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.
50) Steve McQueen / Key film – The Great Escape
The “Steve McQueen is cool” connection is overwhelmingly the one that people make about him, although what makes him cool is discussed far less often. It’s not that McQueen wins all the time. In The Cincinnati Kid, he loses big, as publicly and painfully as any gambler can lose. In The Great Escape, he’s recaptured. And it’s not that he’s just wronged and invincible once he’s wrong; Steve McQueen was not John Wick. In Bullitt, often given as the essential McQueen, the film makes it fairly clear that if he’d handled his business better with that witness, he wouldn’t have to go on this car chase through most of San Francisco. In a movie where he’s basically right all the time, like The Towering Inferno, he’s not particularly interesting. It’s a good performance, but Paul Newman’s haunted architect or Jennifer Jones’ slightly saintly old lady are both much more engaging; heck, even O.J. Simpson saving a cat has more panache than McQueen intoning about the importance of fire safety, extolling the heroism of firefighters, and generally lamenting on the arrogance of Man. What makes McQueen cool is that he does things his way. It doesn’t always work out. He could compromise and let Shooter deal him good hands and win a career-defining poker game. He could wait out the war rather than take a chance on escape. He could let the feds take over the case and support them. Shoot, he could leave fighting the Blob to the military. But he doesn’t. Steve McQueen was heroic because he wasn’t going to let someone else dictate terms to him, and that, more than victory or infallibility, makes a person cool.
This is The Great Escape in a nutshell. McQueen’s Hilts doesn’t spend a lot of time sacrificing himself for the greater cause being pushed by Bartlett or Ramsey. He spends most of his time getting thrown in the jail’s jail, earning himself the sobriquet “Cooler King,” which is accidentally on the nose; he kills time in there by fielding a baseball off the walls of his cell. Deciding after the death of a near friend that he can give more of himself to Bartlett’s plan, he does some scouting for the group—reconnaissance on his own recognizance—before leading Nazi troops on a somewhat less than merry motorcycle chase. I like the Bullitt chase fine, but McQueen’s willingness to do his own stunts puts him in that category of daredevils alongside antecedents like Buster Keaton and descendants like Tom Cruise. I love that McQueen is visible the whole way through that motorcycle chase, that we get to see every bit of his body control and facial expressions. We’ve gotten to see him be brave as much as anyone else in the film up to that point, but we’ve never been given such a clear sense that he’s the wildest man in the whole group before, all the while wearing the calmest expression.
49) Faye Dunaway / Key film – Network
You know how Francis Ford Coppola directed three movies between 2007 and 2011 and no one said anything about it? Faye Dunaway’s career from the 1980s on has kind of been like that. I have heard of exactly seven of the films she did after Mommie Dearest, and I have seen exactly none of them. Dunaway is here because, with many apologies to Ellen Burstyn and a number of people who had outstanding shorter stretches, she is the most important actress America had in the 1970s. The combination of great films and great performances is historic. A disturbing and perpetually horrifying Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown. A woman with a serious case of Stockholm syndrome in Three Days of the Condor. And above all, Diana Christiansen in Network, one of the best performances that anyone in the world gave in a movie in the 1970s. Dunaway is a lunatic in this movie, and Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay shovels her as many lines as she can possibly get out in her time on screen. In the years since the film was released, her performance has increasingly taken over as the most remembered one from Peter Finch’s Howard Beale. Diana has become emblematic of the unfortunately masculinized tendencies that successful women have had to play to in order to rise up in the business world; in the boys’ world of television, she has had to be far more dynamic (and that much more ruthless) in order to play with Frank Hackett. Dunaway also imbues Diana with the workaholic, frenzied tendencies of the successful business executive. Having acceded to such a high office, Diana is fearless about trying to accede to the next high office, yet pretends a certain diffidence when her personal life has to be sacrificed for the greater heights of her career. When Frank asks Diana if there’s “something going on between you and Schumacher,” she replies with a deep sigh: “Not any more.” It’s as close to human as Dunaway makes this bolt of lightning in charge of programming.
48) Jean Arthur / Key film – The Talk of the Town
Another performer who, like Dunaway, has made this list on the incredible strength of a decade or so of work. Unlike Dunaway, who exploded onto the scene with Bonnie and Clyde and then stayed at a fever pitch for the next dozen years, Arthur took about a dozen years to finally find her niche. Arthur is a true rarity in Hollywood history, a star who was active throughout most of the 1920s but who only took off in the 1930s. There’s not an incandescent role for Arthur in the way that there was a Diana Christiansen for Dunaway, but Arthur probably had the more even set of performances. From 1935, when she made The Whole Town’s Talking opposite Edward G. Robinson, to 1943, when she was in The More the Merrier, it’s hard to find missteps. (Given that she finished her career with A Foreign Affair, one of Billy Wilder’s more underrated movies, and a last ride with George Stevens in Shane, it’s safe to say that she’s had a better sense of an ending than Dunaway. Then again, few stars have hated being a Hollywood star more than Arthur, and it’s pretty clear she was more than ready to be done with the business by the end of World War II.) Arthur popped up again and again in movies which weren’t particularly about the women who appeared in them. There were the Capra films, where she is less important than Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Jimmy Stewart in both You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In The More the Merrier, she juggles Charles Coburn and Joel McCrea; in The Talk of the Town, Cary Grant and Ronald Colman. She is almost a nagging wife in Only Angels Have Wings, a film which affirms Grant’s manliness the year after he jumped in the air after telling a shocked woman he “just went GAY all of a sudden!” in Bringing Up Baby. Even when she’s ostensibly the lead in the story, as she was in the Stevens comedies of the early ’40s, you can still see her serving up bits to the men in the pictures. We wait for her to go over to Jimmy Stewart’s side in Mr. Smith and watch her ping-pong between more compelling and political men in The Talk of the Town. A movie like A Foreign Affair at least has the grace to be about Arthur’s scrupulous and by-the-book congresswoman who is charmed by a soldier with Marlene Dietrich on the sly. In the spotlight, Arthur’s feigned daffiness and very real eye for detail both reveal themselves to lovely effect. If she had been born in 2000 instead of 1900, there’s no doubt that she would have had more opportunities to center herself in the films she played in, and no doubt that she would have been outstanding in so doing.
Seeing as that woman in the middle was her sweet spot—heck, she’s even kind of stuck there in Shane—choosing her key part is basically a question of choosing which romantic triangle you like her in most. The Talk of the Town is a somewhat uneven comedy, especially because there are long stretches where it’s much more political drama than late screwball. Ronald Colman is very good as the patrician law professor with an eye on the Supreme Court, and Cary Grant is miscast as the pinko agitator. What ties the film together is Jean Arthur’s performance as a well-meaning woman who grew up with Grant’s Leopold and who is enraptured by Colman’s Michael. Nora is irresistible in that way Arthur could be. Attractive, a little easily flustered, keen, and persistent, Nora probably ends up with the wrong guy (or, I suppose, I’m overreacting to Grant’s performance). As for Arthur, she is so easy to root for, and how easy it is to want to see things turn out right for her makes it easier to like the prickly, difficult men she’s playing opposite. If nothing else, she had a way of wearing men’s striped pajamas that could be altogether hilarious.
47) Robert Redford / Key film – All the President’s Men
No one else does dialogue with that little beat in front of it the way that Redford does. In All the President’s Men, there’s that delightful line reading where a source is addressing Woodstein about Democrats attacking the president. Dustin Hoffman’s Bernstein, perpetually against everything, assures him that he’s not pro-Democrat. Then Redford’s Woodward. The beat. “And I’m a Republican.” In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a rapidfire argument between Paul Newman and Redford culminates the same way, but louder. The conversation is more famous for what Newman says to Redford, one of the great lines of dialogue in movie history (“The fall‘ll probably kill you!”) but it’s also a wonderful example of Redford’s timing. What’s the matter with you? Butch asks Sundance, and Sundance, beat, “I CAN’T SWIM.” Like Grace Kelly, Redford may have gotten in the door or been able to apply that extra layer of je ne sais quoi because he was hot. And like Kelly was a great actor, so too was Redford. What a gift he had with dialogue, the way his clear, smooth voice was even more successful in short sentences than he was in monologues, the sense that he was always really listening to what the other person in the conversation was saying. There are so many films from the height of his career where you saw him opposite another star and knew it would work. He was great next to more arch, histrionic actors like Faye Dunaway and Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand because of his ability for understatement. Next to Paul Newman, a man somehow even more beautiful than him and nearly as lithe a physical presence, Redford was boldface type, a line on paper drawn over with another equally strong line. Somewhere up there he must have known he could be generous with the screen.
There would be other great roles for Redford even after he started directing—I would trade his entire filmography as a director for just three or four more good roles in the ’80s and ’90s—but one of the last iconic ones is his part in All the President’s Men. It’s a film which is endlessly talky, and maybe the most brilliant thing about William Goldman’s screenplay is how accessible it makes a fairly dense scandal with a lot of names and things to keep track of. In that kind of movie, Redford is extraordinary. He leads one of the great one-handed scenes in American movies when he gets on the phone with a couple people at the same time while his coworkers at the Post are all dying to see the news on Thomas Eagleton. That last botched goodbye with Ken Dahlberg (“Mr. MacGregor…Mr. Dahlberg! I’m sorry, thank you very much”) is a mistake. You won’t find it in Goldman’s screenplay, but it’s such a wonderful moment that they kept that take for the picture. Redford is so natural there because he’s made the mistake, but he’s not all that much less natural when he’s having it out with Hal Holbrook in a parking garage or mumbling unhappily to Jason Robards.
46) Eddie Murphy / Key film – Coming to America
Do you ever just sit around and think about how Eddie Murphy is only sixty years old? No single actor brought audiences to theaters like Eddie Murphy did in the 1980s, and yet he had a fairly late start, only getting to use eight years out of ten; he didn’t even turn 30 until 1991. Every now and then you’ll hear someone about ten years older than me lament that they don’t make movie stars like they used to, that it’s sad that movie stars are no longer the forces dragging folks into cinemas, etc. If Eddie Murphy is the kind of guy they’re hoping to see again, they’re out of luck. There isn’t another Eddie Murphy. There have been other manic comedic figures helming pictures around the same time, like Steve Martin or Robin Williams. What Murphy had that they didn’t have was cool. Williams makes me laugh more than Murphy, but I’ve never looked at Williams and thought he had it in him to be Axel Foley. Beverly Hills Cop lets Murphy stretch his legs basically anywhere he wants to go, making him just as adept at sticking a banana up someone’s tailpipe (no, srsly) as he is at not dying in the back of a semi during a car chase or winning a gunfight in an enormous villa. In an era where a comedy could also credibly be an action movie, Murphy could do both and make you feel like the action was good enough that you didn’t miss the laughs.
What I imagine will remain the Murphy legacy more than his genre crossover business is his predilection with playing as many parts in a sketch as possible. Trading Places is the movie that made him, Beverly Hills Cop is the movie that cemented him, and something like Dreamgirls or Dolemite Is My Name show off the range more, but Coming to America is, for my money, the best version of Murphy’s multiple personalities. All of the different Eddies in this one are funny. Akeem, with his head in the clouds and his eyes on Shari Headley, is so affable and clueless that you like him instantly. He is so different from Clarence, the proprietor of a scuzzy little barbershop in Queens, who is not at all like Saul, one of the frequent patrons of the place. (Saul is a truly wonderful, horrible bit of disguise; it takes a couple looks to realize that’s him under there.) And of course there’s the lead singer of Sexual Chocolate, the aptly named Randy Watson, who is barely like any other human being on the planet. The sideshow of Coming to America is where so much of the joy comes from in that picture. At his best, Eddie Murphy was so good that he could be his own straight man.