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.
60) Shirley Temple / Key film – Heidi
A brief shoutout for some of Shirley Temple’s movies that she made as a teenager, which showcase her alternately as a remarkable comedic force (The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer) or as a true leading lady material (Fort Apache). She holds up against Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Myrna Loy, Victor McLaglen, and George O’Brien. In other words, had circumstances been different—circumstances which involved sexual harassment and exposure—she may well have been able to continue her career indefinitely. As it was, she ended up becoming Bush-41’s ambassador to Czechoslovakia after many years away from the motion picture industry. What a world we live in. It’s a great difference from where she began, certainly, although I think out of all the sound era actors on this list Temple might well be the one whose films are least seen by contemporary audiences. The best of her movies is almost certainly Fort Apache, her second collaboration with John Ford and a film where the teenaged Temple is emphatically less important than Henry Fonda, John Wayne, etc. All the same, ask those same contemporary audience members about Norma Shearer or Fredric March and I imagine you’d probably get some blank faces; ask them about Temple and people know immediately.
I suppose that as a key film one might go with a picture where she played alongside frequent costar Bill Robinson, although some of that “first integrated dance” guff one hears about via The Little Colonel is overblown to the verge of plain missing the point. I’ll take Heidi, one of the films made when she was on the verge of double digits. Temple is still cute as a button here, even if the unreasonably precious glow of something like Bright Eyes had worn off. In it, all of those qualities which one associates with Temple are absolutely buzzing off the screen. She smiles and acts cheerfully, even in situations where she probably ought to be a little more dour. On most adults her sunniness is a tonic. Jean Hersholt plays her grandfather, who is mute with the rest of the community but takes like, fifteen minutes to not only get used to his granddaughter but to develop a fierce protective shield around her. (There’s a very fine scene in this picture where Hersholt gets center stage. She is his only son’s daughter, and of course the son is dead now. She begins reading the story of the Prodigal Son and finds that he knows it verbatim from the text; Hersholt is good, but Temple is surprisingly focused for such a young actor in that scene where she isn’t the focus of it.) She is malleable and plastic in her day-to-day life; even being kidnapped and kept against her will with a strange family in a different country doesn’t seem to harsh her vibe from one day to another. No matter how many hard times she must face, no matter how many wicked adults she runs into, she never loses faith or turns bad. I wonder if this quality is the one that adults loved to see in Temple so much. Not the fastidious little curls, not the surprisingly adept dancing, not the happy little smile, but the affirmation that even in the worst of times, their children would be able to bounce back with a skip in their strides.
59) Montgomery Clift / Key film – From Here to Eternity
In 1946, he made Red River, which did not come out until 1948; two decades later he was dead. Clift’s career has the brevity by years of a silent film actor’s, except that silent film actors would have made so many more pictures than Clift did. If he’d belonged to a different generation, maybe been closer to Jimmy Stewart’s age, you can imagine the direction he might have been forced into based on his first pictures. Opposite a gruff John Wayne in Red River, he’s a shock of liveliness, comparing guns with a blithely queer spirit in that famous scene with John Ireland. In The Search, which was released the same year, he plays an Army officer overseas who seems largely untouched by the fighting. He tries his best to adopt a young Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor who he believes to be an orphan, and with the boy he’s christened Jim, Steve is incredibly charming. With Ivan Jandl, Clift shows off one of those wonderful gifts that only so many actors have but which you can see in figures from Tom Hanks to Spencer Tracy to Laura Dern: he’s good with kids. You would like him anyway because he’s handsome and sly and idealistic; because of his instant attachment to “Jim,” and his intuition about what he can do to earn the damaged boy’s trust, you fall in love with Steve instantly. These are the most amiable Clift performances by a wide margin. It’s hard to stop liking Clift, but it’s much easier to find him frustrating or difficult. His characters in A Place in the Sun (for most people, I think his best performance) and I Confess (for me, his best performance) hardly make it easy on themselves, either because of a great pulsing unsteadiness in his material circumstances or because of a profound commitment to his duty.
From Here to Eternity is the nexus of all those qualities, the likability, the unsteadiness, the commitment. Prewitt doesn’t want to box despite his long history of being very good at it, and he refuses to let himself get bullied into doing so by a superior officer and his collection of bruisers. It results in ludicrously bad treatment, and what gets Prewitt through his time at Pearl Harbor—y’know, besides the company of Donna Reed—is his belief that he is simply a better soldier than the rest of the men there. It is a soldier’s duty to persevere through any set of obstacles no matter how mean or trivial, and you can see the two sides of that soldier written all over Clift’s face and, more importantly, in his posture and bearing. No matter how many insults he has to take, no matter how bad the duties are, no matter how much physical abuse he gets, Prewitt doesn’t waver in his steadfast opposition to joining the boxing team. What drives him away from the army is a knife fight that leaves him on death’s door. When he tries to rejoin his unit in the hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he is gunned down by his fellow troops. It’s simply the most Clift movie death imaginable, one where doing the right thing is never quite sufficient, one where a life is not such an awful thing to misplace.
58) Warren Beatty / Key film – McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Many of the great stars, particularly among men, are great because they are indisputably handsome. The handsomeness works out for them because it gives them more leeway to play a role with a great deal of self-deprecation. In the present day, that’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s sweet spot; the guy who dominated every girl’s middle school locker and bedroom walls from 1997 through 1999 has room to denigrate himself. In the ’70s, that was Warren Beatty’s sweet spot, and he did it at least as well as DiCaprio does it. In one of his early pictures, Splendor in the Grass, you can see that inclination already. Bud is dominated by his father, never really gets out from under his shadow, and in letting his father dominate his sex life and letting his sister’s actions (and just as importantly her victimization) infect him with enormous fear about the act itself, he winds up more or less nothing. He pushes away the love of his life, a likewise fresh-faced Natalie Wood, in order to make sure he doesn’t ruin her with sex or ruin himself with lust for her; in the end we find him a guy with a nothingburger farm and family to go with it. In Bonnie and Clyde, Clyde Barrow can’t get it up without the help of his Freudian weapon. In Shampoo, he can squire wives because their husbands assume he’s gay. The list goes on and on; it’s the kind of thing that Beatty’s looks (and frankly unbelievable list of sexual partners) can defuse.
Curiously, it’s a title role in McCabe & Mrs. Miller that particularly stands out. The sexual cluelessness is important in this movie as well; Julie Christie was always so good at helping him bring that quality to the forefront. But more important than that is how clear it is that McCabe is a guppy who believes himself to be a shark. He tries to play the men from the mining company, first because he really seems to think that they’ll chase him longer, and then because he is clued in by wiser people that if he won’t sell his property in Presbyterian Church, they’ll take it off his cold dead hands. McCabe is a fool in a town of men more foolish than himself, a man who takes it for granted that he’ll come out on top because he can drape a table with a red tablecloth and grind out some high stakes card game with the proles. He never really reckons with how much he owes to Mrs. Miller, either; he acts as if he created the Pacific Northwest from his imaginations and exclamations like Our Lord creating dry land on the third day. When he dies after a surprisingly successful (but ultimately pointless) gunfight, the life fading from him as the wind howls and the snow blows in his face, it’s only right that it’s Beatty getting all the snow. A certain level of humiliation became him in his better roles, and few of them suffer a fall like McCabe’s slip from a roughly hewn ladder.
57) Shirley MacLaine / Sweet Charity
(I have no idea what kind of relationship Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine have with one another, or if they compare their careers against each other, but I promise it was not on purpose that I put this list’s only pair of siblings right next to one another. It is one of the funny coincidences of this list that the only brother-sister pair puts the brother and sister right next to one another.)
As much as I love watching Warren Beatty’s movies for Warren Beatty, the Shirley MacLaine of her movies has never appeared to me quite as much. In Sweet Charity, my two favorite scenes are one she barely appears in; in The Apartment, I gravitate to Jack Lemmon; in Terms of Endearment, Debra Winger; in Steel Magnolias, Sally Field; in The Trouble with Harry, Edmund Gwenn. I could go on. Whatever it is that made Taylor Swift commemorate her birthday on the Internet is probably the same thing that makes me mostly immune to MacLaine. So often, that cloying quality slips out in her pictures, the mewling that I think her voice did more or less naturally in her younger years. Yet by the ’80s, that sweet-little-girl voice had been replaced by a voice which was not gravelly, precisely, but sharper and shriller. Wild and bold pronouncements would have been beyond the purview of Fran Kubelik; for Doris Mann of Postcards from the Edge, those seem to be her stock-in-trade. What’s remarkable is that there have been thirty years more of MacLaine roles, even if they are substantially fewer and of less quality since then. Even in a movie like Noelle, which I sort of can’t believe I’m even referencing here, MacLaine has an entirely different approach in her part as an experienced hand at the North Pole who points Anna Kendrick in the right direction. Her persona has aged in front of an audience from being a sweet young woman to a prickly middle-aged diva to being something like a gentle old elf, which, incidentally, is what she’s playing in Noelle.
Interestingly, none of those quite seem to fit for MacLaine in Sweet Charity, which is part of the reason why I’m choosing that film for her. Playing a musical adaptation of a role made famous by Giulietta Masina (a suicide mission which would make Harley Quinn flush), MacLaine is roughly halfway between Fran and Aurora Greenway in time. Sweet Charity is a last grasp at that girlish persona which underlined the roles that made MacLaine a star in the first place. Watch her boundless enthusiasm in the “I’m a Brass Band” number and you can see the way she manages to put on such a show of enjoyment and pleasure and, remarkably, make those feelings contagious. So too is that feeling of bittersweet optimism that she gives us at the end of the film as she accepts a flower from some hippies and then, with a little kick and a jump, takes her suitcase and keeps on moving. I still wouldn’t count myself a serious MacLaine fan, but writing this I realize I’ve never felt so close to Taylor Swift.
56) Grace Kelly / Rear Window
Any career is going to be filled with people born with certain advantages that the rest of us are not privy to. LeBron James is 6’9″, has a powerful frame and terrific coordination, and has the kind of spatial intelligence one typically sees in advanced chess players. These are primarily gifts that he was born with, and it’s why LeBron James was always going to be a better basketball player than many other people who would become great basketball players. Like being 6’9″ or having great spatial awareness are natural gifts for a basketball player, so too is unbelievable, knee-shaking beauty a natural gift for an actor. Grace Kelly was hatefully beautiful in the same way that someone like Jeff Bezos is hatefully rich, as if she has so much of that quality that it ought to be redistributed by law. It was an advantage for Kelly, but being beautiful is no more a ticket to Hollywood superstardom than being 6’9″ is a ticket to NBA superstardom. More is required, and Kelly had it. In Mogambo, she was prissy and weak, the worst stereotypes of the well-born woman out of her milieu. In To Catch a Thief, you can see the society girl who may have been a good student or teacher’s pet in the boarding school classroom, but who would absolutely have led her classmates out to the neighboring boys’ school at 2 in the morning. Kelly didn’t have range, per se, but she had as much as Katharine Hepburn, also best known and most successful when playing upper-class figures, or perpetual cowboy John Wayne.
In Rear Window, it all comes together in service of the picture. Lisa Fremont is every bit the social gadabout and gossip that you’d envision well-born Philadelphian Grace Kelly to be. She loves good clothes and good food. She likes where she is but claims to be capable of roughing it despite having no experience doing anything like that. Those things come from the script and from Kelly’s breathy line readings. Eventually, we discover that she may have been okay with roughing it after all; her willingness to take big risks is clarified by a wee hours sojourn into the suspected killer’s apartment. All of these things could have been accomplished with Thelma Ritter in the Grace Kelly role instead of the Thelma Ritter role; after all, she was a mere six years older than Stewart, where Jimmy Stewart was twenty-one when Grace Kelly was born. Kelly’s overwhelming beauty is the key to Stewart’s character. In Casablanca, Renault chides Rick about how “extravagant” he is for pushing away beautiful women. (“Some day they may be scarce.”) In Rear Window, the first clue we’re given that Jeff is a lunatic is that he doesn’t want to give in to the charms of this ridiculously beautiful woman who is ridiculously crazy about him. It’s not such a large thing in that fabric of the picture, but it’s something that Kelly could do more or less by existing (via Hollywood, of course) which very few actors could make us recognize with such celerity.
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