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.
35) Dustin Hoffman / Key film – Tootsie
There’s something like the American dream in Hoffman’s career as much as there was in Crawford’s. When Mike Nichols was casting Benjamin Braddock, Robert Redford came in. “Have you ever struck out with a girl?” Nichols asked. “What do you mean?” Redford responded. Hoffman (who presumably had struck out with a girl before) got the part instead, The Graduate was an enormous hit, and within ten years Hoffman was acting opposite that guy who represented a completely different type of Hollywood in a big box office hit which was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture. This is one of the Hoffman formulas, and on balance it’s how you make a more popular, rewatchable Hoffman. Stick him with a taller, more handsome actor, and then let him act while the other guy was. All the President’s Men is an adaptation of this formula, pioneered in Midnight Cowboy, furthered in Papillon, panned in Ishtar, and, lol about the “tall” part, perfected in Rain Man. In this version of Hoffman, he is America’s favorite 1a because he does just about anything. There’s that incredibly mannered, didactic performance in Rain Man, which is so different from the anti-authoritarian dude of All the President’s Men, who is so unlike that ugly little man from Midnight Cowboy. In those movies, even the ones that don’t work all that well, he’s good at being the hand in the glove.
The other Hoffman is frequently less commercial (or at least more controversial) but more the consummate actor. Hoffman without the benefit of a Redford or a Voight is there in The Graduate, Lenny, Kramer vs. Kramer. Once again, it really seems like the guy might be capable of any role. Playing a stand-up comic on film is one of those basically impossible tasks, partly because the jokes people write aren’t good enough and partly because you’re not warmed up for the stand-up scenes with booze and thirty minutes of jokes beforehand. To play Lenny Bruce, one of the true icons of the medium, and to play this spiraling man while still nailing the jokes is incredible. There are many great Hoffman deliveries in that movie, but that delivery of the joke about the inspirational violence in The King of Kings is marvelous. The film where you find the best of him, though, is Tootsie. The running gag about how difficult Hoffman is to work with (which has, sadly, gotten less funny the more we hear about his alleged misconduct) is done so well; Sydney Pollack turns out to be as good a foil for Hoffman as Hoffman would be for Cruise a few years later. And the Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels role turns out to be the perfect kind of role for Hoffman. The effort reaches out from the TV and grabs you like the ghosts do in another 1982 film. Watching him do all of the makeup and grooming, the proper setting of his wig, the choice of wardrobe, it’s all totally exhausting, and in its own way that’s the point of Hoffman’s persona. You get what you see, and for Hoffman, that’s inevitably quite a lot.
34) Fred Astaire / Key film – The Band Wagon
The “hard work” narrative of the movie star is the sort of guff that is both true and false. Hard work cannot make someone a movie star, certainly not anymore. Yet once one is in the door, a willingness to work hard, even an obsession with it, is an invaluable tool. Fred Astaire might well be the most rigorous worker in Hollywood history. Dancers are natural sadists as a breed, and while there are probably more horror stories out there regarding Gene Kelly than Fred Astaire, the reports that remain to us about Astaire emphasize how minutely he would iron his routines into that absolute state of identical perfection. How else to explain Astaire as one of America’s biggest movie stars of the 1930s, with staying appeal well into the 1950s? He was a good comedian who could hit a one-liner as well as the next man, but it’s not as if his compeers likewise drawn from the stage lacked that facility. Astaire was not bad-looking, as far as things go, but he had a face and body for caricatures and not drawing room portraits. He was not much of a singer, with that constricted little tenor of his. Without condescension it’s worth emphasizing that you could always hear every word of what the lyricist wrote when Astaire sang it, which is not nothing when you consider the absolute Murderers’ Row of lyricists he’d sing from: Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Dorothy Fields, Johnny Mercer, Alan Jay Lerner. But no one ever goes back to the Astaire version because of how he sounds. Even his most famous dance partner, Ginger Rogers, kind of proves a point about him. Rogers could do plenty well in a film where her dancing was beside the point. Heck, when she pulls out a little dance routine in The Major and the Minor, you’d be forgiven for forgetting at that point in the movie that this is one of her great skills. Astaire only ever makes sense in dance films, or, if he makes sense in a film where he doesn’t dance, he doesn’t make sense as its lead. Thus The Towering Inferno, which got him the only Oscar nomination of his career but also gives him about as much to do as it gave O.J. Simpson.
The dancing, though, is so superlative, so precise and wonderful, that you live for those sequences in his movies where you get to watch him perform. I confess that my tastes for Astaire are a little basic. The feather-light movement of “Heaven” from Top Hat, where he and Ginger Rogers swirl in a falsely effortless harmony in a world of their own connected to terra plain-a by the world’s most curious bridge. The lunchtime tap dance with Eleanor Powell in The Broadway Melody of 1940, for my money one of the most ecstatic and breathless dances in film history. While I’m laying down my money, I think Powell’s similar temperament, that same crazy workaholic approach to spitshining every detail, brought out the best of him. That dance is a whirlwind of tap, surely an exhausting routine delivered with a blissful smile and punctuated with laughter. In The Band Wagon, perhaps the best film he ever appeared in, Astaire is absent the leading ladies of the past. (One of the better numbers he gets with a partner here is with Leroy Daniels, who is not meant to mirror him in “Shine on Your Shoes” but who is given a few opportunities to hold the viewer’s eye in lieu of Astaire.) It’s a new generation of musicals, a new generation of performers. Cyd Charisse, who had already danced opposite Kelly in a backstage musical, joins Astaire for this Broadway-based feature. When she finally shows in that red dress for the “Girl Hunt” ballet, Astaire, ever the gentleman, yields the spotlight to her. She sticks out her right leg. He pulls her along with it, tight to his body, until her legs are at 145 degrees by my protractor. It’s an enormous moment for Charisse and less so for Astaire, but it’s still his moment. It’s done absolutely right.
33) Lillian Gish / Key film – Way Down East
D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance looks like it contains the better part of California’s two and a half million souls circa 1916. My amateur’s opinion is that as far as actors in that piece go, Constance Talmadge steals the show as whatever the Babylonian equivalent of a tomboy was. Lillian Gish is mostly hidden under her shawl in that picture, and when she’s in the frame the true focus of the shot is on the rocking cradle and not on this lasting, immane vision of motherhood. Almost four decades later, that young woman watching a cradle in Intolerance transformed into a sensible granny with a shotgun across her lap waiting for a murderous minister in Night of the Hunter. It’s a marvelous transformation, emphasized by one of America’s foremost directing trail blazers and the greatest one-hit wonder in American direction. Now that we’ve all decided we don’t want to talk about The Birth of a Nation anymore, they function as marvelous bookends for one of our great screen performers of any era. Back when eyes really meant something, Gish had them. In a film like The Wind, her fearful, half-crazed expression would do the work of showing us what Westexas was doing to her even if Victor Sjostrom didn’t include those remarkable cuts to a speeding horse. Yet earlier in the film we can watch Gish engage in a slightly coy conversation and look simply like a genteel, attractive woman; through her performance, we sense that Letty had a provision of lustful, reckless insanity that was just waiting to be brought forward.
In modern terms, Gish had range. This is no small thing, for Gish came up in a generation where the greatest stars went back again and again to their bread and butter. Compared to Mary Pickford, who was very good at doing much the same thing over and over again, Gish could be found in a number of different types of roles, playing an innocent child in 1919 and a fallen woman the following year. Part of that range is in a likewise modern willingness to do stuff on set for the good of the movie even if that meant doing nasty stuff to her body. In a film like Way Down East, one of those two and a half hour epics which is ironically remembered now for like, one-sixtieth of its runtime, we watch as Gish’s Anna faints on an ice floe and speeds rapidly toward the edge of a waterfall. For the sake of verisimilitude, such as it were, Anna’s hand and her hair both fall into the water, which means that Gish was basically doing Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant before DiCaprio’s grandfather turned eighteen. Acting for film, as we know it, owes Gish a debt of gratitude as large as it owes just about anyone else.
32) Paul Newman / Key film – Cool Hand Luke
It’s tempting to leave it at “Paul Newman is quite possibly the hottest man to ever appear on the big screen in America, people wanted that real bad,” and just move on to the next person. Then I think about those consecutive pictures from 1981 and 1982, Absence of Malice and The Verdict. I’m not much of a fan of either movie—that’s true for me of most Paul Newman movies, tbh—but the performances are so different. Michael Gallagher is just middle-aged Paul Newman, tough, attractive, entirely capable of looking out for himself, a man who needs no pity. Then there’s Frank Galvin. When Newman played Galvin, he was in his mid-late 50s; this is not quite Marlon Brando playing Vito Corleone before he’d even gone over the hill. Yet he looks old. The hair and makeup people do a job on him, but it’s not just that. The weariness in Newman’s gestures, the fatigue in everything he does, the way that he lives up to that makeup and the hilarious wig he’s got…it all points to one thing. The guy was truly a great actor, and not just someone whose eyes were freakishly, hypnotically blue. (We can leave alone, for the sake of streamlining, that Newman was never better than he was at 35 or 36 in Hud. What he couldn’t have done in an environment that he let him play just an absolute scumbag.) In Absence of Malice, he’s playing a virile, energetic man of fifty, he could easily be two decades older in The Verdict, and he’s equally at home in both parts. That he continued to develop that old man persona over the course of the next couple decades, as in his incredibly funny turn in The Hudsucker Proxy or his serious, frightening one in Road to Perdition, is a sign of an actor who was still dedicated to the craft, still intently interested in the protean qualities of performance. We’ve seen Brad Pitt do his Michael Gallagher in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; could he pull off a Frank Galvin?
Regardless of your favorite flavor of Newman, it’s hard to argue against choosing one of his movies from the 1960s as the key Newman: Harper, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hud, The Hustler. Cool Hand Luke, kind of amusingly, has always struck me as George Kennedy’s movie and not Newman’s. Yet it’s Cool Hand Luke that proved that no matter what Newman did, he could always raise up the cool customer persona from the well. The PI, the bandit, the playboy rancher, the pool shark…these are parts which ask little of the actor to make him sexy. Chain gang prisoner is a harder sell, especially when the tools available to Newman are significantly less impressive than a handgun or a pool cue. It’s a little incredible that the first four labors completed by this Floridian Heracles are: losing a boxing match, bluffing in a hand of poker, finishing a stretch of road at speed, and eating enough hard-boiled eggs to stop up an elephant. That Newman can take this guy on a chain gang and make eating eggs compelling enough to create a legend, without even getting us to question it, is as simple a statement of his presence as any.
31) Joan Crawford / Key film – Possessed
Occasionally I wonder where it was, precisely, that Joan Crawford was pushed down to the level of camp after many years of being one of Hollywood’s premier actresses. Perhaps it was Christina Crawford’s memoir, Mommie Dearest or, perhaps even more likely, Faye Dunaway’s huge performance as Crawford in the film adaptation. Maybe it was that Joan Crawford did not immediately step out of the limelight when she was older, and thus, unlike MGM co-stars Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo, we saw her age. (We saw Rosalind Russell age too, but Russell was always funnier than Crawford and could fall back on it.) Maybe it was that Crawford became a gay icon without “Over the Rainbow,” back when that wasn’t a compliment in mainstream American culture. Maybe it was that Bette Davis was labeled the great actress of her generation and left Crawford out in the cold. Maybe it was Trog! In any event, Crawford’s spectacular run in the 1930s where she played a series of broads alternately tough, careerist, and spunky has been largely forgotten by the march of time. For aesthetes, Crawford is Mildred Pierce and Johnny Guitar, and for good reason. Mildred Pierce is one of the finest Hollywood movies of the 1940s and is anchored by a sensationally good performance from Crawford; for many people Johnny Guitar is the revisionist western, and it absolutely knows how to use Crawford in pants with a gun. But Crawford was, in the early ’30s, as perfect a Depression-era icon as Shirley Temple. The dress from Letty Lynton had more influence on women’s fashion than any movie dress until the Kitty Foyle, and Crawford was essential to the glamour and fascination of the dress; girls wanted to be like Crawford. Where Temple may have been reassurance and light for viewers, Crawford was all bootstraps, someone who made the best out of hopeless situations and ended up sleeping on down pillows on mattresses stuffed with rose petas. Dancing Lady puts her opposite Clark Gable and Franchot Tone as a dancer in vaudeville who absolutely refuses to settle for anything less than the top, and she fends both of them off with aplomb until she gracefully accedes to Gable. Sadie McKee has much more melodrama in the back half of the picture than Dancing Lady, but the idea is much the same; she dances and rich men simply can’t resist her.
In a movie like 1931’s Possessed, Crawford plays another such social climber, a girl from industrial slums who is enraptured by the sight of passengers on a train enjoying luxury she can only faintly dream of. Everything about it, from the servants who serve these people, to the lingerie that is totally unlike whatever she’s got beneath her cheap dress, to the fine dining that would cost more than a week’s groceries, totally keeps her attention. No prizes for guessing what this looks like.
If there was ever any moment where a movie star invited her fans and adulators to empathize with her, if there was ever any moment where a movie star let her devotees in on the woman behind the curtain, it’s this one. Lucille LeSueur from San Antonio, Texas, is not all that different from Marian Martin from Erie, Pennsylvania, and she’s not all that different from the jamokes in the cheap seats.
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