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.
80) Olivia de Havilland / Key film – The Heiress
She was born the year after Orson Welles and died in the year Mank was released. Yet de Havilland is here not because of the longevity of her career but for the peak. There are the Errol Flynn years, which gave a basis to her star image which she then set about dismantling throughout the 1940s. In those pictures, primarily in the ’30s, de Havilland plays an intelligent, well-bred, beautiful, and winning woman, often with an essential part to play in Flynn’s ultimate victory. On the frailer end is a movie like Captain Blood, where her initial sympathy for Flynn’s character becomes a polarizing distaste for his arrogance once the tables are turned; eventually, once Captain Blood is Governor Blood, she changes her tune. She’s tougher in The Adventures of Robin Hood, even if it requires the same about-face regarding Robin of Loxley that was required for Peter Blood. All the same, Maid Marian plays an essential role in that film, for it’s impossible to imagine how Robin could triumph without her ability to spy on the wicked Prince John and his chief toady, Sir Guy of Gisbourne. She may not be able to participate in that final battle either, but she has at least been more helpful in the strategy stages.
In the 1940s, it’s not an exaggeration to call de Havilland one of the five or six best regarded actors of the decade. Four Best Actress nominations at the Oscars, with victories for To Each His Own and The Heiress. No other actor won two competitive Oscars in the 1940s, arguably the starriest Oscar decade in the award’s history. Meanwhile, de Havilland was adapting that persona from the Flynn films, building vulnerability and abnegation into her work; as Flynn descended, de Havilland rose. In The Snake Pit, we watch her play a schizophrenic who is brought back to health and then betrayed by a jealous nurse who deposits her in a part of the ward for terminal cases. She is about as haggard as any great star in the 1940s could have appeared; her face is drawn, her hair greasy and stiff, her clothing little more than a potato sack. It’s in The Heiress that we see her return to the old persona and smash it up. Nobility is not something that she uses to bring civilization to misused masses, but a curse which she bears with some maladroitness. The wealth of this patrician New York family she belongs to hangs over her, and the pressure to live up to the ideals of her long dead mother, are enormous weights upon her which she does not know how to shift. It’s a dour performance; even when de Havilland is being paired off with a relatively jolly Monty Clift as opposed to a traitorous or desperate one, you can see the hesitance in her brown. The winning smile that one expects from a de Havilland character based on her ’30s films is gone here; the look she wears as she leaves Clift’s Morris knocking is one which puts all bitterness, all sneering into her cheer.
79) Barbra Streisand / Key film – Funny Girl
She’s funnier in What’s Up, Doc? (though in fairness, she’s funnier in What’s Up, Doc? than basically any human being has been in any context). She’s more romantic in The Way We Were. She’s more in control of her own image in the pictures she directed, whether it’s the sort of cross-eyed vision of The Mirror Has Two Faces or the backseat performance in The Prince of Tides. But the reason Streisand is a star, the reason she is absolutely beloved, is evident in Funny Girl. She truly is a bagel on a plate of onion rolls. Maybe they could have gotten Shirley MacLaine to do it with her Protestant nose, but MacLaine simply couldn’t have done that part. Fanny Brice refracted through Funny Girl flat out is Barbra Streisand, a bagel who can get huge laughs on roller skates, fire off jokes with machine gun rapidity, be an honest-to-goodness romantic partner for Omar Sharif, and, well, sing. The singing is the third strand which makes a braid. We can adore Streisand for her comedic chops, and we can find her emoting really powerful. But it’s the singing that ties it together. In a vacuum, I personally find her performance in What’s Up, Doc? to be much better than what she’s got going on in Funny Girl, but it’s not a part which requires us to love her, to feel devotion to her. Streisand can make us like her with a well-placed “Hello, gorgeous.” Streisand can make us her disciples when “Hello, gorgeous” is backed up with “I’m the Greatest Star” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “My Man.” In other words, despite a filmography that’s not all that long and despite being a more formidable figure in selling albums than putting butts in movie houses, Streisand feels essential to a list like this because when she is on screen, she is iconic.
78) Mickey Rooney / Key film – Life Begins for Andy Hardy
Readers of this blog are well within their rights to suggest that I’m guilty of some serious homerism right now. I accept the charge, but all the same I stand by this decision. The Mickey Rooney era was not a particularly long one, for all intents and purposes over within a decade. 1935 to 1945 was a tremendously, perhaps unethically busy decade for Rooney. Fourteen of his credits are “Andy Hardy.” And yet it’s a ten-year period where Rooney picked up two Best Actor nominations (making him the second-youngest and fourth-youngest nominee as of today) and was the box office king from 1939 to 1941, which is absolutely ludicrous given the star power in Hollywood at the time and the primacy of film as an entertainment form. As important as anything else is Rooney’s clear talent, and we can look outside of the Andy Hardy movies to find it. In Boys Town, playing the proudest little devil in Spencer Tracy’s commune for young men in need, he’s entirely credible in a part which could have been rote all too easily. Whitey Marsh is a damaged young man who believes there’s always another angle to exploit because that’s all he’s learned from his criminal brother. I’d stop a little short of calling Whitey’s turnaround a moving one, but it’s believable. Rooney is playing a kid who’s had a lot of bad in his life before, and the process of becoming a decent boy requires a combination of shock and turning stool pigeon which, if it doesn’t feel honest, gets cringey real quick. Rooney spent most of his late teens and early twenties getting roles where he has to learn some lesson which would have been old hat for a ten-year-old. That he manages to make some of those moments actually stick is slightly incredible; when he gets a more age-appropriate moment, like the one where he convinces his father he has to make his own way at college in Andy Hardy’s Double Life, Rooney is capable of genuinely moving work.
The easy decision for Rooney is to say that it comes down to his performance in Love Finds Andy Hardy. But being the sicko I am who has seen all those Andy Hardy films, it’s Life Begins for Andy Hardy that just feels more important to Rooney’s image. It’s important to consider the tension in Rooney’s career, by all accounts (including those provided to our own eyes) a really good actor who happened to have been hoisted on his own petard. Rooney never grew much taller than five feet, an advantage which no doubt helped to perpetuate the Andy Hardy series, but it also put a hard cap on his career afterwards. Short of rigging the sets Lord of the Rings style, I don’t know how they could have put together a romantic comedy with him and Judy Holliday. Thus Life Begins, the film where Andy Hardy gives adulthood a try and nearly starves to death for his troubles, feels eminently appropriate. Andy’s grief over the loss of a new friend and humiliation over being unable to strike it rich in New York after displaying a bumbling but inevitable Midas touch in Carvel is palpable. Just as much, Andy Hardy’s position as America’s favorite son—and a favorite son whose entire path is near ruination—gives that picture more savor. Rooney’s performance seems to reflect that. When Andy goes to New York, he’s not just taking his hopes and dreams with him, or his family’s. There’s more to it than that, a greater sense of purpose than what Rooney and Lewis Stone can push into the frame. You can see why Mickey Rooney and not Cecilia Parker was the one to make the jump from supporting player to big star from the series; it’s impossible to imagine Parker as carrying the hopes and dreams of anyone who’s not onscreen, and with Rooney it’s just as difficult to see him as only a boy.
77) Claudette Colbert / Key film – The Palm Beach Story
On the surface, there’s a lot which Colbert has in common with de Havilland. Like de Havilland, she was not born in America, and the Parisian metro she was born in is roughly as far from Los Angeles as Tokyo, where de Havilland was born to a professor and his actress wife. Like de Havilland, she lived a very long time; her life was bookended by two of the essential crime pictures, The Great Train Robbery and Fargo. Like de Havilland, she spent a decade or so at the top of her profession, especially in regard as an actor, and like de Havilland her screen career wound down significantly by the middle of the 1950s. The types, however, are quite different. De Havilland was always a little too stiff for light comedy—this is sort of the point of Melanie Hamilton—but Claudette Colbert was entirely capable no matter what genre you tossed her into. I don’t think I would rate anything in the ’34 Imitation of Life above the ’59 Imitation of Life, but in the same year she played a poor little rich girl en route to an Oscar in It Happened One Night, she is equally believable as a friendly and basically sensible single mother in Imitation of Life. The versatility is there in Colbert, and while I don’t think I would rely on her for pure dramatics the way I’d rely on de Havilland, it’s certainly tempting to imagine what Colbert would have made of an era where she’d have more control over which roles she ended up in. Like many of the great stars of the ’30s, Colbert had a deep understanding of how the parts she got in the pictures she got would dictate how she was received; that canniness would have made her especially fascinating seven or eight decades later.
It’s with a likewise sagacious director, Preston Sturges, that Colbert got her finest part, one which really puts her character into relief no matter who she’s sharing the screen with. The Palm Beach Story is, at least from a Colbert perspective, the inverse of It Happened One Night. Rather than being on the run from the wealth and influence that we’d all like to be as suffocated by as Ellie is, Gerry is on the run from her husband in order to have a chance to live large. And instead of being drawn into a warm and basically traditional marriage by one good man, as Ellie is, Gerry finds herself flat out in the midst of a sex farce that, if the opening credits are to be taken seriously, is primarily of her own making. Colbert is basically playing a lunatic, but she’s such a crafty one that you have to admire the way she convinces the Ale and Quail gang to get her onto the train, and so charming that you can understand what it is that John D. Hackensacker adores about her even if she makes his life absolutely surreal for a few days. “Sex always has something to do with it, dear,” Gerry tells Tom, giving her husband a talk about the birds and bees a couple decades after he should have originally gotten it. Maybe an hour of film time later she’s passing her current husband off to her would-be husband as “Captain McGlue” (his mother’s maiden name was “McGrew” and in her mixture of inspiration and haste she’s mixed up the name) and it’s every bit as raucous and delightful as she was when she made an iota of sense.
76) Diane Keaton / Key film – Something’s Gotta Give
It can’t be Annie Hall, because as amiably absent-minded as Diane Keaton can play, the right Keaton role is the one where she gets to keep her brain, too. And it can’t be Reds, because I think that would probably be more homerism; more importantly, it’s that Louise Bryant is much too serious to see as the cardinal role in her career. With Keaton, what makes her performances so endearing is how frequently you find her doing the unexpected, and more than that how matter-of-fact she is while she does those unexpected things. That’s “la-di-da” in a nutshell, and it describes any number of performances she’s had over the years. In The Godfather Part II, how unexpected must it be to hear her tell her powerful, scary husband that she had an abortion in order to deny the world more Corleones? In Father of the Bride Part II (see what I did there), she has her third child on the same night she becomes a grandmother. In both cases, which really do not have anything in common short of “Diane Keaton” and “pregnancy,” Keaton manages to find a way to make these unexpected moments feel right. Of course she shouldn’t want to bring any more of Michael’s children into the world, knowing how ruthless and evil he has become, how even the patina of his father’s Old World courtliness has been scrubbed away. Of course she should have it out with George when he makes her pregnancy about his mid-life crisis as opposed to how wonderful it is that two good parents can have another little person at home with them. By the time she’s done talking, no matter how it’s taken, she is a figure of good sense.
Something’s Gotta Give is a lovely version of that figure, perhaps because the entire premise of the film seems kooky until the most unrealistic thing about it is that you could like anyone who goes to the Hamptons. How many times have we seen a male star with a female star two decades his junior on screen? And how many times have we watched a romance in which opposites attract after getting off to a pretty rough start, but one person still hesitates even after it’s clear they’re right for each other? These two scenarios are intertwined in Something’s Gotta Give, and Diane Keaton is at the center of both. At first glance, it feels funny to watch Keanu Reeves get together with Diane Keaton, the former a Gen Xer and the latter a Boomer. Then you sit there and think about Clark Gable and Grace Kelly in Mogambo, or Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain, or most of Audrey Hepburn’s career, and it doesn’t seem quite so egregious any longer. Something’s Gotta Give also makes Keaton’s Erica the steadfast character, the one who first opens her eyes to the possibility of an autumnal romance—this is different from Jack Nicholson’s Harry, whose approach to an autumnal romance is to shake as many trees as possible to make leaves fall—and the one who tries her best to engage in that romance until she’s turned away. Eventually, Nicholson comes around, understanding that Keaton was right and that he should have been with her the whole time. Audiences can relate.
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