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.
15) Clark Gable / Key film – Gone with the Wind
There’s kind of a good case to be made that Gone with the Wind sucked the air out of the sails of Gable’s career. If he was the king of Hollywood, it was not that long a reign, all things considered. At the outside, I’d give him six years, from It Happened One Night to Gone with the Wind, 1934 to 1939. After Gone with the Wind he continued to be incredibly productive, but there are very few classics hanging around. Submarine aficionados have Run Silent, Run Deep, and we John Ford nuts have Mogambo, and there’s a slightly geriatric, terribly interesting role in The Misfits, but the last two decades-plus of Gable simply have nothing on his 1930s. Maybe it’s just that he never fit in again after that mustache he wore—and not just wore, but exemplified—went out of style. That mustache works on men at the height of their lucrative lives in 1930s pictures, but in the 1940s, when the clean-shaven men took over the box office, mustached gents like William Powell and Gable either shaved or faded. I’m mostly serious about this facial hair hypothesis, for Gable’s mustache, which definitely brought together his iconic look, never does look right again after the turn of the decade. It doesn’t befit a man who might lack confidence even for a moment, which men in the 1940s were supposed to do and which I don’t think Gable could ever fake.
After all, Gone with the Wind is almost as much a paean to men who were men as it is a keening screech for the Lost Cause. If men who were men are on order, then certainly Gable’s Rhett Butler is the man you call for. Tall and imposing compared to the little ladies populating north Georgia, Rhett brings the physical greatness and desirable talents of the age (riding, gambling, marksmanship, resourcefulness, and so on) to the talents of the age that polite people didn’t talk about. Clark Gable’s eyebrows have a mind of their own, slithering around his brow while he laughs at Vivien Leigh for defending a man she was supposed to hate for the rest of their life. And when he gives her that look on the staircase early in the film, and she breathes that he knows what she’d look like without her dress on…well, that’s Clark Gable. Men who were men are able to squire the sex goddesses of virtually any era, and the list of onscreen conquests for Gable includes actresses with personas as different as Claudette Colbert and Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe. Women wanted him, men wanted to be him, and sometimes if those two were isolated, you could see Gable the very fine actor present as well. For the former, see Gone with the Wind again; for the latter, there’s his dynamic, muscular performance as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty, where his broad-shouldered concern for the men of the Bounty is blunted but not defeated by Charles Laughton’s pudgy dictatorship.
14) Harrison Ford / Key film – The Fugitive
These rankings tend to reward variety, but there’s also some consideration of what an iconic character—not simply the key character in a major franchise, but an individual who is bigger in the public imagination than what goes on around him or her in the film—contributes to a star’s power. Now’s a good time not just to remember that Han Solo and Indiana Jones are both Harrison Ford, but to consider how their DNA is in the vast majority of blockbuster/franchise leads. The devil-may-care, slightly harried Han Solo model, the guy who (I’m sorry I’m even bringing this up) shoots first, is who every dude in the MCU is written as emulating. On the other hand, the proliferation of heroes in movies and TV who are not just badasses with a great right hook but also highly educated are basically a homage to Indy. It’s no longer good enough to be tough; you have to be smart too. (Honestly all I want is for John Book to be the basis for every action-adventure star, but we don’t live in an adequately just world for that result.) That both of these guys are Harrison Ford only makes him all the more potent, even if you can find what makes him beloved tied into a pretty tight fifteen-year period. Within those fifteen years, Ford is about as perfect an action star as we’ve ever had. Incredibly handsome, but not statuesque or beefcake. Funny, with a really strong sense of timing and the most endearingly lopsided smile in Hollywood. Somehow he still seems relatable, perhaps because his characters keep losing their fights. Where is he at the end of The Empire Strikes Back? And what did he do to stop the Nazis, really, in Raiders of the Lost Ark? In short, rooting for Harrison Ford is fun, but more than that, it feels good to do it, like it’s eminently justifiable to do so on top of being a great time.
The perfect storm of those qualities is in one of his final movies which is truly special. In The Fugitive, Richard Kimble just seems like a very decent fellow with a very full beard who has gotten a very raw deal. Fortune may stop smiling on him when his wife is murdered and he is blamed for it, but it does not turn its back all the way. All Harrison Ford needs to get back into the game is (checks notes) a failed prisoner escape on a bus en route to prison which ends up sending the bus into the path of an oncoming train. From there, we get Indiana Jones but in modern-day Chicago, a brilliant surgeon who also has found time somewhere to graft on the skills of a secret agent. He dodges a more convincing and wonderful antagonist than he ever had in his Indy pictures, thanks to Tommy Lee “I DON’T CARE!” Jones, and most of all maintains that incredible humanity. Ford is so natural as Richard in The Fugitive, so natural that we hardly even blink when he takes that Peter Pan jump and comes out unscathed. This is the magic of Ford in much the same way that movies are magical, to take the totally unreal and make us say, “Oh, absolutely!”
13) Gene Kelly / Key film – Singin’ in the Rain
In that most famous sequence from our nation’s most famous movie musical, the only reason Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood stops splashing and stomping his way through the puddles is because a cop comes along and folds his arms at him. Kelly gets back on the sidewalk, and then there’s a cut. He gives one of those smiles with air to the cop, sort of a “Ha” or a “Huh,” and then seeing the officer unmoved, he looks at his umbrella. Then he shrugs at him before explaining what he’s been doing, smiling that pearliest smile he had, and wanders back to where he’s supposed to be. What made Kelly the perfect performer for his (presumably) light song-and-dance comedies is on display for four minutes or so in Singin’ in the Rain, but what made him ineffable is in that shrug and not in the smile. Peter Lawford and Robert Taylor, no offense to either, could break out smiles not so far away from Kelly’s. But neither one of them could do the shrug, that perfect in-between of “Sheesh” bridging “Wowee” and “Yippee,” a shrug which is an invitation for us to take a breath again. “Singin’ in the Rain” is far, very far from the most technically impressive set of Gene Kelly steps, but it survives the way it does because there is so much joy in what is, even by the standards of other dance numbers in this film, a pretty compact scene. We stay almost entirely on one side of the street. There’s some fun tapping going on, but it’s well short of a wow factor. It’s the clowning, the goofiness, the belief we can indulge in that there is a purely happy man dancing in front of us instead of a guy with a fever of 103 degrees.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Kelly is his willingness to play, if not an outright heel, at least a guy who is not all that easy to fall for at first sight. In a film like Anchors Aweigh, which has an extraordinarily young and awkward Frank Sinatra singing about how he falls in love too easily, Kelly is ostentatiously and voraciously tomcatting. It’s Always Fair Weather gives him a man who’s lost his soul in the years between the end of World War II and the contemporary present; Summer Stock makes him condescending for long stretches. Even in An American in Paris, a film which would have secured Kelly’s place in cinematic history as surely as it is secured now, even without the benefit of Singin’ in the Rain, Jerry is a little bit of a problem, a little too willing to go behind another man’s back and try to wrest his girl away from him. Perhaps Kelly recognized that getting to see that man humbled in a brief moment and then turn around to do something marvelous and noble is more powerful than just liking him from the start. “Stop that girl,” he cries to a full audience, pointing at the young woman running off with tears in her eyes, because she is “the real star of the picture, Kathy Selden.” At those moments, it is impossible not to appreciate him deeply; we may prefer, on the whole, to be made to laugh, but to recognize a reclaimed good boy is not so bad either.
12) Humphrey Bogart / Key film – Casablanca
Humphrey Bogart is the AFI’s top-ranked male star. This should not be possible. His name was actually Humphrey Bogart, which sounds less like a name than a collection of random syllables. He was not handsome, certainly not compared to the glamour boys he came up against in the 1930s and had to fend off in the 1940s. His voice was distinctive, instantly identifiable, but certainly not a pleasure to listen to. Yet the resume speaks for itself; I don’t actually have an issue with the characterization of Bogart as the greatest male star of the old Hollywood. After all, among men who were eligible for that list, I’ve got him fifth. He got his start playing hoods and gangsters, and ultimately transitioned to private eyes and men of that ilk. If that were the majority of his career, then I think it’d be hard for him to make this list. Bogart is good in The Petrified Forest, but maybe too overstated for the good of a fairly contained picture. He suffers from comparison to James Cagney in movies where they share the screen together. And while he’s certainly great in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, the difference in his quality between them is stark. In The Maltese Falcon, he seems to be the straight man in a sketch about crooked characters who are alternately homosexual, fat, or Mary Astor.
In The Big Sleep, you can find the character work being done, the slyness in Marlowe’s dealings with women who keep throwing themselves at him. That his final movie came out only ten years after The Big Sleep is deeply sad, because in those last ten to fifteen years Bogart was giving absolutely unbelievable performances almost as a matter of course. In the last few years of his life, you see him starting to turn over a new leaf, developing muscles that I don’t think we could have imagined him developing just from watching him as Duke Mantee. Captain Queeg of The Caine Mutiny is the portrait of anxiety, a martinet who dooms himself because of his own fears and insecurities; a captain on his ship is basically God, and we find out from Bogart what God would be like if he needed Zoloft. Linus Larrabee of Sabrina is so understated and charming, even when there’s no Sabrina in sight. Bogart fooling around with what his character’s company is manufacturing makes for wonderful physical comedy that requires no pratfalls. In The Barefoot Contessa, he plays a director with surprising emotional intelligence and wherewithal, the only man capable of looking at Ava Gardner and not spilling his seed and his brains on the ground simultaneously. And in The Harder They Fall, his last movie, old school meets new school. Rod Steiger is giving one of his own typically brilliant performances, one informed (as Steiger’s performances were) by the Method; Bogie, who looks like crap, is giving a performance out of the 1930s, and it’s lovely to see this old-fashioned man get corrupted by new money only to decide, at the end, that his dignity matters just a little bit more.
If there’s a performance by any man in American cinema that compares for pure legendary heft to Gable in Gone with the Wind, it’s Bogart in Casablanca. A streetwise American in North Africa has created an oasis of perfect democracy, where everyone’s quality is measured by how far the Yank will stick his neck out for them. (The answer, as Ugarte finds out, is that Rick sticks his neck out for nobody. Perfect democracy.) Rick hurts like an emo teenager who has just gotten the text from his ex-girlfriend that she’ll be going to junior prom with someone else, actually. He believes with the hopeless idealism of a teenager as well, with a history of getting paid by the losing side when the winning side would have lined his pockets far more handsomely. He may buck and bristle at the thought of having to do the right thing, and even his acquaintances seem ready to believe that he’s capable of practically Randian selfishness. Yet he proves to have the heart of gold we wanted him to have under all that grumbling and romantic failure. No, it shouldn’t work to watch him tell Ingrid Bergman, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” one last time, but it works better than virtually any moment in the American cinema.
11) Ingrid Bergman / Key film – Notorious
If one were to do this exercise for all film stars and not just ones represented in American movies (which, for the record, would be truly hilarious), Ingrid Bergman is the only person who’s already in the top twenty-five or so who I can imagine moving up in a serious way based on her career. No Autumn Sonata, no original Intermezzo, no Murder on the Orient Express, and of course none of her collaborations with Roberto Rossellini are in consideration here. What remains is still a strong set of films, but this ranking hardly reflects the power of her whole career. All the same, she remains as great an actress as any working in America during the 1940s and one of the box office redoubts of that same decade.
She was irresistible, and there may not be a better example than the facts of her life. The revulsion the press created around her during the early 1950s, when she had her affair with Rossellini and her daughter, Isabella, made her anathema to Hollywood. Then she came back to America, got the lead role in Anastasia, and instantly won Best Actress for the second time. It’s a part that suited her natural gift for ambiguity. She plays a woman named Anna who seems to have no more past than what she can recall from stints in an insane asylum. Some men intend to pass her off as Anastasia Romanov, escaped somehow from the Bolsheviks, with little more than rapid schooling, her appearance, and some vague memories of her own. It is easier to believe that Elwood P. Dowd is palling around with a a rabbit better than six feet tall than it is to think that Anna Koreff is, in fact, Anastasia, and yet there are just enough hints in the dialogue and penumbras in Bergman’s performance that color us toward that conclusion as the film goes on. What might have been madness turns out to be caginess, what might have been imagination could be strangely sharp islands of memory in an otherwise foggy sea.
She’s hard to nail down in a number of her films. Casablanca, as familiar a favorite as you’re going to find, still presents Ilsa as a woman of some complication, someone whose life story surprises her as much as it surprises anyone else. She marries an older, wiser man in a whirlwind; she believes him dead; she takes up with an older, earthier saloonkeeper; she leaves him at the word of her husband’s survival; she decides to leave her husband for the saloonkeeper; two little people, a hill of beans. Notorious presents as riveting an ambiguous Bergman as we get. In the beginning of the movie, it certainly seems like Alicia is sympathetic to her Nazi father and his Nazi connections, and then she alters herself in a moment. She wakes up with a hangover and Cary Grant, and before you know it she’s making him homecooked meals and living up to the high standards of ’40s domesticity. (It’s facile to compare Garbo to Bergman for any number of reasons, but just as I don’t think Queen Christina is something Bergman could have done, that scene in Notorious where Alicia gets sold to a Nazi by her lover while dinner’s on the table is not in Garbo’s wheelhouse either. Garbo couldn’t simper, but Bergman could and does before she realizes what Devlin has in mind for her.) In Notorious, Bergman gets an incredibly meaty role, one that allows her to be basically everything over the course of 100 minutes, clever enough to palm a key while innocent enough to be trapped, poisoned, in her bed.