I’m a sucker for some of these lists of the Top 10, in this case the American Film Institute’s lists of the top 10 actors and top 10 actresses (whose first film was before 1950), presented by MovieWeb. Here are the lists:
- Joan Crawford
- Marlene Dietrich
- Judy Garland
- Elizabeth Taylor
- Marilyn Monroe
- Greta Garbo
- Ingrid Bergman
- Audrey Hepburn
- Bette Davis
- Katharine Hepburn
- Charlie Chaplin
- Spencer Tracey
- James Cagney
- Clark Gable
- Henry Fonda
- Fred Astaire
- Marlon Brando
- James Stewart
- Cary Grant
- Humphrey Bogart
I find both lists odd, misleading, or idiosyncratic albeit in different ways. I’m not sure how they’re defining “actor” or “actress”. They seem to be striking some sort of balancing act among best actors, biggest stars, top box office, and most important to cinema history. So, for example, I think that Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, and Cary Grant are out-of-place among the actors while Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman, and Audrey Hepburn are misplaced among actresses although I wouldn’t doubt any of their charisma or importance. I’m judging by acting alone. Monroe in particular only gave one or two really good performances, e.g. Bus Stop.
Some of Hollywood movies’ greatest actors and actresses are missing from those lists. How do you list Jimmy Cagney without listing Edward G Robinson? Not only were Robinson’s performances as gangsters completely equal to Cagney’s but he had more breadth as an actor. See Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, for example. No list of top 10 actors is complete without Paul Muni.
The top 10 actresses list is evenly divided between Americans and non-Americans. I’m not sure how Audrey Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich make the cut while Irene Dunne and Norma Shearer don’t.
Comparing the lists is strange, too. How do you put Fred Astaire on a list of greats without including Ginger Rogers, who, in addition to her pairings with Astaire, gave some fine performances in comedies, romances, and dramas? My take is that neither of them belong in these lists if they’re really listing greatest actors and actresses.
Does Sandy Koufax belong in the Hall of Fame. He only had a few good seasons. (Have met him several times. A genuinely nice person. ). I think the main value in these lists is giving us something to talk about. I mean that in a good way.
All top-10 lists will be problematic. While many aspects of art are subjective, influence on the art form is an important objective measure.
Dave Schuler: Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, and Cary Grant are out-of-place among the actors
We agree, except for Charlie Chaplin, who was by far the most important actor of his period. His talent spanned comedic and dramatic acting, music, and all aspects of film production. In many respects, Chaplin turned film into a true art form. City Lights and Modern Times are considered cinematic masterpieces.
Dave Schuler: while Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman, and Audrey Hepburn are misplaced among actresses
All of those actresses deserve a place among the most important of their periods.
Dave Schuler: How do you put Fred Astaire on a list of greats without including Ginger Rogers
“Sure (Fred Astaire) was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, … backwards and in high heels.”
I would credit the actors and actresses on these lists more for their entertainment value than for their exceptional acting skills.
As a kid there was one TV station that endlessly featured old films. I was addicted to it. After school I would turn it on and with devotion watch 1930 and 40’s movies until my parents got home from work. Each of these early entertainers had embedded traits casting them in roles they became most known for – gangster, sexy, child-like, hardened, extra bravado and swagger, charming, suave, graceful etc. The Astaire/Roger’s dance routines were especially mesmerizing, with flowing chiffon dresses magically swirling around Roger’s twirling figure. The story plots, though, really didn’t catch my attention as much as did their amazingly coordinated dance steps and the sophisticated clothes that usually adorned them both.
Sure, broad and subjective.
Why not Johnny Weissmuller?