Back during the holidays (see The First Annual Las Vegas Gourmet Holiday Dinner), Thistle and I took it upon ourselves to tabulate the great actors and actresses of the cinema. After great anguish and debate, rending of garments and tearing of hair, we calculated the top 10 actresses (see The AFI Can Suck It). In a later post, I published the long list of feminine talent (see Below the Cream Line.) In my recent visit to The Vegas (see All the Noise and the Hurry Seems to Help), we finalized our archive of the top 10 actors in film.
Initially, we thought that unlike with the actresses before them, picking the top men would be a comparatively easy task, but given the volume of really fine actors around, we were proven quickly wrong. That said, picking the actors, while difficult for us, did not evoke the same passion as the actresses. While we appreciate the talent of these men, while we have relished their indelible performances over the years, and while we understand their iconic status, they do not evoke the heartfelt and soul-rending adoration we feel for such performers as Judy Garland, Meryl Streep or Maggie Smith. Nonetheless, our task was before us. We began by dividing our list of 92 actors by halves independent of one another. If neither of us picked an actor, he was off the list; if we both picked him, he continued to the next round, and if only one of us picked him, we argued the point over Hendrick’s martinis. Those actors remaining were divided in half, and then in half again. We debated those left on the shortlist and condensed them,enjoying our final martinis, to the final 10.
I will not put words into Thistle’s mouth, but I found our top 10 to be a bit of a puzzlement, not for who is on it–they are all fine and fantastic actors, many of whom have stood the test of time to be immortalized on film–but for who is not on it. Read on, and see whether or not you agree. The list is presented in alphabetical order; any errors of fact are my own.
1. Marlon Brando
The 2 time Oscar winner was always more than a contender, appearing in some of the 20th centuries most iconic and controversial films. While he made some missteps, notably playing Asian at the height of his career in Teahouse of the August Moon, and lamentably at its end, playing who knows what in The Island of Dr Moreau, such performances as Vito Corleone in The Godfather and Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront sealed his place in the Hollywood firmament. But for more than any other role–at least for this blogger–Brando immortalized himself as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, that “survivor of the stone age.” His very personification of brutal sexuality that made one yearn and cringe at the same time, and while with each generation, one yearns to see a new actress of a certain age tear one’s heart apart as Blanche, it is very difficult to think of anyone but Brando as Stanley.
2. Jeff Bridges
The youngest acting member of a Hollywood dynasty, Mr Bridges’ breakthrough role was that of Cybil Shepard’s star-crossed beau in The Last Picture Show, for which he received his first Academy Award nomination. One of Hollywood’s great natural actors, he has played in such diverse genres as science fiction (Tron, Starman–for which he received his third Oscar nod), action-adventure (Against All Odds, White Squall), thriller (Jagged Edge, The Door in the Floor), political thriller (The Contender, another Oscar nomination) historical drama (Tucker: The Man and His Dreams, Seabiscuit), and drama (among others, Crazy Heart, for which he received an Academy Award for Best Actor). Mr Bridges is possibly most beloved, though, for his hazy portrayal of mistaken identity as “The Duke” in the Coen brothers’ comedy, The Big Lebowski.
3. Johnny Depp
After gaining mild fame as an undercover cop masquerading as a teen rebel on television’s 21 Jump Street, Mr Depp chose to bid farewell to his teenybop image by working with outlaw director John Waters in Crybaby (in which he played a good mannered teen rebel.) This film brought him under the gaze of director Tim Burton, who cast him as the eponymous Edward Scissorhands. Mr Depp and Mr Burton have become as inseparable as Jack Lemmon to Billy Wilder or John Wayne to John Ford: he is clearly the director’s muse, performing in such films as Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet St, Alice in Wonderland, and Dark Shadows. While Mr Depp has embraced popular franchises such as the Pirates of the Caribbean series (4 to date, and currently still counting), he is equally at home in independent films like Dead Man and Arizona Dream, and in “serious roles” in films such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Donny Brasco, and Finding Neverland. The only actor on this list to be molded into an animatronic figure, Mr Depp, more than anything, is a character actor in the guise of a leading man, a part played by such actors before him as Lionel Barrymore, Humphrey Bogart, and Alec Guinness. So perennially youthful that he begs the question of where he hides his portrait, a performance by Johnny Depp will always surprise and delight.
4. Cary Grant
Were the reader to look up the definition of “charm” in the Oxford English Dictionary, s/he would come upon a picture of this actor. That’s not true, actually, though it should be. Cary Grant starred in some of the most important comedies of the 30s: Bringing up Baby, Holiday, The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story, and His Girl Friday. He brought his early experience with an acrobatic troupe to bear in such films as the aforementioned “Baby” and Arsenic and Old Lace. Equally at home in other genres, he headlined in Gunga Din, Penny Serenade, and Only Angels Have Wings. Grant explored his dark side in 4 Hitchcock films: Suspicion, Notorious (in which he treated Ingrid Bergman most shabbily), To Catch a Thief (another opportunity to exhibit his physical prowess), and North by Northwest (possibly the wittiest script of any Hitchcock film.) Mr Grant’s personal life has also been rife with interest, from his 13 year “marriage” to Randolph Scott, to his “Cash and Cary” wedding to Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, to his LSD laced relationship with Diane Cannon. Many have argued that his refusal to join the Academy got him blackballed from the Oscars, but he received a tearful honorary award in 1970. Mr Grant–how do I not think of Mary Tyler Moore whenever I type this–has one of the best lines in cinema history, when, dressed in a negligee in Bringing up Baby, he declaims “I JUST WENT GAY–ALL OF A SUDDEN!!!”
5. William Holden
In this blogger’s opinion, William Holden is the quintessential natural actor. He is handsome–you really do wonder who Sabrina is going to choose between Holden and Bogart–but not a classic beauty like Robert Taylor or Tyrone Power. He is masculine, boxing in Golden Boy and blowing up bridges in River Kwai (why on earth did he wax his chest?)–but not as ruggedly butch as Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, or John Wayne. He is romantic: Sabrina, again, The Moon is Blue, Paris When it Sizzles, but without the lushness of Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights or that of Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun. He eschewed the homespunnedness of Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart for the blatant cynicism of Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd and Sefton in Stalag 17. He made you understand why Faye Dunaway was attracted to him in Network, and he made you like him in SOB. William Holden was simply one of the greats.
6. Ian McKellan
The reader might argue that Ian McKellan is better known as a stage actor than a cinematic one, had he not embraced central roles in 2 of Hollywood’s most popular franchises: X Men and The Lord of the Rings. His presence in both adds gravitas and class to those films, but he has had a marvelous cinematic career apart from Magneto and Gandalf. He portrayed one of drama’s greatest villains in Richard III, and one of Hollywood’s most underappreciated geniuses in Gods and Monsters. He’s generally played in supporting roles, in films such as Six Degrees of Separation, Bent, and The DaVinci Code, and has added a touch of class to every film he’s done. Sir Ian McKellan was one of the first “out” gay men to receive a nod from Liz, and he has been active in gay rights for decades.
7. Paul Newman
This blogger can certainly add little to the story of Paul Newman, one of the great people of the twentieth century. He shone as an actor, as a race car driver, and as a humanitarian. Who else has embodied a character from Tennessee Willliams and created a delightful salad dressing? Mr Newman embodied the qualities of a daytime soap opera: “The Bold and the Beautiful” in such films as Somebody Up There Likes Me, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Exodus, The Hustler (until he got beaten up), Sweet Bird of Youth (until they cut his dick off–or that might have just been the play), and pretty much everything else he ever did. But he was a brilliant and natural actor in all the aforementioned films, and in movies like Cool Hand Luke, Harper, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, The Absence of Malice, and his Oscar-winning reprisal of “Fast Eddie” Felson in The Color of Money. Later roles included Richard Russo written characters in Nobody’s Fool, and the TV film Empire Falls, as well as the Disney Pixar film Cars, before he succumbed to cancer.
8. Peter O’Toole
The great British playwright and raconteur Noel Coward declared that if Peter O’Toole had been any more beautiful, he could have been “Florence” of Arabia. Mr O’Toole was certainly lovely in David Lean’s biopic of TE Lawrence, but he also portrayed the character with subtlety and grace. Qualities he has brought to all his roles, from both young and old Henry Plantagenet in Becket and The Lion in Winter, to the Errol Flynn/Peter O’Toole amalgam in My Favorite Year. In between, he has played such diverse characters as Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote in The Man of La Mancha (far from the worst adaptations of Cervantes’ work) and Emperor Tiberius in Caligula (one of the worst adaptations of the Roman Empire.) In recent years, he voiced the character of restaurant critic Anton Ego in Disney Pixar’s Ratatoille, one of the few Pixar films this blogger can bear to watch. Peter O’Toole has been the most nominated-no win-actor in the history of the Academy Awards, from Lawrence, where he lost to Gregory Peck, to Venus, where he lost to Forest Whitaker. Peter O’Toole grudgingly accepted an Honorary Award in 2003.
9. Gregory Peck
It would be difficult for me to accept that any actor should receive an Oscar instead of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia had it not been Gregory Peck for his portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. But Mockingbird was not a breakthrough for Peck, it was midway through is career, one that broke through as a priest in Keys to the Kingdom, moved on to an amnesia victim in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and continued onto the part of an oversexed baddie in David O Selznick’s Duel in the Sun. Mr Peck played in such socially responsible films as the groundbreaking Gentleman’s Agreement, and in romantic comedies like Roman Holiday which defined his co-star’s (Audrey Hepburn’s) careers. Mr Peck’s career ranged from Captain Ahab to Josef Mengele to Douglas MacArthur. He added a touch of humanity to each. Except maybe Mengele, but you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Atticus Finch has been one of the most inspirational, quasi-messianic characters of the 20th century: people have named their children for him, people have become lawyers because of him, people have changed their world views because of Atticus Finch.
10. Spencer Tracy
Spencer Tracy won 2 Academy Awards early in his career, for Capatains Courageous and Boystown. (Not about West Hollywood.) He is one of 5 performers who’ve won an Academy Award consecutively, points to anyone who can name the other 4. That said, his best performances occured later in his career, in this blogger’s opinion: movies such as Adam’s Rib, Father of the Bride, Pat and Mike, The Desk Set, The Old Man and the Sea, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremburg, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner are among his–and any actor’s–best performances. He’s considered one of Hollywood’s natural actors, and he is one who’s certainly improved with age, like a fine whisky. On and off the screen, Mr Tracy was known as one half of one of the great acting duos of the century: in addition to the films mentioned above, he starred with Katherine Hepburn in Woman of the Year, Keeper of the Flame, Without Love, The Sea of Grass, and State of the Union. Spencer Tracy was a staunch–if conflicted–catholic, and I think it is a great tragedy that Katherine Hepburn, the love of his life, could not participate in his final rites.
So those are the top 10. Who’s there, and who’s not. It seems strange to me that I’d take more time to chronicle this list of actors than I was our list of actresses, but I have to wonder…
Where is Laurence Olivier, or Guilgud, or Ralph Richardson or Alec Guinness? Where are De Niro, Denzel Washington or Al Pacino? What happened to Sidney Poitier, Tom Hanks, or Sean Penn? Jack Nicholson, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda? Who can say? I must admit that considering the roles of the above 10 people, thinking of what they’ve done, thinking of the parts they’ve played that other actors would never consider, maybe we did pick the best. Maybe we did choose the actors who will be remembered in the years after Thistle and I have gone. Who can say? I’m too timid and meek to decide, but then I think of Olivier in Wuthering Heights… Tell me what you think. That’s not a rhetorical question.