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.
30) Al Pacino / Key film – Scarface
In a world before the Vietnam War, American male frustration is the province of Cary Grant. After Vietnam, during Vietnam, that role is filled better by Al Pacino. Where Grant rolled his eyes or stomped his feet or something, Pacino’s eyes bugged out of his head and screamed bloody murder. It’s no wonder that his best roles tend to have a little something in reserve. The meme potential of “SHE’S GOT A GREAT ASS” can never be understated, but what’s great about his performance in Heat has much more to do with his scenes with Diane Venora than it does with his scenes opposite Robert De Niro or with his army of field operatives. It’s the frustration, the lingering weariness which never leaves him when he comes home to his third wife, the sense that home is just as much of a trial as the office, except without the thrill of knowing he’s done something right. Ditto The Insider, where Lowell Bergman seems like he’s one annoying phone call away from losing his mind in the general direction of Jeffrey Wigand, Mike Wallace, or any number of legal eagles at CBS. That impression he gives of clinging with fingernails is essential to the early performances as well. To my mind, these are the great ones. Dog Day Afternoon, in those quiet disbelieving moments with John Cazale. Serpico, when he wonders why he’s killing himself to work reform in a police department that hates the very idea of it. The Godfather, during the wedding sequences, as he tells Kay that his father belongs to a different world than he does.
Of course, the breaking point is kind of the thing that’s made Pacino most famous, and regardless of the mountain of meme ore to be mined in Heat or The Irishman, there’s no movie which gets so much of Pacino doing the most. Scarface is not, to my mind, a truly great Pacino performance; you can find better Pacino in all three Godfather movies, Serpico, etc. Regardless, there’s no arguing that Pacino turns those amps up to 11 for Scarface. The funky accent and slurred voice, the lithe, strange body language, the “Say hello to my little friend!” of it all, the ability to plumb even more ludicrous exhibitionism as the movie toils on. Pacino the great potboiling actor is still there, though. In one lengthy scene where he disposes of Robert Loggia once and for all, he is as captivating as he ever was, revealing a liking that Tony has for playing with his food.
29) Audrey Hepburn / Key film – Roman Holiday
One of the final aspirational stars of Hollywood. Audrey Hepburn gained her early fame being young and pretty and blithe (and to my mind, she was never better than she was in Roman Holiday and Sabrina), but she kept it because she was someone for girls to look at and wish they could become. Like Grace Kelly, the other late aspirational actress, the European element can’t be overstated. A Philadelphia girl might become princess of a rich European country; so might a girl with an untraceable aristocratic accent sweep into Hollywood and sprinkle her European sophistication about like Tinker Bell with pixie dust. Unlike Kelly, though, who was simply born well-off and acceded to a greater position, Hepburn’s ethereal, Old World grace must have felt as far away for girls from Fresno and Fargo as the moon would have. Maybe all it takes to turn Sabrina Fairchild from the cute daughter of the chauffeur is a sojourn in Paris (cooking course, new clothes, a better haircut), but no little Marjorie or Barbara of 1954 could have done the same. Roman Holiday works on much the same principal. Princess Ann still seems so young in that movie—Hepburn was in her early twenties but looked younger—but at the end of the film, the nobility is already there. When she shares that look with Gregory Peck, the knowingness of a much older woman in her eyes and her smile, it’s clear that no American girl could be like that princess. The mixture of innocence and wisdom would work again and again for Hepburn throughout her career. It underpins her performance in My Fair Lady, and even in her last role, a small part in Always, that understanding and gentleness is mixed up perfectly with the way she treats Richard Dreyfuss like he’s just another Yank in another land; he’ll just never quite understand the way things are done up here.
28) James Cagney / Key film – The Strawberry Blonde
The first time I ever saw James Cagney do anything, it was that clip of him from The Public Enemy smashing Mae Clarke’s face into a grapefruit. I was a teenager, old enough to not be easily shocked by stuff like that, and yet it horrified me a little bit. There was so much savagery in the motion, and just enough originality in the design, that it fairly freaked me out. Thus did I grow up believing in Jimmy Cagney the guy from the gangster movies who had branched out for Yankee Doodle Dandy. I think a lot of people come to Cagney that way, with the possible exception of Mister Roberts or a school viewing of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to break those up, and as far as I can tell it does an enormous disservice to how we understand James Cagney. He’s totally remarkable in The Public Enemy, and White Heat is probably his most famous performance for good reason. Cody Jarrett is so malevolent and calculating; you can see the seeds of every Joker performance in the way he shrieks from the top of flaming tower, except Cagney is like, y’know, really good instead of hammy. He basically ruins any number of character types and impersonations in other fields as well. Can anyone else claim a career-obsessed executive so much like a firecracker as he is in One, Two, Three? His impresario in Footlight Parade, who not only barks out commands and expectations like a Broadway drill sergeant, but who ends up performing in the show himself, is miles ahead of other more static interpretations of the same kind of man in the same kind of backstage musicals. Heck, Cagney even outdoes himself in gangster movies. The Roaring Twenties is a good movie and would be even if you gave Humphrey Bogart the Cagney role in that film, but Cagney makes Eddie Bartlett into more than just a mob boss. There is incredible pathos in this shadow version of a rags-to-riches story, one where Cagney slowly transforms into a dangerous man and then, amazingly, comes back to the light just in time.
In the spirit of things, I’ve chosen a movie for Cagney which is less “the most important role of his career to understanding him as a star” and more “this is where I wish I’d been able to start with him.” The Strawberry Blonde, yet another Raoul Walsh movie, is delightful, slightly small in its premise but executed beautifully. Biff Grimes is a true underdog figure, a man who comes from very little but has dreams which are very big. He loses his (fist)fights over and over again, and he displays none of the business brilliance (or taste for the jugular) that his frenemy Hugo possesses. That doesn’t stop him for aiming high; while studying to be a dentist, Biff falls hard for Virginia (a young Rita Hayworth) while basically ignoring her sardonic friend Amy (an equally brilliant Olivia de Havilland). Cagney is all of those things we expect from his movies; he’s quick to anger, immune to disappointment, alive in every particle of his body. We want to see things go right for him so badly, and because, in that Cagney fashion, he cannot slow down to see the details, things get far worse before they get better.
27) John Wayne / Key film – Rio Bravo
There’s an extraordinary argument that says that John Wayne should easily be a top-ten figure in this ranking activity; no one exemplifies the western, America’s endemic genre, like Wayne exemplified it. There’s also a pretty good argument to be made that Wayne should be ranked lower than this; it is possible (if slightly awkward) to write a history of the western which references Wayne about as much as Randolph Scott, Walter Brennan, or Joel McCrea, and significantly less awkward to write about American war films without invoking Wayne’s name once. I compromised. I think it’s fashionable to diminish Wayne’s work because he worked so frequently within a couple of genres, because he was recognizably John Wayne in nearly every movie he was in from Stagecoach on. For many viewers, it’s not simply that he was a right-winger—and given some of the truly incredible stuff that dude put on the record, I’m amazed the conservatives even want him—but that his film persona has come to symbolize a particular right-wing approach to disputes. As is the case for many right-wing cultural appropriations, any perusal of the actual thing being appropriated tends not to live up to the rightist mythos. Watching John Wayne in a film like Rio Bravo, or maybe in some of those later films from the mid-1960s on, you can see the conservative perspective; Rio Bravo is famous for being a response to High Noon in a literal sense, a “No, a real leader does compel those around him to join in the fight against lawlessness.” That it also functions as the apex of the Wayne hangout movie, like another Hawks collaboration in Hatari! or the late Ford picture Donovan’s Reef, speaks to its centrality for Wayne’s persona. Chance is a little old, and he might not have much of a group on his side to confront the Burdettes and their gang, but he does everything right to set order back in the end. He helps rehabilitate a drunk, inspires a bright kid, utilizes the cripple as best he can, and in the end embraces the woman he’s kept at arm’s length until the danger passes. This is the image of Wayne that he seems to have liked best himself, as well as the image that has been claimed for him over and over again: long odds have no chance, as it were, against straight shooters who shoot straight.
I don’t love this interpretation of Wayne, in large part because I tend to bristle at any interpretation which is that conveniently transposed into hero worship, but also because I think that as important as Rio Bravo is to John Wayne, there are so many other movies which simply don’t support a thesis as simple as that film’s. Watch him in John Ford movies and there are simply not that many roles which make him some infallible generalissimo. In Stagecoach and 3 Godfathers, we are introduced to Wayne as a basically good-hearted criminal, although in the latter film it ends with him going to prison for the wrong he’s done. They Were Expendable sees him playing a hotheaded officer who is instructed to lay down a “sacrifice bunt” for the sake of strategic goals in the Pacific Theater. Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon both make him a cavalry officer who treats the Native Americans as people to be negotiated with and respected as opposed to mindless savages. There’s the retired boxer who ultimately lets the lady navigate a course for their marriage in The Quiet Man, and the sensitive, doomed Swede in The Long Voyage Home. The Searchers exists. Surely John Wayne stands for a certain point of view these days, but his filmography reveals something much more fractured than a monolith.
26) Gary Cooper / Key film – Sergeant York
James Baldwin, though a great film critic, made his most memorable comments about Gary Cooper without actually talking about the movies. In his Cambridge Union speech, he describes that backhanded experience: rooting for Gary Cooper to kill the Indians, not realizing that the Indians are you. It’s the sentence after he says that the flag you pledge allegiance to doesn’t pledge allegiance back to you. One could do worse than take Baldwin at his word here. Cooper, by metonymy, is America. He is white America as white America wants to be seen. Strong and handsome, unassuming and powerful, responsible and direct. You never catch Gary Cooper beating up some smaller boy, but how easy it is to imagine that huge frame, well over six feet high, reaching to coax a kitten down from a tree. In short, Cooper and white America could be equivalently innocent. In the early ’30s, Cooper could afford to be a little risque. Morals were changing. If he caught a flower from Dietrich in Morocco or found himself in an accidental menage for love of Miriam Hopkins in Design for Living, then so be it. In the wake of the Depression, one could forgive a mindset that suggested that we might well eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow who could say what the stock market would do. But by the middle ’30s America was sobering up (or at least legalizing that process of sobering up), and Cooper was doing much the same thing. The commercial failure of a picture like Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, where he plays someone not all that far removed from his Euro-artistes of the early ’30s, basically reflects that change in mood. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, his simple wisdom puts the lie to legal chicanery and bad faith; in films like Beau Geste and noted Hitler favorite The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Cooper stands and even dies at the hands of brown hordes. (You root for Gary Cooper to kill the Indians…) The Pride of the Yankees might just be the apogee of the Cooper-as-white-America image: he’s basically a saint whose only sin is trying too hard and by jingo he plays baseball. By the time we get to revisionist fare like High Noon or Friendly Persuasion, society is no longer made up of Gary Coopers. Gary Cooper is still America, but he is more individualist than ever before, more his own man just in time for the FDR liberal to crawl into his Social Security payments.
1941 is an essential year for Cooper. There’s Ball of Fire, which rather perfectly sums up that sleeping giant persona that Cooper and white America alike loved to inhabit. He may be a gentle, slightly square professor of linguistics, but hold on tight because he can still beat up gangsters and run away with Barbara Stanwyck if you just wind him up a little bit first. There’s Meet John Doe, another Capra film, one which is much Capra-cornier than most of the stuff that usually gets labeled that way; Cooper, by some artifice, gets placed at the center of a nationwide movement by which people decide to be nicer to one another. And then there’s Sergeant York, one of the highest-grossing films of the entire decade in America, and on the eve of war exactly what America needed to get itself amped up for battle. The entire package is there. Alvin York is a born-again Christian, but that doesn’t mean that he ought to be trifled with. He marries a good woman; he breaks his back in order to get himself closer to improving his meager station. That he’s a crack shot his whole life is almost incidental until the previously pacifistic York is convinced that God wants him to go to France and kill as many Germans as possible. (Friendly Persuasion repeats a similar series of beats, but in the Civil War as opposed to World War I.) Throughout it all, Cooper is everything that would make a mother proud of her son. He is idealistic, though not to the point of denying pragmatic realities. He is honest, so honest that he won’t take anything extra for having fulfilled his sworn oath to his country and his army. And he is rewarded: in the end, he is gifted the piece of land he’d been working so hard to purchase, presumably so he can sweat out the rest of his days in peace. It was Cooper’s gift that he could make all of this feel earthy and obvious instead of lunatic.
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