people from the distant past, and Smith has been surprisingly adventurous in terms of what roles he wants to take.) In my lifetime, though, I struggle to come up with an actor who was a star in the way that Smith emphatically was in the late ’90s and early ’00s. When I was a little boy, I didn’t know anything about movies that wasn’t Star Wars or Disney, but I knew Smith immediately. He wasn’t in movies I saw, but I knew, like everyone else in fourth grade knew, that he was the coolest human being alive. If you wanted to create a movie star in a lab, the blueprints might well depict him. Easy, instantaneous charm. Swagger, but not so much that you feel affronted by it. Will Smith hits the mark between “cool” and “cocky” with laser precision. So handsome; we Americans have always preferred our male leads to err on the side of lanky rather than enormous, which Smith does. Enough dramatic chops to pull off key scenes, but knows we’ll always want him to make us laugh or cheer rather than sob. Most of all: I don’t know that he’s been in a good movie in the past decade, and I’d still think about watching his next project.
Hitch is a wonderful star vehicle for Smith, because if there is a sentence which sums up movie stardom from the perspective of the dweebs in the theater, it’s “Can get any girl in the world but I still believe he might be my friend.” In the film, Smith’s “date doctor” goes through all the stages which are designed to make us care about someone who may naturally make us recoil a little bit. We see him slay with women a few times, not least with Eva Mendes, with whom he surprisingly plays hard to get; we learn that this guy, regardless of how crass his job as a backseat pickup artist might be, is a pretty fair judge of character. We get to see him fall off a jetski and watch as he yells like a maniac at a speed dating session. He allies himself with the right kind of men (doofy but well-meaning Kevin James) and makes enemies with creeps (Jeffrey Donovan, playing something called a “Vance Munson”). And most of all, he shows his humility at the end of the picture. When Amber Valletta, with the equally unlikely name of “Allegra Cole,” has it out with Smith for deceiving her into a relationship with James, it turns out that all Smith did for James was help him shoot his shot. It’s hard to think of a moment where we’d root against for Smith, or a time when things would ever be outside his ability to fix. And he does it not with fists or guns, which are tools we’ve seen him apply before; he does it with emotional intelligence and a good heart.
81) Sally Field / Key film – Norma Rae
How did a Gidget from Pasadena wind up playing America’s favorite Southern gals? In Smokey and the Bandit she’s a Texan en route to Atlanta, in Places in the Heart a Texan stuck in Texas, in Forrest Gump an Alabamian, in Steel Magnolias a Louisianan, in Lincoln a Kentuckian, in Norma Rae a Tar Heel. At least in Absence of Malice she gets to drop the accent to play someone living in Miami. Even in the present moment, white Southern womanhood signifies something to an audience (especially when the movie is made by Hollywood types and meant for an international release). She is hospitable, old-fashioned, dramatic, attractive, familial, catty. “You like me, right now, you like me!” Field said when she got her second Oscar in five years. We like Southern women, especially when they have those adorable accents that are going extinct at the same rate as tigers. And we so often believe in them as mothers, too. It’s worth noting that it didn’t take Field all that long to start playing someone’s mom; when she won her first Oscar for Norma Rae, which came out when she was 32, she had a couple little kids in that movie. From then on, we see her playing moms in a number of her most popular roles. She did it again for Places in the Heart. Steel Magnolias has her playing Julia Roberts’ mom (which is a little unfair to Field), Mrs. Doubtfire emphatically puts her in that mothering role, and in what has to be her most-seen performance, she’s rearing a young Forrest Gump. As an audience, Sally Field brings out the infant in us. We like her when we believe that she can take care of us, and with apologies to Californian motherhood, it’s not quite the same as mamas from the Deep South.
As much as other movies will put Field in an ensemble and ask her to lead it or balance it, Norma Rae goes in the opposite direction. Despite the presence of veteran actors around her, that is Field’s movie all the way. The story of a textile mill being dragged into unionization is the story of how Norma Rae does it seemingly through her force of will. It may require a smartass New York Jew in Reuben Warshowsky to provide the idea, but the reason the union drive ultimately succeeds is because of Norma Rae. She is stubborn, diligent, and insofar as a short person can be brassy, she’s that too. It doesn’t take much imagination now or then to see industrial unionization as a far-fetched dream in rural North Carolina, and you believe that it’s possible because of Field’s dogged performance, dragging her fading mother, hapless father, and deadbeat husband all the way there along with everyone else she works with. Forget having a mother who can take care of you. Field makes you long for a union rep who will fight for you as hard as that.