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.
25) William Holden / Key film – The Wild Bunch
The 1954 film Executive Suite (which is emphatically not to be confused with 1973’s Executive Action) is pretty well short of a great movie, although as a depiction of a business power struggle the film is an interesting one, ultimately coming down very positively on the side of big business in those early Cold War years. An older, seedier class of men fight to strip mine a venerable corporation for what it’s worth, taking those assets to enrich themselves in their dotage. Standing in their way are a weaker pair of board members. The first is the decent old-timer on the board, played by Walter Pidgeon, whose basic virtues would be old-fashioned if his competitors (Fredric March, Louis Calhern, etc.) weren’t so avaricious. Knowing that the board will never go for him, he puts a bug in the ear of the board’s youngest and most energetic member, a designer whose artistic sympathies mirror his idealism. This is William Holden, who throughout the film struggles to keep his family and his business ambitions balanced, who believes in making a good product for a good price, who fights to cut through the cynicism of his money-mad compeers. Holden gives a strong performance, though it’s a film I bring up here because it feels so out of line with what we’re used to him doing. As always, he does the right thing after an appropriate amount of coaxing and shocks to the system. What’s weird is watching him be so moral about it. Again, the morality is ultimately the point with Holden. Back to his wife in Network, back to universal respect in Stalag 17, back to Ohio in Sunset Boulevard (not that he makes it all that far). It’s just weird to watch him try to be moral for that extended a period.
The Wild Bunch is as good an example of Holden going back to the right side as we have, especially seeing as it ends with the blood of a few dozen Sunset Boulevards spilled. Pike never seems like that bad a man, all things considered. He has the self-preserving business instincts of any criminal who’s reached his craggy age, and there’s the whole “shooting lots of other people for money” thing that keeps him from being the kind of guy you’d really want to take home to meet the parents, but there is clearly a heart of gold beating underneath the dusty, nearly dusted exterior. As long as you’re not from the railroad or on the railroad’s payroll, Pike is a good hang. He is loyal to the other men in the bunch, as well as to the people they’re loyal to. He cannot save Angel, who has the bad sense to do the right thing by his hometown, but he can avenge him, and thus Pike takes his three friends with him to annihilate as much of a military outpost as he can, knowing that he and those friends will be annihilated as well. Holden can be in a 150 minute movie and raise hell for 145 of them, knowing that in those last five minutes he’ll do the right thing. Doing the right thing for those last five minute while raising extra hell is exquisitely him.
24) Leonardo DiCaprio / Key film – The Aviator
I tend not to link to posts I’ve written which are the same age as first-graders, and my review of The Aviator is no different. I still believe, after all these years, something I wrote about DiCaprio then: The Aviator sums him up in the same way that Rebel without a Cause sums up James Dean. Almost two decades later, the film itself remains woefully underrated; a meta-analysis of Martin Scorsese rankings I’ve made puts The Aviator in the bottom forty percent of his work. Nor does the movie come up as often when we talk about DiCaprio’s great roles. Titanic, for whatever shortcomings as an actor he has, justly gets discussed; The Wolf of Wall Street has the Scorsese spot; even Once Upon a Time in Hollywood seems destined for DiCaprio canonization before The Aviator. They’re all there for a reason, which happens to be the reason that his performance in The Revenant is likely to go as anonymously as Al Pacino’s in Scent of a Woman. It seems incredible that someone we’ve known this well for twenty-five years could have a screen presence which is so earnest and open. (That DiCaprio the man, memes aside, is a fairly guarded individual who is a pretty good bet for a bland interview makes the earnestness of his characters all the more interesting.) Romeo and Jack Dawson, the preeminent romantic figures of the 1590s and 1990s, are both men who show what they feel again and again. Authenticity is what makes Jack different from every man who Rose has ever known, what makes him feel real to her in the way that her Picassos or Degas feel real. There’s plenty of out-and-out deceit in Jordan Belfort, but the raw need of the man to be wealthy at the world’s expense is not something he’s keeping inside; ditto Jay Gatsby. Rick Dalton’s midlife crisis, which explodes in hilarious fashion in his trailer one day, has gotten DiCaprio rave reviews because it’s such an unvarnished moment for Rick, one which is allowing us to laugh at this man in his moment of weakness while still portraying the rawness in his tantrum. The Aviator, for much, much better, is a film where DiCaprio is playing that earnestness brilliantly.
It’s not just the OCD portrayal, which DiCaprio makes so debilitating and pitiable; Scorsese may zoom out to show all those bottles of pee, but it’s DiCaprio’s weary voice saying “Come in with the milk” and his screwed-up face as he says “Show me all the blueprints.” I always return to that early scene where a young Howard Hughes, years before the airplane crash which maimed him, years before the OCD got so bad that he put himself in Q-U-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-E, talks to a cigarette girl. What begins as a fairly innocuous flirtation about how pretty she is gets technical. The smile, he tells his gofer, is so attractive because she has a short upper lip. And then it gets deeply, uncomfortably personal. What gives a beautiful woman like you pleasure, he asks her. He touches her in some place that we aren’t allowed to see. “Would you give me that job?” he asks her. She assents, and in so doing he completely disarms her and totally discomfits Johnny. As soon as she’s walked away with his hotel room (courtesy of Johnny) in her head, Howard gets back to the business which had previously been at the top of his mind. We need more cameras, he tells Johnny, and I don’t care if you have to buy or steal them, just get them. In the context of the film I think it’d be easy to read this moment as one which shows how indifferent Howard is to women, as a race. As far as DiCaprio goes, it’s just ardency by another name. Ardent about the beautiful girls of 1920s nightclubs or ardent about cameras to shoot Hell’s Angels, it’s all one and the same.
23) Elizabeth Taylor / Key film – Cleopatra
Another star who got started as a kid, following the same path as DiCaprio. First, “Aw, nice kid” yields to a stretch in their twenties of “I can’t even hear the words they’re saying because they’re so hot” to the ultimate conclusion of “Wow, there was actually an actor in there all along.” In those films from the early ’50s, the focus is clearly meant to be on someone else: Father of the Bride, A Place in the Sun, Ivanhoe. She is essential to the plot in all three of those very, very different films, but we’re meant to have our eyes on the leading man. In Father of the Bride, where Taylor could have reasonably been replaced by any pretty actress between eighteen and twenty-five, she never really threatens to steal the spotlight from Spencer Tracy. In A Place in the Sun, she is part of a unit with Montgomery Clift—those shots of them in the car together are heated through—but when the film really gets going, she yields to Clift for those scenes which would make him as an actor. In Ivanhoe, she’s the damsel in distress, although at that point in her career you can see her ability to own a mediocre picture. Robert Taylor as Ivanhoe is as dusty as any book from the early 1800s, and Joan Fontaine’s Rowena is largely ignored. The camera finds George Sanders’ Bois-Guilbert (if a little belatedly) and especially Taylor’s Rebecca, who only appears about half an hour into the picture and basically dominates it from then on. The star is clear in this small performance, someone who is universally wanted, speaking desires that the more mannered characters of the piece run from. The most passionate words of love in the film are spoken by Rebecca to a basically unconscious Ivanhoe; only she is willing to run the risk of being condemned for witchcraft by saving his life with like, medicine. The romantic links between Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine are noteworthy for a scene where they reminisce about the cuts on their wrists which symbolize their longstanding love for one another. Almost every scene between Sanders and Taylor has more something in it, either horror for the moment it seems like Bois-Guilbert will rape Rebecca or fear when he offers to marry her to save her from the pyre. Sanders is once again given the heavy lifting, as Tracy and Clift got the heavy lifting, but Taylor is giving as good as she gets. From then on, it’s more common to watch her own a film like Giant or BUtterfield 8 than it is to watch her get put in the corner. Even a film like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which by rights ought to belong to Paul Newman or Burl Ives, Taylor stands out most.
Amusingly, she’s probably only giving the third-most interesting performance in Cleopatra. Rex Harrison’s Caesar is far and away the winner in this category (which is why the movie slows way the heck down once he’s out of the picture), and Richard Burton has a stronger scene-for-scene average than Taylor. Yet there is no film in Taylor’s oeuvre—there are precious few outside the realm of silent movies which do this—which presents her as the living god, and that’s where Taylor has a remarkable, terrifying facility. Her voice does her no favors at this point. By now it’s somewhat squeaky, a little more Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than Rebecca. When all she has to do is look like she might be literally divine, a skill which is not passed on to as many people as declamation, Taylor is so effective. She is old enough in 1963 to bring some imperiousness to her brow, to look on from her throne or from atop her firmament with grim acceptance of not-enough. Taylor so rarely seemed appeased even in her friendlier roles. That dissatisfaction, along with the challenge to go ahead and try to please her anyway, shines through in Cleopatra.
22) Denzel Washington / Key film – Malcolm X
There are two Denzel Washington faces which are going to stand the test of time. One is the hard look. His eyes narrow just the slightest amount, and this is a visual illusion. It looks like his eyes are the angriest, hardest thing about him, but most of the work is being done with his mouth, in a frown that exudes disappointment, impatience. It’s a look that would seem sad, except that sadness and intimidation don’t go together, and that face is more intimidating than anything else. The other one is somehow even more intimidating, perhaps because we’ve seen it transform into the hard look so instantly in so many settings. It’s the laughing Denzel face, the one where his mouth is an open-mouthed smile, his head wags back and forth a little bit, and yet it never really catches all of his eyes. It’s meant to be a smile that catches people off guard, a form of intimidation which might take a little longer to catch the eye than the hard look takes but which in the long run is much more frightening. Those two faces dominate much of Training Day, a truly insane picture in which Washington plays a crooked cop whose entire ethos is based on being King Kong while everyone else in the surrounding area screams and runs for cover. It’s also a movie that won him Best Actor. They are the two faces which dominate Fences. They carry him and his movies so frequently; as he’s continued to make old-man action movies, those looks are what keep us engaged, make us wink back at the screen and smile at seeing our old, slightly unhinged friend.
That slightly unhinged friend is also one of the greatest actors to ever appear on the big screen, and I keep returning to his collaborations with Spike Lee to see him in that greatness. (The Washington-Lee collaborations never seem to come up as often as they should when we talk about great actor-director pairs.) Mo’ Better Blues is, to my mind, a little bit of a flop, but it’s not on Washington that it feels off; he’s an electrifying figure there even if I never quite believe in Washington as a musician. In He Got Game, there’s such power even when Lee refuses to use a close-up for the film’s big moment. Washington is not a particularly tall man, and compared to Ray Allen (who is), with only his hair able to compensate at all for the difference in height, he has to look up to the son who has surpassed and supplanted him. It’s a kind of negative, almost schlubby physical presence which is still essential to the film. Inside Man is a wonderful performance because Washington can put his incandescent passion up against the cold, frozen belief of Clive Owen and the chilly, nearing lukewarm obligation of Jodie Foster. But the great performance in Washington’s CV remains Malcolm X, in which he appears on screen longer than any actor ever nominated for Best Actor. There’s some comedy there, such as his zoot suit walk and sticking his hair in a toilet in order to cool off the burning of his scalp. But for most of the movie, he looks like you could swing a hammer against his forehead and it would simply bounce off with a hollow metallic clang, with no sign that it had done damage whatever. That’s an unhinged performance in the sense that the door is open to huge passion every time Washington is on the screen, and that’s exactly what happens.
21) Arnold Schwarzenegger / Key film – True Lies
I’ve watched a number of movies for the first time in order to gain some perspective for this project, and Conan the Barbarian, his first real leading part, is such a window into why he latched on in the public imagination. The heavily accented English would eventually get clearer, but in 1982 there’s nothing that can save that accidentally hilarious line reading in which Arnold just drops the phrase “lamentation of their women” as militaristically as he can. The action stuff he does feels a little stilted as well, if we’re honest; Arnold is occasionally playing second fiddle to John Milius’ itch for wide shots, and Sandahl Bergman gets more of the good action sequences. All the same he’s a terrific presence in the film. When you hear the name “Conan the Barbarian,” it seems like the guy ought to be enormous. Arnold fulfills enormous and then some. The seeds of the future Arnold, the one he aspired to be, are also in there. Schwarzenegger turned out to be a fairly good comedian, and there are just enough jokes in there (plus the obvious irony of a sneakthief the size of an offensive lineman) to let him run with the goofiness when it’s offered.
That sense of comedy and irony have always underpinned Schwarzenegger, even if the movies in the Terminator franchise or Predator are the films that we’re most likely to return to for pure action satisfaction. It’s there when he turns out to be a sleeper agent of sorts for Total Recall; no duh the guy can yeet Michael Ironside’s army of redshirts, and yet it’s meant to be a surprise. The Running Man has a similar kind of weirdness, given that the hero in that story is not written as an ubermensch. And then there’s the slapstick strangeness that Schwarzenegger returned to over and over again once he decided he was less interested in playing the action hero: the self-referential The Last Action Hero, and of course Kindergarten Cop, Twins, and Junior. Arnold Schwarzenegger has always wanted to be something like a real actor, someone with range, and that’s what a picture like True Lies is for. Back in his comfort zone with James Cameron, playing a kind of bastard James Bond, this one has everything. Ahnold diving in frozen water and stripping to a tuxedo. Ahnold daydreaming about laying Bill Paxton low with a single blow. Ahnold interrogating his wife about her affair using government property. Ahnold manipulating his wife into a striptease. Ahnold fighting the terrorists with his family. Ahnold on an AV-8B, telling the terrorist he’s about to fire off the plane via missile that “You’re fired.” Such heinous, incredible strangeness could only belong to Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of our last action heroes who could launch a new action franchise by being all the IP we needed.