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.
55) Viola Davis / Key film – Widows
Davis has been in movies for twenty-five years now, although if it seems like less time than that it’s because practically speaking it’s been less time than that. Just run down her list of credits on IMDb and you see a number of those nameless roles (even if they come with names) for people who basically fill in blanks. A criminal’s girlfriend in Out of Sight, a figure on a parole board in Ocean’s Eleven, a police officer in Kate and Leopold, a mom in the hospital in World Trade Center, and so on. The girlfriend in Out of Sight is sort of an outlier; even in those roles where she was little more than an extra, Davis never seemed like she wasn’t entirely confident, hugely self-contained, intense to the point of brooding. Then there was Doubt, a film which I guess is supposed to be built around an extremely powerful argument between Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman but, let’s face it, all but ends after Viola Davis shows up for a scene and says, “It’s just ’til June.” I don’t typically have such a great recall of the first time I saw an actor unless the performance from some childhood favorite. I have never forgotten where I first realized who Viola Davis was. It remains one of the highlights of my movie-watching life. The dialogue is pretty good. I’ve been impressed by the dialogue when I’ve taught it and I’ve been impressed by the dialogue when I’ve seen it performed. That scene is enormous because of what Davis gave to it.
Since then, watching her ability to freeze the screen has been one of the frequent joys of the last decade. She is the best part of Fences, the one piece of that puzzle who is trying to fit into a movie instead of a filmed play. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, another movie that feels an awful lot like a filmed play, Davis is giving the finest performance by a pretty wide margin. Watching her almost feels like a hateful experience. She is against, against, against, and it takes stamina to build a performance that is so tacitly pointed against the rest of the world of the film. Ma Rainey has learned that if you want something, especially as a Black woman reliant on white men to put your records out there, you have to be utterly indomitable, entirely uncompromising. It’s stunning work, but there’s only one Davis picture which I am a true partisan for. Widows hands off to other actors a little bit more than a film like Ma Rainey’s, a decision which is backed up by what Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Elizabeth Debicki are doing in the picture (let alone the male actors in the group). The center of it is supposed to be Davis, though, and that means fewer opportunities for screen-freezing and more opportunities for the kind of introspection that I kind of hope studios will pony up for in her case. Davis can still make the frame get icy cold—think about the way she handles that initial scene opposite Rodriguez and Debicki, demanding their obedience based on her stronger financial situation and her will to take control—but it’s a movie where she melts the frame as well. That smile she shares at the end with Debicki is a brand new Davis, proof of her ability to keep evolving in the same way she’s evolved from extra to Oscar winner.
54) Mary Pickford / Key film – Tess of the Storm Country (1914)
By the early 1930s, Mary Pickford had not merely aged out of the “girl with the curls” persona which had made her one of the most bankable and beloved movie stars in America for something like fifteen years. She was out of acting, too. Secrets, a film where she starred opposite Leslie Howard, is a far cry from Pollyanna or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Coquette, which won Pickford the second Best Actress statuette, is likewise quite different from the films of her heyday, although her performance is not all that different even with the addition of her voice. There’s a lot of the same kind of posturing that only makes sense in a silent movie, and her declamation in key scenes is truly hammy stuff. You can see why Pickford did not make Garbo’s leap, in other words, even though I’m sure Garbo’s transition was more likely to make anxious executives bite their nails. You know what they say about God and his tricky sense of humor about doors and windows; it’s not entirely a coincidence that the year after Pickford had stepped out of the spotlight, Shirley Temple’s first big hit, Bright Eyes, was released.
A film like Pickford’s first go-round with Tess of the Storm Country is a good place to start in her voluminous filmography. Edwin S. Porter was significantly less adventurous than D.W. Griffith was at the same time in his career, and I imagine Pickford probably felt that difference a little bit, acting more in the tableau style which had been popular in Porter’s prime. All the more reason to focus on Pickford, then. While the film does have other major players in it—Pickford’s faithless friend Teola, who passes off her child to Pickford’s Tessibel in order to maintain her social position, is played by Olive Carey—there are times when it feels like Pickford is the only person you might even put your attention on. She is not playing a pure innocent in this film; she can and does fall in love, there’s the business of the baby she raises, and there’s some populist rhetoric in there that Tess helps foster. She’s still a girl, though, or at least young. In one sequence, Tess’ father comes home and she hides out of sight and then leaps onto his back like someone a quarter of her age might do. The curls do much of that work for her, whether they’re being scrubbed into cleanliness so that they don’t look quite so much like sausages onscreen, or whether they’re hanging off her while she hangs off her dad.
53) Buster Keaton / Key film – Sherlock, Jr.
Buster Keaton is the guy I look at on this list who makes me say, “How on earth is he so low? What’s wrong with the uncultured swine who made this list?” At publication, I can at least answer that a little bit, although if you reach back in your brain I’m sure you could reach much the same set of conclusions I’ve reached. Who are you going to muscle aside so Keaton can move further up? There are checkpoints further in this process for me, but Keaton, whose greatness is primarily centered on a decade of almost peerless features. As would have been the case for Harold Lloyd and as will, spoilers, be the case for Charlie Chaplin, Keaton’s authorship over his own films makes it a little harder to separate actor from auteur. It may be that I’m underestimating him for that reason, or maybe it’s not fair of me to let the Fatty Arbuckle shorts fade out of my primary arithmetic. Or maybe it’s just a crowded world up above, and it hurts me to not be able to find a top-half placement for Keaton because he is absolutely my favorite silent-era performer.
In the movies, which are what matter anyway, the persona is much the same each time out. The sad-eyed, slightly shrimpy Keaton—he was of below-average height even in his own time—tries to get the attention of some girl. She is attractive, usually even kind, but her attentions for him are thwarted by some meatier guy who has already laid a claim on the little lady. I’ve never found Keaton all that funny, exactly, although he was capable of reaching back for that belly laughter from time to time. I think about his bathing suit mishaps in The Cameraman, for example, which are almost effortlessly funny; the qualities of the physical comedian are emphatically there. Yet there is an irony in Keaton’s best movies, a disconnect between how much stuff his characters do which would be front page gonzo material and how little of it anyone witnesses. Take Sherlock, Jr., which is more original and daring in forty-five minutes than whole studios have been in decades. Keaton’s the one who is speeding accidentally on a merciless motorcycle, unable to stop it or slow it down, and who takes it across some train tracks while a locomotive is bearing down at full speed on his position. The way he puts his hands over his ears when he sees it…it’s funny, but not until the fifth time you’ve seen it. The fourth time you’re still waiting for the train to hit him and his guts to splatter the camera. It would no doubt impress the girl he’s after, but alas, Kathryn McGuire is nowhere to be found.
52) Kirk Douglas / Key film – The Bad and the Beautiful
Not every star actor of the 1950s made his way by being mighty and muscly, a fact proven by the existence of Jimmy Stewart and Monty Clift. Nor did every star actor of the 1950s get there by being extravagantly handsome, proven by Jerry Lewis and Glenn Ford. But to be mighty, muscly, and extravagantly handsome was certainly not a losing set of qualities in the 1950s. It would take until the late ’70s and early ’80s to see another movie star in the mold of Kirk Douglas, and even then I don’t think Stallone or Ahnold ever reached the level that Douglas was capable of attaining. Even in his own time, someone like Rock Hudson was never the actor that Douglas was, never really had the range to play more dangerous or curious roles. Only Burt Lancaster, a frequent Douglas costar, could play in that same basic territory, and even then Lancaster’s roles tended more towards the psychological. In other words, Kirk Douglas was not literally in a class by himself during the peak of his career, but he was darn close to it. You could expect his passion, his ferocity, his strength, and more than that you could expect to see those qualities in a good man. People will mention Spartacus first, and for good reason, but I have a long-running fondness for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a film where Douglas’s Ned Land is very much the earthiest of the seafaring group. Ned also turns out to be the hardest one to indoctrinate into Nemo’s cultlike realization of the world where he is an avenging angel taking out his frustration on wooden ships with a nuclear submarine. When Aronnax falters and rationalizes Nemo’s actions, only Ned can summon up the empathy for the people who Nemo has killed without benefit of trial or pity. He may be brimming over with muscles, but his conscience is not far from overflowing itself.
In roles where his physical strength is less important, like Paths of Glory or Seven Days in May, his will takes the place of his brawn. He is intractable in his beliefs in those films, totally unwavering in his devotion to truth, or duty, or country. If he had come of age in the 1990s rather than the 1940s, though, I think we may have seen more of his style in The Bad and the Beautiful instead. Jonathan Shields is as committed to his goal of becoming a great Hollywood mogul as Colonel Dax is committed to protecting his soldiers. The difference is plain, though. Shields turns out to be the kind of man who rends his way through tricky situations, preferring to cut a knot rather than untangle it. When he gets the opportunity to make something with a real budget for the first time, he cuts out his best friend, a director who had come up with him through the business. When he wants a starlet, he seduces her, sends her in front of the camera, and drops her after she gives a brilliant performance. When he wants a writer, he chooses not to seduce the writer’s wife himself; he gets an actor to do it for him. At every turn, Shields is almost terrifying in his devotion to his own cause made holy with his obsession for it. That the cause is only himself might be something that would give lesser men pause, but in Douglas’ hands, Shields is played as a brilliant individual whose egotism is the primary power source for it. It’s an unusual movie, one where three other people are cast as the main characters in their own sections, but who in truth were always supporting characters as long as Shields was in their lives and pushing the buttons. It’s a performance where Douglas shakes up those other ingredients headlining his more moral roles and turns it into a completely different kind of meal.
51) Jane Fonda / Key film – The China Syndrome
If the Jane Fonda exercise tapes were eligible as films, I think she’d have to be a top-30 star. They remain an interesting place to start, because for a certain kind of woman, Fonda is a polestar. Never just a tax-and-spend or New Deal Democrat in the model of her father, say, Fonda has always pushed a little bit further to the left of the Democratic Party. She’s well-educated, well-connected. She has a sense of how to get what she wants, of how to seize on a common interest or concern and explode it into something huge; I wonder if she wouldn’t have been a hugely successful entrepreneur if her interests had led her that way instead. Thus the workout tapes, which she always intended to use to fund her political activism rather than just making money off of them for her own sake. She saw what women, primarily, were after in the ’80s, and with a more palatable image for that kind of woman than the Hanoi Jane imagery of a decade before, she made a great success. There’s an aimlessness in the ’60s comedies she’s in, no matter how good or how goofy she is in them. Be it Barefoot in the Park or Cat Ballou, they just don’t feel quite right for her. Fonda, at her best (or at least at her most, if you’re a huge Neil Simon fan or something), is a politics-forward star in the way that John Wayne was capable of being a politics-forward star. The best of her is in Klute, one of the great leaps forward in portraying sex workers, and in Coming Home as the wife of a Marine and lover of a disabled Vietnam vet. Fonda’s performances in those pictures are absolutely brilliant; few performers ever lived up to a part the way she has.
The China Syndrome centers her more than Klute or Coming Home center her, and it’s why I find myself more interested in that as a key picture in her career. Michael Douglas is there to be edgy and nervy, to feed the anxiety of the piece. Jack Lemmon drives the plot. But as Kimberly Wells, the reporter who can feel that there’s more to the SCRAM than anyone at the nuclear power plant or her bosses at the news station will cop to, Fonda emphasizes the fundamental suspicion of one of the final great leery thrillers of the decade. There’s a doggedness in her pursuit of Lemmon’s character, a pursuit which is basically in search of answers. Like so much of her audience must have wanted to do every day, Fonda continually asks about what the jargon means, who she can talk to find out more, why she’s being stonewalled. And at the end, she has the answer about Ventana, an answer she can provide to her viewers (“He was about to present evidence that this plant should be shut down”) before she almost cynically provides a caveat: “I’m sorry, I’m not very objective.” It’s one of the film’s better scenes, and it’s proof that in the end this is Fonda’s movie, a way for her to pass on a message of skepticism and accountability to all of us in the dark.