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.
40) Jack Lemmon / Key film – The Apartment
In American cinema, there are plenty of people you can imagine tracking a wild animal, killing it with a rocket launcher, and picking their teeth with the remains. You cannot imagine Jack Lemmon doing that, and that’s a sign that there’s room in our cinema for a nebbish. For four decades, Lemmon was some version of Felix from The Odd Couple, the guy who worried so much. He could make you feel that worry with him, from “Boy, maybe I could use a back rub when I get home” to “I could eat a Thanksgiving dinner made of Zoloft.” The Odd Couple aside, there are certainly better versions of this character. I’m fond of Pete from It Should Happen to You, one of his earliest roles where he plays the straight man to Judy Holliday’s fame-obsessed Gladys; he’s concerned about losing Judy Holliday to Peter Lawford, but also concerned about how her need to be noticed borders on absolute insanity. (That this performance still makes sense in 2021 is a miracle I can only attest to Lemmon’s talent.) None of his nerds are greater than Jerry from Some Like It Hot. Jerry is so very, very worried about getting murdered by the mob after witnessing a gangland killing, and he’s so very, very worried about being discovered to be a man in an all-woman band, and he’s so very, very worried about extricating himself from his attentive fiance. But the genius of Jack Lemmon, what made him so much more than a dime-a-dozen nervous nelly, is also in that role. I’ll reference an even better characterizing moment than this one, but gosh, how perfect is it that after Joe has introduced himself as “Josephine,” Gerald refuses to take the hint. “And I’m Daphne!” he chirrups, grinning widely. Lemmon could always access that level of silliness from Some Like It Hot or Mister Roberts, just as much as he could access a vacant darkness in a role like his scene-stealer in Short Cuts or his queerish turn in Bell, Book, and Candle.
Then there’s The Apartment, for my money Wilder’s very best film. In a decade filled with any number of tremendous performances by his male compeers—Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo, Burt Lancaster in The Leopard, David Bradley in Kes—Lemmon’s work as Bud Baxter is the equal of any of them. Lemmon is an innocent figure, someone who makes it easy to believe might truly have been innocent of the illicit, ugly corporate culture of bad men when he first came to New York. He does not approve of the men in his office who borrow his apartment, although Lemmon’s role is a careful one. He does not scold them for taking their dates there so that their wives never find out. He does scold them because he’s not feeling well and he needs to rest after work. The synchrony between Lemmon and Wilder is never stronger than it is in this film, for the two of them understand that what makes their miniature hero is his redemption at the end of the picture, standing up to a man who’s got six inches and more floors in the skyscraper than that on him. To do that, we must never believe that Buddy is capable of the cruelty that a Sheldrake is, but we also have to recognize that he’s complicit in the systems that allow a Sheldrake to thrust a hundred-dollar bill to Fran and call it a Christmas present. Even when Bud’s fouling up, Lemmon never puts a foot wrong.
39) Julia Roberts / Key film – Runaway Bride
This is just about as high as I think someone can get on this list without a major role in a single movie worth considering as a top 100 American film of all time. (Trust me, part of me wonders if it’s fair to rate Roberts this highly while simultaneously leaving off Deanna Durbin or Ann Sheridan.) There are plenty of amusing movies in Roberts’ filmography, most of which I have come to much later in life. Pretty Woman is a movie you could show moviegoers two hundred years from now and get them to respond, “That’s the biggest movie star in the world, right?” My Best Friend’s Wedding shows a slightly edgier side to Roberts, presaging her turn in the late ’90s to roles where her world-famous smile turns into a sneer much more often: Notting Hill (British, though!), Runaway Bride, Erin Brockovich. In My Best Friend’s Wedding, Roberts takes what might well be argued as the dominant subgenre of the decade, places an unlikable version of herself at the center, and truly subverts the expectations of the genre. They find the limit for romcom bad behavior in this picture; breaking up a guy’s otherwise perfectly happy nuptials in order to make yourself feel better is, in fact, a bridge too far. But it requires Roberts to sit in that difficult role herself, which is such a bold choice. It’s bold in much the same way that Erin Brockovich is something a bold role for her. The biopic/crusader route is good enough for critical clout often as not, but there was hardly a guarantee that the move would pay off; after all, Erin Brockovich was not Elizabeth Kenny, let alone Louis Pasteur. Roberts has shrewdly guided her career towards tough women, or at the very least women who do more than simper sympathetically. It’s honed the performances and, interestingly, made her even more relatable. Not all of us are angels.
She’s not devilish in Runaway Bride, either, but she is exceedingly hard to pin down. Unless you count running off on every man she’s about to marry as a kind of deep character flaw as opposed to the kind of thing she probably could use some therapy for, the most wicked thing she does in this picture is participating in the weird dyeing of Richard Gere’s hair. Roberts’ Maggie is a relatable figure here even though what she’s doing is fodder for the features section. When we discover, bit by bit, that Maggie subsumes herself in the personalities of her would-be husbands down to the way she takes her eggs, she’s expressing a deep-seated fear that many of us contain, no matter where we are on the gender spectrum. The happy ending of so many a romantic comedy has been peeled up. A wedding is just the way to signify that you’re losing part of yourself and giving it over to someone else. This is romantic until you start changing the way you eat your eggs, and how much sense Roberts makes in this movie is a sign of how masterful she is at taking the mountain and making it a molehill for proles like us to ascend.
38) Spencer Tracy / Key film – It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Spencer Tracy started shifting into that “America’s grandpa” mode with, well, The Old Man and the Sea. In a movie like Bad Day at Black Rock, the effect is much more along the lines of “the old guy’s still got it,” which is in itself a sort of reaction to his several pictures opposite Katharine Hepburn depicting the battle of the sexes as they were in the ’40s and ’50s. So what if that dame from the circus lifts up Tracy with one hand in the middle of a criminal trial in Adam’s Rib? In Bad Day he beats up Ernest Borgnine with one arm! It is a little amazing how many of his films from the back half of his career (roughly 1948 on) have endured and built our remembrance of him, especially given how popular he was with audiences and his peers in the first half. Tracy was the first person to win Best Actor in consecutive years, and for more than five decades the only one to do it. Both wins occurred in his first decade in Hollywood, but they’re for two pictures which are not recalled much now, or with much fondness: Captains Courageous and Boys Town. He’s good in both, maybe even very good in Boys Town. Boys Town exemplifies so much of the natural, normal quality that Tracy was so wonderful at projecting. A story which is at least as doofy as Going My Way turns out to be a relatively honest affair with Tracy as a priest ahead of his time, a muscular role for a man who acts on two articles of faith. First, that “there is no such thing as a ‘bad boy.'” Second, to prove that dictum requires vigilance and care beyond what average men are willing to supply. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time with John Ford, but Tracy’s Irishness is an advantage in his roles as a member of the clergy, or as a salt of the earth type. After all, his first Oscar nomination for was for San Francisco, a movie where he plays a priest who is gambler Clark Gable’s longtime best friend. He just made sense in those physically powerful and personally charismatic roles, no matter how much he may have played on the hurdy-gurdy.
All the same, it’s the grandfatherly mode that has really persisted for the prematurely white-haired Tracy, and why argue with fate. In It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, he is as natural as ever, perhaps even a little too natural. Culpeper, who has been watching the farce of a great many people scurry around southern California in search of buried treasure, finds in the middle of the action that he’s getting a raw deal. Seeing an opportunity to get his pension back and more, he decides to enter into the fray himself. Part of it is Tracy’s relative infirmity compared to younger costars like Jonathan Winters or Sid Caesar or what have you, but in this crowd primarily built from television maniacs, he just seems a little more normal. Even the consequences he’ll face offscreen hew far more towards realistic rather than goofy. He predicts, in traction as much as the next guy thanks to being flung off a fire truck’s ladder, that as the public-facing official and responsible citizen among this group of weak-minded wackos, that a prison sentence awaits him along with his divorce. It’s the voice we’ve heard so often from Spencer Tracy before, that knowing, gruff voice which is instantly recognizable as his. The laugh at the end of the picture is a little strange, but given how much harder everyone else in the room screams at Ethel Merman’s banana pratfall, it’s still appropriate. It’s the most natural laugh of anyone in the room.
37) Barbara Stanwyck / Key film – The Lady Eve
For a long time, I had Double Indemnity slotted in as the key Barbara Stanwyck role. Why the hell not? She and her wig and her anklet are absolutely terrific in it. That often-replicated, only once-duplicated (in Body Heat, natch) scene where Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray bandy a barely contained sexual patter back and forth at one another is famous for a reason. She lolls and slumps as the leeching husband of a frail man held up by spite and crutches. I like her in serious roles well enough besides this one, too. The urgent, idealistic Night Nurse, or the bitter and sweet rancher in Forty Guns, or the sacrificing mother of Stella Dallas. But she was just better in comedies. I only came to Christmas in Connecticut during the season last year, and she was such a delight! For a film that’s relatively sedate for a screwball, that screwball feeling is as unmistakable as the smell of Douglas fir and warm cookies from the oven thanks to the premise and Stanwyck’s total devotion to it. Playing a woman who has made a career out of faking homey touches in a magazine column, she finds out that playing such a person in real life is significantly harder than the magazines make it look. In different hands I think it could be a somewhat unforgiving performance; even Katharine Hepburn can’t salvage the “bad housewife” material in Woman of the Year. But Stanwyck is game for it, and the premise so endearing, and her inability to successfully pass off different babies at the same baby is so silly that you kind of have to love her for it. She’s just as good as the woman who gets a bunch of old encyclopedia writers to fall under her spell in Ball of Fire.
For me, though, she’s loveliest and funniest and sexiest and dearest in The Lady Eve. Preston Sturges had a habit of giving actresses their best roles, and The Lady Eve is no different. She terrorizes Henry Fonda in this movie, truly giving a hard time, heh heh. That long scene where Stanwyck has Fonda stretched out into her lap as she runs her fingers through his hair over and over again, murmuring “Hopsy”…it’s a lot! Fonda’s Hopsy looks stricken. Stanwyck’s Jean is having a terrific time. She’s already starting to enjoy her little ale heir in the way she’ll want to enjoy him later in the picture, but she’s enjoying the pure manipulation more. Stanwyck always worked best when she seemed like she was enjoying herself, winking at how much she knew that she could be lovely and funny and sexy and dear. Jean is introduced to us via mirror, as she goes full Mel Allen on the sad attempts of other women to get Hopsy’s attention. What’s wonderful about that sequence is that Mel Allen comes out of the broadcaster’s booth, transforms into Joe DiMaggio, and hits a home run when she trips Hopsy and then proceeds to keep him on his knees for the rest of the picture.
36) Marlene Dietrich / Key film – Morocco
I’m fond of the AFI list of the 100 greatest movie quotes; for better or worse, it’s the first way I experienced Casablanca. Yet if I could change that list to include one quote it omitted, it would be from Shanghai Express. “It took more than one man to change my name to ‘Shanghai Lily,'” she says. This is Dietrich: sexually knowing (much more than you do), terribly funny, breathtaking. The Red Sea parts for Dietrich in so many of her movies, not because it makes sense for the plot; it rarely does, if ever. Nor do I think she was much of a singer, despite how often she gets a song in her pictures. Nor do I think she was necessarily a better actor than many of her costars, male or female. But she embodied, maybe more than any non-Garbo actor in the 1930s, the quality of the movie star. (The Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich pairing is one of the most felicitous in movie history, one where they seemed to understand each other from the first and then went on understanding each other more and more.) It’s not just curiosity or routine which opens us up to those moments where everyone else stands back on the screen and lets Dietrich own the camera’s field. It’s respect, gratitude. Thank you, we might say of her part in Destry Rides Again, for coming along and giving a fairly standard western a little hint of racy possibility. Thank you for lending yourself to A Foreign Affair, where the cavalcade of horny Allied soldiers piles up right against her. Thank you for a later role like Frau Bertholt of Judgment at Nuremberg, a part which seems to contradict the harmless aspects of her part in A Foreign Affair.
I suppose it’s just as likely that everyone was trying to recapture the magic of Morocco when they stepped aside and let her work alone on screen. Von Sternberg has her in wide shots for most of that famous scene where she comes out in her top hat and tails, still emphasizing her individuality and uniqueness while placing her in that crowd. She can do anything in that sequence, be anyone. She can kiss a lady at a table while hardly breaking stride, or she can toss a flower at surprised and titillated Gary Cooper. It’s easy to say that you can’t imagine anyone else in the role, and people do much more often than they should. With that in mind, I can’t imagine anyone else playing Amy Jolly. Queen Christina still comes with the dignity of her station and, let’s be fair, mostly runs about in men’s clothes. When it comes to Amy Jolly, even Greta Garbo could never.