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.
70) Charlize Theron / Key film – Bombshell
An actress with genuinely fascinating career choices. There are some honest-to-goodness hits in her filmography: Snow White and the Huntsman, The Fate of the Furious, Hancock, and the ineligible for these rankings but still incredibly important Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s an sci-fi/action soft spot, with other additions to Fury Road like Æon Flux, Atomic Blonde, and the similarly high-concept The Old Guard on her CV. And on the other hand, Theron has gone back time and again to smaller movies; the Diablo Cody connection has engendered Young Adult, which is developing something of a cult interest now that it’s turned ten, and Tully, which may yet do the same thing. Most of all, there’s Theron the impersonator. In Monster, Theron puts on the weight and wears the ugly makeup and the ratty wig. It is the kind of performance which has been replicated by lesser actors, or maybe just by people whose Oscar aspirations feel a little louder, which is why Theron’s turn as Aileen Wuornos is sneakily one of the more underrated performances of the century thus far. Monster is a strong film, especially with the limitations of the biopic on top of it, and a huge part of its success is on Theron’s sensitive performance of a woman who was left behind at every step until the law caught up to her. Without defaming Patty Jenkins or Christina Ricci, the difference between “Lifetime” and “Oscar-winning” in that picture is primarily on Theron.
In Bombshell, armed with one of those from-the-headlines screenplays, playing another difficult and edgy woman, and backed up by Kazu Hiro and his team, Theron has a role that could not be more expressly tailored to her. As Megyn Kelly—and a basically sympathetic Megyn Kelly at that—Charlize Theron absolutely disappears. Nicole Kidman is still herself even if they’re calling her Gretchen Carlson and Margot Robbie, typically someone who likes that glasses-and-fake-mustache approach, is disguised merely as the most eligible single girl at a church mixer in Orange County while she plays her composite character. Alone among the three of them (plus John Lithgow, who’s fat here), Theron decides to get into the spirit of Halloween, and furthermore manages to pick up Kelly’s newscaster voice as well. Occasionally, one can even forget that it’s Theron with that little nose, peering at you from her vantage point onscreen. From a certain perspective, it is a stunning collection of traits that make a performance; it’s the perspective that couldn’t quite separate her from Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in that year’s Oscar race. From another, it’s the rubricky checkdown style that Theron can make work, if not much more. Even if Theron’s career continues to head in that direction, I think it’ll be okay on balance. We’ll always have Furiosa.
69) Mae West / Key film – She Done Him Wrong
Sex and Mae West go together like, well, imagine it for yourself, you’re old enough. That “If Mae West you like/If me undressed you like” are able to go next to each other in “Anything Goes” is one of those lovely little proofs of order in the universe. However, I’m sure that West herself wouldn’t have come to that conclusion. Whether it’s apocryphal or not, the quote attributed to her about not needing nudity if you have personality is about as succinct a summation of her film career as you can find. To some extent constrained (though never too tightly!) by the censors and the armies of martinets and harridans clamoring for them, West found a way to be sexy and endlessly funny at the same time. By the standards of contemporary filmmaking, Mae West’s movies don’t sing. They are primarily static numbers, and West’s performances aren’t performances in the modern sense of the word; I think of her standing jauntily, as was her way, and in a voice deeper than my own mumbling her way through zinger after jab after bon mot. It’s not acting. She’s playing Mae West no matter what costume she’s wearing or what setting is behind her. Yet it’s emphatically a performance, something carted out of vaudeville like the Marx Brothers were carted out of vaudeville, and for whatever the weaknesses of her films are, West is never one of them. She stands astride a star vehicle with a resoluteness that I can’t imagine ever seeing again in a film; it’s about her, and the words she wrote, and the rest of of it (even if it’s Cary Grant or Randolph Scott or W.C. Fields opposite her) seems to melt away.
That particular quality of a Mae West movie, that it tends toward her at the expense of everything else, means that a “key” Mae West movie is kind of a redundant idea. I’m going with She Done Him Wrong, a movie I like less than My Little Chickadee but one which is simultaneously more homed in on her. And it’s also got any number of her most famous one-liners, quips, invitations, double entendres, and general jokes. Some of them get an honest “Jeez!” almost nine decades on. “You bad girl,” Cary Grant’s Captain Cummings tells her. “Mm,” replies Lady Lou. “You’ll find out.” Her reference to someone as “warm, dark, and handsome” is terrific, one of those truly remarkable double entendres which allows for an almost sweet interpretation before kicking it out of the way in order to let the right one in. Even the simplest questions, concerning whether any man has ever made Lady Lou happy before, ring with meaning that few other stars ever purposefully intend to include. “Sure, lots of times.”
68) Julie Andrews / Key film – The Sound of Music
I realize now that this is going to be interpreted as a sort of dig at Barbra Streisand, or at least a kind of comparison between the two most successful singing actresses of the post-Garland era in America. I don’t mean for it to come off that way, and it’s not a comment about who the better singer is or who is the finer comedic actress. If anything, it’s a backhanded kind of comment for Streisand, whose image and legacy are simply more complicated than Andrews’ for the purposes of this list. The comparison isn’t really between Streisand and Andrews; it’s between Andrews and Jeanette MacDonald.
There are few actors in the history of the medium who have started with a three-movie run like the one Andrews had to begin her career in the pictures. First, Mary Poppins, the movie she got instead of My Fair Lady, and the film which won her an Academy Award on the first go-round. Then, opposite James Garner in the needling war satire The Americanization of Emily. Then The Sound of Music, which did not win her another Oscar but which did win Best Picture because of her. Say whatever you like about the corny aspects of the film, but when The Sound of Music is up to speed it’s there because of its leading lady. Her twirling performance of the title song is undeniable. “Do-Re-Mi” is sort of a pain, but those last ten seconds or so where she and the kids are going up and down the steps while she finds most of her octaves are spellbinding ones. You can actually watch her act a little in one of the film’s best scenes. Her face is not inscrutable, precisely, during “Something Good.” But you can see the confusion in Maria’s face, the hesitance, the sudden realizations of fact. In a scene where you tell your boss (who you’ve run away from so you don’t disrupt his upcoming marriage) that you love him, a flibbertigibbet and will o’ the wisp is bound to have more feelings than she can keep all at once, more thoughts racing across her mind than she can hold tightly to in the course of the opening verses of the song. You can watch her reasoning with herself, smiling at herself, and by the end accepting herself. This may sound incredibly simple: just sing and share your feelings with some reverse shots of the man cut in to check on him. All you have to do is watch Mamma Mia and know how easy it is to flunk this course. Hammerstein’s lyrics lay the foundation for the scene, but it’s Andrews who builds the neat, homey cottage on top of it.
67) Robert Duvall / Key film – Apocalypse Now
Like Edward G. Robinson, one of America’s great acting tweeners, a man whose best work is in supporting parts but who could do much more than hold attention in starring roles. It’s just about the only in-between in Duvall’s oeuvre that I can find. There’s loud Duvall, the kind of man whose yelling never turns into a screech but just gets bigger, booming off of whatever walls he happens to be trapped by. This is the Robert Duvall who is the least important of the foursome in Network (IT’S SENSATIONAL! TELL HIM, HERB! HERB’S PHONE HASN’T STOPPED RINGING…), but in a movie which has gotten an awful lot of press as a prescient story, no one’s performance anticipates the future better than Duvall’s. Frank Hackett is a “company man,” the fictional antecedent to any number of VC sonuvabitches who make a professional career out of strip mining something valuable for whatever it can sell for, no matter what effect it might have. You can find loud Duvall in a starring role in The Apostle, a film which he wrote and directed as well; Sonny, later “the Apostle E.F.,” is an evangelical minister who does everything short of speak in tongues and roll around on the floor in order to keep his new ministry afloat. It’s a talky role, well short of Duvall’s best but an interesting entry into that noisier register. I personally find him a little more compelling when he’s quiet, when he’s capable of nearly melting into the background. In Tender Mercies, he’s meant to be front and center, yet Mac Sledge recedes naturally from daylight, disappearing from his country singer life like a tumbleweed in a ghost town. When he plays a real ghost, like he does in his debut role in To Kill a Mockingbird, you can see the enormous control he has over his body. You could sit there for days practicing and never manage to create the aftersmile which he pulls out for that first meeting with Scout. He’s like a singer who reaches for a high note with no stepstool to the note in that moment, and it’s a startling, lovely moment.
If we’re to combine the two Duvalls into a man who’s comfortable at like, 70 decibels instead of 10 or 100, the man is Colonel Kilgore. Obviously capable of reaching up into that upper level (CHARLIE DON’T SURF), what makes Kilgore a legend is his calm, hoarse, zenlike proclamation: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” He’s shirtless in that scene but wearing a hat that’s more like an umbrella than anything else. As he gesticulates smoothly, helicopters seem to be conjured from his hands as they zoom behind him. Napalm, to Kilgore, “smells like…liberty.” It’s an intimate conversation, as far as those things go. He’s crouched down and speaking with his charges bound for Cambodia, and more than that the camera zooms slowly on him, making him the largest part of the frame. But it is unbelievably, almost unbearably loud. There’s plenty more insanity in Apocalypse Now, but it’s never broader than when Colonel Kilgore runs his mile with that torch.
66) Natalie Wood / Key film – Inside Daisy Clover
One of the exploitable flaws in this list is its sympathy for people who got their start as kids. Natalie Wood, who got her start in pictures when she was kindergarten age, finds that flaw and runs right through. In a movie with some perfectly good adult performances, the soul of Miracle on 34th Street is in the interactions between Edmund Gwenn and an incredibly young Natalie Wood. (You can also find her playing the tiny version of Gene Tierney in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which…as far as Hollywood likenesses go, it’s really pretty good.) In 1955, Rebel without a Cause, a film which belongs to James Dean and Sal Mineo more than it ever belongs to her, but which all the same is still difficult to imagine without her. In 1956, The Searchers, where she is at the center of the climactic scene in John Ford’s entire oeuvre. There were better roles as an adult, but not necessarily better movies. West Side Story is a classic (though not any better, on the whole, than the more frequently derided Sound of Music), and Natalie Wood feels like a somewhat awkward add-on in it. The film is primarily about its white characters, which means that Richard Beymer at least gets to carry the plot on his shoulders even if the film doesn’t really trust him to sing or dance; Wood doesn’t even get that. Splendor in the Grass and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which loosely bookend her last professionally productive decade and which share a limited permissiveness about sex, are okay roles in meh movies for Wood. Something about Wood the child star, which is to say Wood the supporting actress, never really goes away in those pictures.
You can see Wood at the center of the frame more often in those movies which are explicitly about showbiz, and more than that explicitly about the way that showbiz takes and takes and takes. Gypsy, a film which belongs primarily to Rosalind Russell, is still nearly stolen by Natalie Wood once the film moves far enough along to let her in. Seeing how easily a mother lets her daughter go into burlesque when it looks like a last chance for everyone’s shared stage career is one thing, but how quickly you see Louise go from depressed resignation to savage enjoyment is in its own way just as shocking. Inside Daisy Clover is the more essential Wood, for it’s all about her. Ruth Gordon does not threaten to take over that picture the way that Gypsy surrendered to Russell in the first place, and so we get Wood basically unleashed and untethered from any kind of adult protector. What that looks like, often as not, is flailing. Flailing limbs, throwing things, making a mess, yelling and screaming. It’s not a movie which is particularly well-reviewed, but it’s one which throws some of that baked-in cynicism of the movie biz back in its face; one wonders what the people in charge think of Daisy except to know that they can make so much a picture off her. (Whoever was calling the shots on Inside Daisy Clover didn’t let her sing in this one, either; they dubbed her again. Even in this kind of movie she couldn’t buy a note for herself!) There’s a scene in the film which is a little short of tender. Wade, played by Redford in an unusual early role for him, comes back to Daisy on the set of some movie after a long absence. She’s wearing a very serious doll costume as she’s riffling through his unsent postcards, topped off with a yellow wig and a face painted entirely white. Ultimately he comes over to where she’s sitting, takes her wig, and wipes off her makeup. He pushes her face into the mirror and she sees herself, smiling. When he says everything is “wiped away,” it’s a comment about wiping away how he’s abandoned her, but it’s impossible not to read Wood’s smile along with that line of dialogue in a different way, as if Wood in Hollywood has been wiped away a little bit and we are meant to see the toothy, unassuming grin underneath.