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.
20) Henry Fonda / Key film – The Grapes of Wrath
By the time he played Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West (which is not part of my calculus for this list!), Fonda had been playing some version of America’s conscience for three decades. He did it about as well as any white man could hope to. In Jezebel, he plays just about the only decent person in the entire film, a Southern gentleman who tries to escape the South only to get sucked back in for good by yellow fever, an epidemic built by backwardness that he had campaigned against when he was still home. From then on, a string of good men and true (with the odd offshoot for variety) fill his filmography throughout the rest of the 1930s and ’40s. His Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln remains the gold standard for portrayals of the sixteenth president on film, not because he is so historically accurate in Fonda’s hands but because Fonda found the melancholy in him in a way that no one else ever has. He may not be as precise a Lincoln as Day-Lewis’ doomed Abe, but that scene at the river early in the picture shows a man who really gets what was in Lincoln’s heart. He is perhaps even more at home in The Ox-Bow Incident, where he almost by his lonesome protests the lynching of three men who turn out to be entirely innocent. That Fonda, the one who is a beacon of virtue with the power to convince only a man or two at a time, is the one we keep seeing. 12 Angry Men is founded on this basis. Mister Roberts, the role that Fonda spent years of his life playing before he bulled his way into playing him again on film, is not so different. Advise and Consent, My Darling Clementine, The Fugitive, The Best Man, Fail Safe. Not all of those movies are winners, certainly, but the performances all share that spine. He makes difficult choices, self-abasing or degrading choices, moral choices.
Doug Roberts is the person who I think Fonda saw himself in most, or at least wished that he was most like. But if we’re talking about a single performance where Fonda is projected as our conscience, it has to be the role where his monologue opines on the “one big soul.” In The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad is far from perfect. The film begins with him on the road having been released from prison, and in going to California Tom breaks his parole. His temper gets him into trouble, but perhaps more importantly it endangers people like Casy, who Tom cannot save and who, in avenging, Tom is marked like Cain. Yet there can be no question that Tom is one of the moral poles of the movie. If Ma Joad is what keeps the fambly moving on, the person who understands that “we’re the people” and that we must persist, then Tom is the one who insists that he’ll “be there” as they do so, through good or ill. It’s one of those scenes, one of those films where it is impossible to imagine someone else filling that role with as much cool, great personhood as Fonda fills it with.
19) Sidney Poitier / Key film – Edge of the City
Poitier’s reputation as the Jackie Robinson of Hollywood—not in the sense that he “integrated” Hollywood, but that he became the signifier to white people for all trailblazing Black people in the field—has elided what’s most interesting about him. Sidney Poitier was, given the opportunity, one of the five or six most charismatic people I’ve ever seen in an American movie. Charismatic in the sense that I want to hang out with this guy; I want to like, be around him and spend time with him. Charismatic in the sense that I would follow him places, believe in his causes, go where he went. Blackboard Jungle is a fascinating movie to me given my day job; in that film, he plays the student who ultimately sides with his tough, well-meaning teacher. Vic Morrow’s dead-eyed performance is the more memorable, but Poitier is the one who makes the movie “inspiring.” See To Sir, with Love for more from that field. In Buck and the Preacher, which Poitier directed himself, Buck plays a wagon master who helps Black families settle in the West as far as he’s able, despite considerable personal risk. For much of the film, he is basically on his own, unwilling to put his wife in danger and in a rivalry with the Preacher (a wonderful Harry Belafonte); in the end, the two of them end up teaming together to save their hides, but there’s no question of which one is following which. Lilies of the Field, the movie which made Poitier the second Black actor to win a competitive Oscar, is another display of that remarkable charisma. Without romance, and in a setup that seems like it should be relatively frustrating—this nice man can’t get these nuns to pay him, but also can’t leave without feeling like he’s abandoning them!—Poitier does what he can. He gets the nuns to sing “A-men” as opposed to “Ah-men.”
The film where I was most taken with Poitier is Edge of the City, a film where his race is essential to the movie because it is made a secondary consideration. This is not Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where other people fear for his marriage to a white woman in a white supremacist world, nor In the Heat of the Night, where Virgil Tibbs walks into the heart of the Deep South and throws ‘bows to steal enough room to move. Edge of the City does not call all that much attention to the unlikely friendship between Poitier and John Cassavetes, only tacitly suggesting that Cassavetes’ status as outcast is solidified more by his friendship with a Black superior at work than his alienation from his family. For a stretch I wish were longer but which must end, for the sake of the story itself, Edge of the City is the Poitier show. He dances at clubs with his wife, and at home he still seems about this close from doing the rumba at the drop of a hat. Ruby Dee gives about as good as she gets in those sequences, while John Cassavetes is all of us, looking on a little bemused and entirely captivated by this fearless, beautiful man.
18) Greta Garbo / Key film – Queen Christina
People frequently wonder if so-and-so (this is usually a musician) would still be venerated if they had not died so young, leaving so much of a future career on the table. Greta Garbo offers a slightly different interpretation of this scenario. She retired from filmmaking in her mid-thirties, dropped off the map, and jealously guarded her privacy through five decades. The answer is that someone can be venerated and alive (wandering around Manhattan, as far as I know), but it requires the complete shelving of one’s career to do it. As careers go, Garbo’s was remarkable. There are not all that many great movies in her American oeuvre; there’s Ninotchka, there’s Flesh and the Devil, there’s Queen Christina, and after that the pickings are pretty slim. (One of the scenes in the John Huston Annie which made me laugh hardest was the one where Annie and the dog fall asleep during an anachronistic viewing of Camille. It’s not an exciting movie!) What I think is undeniable in Garbo’s work is the extent that directors and DPs took to photograph her like she was the most fascinating person in the world, a promise that she tended to live up to often as not. In The Painted Veil, there’s a scene where she and Herbert Marshall are having a frank, painful discussion about their marriage, and at one point director Richard Boleslawski and cinematographer William Daniels basically have Marshall cut out of the frame even though he’s still in the conversation. All the more to shoot Garbo, all the more to see that isosceles nose and those drawn-on eyebrows and those glowing eyes express their shame and heartache. With the exception of George Cukor, you typically find silent film veterans directing her in the sound era: Edmund Goulding in Grand Hotel, Ernst Lubitsch in Ninotchka, Clarence Brown many times. You can find them emphasizing Garbo the wordless text in the 1930s in much the same way you’d expect them to have done in the 1920s. I frequently come back to that remarkable image from Grand Hotel of Garbo in white on a dark floor, crumpled like a dead spider; it’s an image from an earlier time.
The irony, of course, is that for all of the conception of Garbo as a dramatic silent actress who happened to land on her feet in talkies, she made more talkies than silent pictures, and more than that happened to be an excellent comic actress. So what if Anna Christie was a lay-up for her? People miss lay-ups. And by the end of the decade, when “Garbo talks!” yielded to “Garbo laughs!” in Ninotchka, she was dropping Wilder-Brackett dialogue with every bit of the sparkle that you’d expect from Jack Lemmon some years later. I lose my mind every time when she tells Melvyn Douglas’ butler, “Go to bed, little father. We want to be alone.” The “I want to be alone” joke is the buzzy part, but the reading of “little father” is just undeniable. Likewise her prediction of the fall of the decadent bourgeois order after seeing some ornamental hats in a shop window: “It won’t be long now, comrades.” Mae West couldn’t have been funnier than Garbo in that moment. And in Queen Christina, the best of both worlds are present. The lighthearted, spry Garbo, laughing and prancing, is in this film. She’s charming as Christina, wearing the pants for Sweden as well as herself as the 17th Century monarch. Yet she is also in full force as a dramatic actor here, too. Garbo the monologuer is here, expressing a timely distaste for victorious nations which are trapped in ruined continents. And so too is Garbo the lover with John Gilbert (with whom she was never better, I’d say), a position where she was so often surprisingly submissive in her pictures. The end of the film, where Rouben Mamoulian closes in on her stern, brave, careworn face, has been etched into screen history for good reasons. They’d had close-ups for decades at that point, and close-ups for Garbo for ten years, but there’d never been one such as that one, so infinitely readable and cryptic all at once.
17) Tom Cruise / Key film – Top Gun
I belong to a generation of people who have been conditioned not to take Tom Cruise seriously in any way. The signature image of Tom Cruise from my childhood is his sofa-bouncing interview with Oprah; the thing I associated with him was his zealous Scientology; the first movie I saw in theaters which starred him was War of the Worlds, and then I didn’t see another until Edge of Tomorrow. I did not grow up on Top Gun or any Mission Impossible movie, nor did I see him in Magnolia or Eyes Wide Shut or even A Few Good Men until my late teens. That the guy has worked himself out of being a punchline into becoming a serious action star—something he never really was until the 21st Century—is absolutely incredible, for he is much more malleable than the vast majority of even successful stars. He has worked with major directors throughout his career: Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Rob Reiner, Sydney Pollack, Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, John Woo, Steven Spielberg. And yet, with the possible exception of Stone, I have a hard time placing his movie appearances with any of those directors among their five best movies. Even with Mission Impossible, a movie which is a truly great hang, it’s not as if you’re thinking to yourself, “Yes, Cruise is bringing out the greatness in De Palma.” He’s a good actor, if not a great one, and much of the trouble stems from the terrific star quality that this undersized dude whose teeth aren’t properly aligned in his head still brings to the fore. He is always Tom Cruise, first and foremost; it is almost impossible to think the name of the character rather than the name “Tom Cruise” when you watch him do basically anything. Some directors learned to manage that; I’d say De Palma did, and Kubrick weaponized it. But it’s a ball and chain for other directors, including Spielberg, whose collaborations with Cruise would have been more powerful if they’d replaced him with a 21st Century Richard Dreyfuss.
It’s the genre directors who I think have found the best in Cruise, the most dynamic and thrilling version of this guy who could make petulance look as cool as an autumn morning. Christopher McQuarrie, now the Mission Impossible guy, has helped us to rediscover Cruise as an action star. Doug Liman spoofs on the fake everyman bit in just the right amount for Edge of Tomorrow, a movie I cherish. But before them, there was Tony Scott, who put Tom Cruise in the Tomcat for Top Gun. Top Gun was made for Cruise. That same embarrassing quality that got him bouncing up and down on the couch at the thought of Katie Holmes is the same quality that makes Maverick the idol of teenage boys even into the present day. (Or, at least, their dads.) He is too eager to be the best in his class, and he is so quick to dash together an elaborate pickup or lead a bar in karaoke. His actions are drenched in the immense musical cheesiness of Berlin and Kenny Loggins. He may not be as magnetic in that homoerotically charged volleyball game as Val Kilmer, but he is absolutely still there smacking the ball around. He gestures to a slightly ingrown audience, saying to them that if you are as histrionic and wild as me, you can still be cool. (Being able to fly a fighter jet solves a lot of potential problems, but the point stands nonetheless.)
16) Judy Garland / Key film – A Star Is Born
I don’t think it’s right to say that Judy Garland was presented as a sexless person in her movies, but I don’t think she ever made for a particularly dynamic romantic lead. In her Andy Hardy appearances, Judy Garland punts to Ann Rutherford often as not, and in the one scene where it looks like she and Andy might be reaching across that aisle, it’s still totally impermanent. The least convincing parts of Meet Me in St. Louis occur opposite Tom Drake. In a slightly later film with Rooney, Girl Crazy, Garland was in her early twenties, and the object of affection for the many male undergrads of a western A&M. It never fits her well; she’s much more at home in the final sequence of the film, one of those big dance send-offs which punctuated the ’30s musicals that Girl Crazy had bred in its bones. There’s romance in her pictures with Rooney, Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, Fred Astaire, but she was not a great romantic player. Romance suffused with the buoyancy that Garland was capable of, the great energetic cheerfulness that she was so terrific at portraying, is not often that interesting. In Summer Stock there’s a credible romantic tension between herself and Kelly, but she is so much more fun when she’s waving to the neighbors from atop her new tractor. The proof of the pudding is in the eating; who’s her romantic opposite number in The Wizard of Oz?
Granting that premise, and without needing to say much more about her singing voice other than “it’s arguably the greatest talent ever to make it into a movie,” the film that seems most important to her is A Star Is Born. The romantic angle is set aside for a kind of saintly love and affection that once-Esther Blodgett/Frances Gumm displays as Vicki Lester/Judy Garland, a forbearance from total condemnation of the James Mason character, of pity for his shortcomings. It’s a lengthy movie, but the romance itself is fairly small, frequently subsumed by a Garland song-and-dance routine. The way that James Mason grooms Garland in the movie is not quite romantic either, beginning, as it does, as a business pairing before it becomes a marriage pairing. If there is something romantic about Garland in the film, it’s in “The Man That Got Away,” a number which allows us to believe in the kind of soul-blending passion that would make Esther change herself because of one man.