Better than AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars: 61-65

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.

65) Cate Blanchett / Key film – I’m Not There

Cate Blanchett has something of the enchantress about her. Her performances are brash, cocksure. There is something of the latter-day Joan Crawford in her, an ability to be so moving and indelible because there is no question that Cate Blanchett has arrived in style when you see her on the screen. Even in the early performances you get that larger-than-her-share-of-the-screen presence; her occasional scenes with Matt Damon put her all the way forward, while the more we see of Gwyneth Paltrow the more she recedes. In a more recent role, like her part in as wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine in Cinderella, she owns every scene she’s in with such delightful panache, an absolute joy to watch as she gets to vamp and condescend her way through the entire film. In The Aviator, she has an unforgettable early scene opposite Leonardo DiCaprio. Katharine Hepburn obliterates Howard Hughes in golf, and while she’s doing it, she talks his (somewhat deaf) ear off in the bargain. It’s hilarious and also an absolute tour de force performance, down to the imitation of Hepburn’s laugh. Even in Carol, a movie where she is glamorous and beautiful and hunted, you still don’t see her receding even an inch as she sweeps into Rooney Mara’s life like a tidal wave. But there can be no bigger, nuttier, bolder performance than her take on Bob Dylan in his Dont Look Back era, a whirlwind of cigarettes and bouncing movement and even bouncier line readings. “Man,” she says at one point, “I can’t do eighty-three more shows! It’s going to fucking kill me to do eighty-three more shows. Who the fuck ever said I wanted to be a millionaire!” Over and over again, Cate Blanchett’s presence is a guarantee of a thousand volts in the picture, a promise of someone who is absolutely throwing herself into a part.

64) Jodie Foster / Key film – The Silence of the Lambs

This list’s bias for people who were child actors and then continued to perform into their adult years stays undefeated. Foster has a fairly limited filmography, especially for someone who has been in pictures since the 1970s; she had nearly as many roles in that decade, from ages nine to fifteen, as she’s taken on in all of the 21st Century. There’s a goofy little supporting role in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore that I’m fond of, the original Freaky Friday, a role which has taken on outsized life in Taxi Driver not least because it almost got Reagan killed. The 21st Century stuff is not made up of world beaters, with few entries that I’d put on the level of Alice, much less Taxi Driver. There’s the too-twisty Flightplan, the solid but unspectacular Panic Room, a Polanski collaboration. Foster is good but she feels inessential to them, like they could have gotten someone who was 75% the name and 50% the actor and been the same; the exception is in Inside Man, where Foster’s intelligence and shrewdness positively oozes off the screen in her role as a double-dealing lawyer. No, Foster is here because of a ten year period where it felt like even roles in meh pictures (paging Contact) were proving something. There’s a chip on Contact‘s shoulder, a firm belief in its female scientist hero. Foster is trailblazing some here; there are vanishingly few women scientists in previous American movies who are a) fictional and/or b) not there as a way to model outfits. In a film like The Accused, a picture which is intrepid because of its pugilistic qualities, no one’s ready to throw down like Foster. Three men raped Sarah in front of a crowd, and her lawyer, a prosecutor named Kathryn, chooses to get out of the case quickly by compromising the charges. Foster’s Sarah is livid with Kelly McGillis’s Kathryn, saying that her best “sucks” and that she hopes she gets something good out of “selling me out.” The Accused is not all that different, structurally speaking, from A Few Good Men. What keeps The Accused from falling into the sanctimonious patterns of A Few Good Men, the film version of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch, is Foster playing against type and doing so with total commitment.

Other contemporaries of Foster’s already had or were in the midst of playing parts which focused on women in masculinized offices. In 1987, Holly Hunter depicted a professional woman in a workplace setting in a romantic comedy which wondered which of her coworkers she’d end up with; in 1988, Melanie Griffith gave us a woman trying to break into Manhattan’s business world in a romantic comedy which wondered if she’d end up with her boss. (9 to 5 put women of a different generation under the gun some years earlier, but the inherent lunacy of that movie makes it feel a little less lived-in for Lily Tomlin than it does for Hunter or Griffith.) In 1991, Foster’s performance in The Silence of the Lambs as an FBI trainee-agent topped them all, not necessarily in terms of quality but certainly in terms of portraying what it’s like in a workforce not just typified but dominated by men. There are plenty of loud shots in Silence of the Lambs, but few of them are noisier, at least in my eyes, than the one where a very short Jodie Foster gets into an elevator with a bunch of dudes who look humongous in comparison to her. This is a movie where being a cute girl is the way that Agent Starling gets her opportunity, seeing as she is Lecter’s “type.” It’s also a movie where an entire task force of men are fooled and Starling winds up at the killer’s house alone, and ends up saving the day by herself. No one else but Foster would be so viable in this role, one where a woman in her contemporary time has to break through the male mold.

63) Robin Williams / Key film – Dead Poets Society

Seven years after his death, I think we’re all still trying to catch up to Robin Williams as a film star. The stand-up, the television appearances, and by and large the lesser pictures all cement him as a wonderful comedian. There were 11 billion people who lived in the 20th Century. Out of all of them, was Williams one of the hundred funniest? Yet the movies people love him in are not, strictly speaking, comedic. Letterboxd is imperfect, but his five highest rated movies, excluding comedy specials and TV stuff, according to the service: Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Aladdin, Awakenings, The Fisher King. Excepting Aladdin, which is sort of like a stand-up routine for Williams anyway, there’s not a straight comedy in the bunch. You have to go down to The Birdcage to get one of those, and even then that movie stands out for me not for Williams’ incredible brief history of modern dance (MARTHA GRAHAM! MARTHA GRAHAM! MARTHA GRAHAM!) but for a gentle two-handed scene he shares with Nathan Lane. He is marvelous in an understated way; it’s the ’90s, it’s Florida, and by handing over a palimony agreement and explaining he’s going to move where he gets buried, his businesslike Armand is expressing about as much intimacy and feeling as he can muster up. It’s lovely, it belongs to Williams, and you can see why those more dramatic films—ones where he’s human first and funny in a somewhat distant second—appeal to audiences a little more. He was incandescently funny, but that hairy-chested fella with the beak and slightly disproportionate limbs could, via some transitive property, deliver that incandescence to his more human roles as well.

Dead Poets Society channels some of the weirdness that Williams was so uniquely adept at bringing forward. Leave aside what a mediocre English teacher John Keating is—as an English teacher myself, this is no small consideration—and think about how compelling Williams manages to be as he participates in any number of totally ludicrous sequences. He makes them feel normal in much the same way that he can make a Rodney Dangerfield impression feel apt for a genie. Call him Mr. Keating if you like, but if you are “slightly more daring,” you might go for “O Captain, My Captain.” Stand on your desks to get a different view of the world. March with him during class, but impress him by refusing to march. The “Carpe Diem” speech. All of these things Williams makes almost natural, as if even the doofiest or most poetically inclined teacher at a boarding school would be up for that nerdy birthday party energy he brings to the character. It’s a movie which thrives on us refusing to think too had about any of it, about sweeping moments and grandiose gesticulations, about thinking the proposition that truth is like a blanket that leaves your feet cold is profound. With Robin Williams, you can be brought along for the ride; his sheer charisma, even in a relatively dour role, is endlessly potent and endlessly welcoming.

62) Keanu Reeves / Key film – Speed

What a difference a few years makes. With the John Wick movies, Reeves is on the list comfortably; without them, he’d be scrapping with Paul Muni and George Clooney to get on. Like Nicolas Cage, another actor who at his height was an enormously bankable action star, Keanu Reeves is sort of difficult to pin down as a dramatic figure. Unlike Cage, whose onscreen intensity is essential to his star image, Reeves is so inside himself that at times you wonder if he’s a little bit reptilian. At his worst, trying to bust out of that cold snap to play someone undeniably earnest is borderline unwatchable; out of the thousands of performances from the people on this list, I struggle to think of one worse than his Jonathan Harker from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s just flat out bad. Yet someone with great passion who doesn’t have to seem like a sweetheart is very much in Reeves’ bag. Obviously, stoner Reeves in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure fits this bill, putting aside for a moment that Ted “Theodore” Logan is sort of a teddy bear. With Alex Winter at his side to bounce the silliness off of, Reeves is delightful. Someone going as hard in the same direction as him is a must for Reeves: River Phoenix’s ineffable languor in My Own Private Idaho, Patrick Swayze’s philosophical ridiculousness in Point Break, Hugo Weaving’s sunglasses and kicks in The Matrix. The only real exception to this rule is when Reeves is being cooler than absolutely everyone else. This is taken to a ridiculous level in a film like Always Be My Maybe, where he’s playing himself but still playing the coolest dude on the planet, who is granted a slow-motion stride as an introduction opposite a guy who’s in a rap-rock band singing songs about the bouncing qualities of sporting equipment. (This is taken to a totally different kind of ridiculous level in the John Wick films, but that’s something else entirely.)

Thus: Speed. Reeves is involved without being earnest; he doesn’t have time to be lovey-dovey or starry-eyed because he’s jumping from one moving vehicle to another, because he’s underneath the bus trying to defuse a bomb, because he’s trying to keep everyone else on that bus calm and not like, shooting it up. It’s a film where he is so rarely left alone, or at least when he is the only guy in the shot the bus is usually there to keep him company. That coolness makes him the perfect person to put opposite his several co-stars, because he is reflecting their energy back at them under a little shimmer of calm. With Jeff Daniels (or over the phone with Jeff Daniels), he has the vigor of a man doing a job, and having to do that job fast. Daniels obligingly plays the nervier cop with the busier mind, leaving Reeves to play coolheaded action cop. With Dennis Hopper (or over the phone with Dennis Hopper), he gets to overact a little bit, getting to that “I’m real mad!” register because of how big Hopper’s sneering performance is. With Sandra Bullock, he even gets to flash that flirtier side, though once again, he doesn’t have to be nearly as charming or silly because Bullock fills in those gaps for him. At his best, Reeves is that rare piece, a glue guy who can still put up 30 or 35 on any given night.

61) Fredric March / Key film – The Best Years of Our Lives

Simply one of the greatest film actors of all time, someone with a truly easy presence on screen, someone who seemed to be able to blend into his crowd while still a natural center for our attention. How easy it is for him to vie for the charms of Miriam Hopkins and to be buddy-buddy with Gary Cooper in Design for Living, or to be an ailing president in Seven Days in May walking on the edge of a knife between Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. Old Fredric March is not the key variant in the man’s career, but once his hair started turning you can find more and more of those natural roles. By the time we reach The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, for instance, March is somehow an even more perfect fit for his part than Gregory Peck is for his as a man who is deeply uncomfortable with the doubletalk of corporate Manhattan. March plays his amiable boss, the head of that PR company whose culture makes Peck so uneasy. His wealth and business acumen is undeniable. Compared to other people who fly in a stratosphere above Peck’s head, he is positively amicable, almost avuncular in his approach to the new man in the skyscraper. And yet he is more avuncular than fatherly with his own daughter, who seems poised to make a series of expensive and dumb mistakes, in that order. He has surrounded himself with a brigade of yes-men in order to insulate himself from unpleasantness. That March can so easily be both men, the decent and upright head of a company as well as a total moral failure, is a testament to his ability to play it both ways. His characters so often look at the world with an awkward double vision, one that the viewer has to make some kind of peace with and rebel against at the same time.

It’s why Al Stephenson, the middle-aged banker, married with two kids, too old for the war in the Pacific but who still went anyway, is a great character. The match with actor and role is basically perfect, second only to Harold Russell as Homer Parrish. (No shame, after all, in being less perfectly cast than the guy with no hands playing the guy with no hands.) You can imagine the younger March, the bouncing Robert Browning of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, marrying a younger Myrna Loy, perhaps like she was even before The Thin Man; you can envision him as the beaming, enthusiastic financier and generally the envy of Boone City. And you see him as he was then. A little grizzled. Rougher around the edges in a way not really befitting his elevated status in the community, and yet still carrying the old snobbishness of his position, as evidenced from the way he tells Fred to bail out regarding his daughter, Peggy. Too thin: his old pants don’t fit anymore. Above all, looking for refuge in booze. The signs of the nascent alcoholic—maybe even one progressed to those middle stages—are plain in Al, the way he reaches for it to have a good time and to dull his sardonic dissatisfaction with his old life. Only Fredric March could make us cheer for Al while he slams the policy of the bank at the bank’s banquet, a takedown he could only have mustered up the courage for because of his Dutch courage. To like him so much and to despise him a little bit too is the trick that March could always conjure.

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