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.
75) Johnny Depp / Key film – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
As far as character entrances go, it’s unmatched in the popular American cinema by any other of the 21st Century. We see him from behind first, and below. He is standing atop the mast of his ship, and the camera zooms over his shoulder. And then we see him again, courtesy of a head-on zoom this time. They’ve swapped in a filter, so that the light is not too harsh on the dark and romantic face of this pirate. His hair billows out behind him; the ribbon on his hat smacks him in the face. Yet his glare is as still as the two braids of his goatee, his eyes fixed on a ship we saw on the horizon. This is an unlikely sex symbol, to say the least—his smudgy eyeliner matches the bad makeup jobs that his acolytes would do on themselves for eighth grade dances—but there’s a confidence underlining the beauty in his face. He looks down. He slides down a rope and lands in water built up in the ship: he’s sinking! And then, the real cut. Jack Sparrow, by some accounts the worst pirate you’ve ever seen and others the best, is only aboard a pirate ship in the sense that he is a pirate and it is his ship. It’s a rowboat with an impromptu sail attached, and it’s going down fast. Jack Sparrow has a hero’s knack for turning the world to his needs, and he has the good looks to make him the envy of a supporting actor or sidekick. Jack Sparrow also has to be on the wrong end of some humiliation before he can even begin to make things turn out right.
It’s a combination which seems about right for Johnny Depp, a star who seems to relish playing outcasts and whose aversion to his own good looks is perhaps unprecedented by a male star in Hollywood. Not since the Universal monster movies has there been an actor who has appeared so often behind such a different face, and with apologies to Karloff and Lugosi, Depp is hiding more. Jack Sparrow is, for much of that first Pirates movie, the ultimate outcast. Pirates are definitionally outsiders in these movies; Jack is a pirate who has been kicked out by the other pirates. We learn that his last crew mutinied against him and then marooned him; that he is back on the scene at all is something of a miracle. Throughout the movie, Jack’s plans frequently fizzle out or seem on the verge of backfiring; he spends so much time imprisoned or in handcuffs that you wonder if Chris Claremont may have written some of the scenes. Yet when it works, it really works, and there’s a delight in watching just how pleased Johnny Depp can look when he’s shuffling around and stealing ships, stealing gold, or stealing Orlando Bloom’s girl.
74) Lauren Bacall / Key film – The Big Sleep
Lauren Bacall has always struck me as one of the more unusual stars of that final era of classic Hollywood. Her breakout role in the 1944 film To Have and Have Not, which was made while she was nineteen years old, planted her alongside Humphrey Bogart. She would appear opposite him again in films like The Big Sleep and Key Largo; she shared pictures with Edward G. Robinson, Claire Trevor, Charles Boyer, and other stars of the studio era before the studios themselves were humbled a little. But then she’s famous, too, for starring alongside other figures of the succeeding era, that last gasp of classic Hollywood: Marilyn Monroe, Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, and Gregory Peck. Nor did she stop working just because she turned fifty. While she’s another star who might have ranked higher on this list had she not gone in for another medium—Broadway eventually beckoned—there are credits in her later years which stand out. She’s a delight in the ’74 Murder on the Orient Express; she’s even better in Barbra Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, a picture which casts her marvelously as a woman who cannot understand what it’s like not to be beautiful. Other people may have their favorites elsewhere, either in her debut role in which she tells Bogie to “just put your lips together and blow” or perhaps in Key Largo or Written on the Wind, but I’m partial to her work in The Big Sleep. She’s not quite playing the femme fatale in this movie which is famously a little rickety as far as plot and types go. She’s not an innocent, either, but she still has a real steadiness which the movie owes her for. Surrounded by women who are further gone than herself, like Martha Vickers’ halfway insane character or Dorothy Malone’s seductive bookshop girl, we understand the qualities that make Bacall so appealing. Over and over again, we find her as the woman who keeps her head when the women around her (and the men, too!) seem to be completely out of sorts.
73) Daniel Day-Lewis / Key film – Lincoln
Being the shorthand for “greatest actor on screen of his generation” counts for something. Because more than a decade of his career was spent making British and Irish films, it counts for rather less than it would for someone with a longer résumé stateside. Presumably, he is retired; he seems to have kept that promise about making Phantom Thread his final picture. In other words, this is about as high as I can imagine Day-Lewis on a list like this, and what’s keeping him here is a twenty-five year stretch where his American roles are essential to highbrow, maybe a little precious interpretation of American cinema. There are other men and women with far lengthier CVs and probably a better claim to being the better screen actor than Day-Lewis; they’re further up the list. But in the past two decades, he has been the yardstick (or meter stick, do they call them that?) for acting. When Leonardo DiCaprio goes out in the woods and gets hypothermia en route to an Oscar, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis getting sick because he won’t leave his Bill the Butcher get-up from Gangs of New York. When Logan Lerman learned to butcher meat for Indignation, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis learning how to live in the woods for The Last of the Mohicans. It’s not necessarily Day-Lewis’ responsibility that the discourse and PR of acting has trended in this direction—you can hardly fault an actor for his process—but that’s what has made him the yardstick as much as anything else he’s done.
His greatest role remains There Will Be Blood, a tantalizingly enormous performance that points the way to a Day-Lewis career where the strings are a little less easy to point to. But it’s a performance of a man from the 20th Century; it’s simply too near to our time to match this persona as a figure of period pieces who has gotten a doctorate in the time period. In much the same way that Funny Girl is Streisand, Lincoln is Day-Lewis: it’s about the voice. When the Nebraskan Henry Fonda played Lincoln, he sounded like Henry Fonda, with that quality in his voice that makes him seem like he’s just one musing away from a murmur. When the Ontarian Raymond Massey played Lincoln, he sounded like Raymond Massey, with that basso voice of his. When the London-born Daniel Day-Lewis played Lincoln…I mean, we have no way to do a one-for-one comparison, but he sounds like what Lincoln has been reported to sound like. Instead of going low, trying to shake the earth, Day-Lewis finds a voice that matches the word all the biographies use: “reedy.” It’s a remarkable decision. Fonda and Massey were playing younger versions of Lincoln than Day-Lewis plays, and the decisions that the pre-Civil War Lincoln makes are of course less meaningful than the decisions that this Lincoln, a man who doesn’t know he has months to live, is making about the 15th Amendment. Day-Lewis understands, as Lincoln himself must have, that sounding like Edward Everett is not a shortcut to saying something meaningful. Even if the voice squeaks or breaks, we can witness the resolve in the character.
72) Edward G. Robinson / Key film – Double Indemnity
There are not many actors who rate as highly as a lead and as a supporting actor like Robinson, who was as marvelous at the center of a movie as he could be at its fringes. Lead Robinson is Little Caesar, The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street. Lead Robinson is The Whole Town’s Talking, a double performance where he plays a sort of parody of Rico from Little Caesar as well as a prototype of the man from the Lang noirs, a man whose imaginative reach far, far exceeds his feeble grasp. He’s an unorthodox presence in those films, a man who was actually of average height but whose stout physique (and frequent appearances with Hollywood-tall stars) made him seem smaller than he was. It adds to his vulnerability to be threatened by the rail-thin six-footer Dan Duryea in Scarlet Street. Even in his gangster mode, Robinson felt different than his compeers. Where Paul Muni and James Cagney went for raving energy, either savage or dynamic, you can watch Robinson keep the motor running steadily in Little Caesar. His Rico Bandello is not my favorite ’30s gangster kingpin, but he is emphatically different from what you can see in Scarface or The Public Enemy, and that is a quintessentially Robinson characteristic. As a lead, that gift he had for being unlike anyone else on the screen was put to wonderful use.
And as a supporting actor, that singular quality is what helped to make him great. I’ve waxed rhapsodic about how spectacular he is in a basically understated part in The Cincinnati Kid. He is a counter to Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, effective albeit a little unpredictable as a threat. Then there’s Double Indemnity. Few directors in any era or nation can point to a string of great performances made under his or her direction as Billy Wilder can, but it’s not hyperbole to suggest that Robinson’s work as Barton Keyes is one of the three best performances Wilder ever got from an actor. Without Robinson, Double Indemnity would still be great. It would, unfortunately, lack what makes it superlative. Robinson was so, so good (especially in those supporting roles) at being an immovable object. Barton Keyes is an absolutely immovable object, someone who is proof against iniquity and stupidity alike. The latter is epitomized in one of those Wilder-esque scenes where someone spits out two pages of dialogue in about forty-five seconds, when Robinson chews out his boss for having been born into the insurance business as opposed to having to work his way up the ladder. The former is at the end of the movie, when Keyes, knowing how far gone Neff is body and soul, finds him as he’s finishing his dictaphone story. There is only so much pity he can muster up for his old friend who has gone all the way to the dark side, but he affirms that he was “closer than” anyone else might have been.
71) Sandra Bullock / Key film – Miss Congeniality
In the modern romantic comedy, or I suppose I ought to say the late romantic comedy, one of the jokes is one that’s played on the viewer. That woman on screen (almost never the man) is meant to be relatable. Maybe she’s harried at work and married to the job. Maybe she’s sworn off love after one too many bad encounters, or maybe she’s in the last days of a bad relationship. Sandra Bullock is especially good at being a slob. The joke is that the people (presumably the women but who knows, viewing is a subjective experience) are like the star on screen. We are not really like Sandra Bullock, but we are meant to relate to the woman playing the slob. We oink for fast food in much the same way; as Miss Congeniality costar Benjamin Bratt says, “I was distracted by the half-masticated cow rolling around in your wide open trap.” Bullock is perfect for the role of unlikely beauty pageant. Clearly, she is beautiful enough to be a likely enough figure for Miss America (even though it requires us to go through the endlessly weird “we need to make over Sandra Bullock so that people will believe she’s good-looking” business), while at the same time she is perhaps unmatched in acting like someone who doesn’t have the grace, style, or most of all, the will to be one of those ladies who goes hogwild over winning a tiara. There are so many movies where Sandra Bullock is playing up to that image of the cool aunt or sensible friend at work. Miss Congeniality is the one I come back to because it’s one with some serious food silliness, a movie where she eats almost as often as Brad Pitt. (Also because “You think I’m goooorgeeeous, you want to kiiiiiiss me” is a pretty perfect encapsulation of Bullock’s vibe in her movies, but the food stands out.)
Sandra Bullock has honed that likable, relatable, occasionally grungy approach with the kind of rigor one finds in doctoral programs. It’s made her a remarkable audience surrogate, second among her generation only to Tom Hanks. You don’t want to watch Sandra Bullock die in space (in Gravity) any more than you wanted to watch Tom Hanks die in space (Apollo 13). Put her on a bus with Keanu Reeves in Speed, and while Reeves jumps from one moving vehicle to another—only maniacs do that!—Sandra Bullock is there and making faces and noises that are not unlike the faces and noises which the braver among us might make. This is one of the keys to what has proven to be real versatility, which is to say bankability for a woman star that one rarely sees Hollywood studios believe in. Her ability to seem basically normal is why she can be successful at the center of a genuinely quirky group in Ocean’s 8, or why she can put on that funky accent for The Blind Side. I struggle a little bit to name a Bullock film better than Speed, but that she has been making hits for nearly three decades is incredible.