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.
45) Gene Hackman / Key film – Hoosiers
Leading men can be many things, but only on rare occasions can you find a leading man who is abrasive. Petulant, sure. Difficult, almost certainly. But abrasive is rare. People desperately want to like their leading man too much; on many occasions they would like to be that leading man, feel that they want to replace him on screen and get their share of driving fast cars or flying through space or bedding babes. Gene Hackman does not invite such fantasies. Gene Hackman’s characters are, often as not, just absolute dicks. They could, if they were so inclined, choose to be polite or easy to get along with; they are aware of the rules. They choose not to follow them. If there’s a reason to identify with Hackman on screen, it’s to identify with the rebel. But you can identify with rebels who are cooler, or handsomer (so much handsomer!), or tougher. Hackman’s ability—to deny identification, defy adulation—is so special. Plenty of character actors have done it, and plenty of people who have made careers out of being the fourth- or fifth-most important person in a picture have done it. The Hackman of Crimson Tide and Unforgiven and Bonnie and Clyde make sense. He’s a supporting character, or the chief villain, or perhaps a mere antagonist. These are good performances; he’s even the best in the film in Crimson Tide and Unforgiven. But what are you supposed to make of Zandy’s Bride, a film where he’s playing the worst man in frontier California, the center of a picture where he does just about every kind of bad thing you can imagine to Liv Ullmann? The savagery of his performance in The French Connection, the obsession with the job and with his need to hunt, is not all that different from the lawful evil character of Crimson Tide. In The Conversation, he’s the best at audio surveillance and it makes him cagey and taciturn. These are characters who range from enigmatic to hateful, and yet all of them are grossly compelling.
There’s a softer side to this as well, like the singular title character of the otherwise plural Royal Tenenbaums, a man who doesn’t believe in rules or graces so much. Sometimes this is just plain funny; I love the shot of him on the fire truck with his two grandsons as “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” plinks over him, and his fraudulent headstone is an ultimate example of Hackman’s likelihood for misbehavior. (May we all die saving our families from the wrecks of sinking battleships.) The median version of Hackman’s propensity for abrasion and difficulty is probably more like Norman Dale of Hoosiers, an idiosyncratic high school basketball coach who lucks into the greatest player in the history of basketball, maybe even the greatest player in the history of sports. In the film, we watch Norman butt heads with, oh, basically everyone in the state of Indiana. We find out that he literally hit a kid at his last coaching stop. We see him contend with Jimmy to get him on the team, which means we see him fight with his coworker, Myra, who is trying to keep Jimmy off the team. The town at large doesn’t agree with his offensive system or his choice for an assistant coach who is basically Dennis Hopper (played by Dennis Hopper); his players don’t want to play for him because of his taskmaster persona. This turns into a story where Norman Dale’s success basically wins the hearts of everyone in town and wins little Hickory High School a state championship. Hackman, but the version you can show your kids.
44) Robert Mitchum / Key film – Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
I try not to cite Film Twitter all that often, but the lasting image of Robert Mitchum in the mixed-up mind of that heterogenous little clique treats Mitchum like the big brother Film Twitter has never had. He’s a little distant, a little bit aloof, someone whose standard can never really be met. That isn’t cause for dislike, though; that distance is the root of awe. It’s because he’s so much older and cooler and tougher, having the kind of experiences we little ones can never quite expect to have. This is noir Mitchum, the guy from Out of the Past and The Big Steal, and, in the unusual noir western subgenre, Blood on the Moon. This is neo-noir Mitchum (probably even more beloved of Film Twitter than noir Mitchum), so craggy and tired-looking, from Farewell, My Lovely and The Yakuza and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Of course, he was so much more than that. In Night of the Hunter he gives a performance that can only be called one of the superlative screen performances. In his sometimes shambling gait you can see a debt to Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, and his voice rumbles even more than it would when it deepened further in the 1970s. He is, truly, larger than life. Realism is immaterial when you watch Mitchum in that picture. It doesn’t matter if you can’t prove thunder; you know without being able to parse it what power it has.
The qualities that made him a great lead in noirs made him a great soldier on screen. There’s the only officer I’d ever want to serve with in The Story of G.I. Joe, and the bomber pilot who stands musing on the deck of the aircraft carrier opposite Van Johnson in Thirty Seconds over Tokyo. As a movie, I’d rather have most of the films I’ve mentioned from Mitchum’s filmography first. As a showcase for Mitchum, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is just more compelling. We get a peek into what that soldier might have been like without the company of others like him. His Marine in that picture, who inhabits a single out of the way Pacific island with Deborah Kerr’s novice, is a desperately lonely man. Left at an orphanage, he chooses the Corps as a family; then he loses that family as well. In a series of unfolding scenes, he takes a swing at proposing to Angela, which she disposes of kindly—he gets drunk and laments her obsession with following on a path which leads, in his opinion, to nowhere—she gets sick after trying to run away from him in fear and then busts his butt to get her better. It’s one of the finest performances of his career, one which is so focused on him and his interactions with Kerr and, frankly, so basically unconcerned with other niceties of filmmaking. John Huston lets the camera hold on Mitchum frequently throughout the film, as in one scene where Allison has crawled into the pantry for the Japanese soldiers who have come to the island. He is stealing some cans of food when a couple soldiers come in to sneak a game of Go. Allison gets into a high corner of the room and waits, no matter what animals start crawling on him, no matter how long it takes. Mitchum’s face is impatient but not rash this whole time. Obviously he hasn’t got his ‘druthers in this moment, but he never gives us any reason to believe he’ll snap or lose control. It’s as concise a description of the Mitchum characters as I can find.
43) Brad Pitt / Key film – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
For half a decade, Brad Pitt was simply the prettiest man alive. His roles from Thelma & Louise through Legends of the Fall emphasize a beauty which looked extremely California even though Pitt spent his childhood in Missouri. From Se7en through Ocean’s Thirteen you can sense him pushing against that a little, working with edgier auteurs (young Fincher, peak Soderbergh), playing roles with greater physical demands (muscles in Troy, cold in Seven Years in Tibet), or, in the Ocean’s movies, just putting himself further in the background of the frame. For the past fifteen years or so, you can see Pitt changing what his focus is. The attractiveness is still important to his image; by my wife’s eye, he was never sexier than he was shirtless on a roof in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Pitt has aged beautifully, if not with the panache of Cary Grant or the ice of Henry Fonda. There’s no North by Northwest or Once Upon a Time in the West in his late oeuvre. But in his middle age, Pitt has started to reckon with the image of someone who is all looks and not much more. He has turned, seeking out roles where physical beauty isn’t nearly as important as how that character shapes a legacy. Cliff undoes the Manson murders, and Aldo Raine leads the mission that kills Hitler and ends World War II early. Benjamin Button does a transcontinental Forrest Gump. Billy Beane changes baseball. O’Brien, the way of nature, has three sons. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford doesn’t paint James as a benign figure, precisely. That scene with the train robbery at night, truly one of the most beautiful scenes ever shot, emphasizes that Jesse James-via-Brad-Pitt is more an aesthetic figure than a truly dangerous one. He’s out in the fields of Missouri by dusk, or taking that train on a black night lit only by his quarry. People see James and react to him first for his great fame, amazed that it’s him. Pitt’s performance is a laconic one, wry with the obvious and intentional subtext of an enormously famous man playing an enormously famous man, someone more well known for being a name than he is for doing his job anymore. If there’s one issue I have with the performance, it’s that Pitt is clearly too old; James was the same age as Pitt doing Meet Joe Black. Before Fight Club, though, it’s impossible to imagine Pitt taking that kind of role, one which wonders what exactly this man has done to make himself such a big deal.
42) Gregory Peck / Key film – Twelve O’Clock High
Gregory Peck was being floated as a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate for the state of California in 1970 to run against the Republican incumbent. In other words, if you ever wonder where the arc of American history went right for the final time as we stare down insuperable problems that would kill any grandchildren I might ever have, it was in Gregory Peck’s decision not to run for office against Ronald Reagan. I don’t care what the voting history of your average Californian was in November 1971, the guy from Bedtime for Bonzo was not going to top Atticus Finch. I bring this up not just because everything is terrible, but because Gregory Peck is a true rarity among movie stars. Few people get to play individuals of that caliber and integrity over and over again. It requires an intentionality in the star, for one thing, and a belief on the part of audiences that someone might actually be capable of that level of rectitude. Atticus Finch, at least as the movie depicts him in the barely less enlightened year of 1962, is something of an outlier for Peck. Not only do we believe in him as a figure solid as a rock, but we believe in him even though his career in movies shows a fascination with playing men who can’t actually live up to that expectation every minute of every day. Sometimes the journey is in watching Peck come to terms with a previous prejudice, like his turn in preachy Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement. MacArthur, a film from three decades later, casts Peck as America’s greatest hero in World War II who rapidly proved himself something of a psychopath in Korea. It’s hard to think of an example more perfect than Cape Fear, a movie where he plays an attorney who purposely defended a client badly in violation of all his professional ethics. In The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Peck is playing a proto-Don Draper who has a son by a lover he took during his wartime service in Italy; he never told his wife about the lover, and when he discovers that he has the son, the argument the two have about his infidelity would be frank and raw in any decade. In the name of honesty, Tom Rath reveals his illegitimate Italian son to his wife. In the name of expediency, Sam Bowden condemns his own client. Peck’s best performances so frequently end with principle winning out, but it wins out at such a cost. It’s not just some “crime doesn’t pay” pablum. There such emotional stakes to the comeuppance that so many of Peck’s characters have to suffer through, even if it comes out all right in the end.
In Twelve O’Clock High, principle wins out again, but not without a dose of empathy served to General Savage via a catatonic episode in the midst of a climactic daytime bombing raid. Savage replaced an officer whose command over his bomb group was vexed by how much he’d come to care for the men. Sympathy had replaced discipline, and as a result the group became a “hard-luck” group which was susceptible to the worst of every daytime raid. Savage comes in and reforms the group with a brutal disregard for feelings and a pretty loose interpretation of regulations which nearly gets him sent back to America for further discipline. His lesson stick. An early dressing down of a legacy soldier from a military family is one of the nastiest and coldest eviscerations I’ve ever come across, so, well, savage that I wondered why Hugh Marlowe took the part of Gately in the first place. In the end, Gately comes through in the clutch for the group, not only its best pilot but ultimately its leader as well. He tasks the raid that Savage couldn’t go on, and thus the catch-22. Without Savage’s nominative determinism with his subordinates, there’s no way they could complete the mission; Gately would have continued malingering rather than becoming an essential member of the group. Yet in that moment of triumph, Savage is no more useful than his predecessor, Merrill. All of the quiet condescension he and his fellow desk pilots had sent in Merrill’s direction turns out to be something he was just as likely to fall prey to. Gregory Peck could do both like few actors, capable of playing Savage as he proves himself superior to Merrill just as much as he was capable of playing Savage while Merrill gets his boots off, a gesture of kindness and empathy that Savage never really deserved.
41) Burt Lancaster / Key film – Sweet Smell of Success
There’s a good chance that Burt Lancaster has to leave the best ineligible role any actor has at the door: the prince of Salina in Il Gattopardo. I won’t rhapsodize too much, but there are maybe three or four performances that good, that essential, in any decade. It’s okay. Lancaster can’t quite crack the absolute elite level of this list, but goodness knows that the range, the critical success, and the box office appeal contribute to make him as essential to American film acting as Il Gattopardo is to ’60s cinema. For whatever it’s worth, he’s also my favorite actor.
Lancaster, like past top 100 member Warren Beatty and future top 100 member Leonardo DiCaprio, was so handsome and powerful that he could afford to play sad, sad men. His debut performance in The Killers, where he appropriately plays a boxer, is one such role where he proves to be weaker than the facade makes him seem. In The Swimmer, he is not quite himself, always a little dazed and pathetic, an object of embarrassment for the people in the community whose pools he swims through; something similar is going on in Come Back, Little Sheba, where he plays an alcoholic held together with chewing gum who snaps in absolutely enormous fashion. The majestic physical presence made him the perfect charlatan or card sharp, most famously in films like Atlantic City or Elmer Gantry, but perhaps even more so the next year in Judgment at Nuremberg, where he plays an ex-Nazi who blows the procession of the Nuremberg Trials to bits with his impassioned speech about the ridiculous presumption that the people of Germany might not have known what happened to their Jewish neighbors. Sometimes, perhaps most often, that same presence that made him easy to trust when he was some variant on confidence man meant that he was easy to trust in uniform or on the frontier. There are a number of Lancaster westerns, to say nothing of his basically good Sergeant Warden from From Here to Eternity or his headstrong Commander Bledsoe from Run Silent, Run Deep.
Nothing allowed him to mix all of those elements together like J.J. Hunsecker. J.J. dines at 21 with the telephone on the table. At the table, with that telephone, J.J. is basically Louis XIV at Versailles: PR in New York City, c’est moi. Supplicants and well-wishers greet him; most are sent away cordially. He is hidden from that hoi polloi by his glasses, which are large and reflective and never make him seem like he’s anything less than his full height. The glasses are so shiny that they seem to dazzle the people around him, weakening them when it is typically the man in specs, at least in the 1950s, who would be the weakling. J.J. Hunsecker is a little bit of a con man. Manipulation is his game, manipulation of a world which has already bent to his will. The city, meaning the whole world, is willing to believe every word in his scandal column, willing to soak up every bit of the patriotic hokum he pushes on his radio show. Sweet Smell of Success locates the sickness in the man—it’s in the slightly queasy relationship he has with his little sister, who ultimately gets the better of him—but not before Lancaster has used the role to flatten everyone in his path one clipped syllable at a time. In so doing, we see him evincing the venality of a culture so in thrall to its own reputation that it’s willing to be led roughly by the nose by a man whose own reputation is on the thinnest, warmest ice.