All civilizations need gods to worship. The Romans had Mars and Minerva, the Norse had Thor and Odin. The present age is different only in its choice of church: The multiplex is our temple, and the great stars standing 30 feet tall on a polyvinyl screen are our sources of aspiration. We respond so strongly to performers as different as John Wayne and Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe and Katharine Hepburn, because they’re aspects of ourselves made perfect with blissful ease. That they’re human makes them more fascinating, as if Zeus had come to earth with a SAG card.
We like to make lists at Entertainment Weekly, but this one may well have been the toughest. We set out to pick the 30 greatest stars of all time — not actors, not sex symbols, but stars, with all the charisma, appeal, and influence that the word brings with it. Here are our picks, along with the three films (available on video) that best sum up each performer. Warning: They aren’t always the star’s best-known movies. If there are favorites left out, well, that’s the nature of making choices. If there are few recent faces, that’s because time is a proving ground. The movies have always had flashy one-day wonders, pretenders, and false gods. The faces you’re about to see are the pantheon.
1. Humphrey Bogart
30 outstanding stars: Humphrey Bogart — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
With the possible exception of Bugs Bunny, nobody has ever physically dominated the screen the way he did. Operating inside a force field that only an animated character could equal, Humphrey Bogart was capable of cutting down anyone — a gangster, a copper, a Nazi, a flirty two-timer, an elusive love — by shooting not a bullet, just a look.
How did he do it with that basset-hound face, mashed upper lip, bad toupee, and scrawny, hunched physique? In part, by projecting a prickly temperament that was always about to explode — and not just on screen. Raised by wealthy parents who lamented his career path, Bogart often played the bad boy in real life. He had a taste for bar brawls, and his stormy third marriage, to actress Mayo Methot, inspired reporters to dub the couple ”the Battling Bogarts.” (Humphrey proudly nicknamed Mayo ”Sluggy” because she so often took a sock at him.)
But it wasn’t merely the threat of violence that sold Bogart’s performances. In 74 movies, Bogie proved that, cinematically, the essence of control is inaction: Stop moving in a busy frame and all eyes turn to you. In fact, it’s his majestic indifference that makes Bogart more iconic today than he was even at the height of his career in the 1940s, when he was the world’s highest-paid actor. Most modern film rebels take themselves ever so seriously. With Bogart, you never get the feeling the man spent time checking his reflection. Yet it’s easy to imagine every male movie star who came after him, from Brando to Eastwood to Schwarzenegger to Cruise to Woody Allen, looking in the mirror before shooting a big scene and asking himself, How would Bogie play it?
· The Maltese Falcon (1941) The Bogie Icon, Part 1: A lone honest private eye, he’s surrounded by a rogues’ gallery of deceivers.
· Casablanca (1943) The Bogie Icon, Part 2: An embittered romantic, he holds sway over his bar, and Ingrid Bergman, in a backlot never-never land.
· In a Lonely Place (1950) The Icon Destroyed: As neurotic writer Dixon Steele, Bogart reveals his dark side, and it’s terrifying.
2. Katharine Hepburn
30 outstanding stars: Katharine Hepburn — Why the actress is one of the best of all time
The cocked head, the hint of the suffragette, the broad Bryn Mawr a — brainy, brave, and beautiful, Katharine Hepburn most certainly was not going to be tamed and trussed by the studio system. She played rebels and upstarts and, ahead of her time, a feminist lawyer in Adam’s Rib, a whimsical androgyne in Sylvia Scarlett, and a lady athlete (as it was then called) in Pat and Mike. With the unembarrassed confidence of breeding, she thumbed her nose at parts she didn’t want. Since she’s one of the few beauties to allow herself to grow old before our eyes, we know her now as the sensible-walking-shoe matriarch of On Golden Pond, but back in Morning Glory, she’s so young and lovely she hurts your eyes.
There was nothing cute or malleable about her. She never pleaded for love and, perhaps as a consequence, never became a mass taste. If we love her now, it’s because some people, particularly certain women, are easier to love from a distance, when time has muted their sensuality, dulled the eyes that flashed too challengingly, made them less threatening. Happily, she lived long enough for time, and a later generation of women, to catch up to her defiant spirit.
· Bringing Up Baby (1938) In the best screw-ball comedy, she woos Cary Grant by driving him nuts.
· The Philadelphia Story (1940) The lady’s finest hour, with a tailor-made script and perfect-match support from Grant and Jimmy Stewart.
· Woman of the Year (1942) A ravishingly beautiful Hepburn meets Spencer Tracy, and the greatest on-screen marriage begins.
3. Cary Grant
30 outstanding stars: Cary Grant — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
Not to put too fine a point on it: Cary Grant represents Western Civilized Man made perfect. He can be masculine without being a jerk (Gunga Din), sensitive but not weak (Holiday), outrageously prankish (His Girl Friday) yet capable of deeply felt moralism (Only Angels Have Wings). He’s an ideal lover (An Affair to Remember) who’s not above human passions and frailties (Notorious). In his presence, all other men are Ralph Bellamy.
A qualification: What we call ”Cary Grant” was an image invented by a man named Archie Leach, whose real life was about as messy as everybody else’s. That all his attributes blended into one persona is a testament to huge talent, yet Grant is rarely credited as a great actor. Perhaps he was too attractive — his performances sweep hard work behind a facade of aplomb. Watch closely, though, and you’ll see a gift for timing shared only by Keaton, Astaire, Cagney, and Chaplin.
Not coincidentally, all five put in tough years in vaudeville. Grant started as an acrobat, and he could suggest nimbleness by standing still. But if finesse was all Grant had going for him, he wouldn’t be near the top of the list of all-time greatest stars. Pauline Kael once wrote that ”we didn’t want depth from him,” but she was wrong: Watching him, we instinctively recognize outer agility as a sign of hard-won inner grace. That he made it look easy is proof of the victory.
· Only Angels Have Wings (1939) He gives a commanding performance as the consummate professional in Howard Hawks’ aviation drama.
· His Girl Friday (1940) In the revamped Front Page, he delivers as the most devious, and hilarious, newspaper editor ever put on film.
· Notorious (1946) Grant woos gorgeous Ingrid Bergman for love and country in Hitchcock’s deliriously romantic suspense masterpiece.
4. Marilyn Monroe
30 outstanding stars: Marilyn Monroe — Why the actress is one of the greatest of all time
She didn’t invent sex, but it often seems that way. Until Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood’s erotic goddesses tended to be quick-witted vamps, women who used their charms to dominate the men around them. But Marilyn didn’t have to take charge: Her sexuality did the dominating for her, without her even knowing it. Typically, she’d be fighting off the advances of some bespectacled dweeb 20 years her senior, all the while working The Routine — the spun-sugar voice, the voluptuous symphony-of-wiggles body, the eyes popped open in girlish, bedazzled wonder. Most of her energy seemed to be spent in just listening to herself think.
But then came the transformation, the Marilyn Moment. Her head would tilt back, the eyes half-closing into a look of rapturous, almost druggy carnality, the smile a brighter-than-life flash. In that moment, the audience would be swept up in the fantasy of a woman for whom sex was pure candy, a woman so consumed with pleasure that she didn’t even need to be seduced. Suddenly, Marilyn Monroe was sex.
It’s no coincidence that she came along just at that point in the 20th century when Americans, with their shiny new suburbs, their lawns and appliances and TVs, had grown a little too comfy — too civilized — for their own good. She was a luscious antidote to the ’50s’ buttoned-down conformity. In her dazed coquettishness, Marilyn may have seemed less overtly ”womanly” than Hepburn or Garbo or Hayworth. But by offering eroticism in such a gorgeously overripe package, she became the first and greatest icon for an America that was about to turn sex into a cause. With Marilyn, the revolution was under way.
· Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) Monroe’s a female id to Jane Russell’s superego in this sardonic musical.
· The Seven Year Itch (1955) Here, she’s the archetypal bimbo-goddess who drives men to mania.
· Some Like It Hot (1959) As this farce’s diaphanous center, Monroe sings ”I Wanna Be Loved by You” and ”I’m Through With Love.” Her tragedy lies in the distance between the titles.
5. Marlon Brando
30 outstanding stars: Marlon Brando — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
”He gave us our freedom,” Jack Nicholson said simply. The actors Marlon Brando released from the structured politesse of Old Hollywood — from Nicholson, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino to wannabe bad boys like Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke — have now become the Tinseltown norm. But when Brando took his revolutionary stage performance as A Streetcar Named Desire‘s Stanley Kowalski to Hollywood, he had neither peer nor precedent: The emotional nakedness and naturalistic grace of his early work blazed a trail for the Gritty American Actor.
Invading a screen tradition that counted on words to carry emotion, Brando used bullish yet nuanced turns in Streetcar, On the Waterfront, and The Wild One to raise mumbling to an art form. After a long dry spell in the ’60s, with his cinematic heirs grown and acting alongside him, his performance in Last Tango in Paris could still rewrite the possibilities of portraying self-loathing.
Brando’s mentor, the legendary acting teacher Stella Adler, once said, ”Right from the start he was a universal actor. Nothing human was foreign to him.” Later, his pursuit of all things human led Brando to forgo on-screen challenges for well-publicized offscreen crusades on behalf of Native Americans and others — epitomized by his proxy rejection of an Oscar for The Godfather in 1973. But his political impact never came close to matching the influence of his talent. So in his grateful praise, Nicholson may have captured Marlon Brando’s most feared irony — that he had become what he ached to be, a liberator, a savior, in a profession he claimed to despise.
· A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) Brando’s revolutionary, brutish Stanley Kowalski still has the shock of the fresh.
· The Godfather (1972) He won his second Oscar for a mid-life performance that’s a triumph of cold technique.
· Last Tango in Paris (1973) Ignore the notoriety: Brando gives the performance of his career as a man trying to erase both sorrow and self through anonymous sex.
6. Clark Gable
30 outstanding stars: Clark Gable — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
Billy Gable was an unknown stage actor in 1930, but in the following year he appeared in an incredible 12 films, costarring with the likes of Crawford, Garbo, and Stanwyck. By December ’31 the hip put-down was, ”Who do you think you are — Clark Gable?”
He was far more than, say, the Mel Gibson of his day: To see his ’30s films-even toss-offs like Cain and Mabel or Wife vs. Secretary — is to watch a brash man’s man and nonchalant ladies’ man at play. His magnetism was unaffected, the envy of ”serious” peers like Spencer Tracy. That Gable would play Rhett Butler was never questioned by anyone but Gable himself: It, wasn’t casting; it was a coronation.
In reality, Gable was an insecure star, despite an early Oscar for It Happened One Night. His first two wives were much older women who carefully guided his career. By contrast, third wife Carole Lombard was his peer in age and celebrity. Their legendary three-year marriage must have been paradise: Gable never recovered from her 1942 death. He drank heavily through the ’40s and ’50s; wrinkles ravaged the broad, grinning brow. The movies suffered too, but audiences stayed on, a loyalty Gable privately professed not to understand. Perhaps he knew in his heart that his was a limited talent. How sad, though, that he never understood its potency.
· It Happened One Night (1934) As a cocky reporter on the road with heiress Claudette Colbert, he is the early-’30s idea of manly perfection.
· Gone With the Wind (1939) ”My reaction to Rhett,” said Gable, ”was immediate and enthusiastic. ‘What a part for Ronald Colman.”’
· The Misfits (1961) In this flawed anti-Western, his last performance, Gable finally stretches — and reaches.
7. Charlie Chaplin
30 outstanding stars: Charlie Chaplin — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
The failure of the 1992 biopic Chaplin reflects the recent drop in Charlie Chaplin’s stock. Films on critics’ 10-best lists for decades (City Lights, Modern Times) are now faulted for pretentiousness and pushy sentimentality. Meanwhile, Buster Keaton has been reevaluated as Chaplin’s equal, if not superior, perhaps because Keaton seems to go about his business with no thoughts toward Art (he just happened to be a genius). Chaplin’s mistake lay in thinking that comedy is inherently unworthy of illuminating life’s mysteries. In this, he was the archetype for insecure comedians from Jerry Lewis to Woody Allen.
So why is he here? Simple: Chaplin was the movies’ first superstar. By achieving global adoration as early as 1914 — and sustaining it for more than half a century — Chaplin proved the potency of this new medium. His life, too, laid out the framework by which we measure celebrity, right down to the sex scandals and political backlash.
And his films? The early ones reveal a vaudeville genius whose slapstick precision was awe-inspiring. But with The Gold Rush, Chaplin introduced self-conscious pathos. Today, films like City Lights and Modern Times are crippled wonders, offering sublime comic invention next to deluded, message-heavy egotism. Chaplin’s tragedy may be that we called him a great artist — and he believed us.
· The Gold Rush (1925) After polishing his Little Tramp persona in years of two-reelers, Chaplin hit his feature-film stride with this hilarious Alaskan epic.
· City Lights (1931) Sentiment and slapstick mingle as the Tramp enters the boxing ring for love of a blind girl.
· Monsieur Verdoux (1947) Far too grim for ’40s audiences, this modern-day Bluebeard comedy has become Chaplin’s dark classic.
8. Bette Davis
30 outstanding stars: Bette Davis — Why the actress is one of the greatest of all time
Bette Davis became a star through sheer force of will; if she had to skirt self-parody to do it, that was part of the price. She was not a genteel heroine. The large eyes popped with wounded neuroses, and she bit into dialogue as if it were pemmican. She wasn’t classically beautiful, although her intensity gave her what Graham Greene called a ”corrupt and phosphorescent prettiness.” What Davis was about was strength — and the thwarted woman beneath the strength.
The first star to challenge the studio system in court, she played the warrior in life as well. Signed to Warner Bros. in 1932, Davis chafed under the poorly written melodramas foisted on her (the movie that made her a star, 1934’s Of Human Bondage, was a one-shot for another studio). She went on strike, was suspended without pay, and when she planned to appear in a British film, Warner slapped her with an injunction. She countersued, with great publicity, and lost the legal battle but helped win the war. Thanks to Davis, actors slowly began to gain as much power off screen as they had on it.
Her career soared, in spite of Jack Warner’s reputed tendency to turn white whenever he heard Davis wanted a word with him. The films she made in the late ’30s and early ’40s are feverish, overripe, and glorious: Dark Victory; Jezebel; Deception; Now, Voyager — the titles themselves sob. Joan Crawford’s melodramas are about the world doing horrible things to Joan, but Davis’ are about Bette doing horrible things to the world. She played schemers, bitches, murderesses — all equal parts victim and avenger, and that’s why we prize them. Her characters burn in hell, but brightly.
· Of Human Bondage (1934) A fierce, fascinating talent arrives as a cockney tart who uses and abuses Leslie Howard.
· The Letter (1940) She plays one of her greatest damned heroines, a plantation owner’s wife who finds amoral freedom in adultery and murder.
· All About Eve (1950) Davis is actress Margo Channing — Our Lady of Perpetual Cynicism — in an acid martini of a movie.
9. James Stewart
30 outstanding stars: James Stewart — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
Lately he has used that trademark stammering drawl to sell things like Campbell’s Home Cookin’ Soup and his own slim book of bad poems. But these late-career cash-ins can’t diminish Jimmy Stewart’s stature as the movies’ most appealing moralist. In his sunniest performances, he’s Jiminy Cricket turned flesh and blood, a gangly, homespun guide through life’s temptations and obstacles.
Not that his screen characters achieved such wisdom easily. In fact, the key to Stewart’s enduring appeal is that he was the only old-time Hollywood star to get truly desperate on screen. Much of the time, his earnest, awkward average Joes were nervous wrecks — distraught, irritable, literally in a sweat. And in life, as in his best roles, Stewart wasn’t an assured natural. He was the little 98-pound weakling who could. At the start of America’s involvement in World War II, even the Army tried to push him around, rejecting him as too skinny until he gorged his way past the weight cutoff by a single ounce. Then he went on to serve as pilot on 25 Army Air Force bombing missions, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross — and, after another 20 years in the Air Force Reserve, eventually earning the rank of brigadier general.
That same idealism backed by compulsion surfaces in his characters and convinces us by the end credits that, yes, we can pass the test, get the job, win the girl, foil the villain, raise the child, make our mark on this world. At the same time, his frailty on screen reminds us, steel yourself. You might not make it. And even if you do, you’re still likely to lose something dear in the struggle.
· It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) You’re probably sick of it, but consider it once more for Stewart alone, who grounds this still-wonderful film in scary despair.
· Winchester ’73 (1950) A tough, mature Western that, with one stroke, revived the genre and Stewart’s career.
· Vertigo (1958) Only this actor could make a necrophiliac ex-detective who’s scared of heights profound and utterly accessible.
10. Jack Nicholson
30 outstanding stars: Jack Nicholson — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
Jack Nicholson keeps the counterculture alive every time he shows up on screen. Deeply serious but never pretentious, planting a rebel yell at the heart of everything he does, Nicholson is Hollywood’s last remaining evidence that the ’60s actually happened.
He tumbled into movies as if out of a cot — writing and acting in Roger Corman’s B factory and on the industry’s hippie fringes throughout the late ’60s, already brandishing the lazy intensity that later became his hallmark. Stardom came as a neat fluke: When Rip Torn dropped out of the role of an alcoholic lawyer in Easy Rider, Nicholson took it on and bagged an Oscar nomination. Confirmation came with Five Easy Pieces, in which he embodies the rowdy, tragic contradictions of his generation while telling a waitress to put chicken salad between her knees.
Today, Nicholson is often the best, least compromised part of the movies he makes. Maybe he’s content to be the Joker in Hollywood’s adulterated deck. Maybe his stance is a gut defense against a town that produces smug tripe like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (after seeing it, he grumbled, ”That movie made me feel totally irrelevant to anything that any audience could want”). Maybe he’s biding his time until the rest of us come to our senses.
· Five Easy Pieces (1970) His first major lead is as a charming rat caught between Beethoven and Tammy Wynette.
· Chinatown (1974) Jack updates Bogie with honor, bitterness, and doubt in Polanski’s blistering thriller.
· One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Both Hackman and Brando refused the role, but can you imagine either of them in it? Nicholson made McMurphy his for the ages.
11. James Cagney
30 outstanding stars: James Cagney — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
”Never relax” — that was James Cagney’s advice to aspiring actors and the motto that drove his every moment on screen. His was a character teetering between charm and malice, a constant tap dance of impatient delight. He gained his greatest fame playing hair-trigger criminals, but to watch him in a musical is to see both his vaudeville roots and his true nature as a gleeful human metronome; he’s the American life force in the form of restless rhythm.
Scrupulously honest in real life, Cagney somehow managed to hot-wire his performances with demonic urban energy: His gangster roles were built out of memories of growing up on New York’s tough East Side, with bits of business swiped from local bad boys who never lived to see them on screen. If he were alive and young today, you know he’d be making Scorsese movies and blowing everybody away.
· Yankee Doodle Dandy(1942) Playing vaudeville’s George M. Cohan as a merry, patriotic wind-up toy, Cagney tapped his only Oscar.
· BOLD “White Heat”] (1949) Top of the world, Ma. Gangster Cody Jarrett, a psycho only a mother could love, is his greatest achievement.
· One, Two, Three (1961) Billy Wilder’s rat-a-tat-tat farce gave Cagney his last leading role, and he went out the way he came in — in overdrive.
12. Greta Garbo
30 outstanding stars: Greta Garbo — Why the actress is one of the greatest of all time
In death as in life, mystery clings to Garbo. Off screen, she was willfully incommunicado — MGM Publicity couldn’t have asked for a better enigma to sell. On screen, she was a woman who knew each and every aspect of love: the cautious dance of meeting, the profound thrill of infatuation, the ecstasy of sex, the morning-after remorse of rejection (and rejecting), and, above all, the helpless knowledge that the cycle will repeat itself. Her movies blur together like an endless confession, a headlong revelation that’s cleansing in its pain.
She was twice discovered, first in Sweden by director Mauritz Stiller, then by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. In Hollywood, she had great success starring in silent films with her offscreen lover John Gilbert, but while his career didn’t survive the transition to sound, Garbo went on to make a string of classics — Camille, Anna Karenina, Queen Christina, Ninotchka. After an ill-advised switch to modern farce with 1941’s Two-Faced Woman, she up and quit, immediately becoming the most famous hermit on the planet. Despite her Nordic chill, she now looks like the hothouse orchid of Hollywood: blooming when conditions were right, then closing down early and irrevocably. The perfume still hangs in the air.
· Flesh and the Devil (1927) Garbo and John Gilbert, the hottest couple of the ’20s, are at their most incandescent here. Who needs words?
· Queen Christina (1933) History as a classy form of hankie-wringing, it features Garbo and Gilbert’s last pairing and a legendary final shot.
· Ninotchka (1939) A charmer of a comedy in which a star beautifully parodies her famously sullen self.
13. Gary Cooper
30 outstanding stars: Gary Cooper — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
By the time he was cast in 1952’s High Noon, no other star could have played Will Kane, the lawman deserted by the townspeople he is sworn to protect. John Wayne (who detested the film) would have shied away from the role’s undertow of insecurity. Fonda and Stewart didn’t have the obdurate force of myth necessary to keep us on Kane’s side. But Gary Cooper conveyed it all — the plainspoken belief in American ideals and the nagging, awful doubt.
”That guy just represents America to me,” said Frank Capra, who cast him as two of his Everyfellas: Longfellow Deeds and John Doe. Yet Cooper was taken for a lightweight at first — a gravely beautiful playboy whose romances got more notice than his roles. By the time he died from cancer in 1961, however, after his Lou Gehrig and Sergeant York, Wild Bill Hickock and Marshall Kane, he had come to look like our own best self. He played heroes and, in so doing, became one.
· Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) He’s Frank Capra’s ”pixilated” common man, winning a fortune and Jean Arthur.
· The Pride of the Yankees (1942) Even if they had to flip the negative over to make Cooper a lefty, he’s achingly fine as Lou Gehrig.
· High Noon (1952) He clocked his second Academy Award as Marshall Will Kane, gracefully facing down bad men with no help from the good.
14. Ingrid Bergman
30 outstanding stars: Ingrid Bergman — Why the actress is one of the greatest of all time
Of all the qualities she possessed — dizzy with vitality and porcelain-cool; as wholesome as Heidi and as sensual as a courtesan; stoically assured and dangerously prey to head-on emotions — the most remarkable was to have had them all at once. Her distant beauty urged the camera closer, where we could see the demands of an entire role played out on the screen of her face, registered through a gaze, a half smile, a tear. With Ingrid Bergman, the sum of the performance was much greater than the subtlety of the gestures.
The public believed her larger than life,with integrity in every farm-girl bone. So when she proved she was human by leaving husband and daughter for Roberto Rossellini, Hollywood branded her with the scarlet letter. It took 12 years and a second Oscar (for Anastasia) to remove it.
It now seems inevitable that we came back to her. The reasons are there in her most popular movie — perhaps the most popular movie. It was she who made us understand why Bogart did what he did in Casablanca. Radiating both pain and purpose, only Ingrid Bergman could make a man love her so much he had to let her go.
· Intermezzo (1936/1939) Bergman is radiant in both versions — the four-hankie Swedish classic and the swank Hollywood remake.
· Gaslight (1944) She took an Oscar as the fragile wife who’s hounded to madness by shadows and a shady husband.
· Autumn Sonata (1978) Battling Bergmans: Ingrid stars, Ingmar directs. But this psychodrama of mother and daughter transcends gimmicks.
15. John Wayne
30 outstanding stars: John Wayne — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
To John Wayne’s detractors, he was as simple in politics as he was on the screen — a silly charge on both counts. The Duke’s politics were reasonably complex (he backed Carter on returning the Panama Canal, for example); more important, they were his own. And his movie persona was shallow only if you equate honesty with lack of depth.
Watch 1939’s Stagecoach, the film that made him a star. It’s shocking to realize that he had already appeared in 64 films over 11 years — that’s how fresh he appears. In the 87 movies that followed (he made far more films than any other major star), the Duke rarely went beyond his limits, but isn’t that what we ask of our movie legends? That they be different enough in each role to surprise us, but not so different as to throw us off guard?
Besides, what he did within those limits is frequently astounding. ”I was never one of the little theater boys,” he once said, in that manner that drove some people to cheer and others to pull out their hair. The truth is, he was being modest. The cowboys and soldiers that were his stock-in-trade are all tinged to some degree with bitterness, wounded by the betrayals of men and history. And taken as a whole, his career now looks like a conscious, careful inquisition into what it takes to be a hero — specifically, a hero in America. Not all of what he found here was sweetness and light, but it was just enough to justify his love for the place.
· Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) His complex, tormented drill sergeant makes this one of the finest war films ever.
· The Searchers (1956) He’s unforgettable as a harsh man making the West safe for civilization, only to be left behind by it.
· The Shootist (1976) As a bone-tired gunfighter dying of cancer (with nods to his own offscreen battles), the Duke gracefully sums up his career in his last and best film.
16. Fred Astaire
30 outstanding stars: Fred Astaire — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
His dancing seems to exist only as a movie illusion. Watching Fred Astaire smack golf balls with a clockwork swing in Carefree or casually destroy a hotel lounge with his feet in The Sky’s the Limit, one can scarcely believe this dapper, humble will-o’-the-wisp actually drew breath off screen. And Astaire knew it was the work, not the man, that mattered: His will stipulates that no film ever be made of his life.
His partners drew him back to human reality — the first was his sister, Adele; the best may have been Barrie Chase (with whom Astaire made four TV specials from 1958-68); the most celebrated was certainly Ginger Rogers. Yet the partners and silly love plots were, essentially, distraction from the self-absorbed beauty of his solo numbers. Astaire is the one movie star who doesn’t really need us to be there. The Bach of physical movement, he reaches his purest form when lost in the serene contemplation of divine patterns.
· Swing Time (1936) The early duet ”Pick Yourself Up” may be Astaire and Rogers’ finest moment. Proof positive that dancing can be better than sex.
· The Band Wagon (1953) Astaire and Cyd Charisse romp through one jaw-dropping musical number after another.
· Funny Face (1957) A still-lithe but suddenly vulnerable Astaire meets mischievous beatnik Audrey Hepburn.
17. Elizabeth Taylor
30 outstanding stars: Elizabeth Taylor — Why the actress is one of the greatest of all time
We’ve watched her shed little-girl tears over her horse and dog (National Velvet, Lassie Come Home), get married and have a baby (Father of the Bride, Father’s Little Dividend), grow up (Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), get into real trouble (Butterfield 8), and make a screaming submission to the ravages of age (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Her private life — the divorces, the illnesses, the tragic death of husband Mike Todd, the scandalous romance with Richard Burton during the filming of Cleopatra, the battles with addiction — has been an equally public drama. People who have never met her, and never will, call her Liz.
But forget the violet eyes and how impossibly, even inhumanly, beautiful she can be, and think of her skills as an actress, developing over the years from the magnetic Angela in A Place in the Sun to the cunningly sexual Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to the world-weary Gloria in Butterfield 8, her first Oscar-winning performance. She can shock us with her bust-a-gut bravado in Virginia Woolf, delight us with her clever zest in The Taming of the Shrew, and surprise us with her deliciously unexpected self-parody in The Mirror Crack’d. By putting virtually her entire life on film, and by doing so with consummate, often underrated craft, Taylor has established herself as a moving, uniquely American, original.
· National Velvet (1944) She’s irresistible as a brash 11-year-old jockey who conquers the racing world — and audiences.
· A Place in the Sun (1951) In a fine adaptation of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, she’s the gorgeous, distant object of Monty Clift’s ambition.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966) She deserved her Oscar for daring to look dowdy, and for making her character — despite all the shouting — quietly stirring.
18. Clint Eastwood
30 outstanding stars: Clint Eastwood — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
He made his heat-packing mark as a guy named Rowdy on TV’s Rawhide, but nobody has ever been less rowdy than Clint Eastwood. In person and in his movie persona — the most consistent since the days of Stewart and Grant — Clint has been the essence of macho internalization, a Zen cowboy. What is the sound of one brow arching?
It’s the sound of money. Eastwood is just as much an auteur as Woody Allen, but his pictures set off box office stampedes. Sure, he got to make profit-poor Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart, but only because the studio knew that eventually, he’d make its day.
His recent rejuvenation has upped the ante. Unforgiven merged Eastwood’s two selves — cowboy antihero and uncompromising director-while In the Line of Fire uses him as a moral anchor for a smart story well told. In both, Clint cannily allows us to see how the years have weathered away granite to reveal hidden stress fractures. He lets age be an issue: In Hollywood, that takes guts.
· Play Misty for Me (1971) Fatal Attraction 16 years early, this scary directorial debut proved he was smarter than his screen image suggested.
· Dirty Harry (1971) Like its star, this brutal modern policier is far more complex than its reputation.
· Unforgiven (1992) In a rich meditation on heroes, the quiet, deadly cowboy of his spaghetti Westerns gets updated with grave misgivings.
19. Laurence Olivier
30 outstanding stars: Laurence Olivier — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
To compare Olivier’s film career with his theatrical achievements is to take alternate bites of a Big Mac and a chateaubriand. He haphazardly embraced movies — and his work fell into three phases: the first for stardom, the second for art, and the third to pay his rent.
Initially, he was Hollywood’s tormented English swain, brooding through Wuthering Heights and Rebecca. Then, in 1944’s Henry V, Olivier merged the Bard’s Battle of Agincourt with the urgency of World War II’s Battle of Britain, kicking off a Shakespeare film cycle (Hamlet, Richard III) that remains a smart, lean high point in film history. Later, he energized such dank melodramas as The Boys From Brazil with a sly grandeur. He starred in precious few films, but enough to let us see what we were missing.
· Wuthering Heights (1939) He defined one of the great romantic-idol roles — lovelorn Heathcliff, forever searching the moors for his Cathy.
· Henry V (1944) He won a special Oscar for producing, directing, and starring in this combination of Shakespeare and patriotism.
· Marathon Man (1976) Playing an ex-Nazi dentist blandly inquiring, ”Is it safe?,” he had the best of his late-life journeyman roles.
20. Dustin Hoffman
30 outstanding stars: Dustin Hoffman — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
He started one of the revolutions that took place in the ’60s: Dustin Hoffman was the character actor as leading man. Runty and adenoidal, his people peer at the world like suspicious moles, intent on digging. If he had come to films ten years earlier, he would have been the hero’s best friend or the punk who gets shot in the first reel. Instead, he was the Graduate, and his doubts mirrored a generation’s.
In the ensuing 26 years, he has given us indelible portraits — pathetic Ratso Rizzo, picaresque Jack Crabb, desperate Max Dembo, profane Lenny Bruce, outrageous ”Tootsie,” autistic Raymond Babbitt — but it’s difficult to find any common denominator in them besides the intensity and imagination that go into their creation. Other actors are successful because they play alluring variations on themselves. With Hoffman, we pay to see how far away from himself his obsessive craftsmanship will take him. He’s an artisan of such high order that we have to call him a star.
· The Graduate (1967) He cannily played Benjamin as a cipher — and an entire generation filled in the blanks.
· Tootsie (1982) On screen and off, it’s about an actor taking a ridiculously farfetched dare and making it work perfectly.
· Death of a Salesman(1985) In this made-for-TV version of Arthur Miller’s Ike-age classic, Hoffman makes Willy Loman into an intensely moving, desperate dreamer.
21. Robert De Niro
30 outstanding stars: Robert De Niro — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
”To me he’s just an invisible man. He doesn’t exist,” Truman Capote said about our greatest cinematic enigma. The explosions in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull — huge, hot bursts of emotional shrapnel — seem to contain truths about our age, but note that all those movies were made for Martin Scorsese, who uses the actor as a very specific figure in his demonology. For other directors, Robert De Niro is less volatile, more inward. The Godfather, Part II‘s muted young Don; The Deer Hunter‘s terse leader of men; the gentle, haunted characters in Jacknife, Stanley & Iris, and Awakenings — who knows which of these is closer to the real man? De Niro annuls himself: He physically mutates from film to film, while off screen he’s an anti-star about whom the average moviegoer knows nothing. And we don’t particularly care. All that matters is that we accept the bargain that he holds out to us: great acting, no prisoners.
· Taxi Driver (1976) De Niro delivers a simple, terrifying portrayal of modern man — and ”You talkin’ to me?” became the most imitated line since Cary Grant never said, ”Judy, Judy, Judy.”
· Raging Bull (1980) By martyring his body to his craft, he invests a loathsome man with leonine dignity.
· The Untouchables (1987) His bewitching cameo as Al Capone makes the rest of the cast look dull-witted.
22. Judy Garland
30 outstanding stars: Judy Garland — Why the actress is one of the greatest of all time
The plangent, tremulous singing voice would pause on a note as if it were about to jump from a cliff, while the fluttery, indecisive hands reached for some elixir to make it all better. For Judy Garland, even in her happy moments — ”Forget your troubles, c’mon get happy” — it was always about pain. In Meet Me in St. Louis she even made having yourself a merry little Christmas seem like an impossible dream. Who could relate to her? Anybody with troubles, perhaps. ”And that,” as Tennessee Williams once wrote, ”includes everybody.”
She was really just plain Frances Gumm (her real name) with an outsize gift that possessed her like a disease, just like the character she embodied in her best performance, Esther Blodgett in A Star Is Born. Each time Judy was spectacularly poised to jump, she simultaneously showed us the human being behind the facade of talent. Despite the showmanship, she was forever frighteningly, excitingly real.
· The Wizard of Oz (1939) Vulnerable, courageous, full of yearning, her Dorothy is the heroine of a modern myth.
· The Clock (1945) Under the direction of Vincent Minnelli (later her husband), she stars in an elegantly simple Manhattan romance.
· A Star Is Born (1954) It’s James Mason’s character who falls apart, but Garland’s offscreen struggles give the film an unbearably moving resonance.
23. Paul Newman
30 outstanding stars: Paul Newman — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
Helped by a pair of cerulean eyes that look like gun slits in a tank, Paul Newman has made honest detachment his essential characteristic. For 40 years, his used-to-be-disgusted-now-I’m-just-amused persona has been as resistant to change as his age-defying mug.
Granted, the capstone of Newman’s career may be 1982’s The Verdict, in which he drunkenly struggles to an ambiguous moral triumph while making his tamped-down anger a solar flare. But he has always seemed to know that his gift is best received when he most disparages it. When he likes one of his movies, he says it was a breeze to make, a surefire thing — hell, anybody could’ve done Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Cool Hand Luke. When he thinks he has failed, he says he tried too hard. Newman may have bought himself a yacht, but instead of acting snooty like an admiral, he christened it Caca de Toro. Now 68, Newman endures because, as an actor, he seems incapable of bull.
· Hud (1963) Newman busts through a schematic script with honeyed amorality as a rancher’s no-account son.
· Slap Shot (1977) Hilarious as a small-time hockey player, Newman makes this underrated comedy a foul-mouthed gem.
· The Verdict (1982) As a burned-out Boston lawyer who rediscovers his conscience at a price, he found his last truly great role. So far.
24. Spencer Tracy
30 outstanding stars: Spencer Tracy — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
Best remembered as Katharine Hepburn’s perfect match — in life and in nine films — Spencer Tracy balanced his ironic crustiness against her upper-crustness, gently deflating whatever illusions she harbored. But he could also suggest the satisfactions of honest toil without sentimentality (Captains Courageous), convey the bitterness of the disenfranchised (Fury), and do comical middle-class befuddlement (Father of the Bride).
His range suggests that the simplicity with which he achieved his effects was hard-won. And what we know of his private life — the alcoholism, the professional insecurities, the untenable marriage he refused to abandon — supports the image of a struggling man. As a result, Tracy consistently revealed the loneliness of valor. The pain existed behind his eyes, as his secret. It informed his art, but in ways neither he nor we could fully understand.
· Fury (1936) Tracy smolders as the vengeance-minded victim of a lynch mob.
· Adam’s Rib (1949) The archetypal Tracy-Hepburn comedy sets the two at legal loggerheads as married attorneys on opposite sides of an attempted-murder case.
· The Last Hurrah (1958) Both the actor and his character (a New England political boss) make one final run at glory. The actor succeeds.
25. Sean Connery
30 outstanding stars: Sean Connery — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
He made his name as James Bond, and nobody’s ever done it better. But Sean Connery is more than just a higher-grade Roger Moore. Each of his more than five dozen films, from the bad (Meteor, Cuba) to the great (Robin and Marian, The Man Who Would Be King), has been markedly improved by his unique energy — an electric intensity that, blended with his black-browed scowl and smoky Scottish burr, only gets better with age.
Although his later career has been increasingly devoted to colorful character roles, including his noble Soviet submarine captain in The Hunt for Red October and his Oscar-winning turn as a street-smart Chicago cop in The Untouchables, Connery brings a bit of the old country to everything he does, in his unflappability, in his fierce, sage-like eyes. He can still carry a movie as leading man (The Russia House) or steal the show simply by walking on (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).
Even now, he could probably tackle 007 again: As he shows in this summer’s Rising Sun, he can still fell a bad guy roughly twice his size with a single martial-arts blow — and look good doing it. But the actor’s brawling skills haven’t always helped his image (a notorious grump, Connery has never quite lived down an unflattering 1965 interview with Playboy in which he said, ”An open-handed slap is justified…if a woman is a bitch, or hysterical, or bloody-minded continually”). Still, age and mellowing have granted him an august presence. Hollywood may be casting him as a wise old father figure these days, but even that is a rare show of respect for a superior.
· Dr. No (1962) Sorry, George, Roger, and Timothy — you don’t even come close to Connery’s ruthlessly bemused 007.
· Robin and Marian(1976) Connery and Audrey Hepburn turn the Robin Hood legend into a graceful elegy to lost youth.
· The Russia House (1990) Giving a subtle, rich performance in a subtle, uncommercial spy film, he’s a James Bond for the messy real world.
26. James Dean
30 outstanding stars: James Dean — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
It’s a good thing Brando spurned East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, because James Dean gave them a crumpled magnitude — a mad teenage greatness — his arrogant elder could never attain. In 1955, after watching Dean splinter a window with his cackling head in East of Eden, Pauline Kael wrote that leaving the theater was ”like coming out of a looney bin.” Breaking into the J. Paul Getty mansion to play house with Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause, Dean possessed the true spirit of the book (subtitled The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath) that inspired the film. His early death was a sordid crack-up, not the glorious immolation that every adolescent secretly holds in his or her heart. But the reason his cult holds is that Dean let us know he saw it coming. Pinned in the headlights of self-annihilation, he raged for us all.
· East of Eden (1955) The big movie of the year — based on Steinbeck, directed by Kazan — gets stolen by a supernova newcomer.
· Rebel Without a Cause (1955) Nicholas Ray’s cry of teenage angst is Dean’s best film, and the one in which he earns every bit of his legend.
· Giant (1956) His whoop-up performance is the liveliest aspect of George Stevens’ massive Texas soap opera.
27. Shirley Temple
30 outstanding stars: Shirley Temple — Why the actress is one of the greatest of all time
”I class myself with Rin-Tin-Tin,” Shirley Temple Black used to say when asked to explain her run as the Depression’s top box office attraction. ”People were perhaps looking for something to cheer them up. They fell in love with a dog and a little girl.” But Temple’s savvy, self-effacing analysis of her appeal was intentionally off the mark. Guided by her mother’s expert coaching (off camera she’d whisper, ”Sparkle, Shirley!”), Temple put champagne charm in a baby bottle and craftily supplied the dimpled, indomitable optimism we craved.
”She was a dainty little lollipop,” according to Tatum O’Neal. Wrong: Intelligent (IQ: 158) and tough enough to laugh it off when producer Arthur Freed exposed himself to her when she was 11, Temple didn’t just survive her fame. She combined exuberant talent with professionalism to become the quintessential child star.
· Little Miss Marker (1934) As a gambling IOU left among Damon Runyon’s teddy-bear gangsters, little Shirley hit it big.
· The Little Colonel (1935) It’s the Civil War era as unbelievable corn, but Temple and Bill ”Bojangles” Robinson are irresistible.
· Wee Willie Winkie (1937) The mind boggles at the thought of curmudgeon John Ford directing Temple, but he brought out her best.
28. Henry Fonda
30 outstanding stars: Henry Fonda — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
Henry Fonda didn’t become the characters he played. Somehow, they became him. They acquired his searching eyes and slope-shouldered gait. From Tom Joad to Mister Roberts; from comic foil for Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve to cold-blooded gunman in Once Upon a Time in the West; from salad-days Abe in Young Mr. Lincoln to twilight-years Norman Thayer in On Golden Pond — they took on his integrity, substance, and conviction. He played his share of great men, but his own greatness consisted in making them seem so much like us. More than any other actor — with the exception of his cinema soulmate, Jimmy Stewart — Fonda became a star by being a real person up there on the screen. He was the average fellow in trouble, the regular guy rising to the occasion, the ordinary man caught in an extraordinary moment.
· The Grapes of Wrath (1940) As John Steinbeck said after watching Fonda, ”I believed my own story again.”
· The Lady Eve (1941) Twice fleeced by Barbara Stanwyck in Preston Sturges’ side splitter, he plays the sympathetic boob to a delightful turn.
· On Golden Pond (1981) In an otherwise sentimental movie, he gives a brutally honest portrayal of frightened old age.
29. Jodie Foster
30 outstanding stars: Jodie Foster — Why the actress is one of the greatest of all time
Parents dream that their children will surpass them, and Jodie Foster has inspired pride even in a mother as jealous as Hollywood. She’s an exemplary celluloid baby, one of a handful to navigate successfully the transition to screen adulthood. From her first stint in a Coppertone commercial, Foster quickly became the major wage earner for her single-parent family. At 12, she earned her first Oscar nomination, for an alarmingly self-possessed performance as a preteen hooker in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. After she escaped to Yale for college, that role-the only Hollywood performance ever to inspire a presidential-assassination attempt — crossed the line from film appearance to tabloid landmark.
But in a career that has evolved over three decades, and that includes Oscars for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs, Foster has managed to keep herself above the fray. (Her acceptance speech for The Accused — ”Cruelty is not acceptable” — has become legend.) Her screen women, though often perceived as victims, strain to halt their slide into powerlessness. Behind the camera, she has parlayed her critical acclaim into a personal yet consummately professional directing debut, and that ultimate marker of arrival: her own production company. Yet her calm acceptance of her celebrity, and her unrepentant disdain for show-biz vocabulary, most clearly mark her victory over Hollywood’s demons. The slightly lopsided smile she has carried through her career lets her audience in on a guilty but endearing secret, that while she has always thoroughly played into her roles, she has remained thoroughly detached from role-playing.
· The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976) Her shockingly mature performance as a teen with bodies in her basement is a premonition of things to come.
· The Accused (1988) Foster doesn’t beg for sympathy as a low-life rape victim — she gets it on her own terms.
· The Silence of the Lambs(1991) Even when Anthony Hopkins chews faces and scenery, her star charisma holds up.
30. Rudolph Valentino
30 outstanding stars: Rudolph Valentino — Why the actor is one of the greatest of all time
Why Valentino? Today, his films seem among the most melodramatic of silent movies. His unrestrained mannerisms — eyes bugging in lust, nostrils all aquiver — are simply outrageous. He was a repressed audience’s projection of passion; we’re used to frankness now.
Consider this, though: When the 31-year-old idol died of a perforated ulcer in 1926, women rioted in the streets. Some actually committed suicide. After all, in films like The Sheik and Blood and Sand, Rudy’s melancholy Latin smolder shook up an entire gender.
His career might not have survived the sound era. Even his leading lady, Alice Terry, said, ”The biggest thing Valentino did was to die.” But his exit preserved his appeal like a fly in amber and laid the pattern for later death cults (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe). Why Valentino? Because he was the prototype of our most beloved kind of star — the doomed.
· The Sheik (1921) Campy now, but when desert chieftain Rudy kidnapped Agnes Ayres for illicit pleasures, audiences literally fainted in the aisles.
· The Eagle (1925) This lavishly produced Russian Robin Hood saga is Valentino’s best.
· Son of the Sheik (1926) His final film is an action-packed improvement on The Sheik, with the star enjoyably droll as both father and son.