The Making of a Hollywood Legend

Judy Garland, one of the most prominent and visible legends of Hollywood cinema.

In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked those it considered to be the top 50 screen legends–25 male, 25 female–actors whom they considered to have had a considerable impact on our film culture and the cinematic landscape of Hollywood. The rules stipulated that in order to be considered for “legend” status, the actor had to have either 1) made his screen debut in or before 1950, or 2) died, thus leaving a completed body of work. This resulted in a list comprised of mostly actors from the classical era of Hollywood (a term that denotes the years between 1927 and 1963), but featuring several exceptions from influential stars who have since passed on. The list was released with great fanfare, and as a 13-year-old already enthused about classic Hollywood, I was just so happy to see my favorite stars’ names in print that I didn’t stop to think about whether or not I agreed with the rankings. I took the list as the be-all, end-all on who was the best in the business.

Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, who got the number one male and female spots on the list, together in THE AFRICAN QUEEN.

A few weeks ago, I decided on a whim to revisit the list. What I found gave me an entirely new perspective on what the list meant. I realized that this was not a list of the best actors in the business, but rather of the biggest legends. And I got to thinking about what that meant.

What is a legend? The word, by its very nature, connotes something immortal. And in order to stand the test of time, one must have qualities that go above and beyond what is seen in the normal course of life. In the movie industry, it seems to take on a unique form–a screen legend has contributed, in one way or another, to the formation of our psyche as moviegoers–they are indelibly linked to our concept of what makes up our cinematic landscape.

And how does one become a legend? I would say that it’s a combination of talent and star power, with a certain element of being in the right place at the right time in terms of audience taste. Marilyn Monroe, for example, is a clear example of how the combination of those three things can make an explosive Hollywood legend. Monroe, blessed with charisma, a huge amount of intelligence and winning talent (her talent would often be seen through the lens of the dumb blonde characters she played, one of the hardest characters to play well), she also reaped the benefits of coming onto the Hollywood scene when something new and different was welcomed. Nobody had ever seen anybody like Marilyn Monroe before, and her novelty fascinated and enthralled filmgoers. Her tragic early death, less than 15 years after her screen debut, has frozen her legend in time, and we see her as an essential part of cinema history.

Marilyn Monroe talks about her fame

For Monroe, though she had extraordinary talent, the primary vehicle by which she became a legend was unquestionably her star power. Though the difference is sometimes hard to visualize, I would say that star power is a certain energy and appeal that is so attractive to audiences that it keeps bringing them back. Talent, on the other hand, is a skill set that the performer brings to the table and though he or she may not have this certain je ne sais quoi that comes with star power, their abilities leave audiences enthralled and hence, they keep coming back. A prime example of this is Judy Garland in the early part of her career. When Judy Garland first came to MGM in 1935, she was an average teenager in every way–there was nothing unusual about this 13-year-old that would give her any staying power…that is, until she opened her mouth and sang a song. Out came the voice of a woman decades older, with emotion far beyond her years. And it left audiences agape.

Judy Garland sings “Bill” from Show Boat in 1935. She was 12 years old.

After those initial years, after developing a signature vocal and performance style at MGM and in her concert life, Judy Garland would acquire a great deal of star power, and she is now perhaps the greatest legend ever to come out of the entertainment world.

The AFI seemed to draw heavily on star power in forming its list of legends, or at least it seemed that way to me when I examined it again a few weeks ago. It is often very difficult to separate personal taste from assessments of star power and talent, and your humble author is certainly not immune to judgments based on taste. I tried to reconstruct the list based on what I thought were better rankings, and I posted it to the Backlot Commissary (for those of you unfamiliar with Backlots, the Commissary is our Facebook group where we can post content and have discussions). But I’m not happy with my list and keep making revisions, because I have come to the conclusion that there is very little possibility of being objective when it comes to ranking of legends.

Below is the AFI list. Do you agree with it? Leave a comment, and let’s discuss! I look forward to hearing your commentary.

1. Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn

2. Cary Grant, Bette Davis

3. James Stewart, Audrey Hepburn

4. Marlon Brando, Ingrid Bergman

5. Fred Astaire, Greta Garbo

6. Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe

7. Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor

8. James Cagney, Judy Garland

9. Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich

10. Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford

11. Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck

12. Gregory Peck, Claudette Colbert

13. John Wayne, Grace Kelly

14: Laurence Olivier, Ginger Rogers

15: Gene Kelly, Mae West

16: Orson Welles, Vivien Leigh

17: Kirk Douglas, Lillian Gish

18: James Dean, Shirley Temple

19: Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth

20: The Marx Brothers, Lauren Bacall

21: Buster Keaton, Sophia Loren

22: Sidney Poitier, Jean Harlow

23: Robert Mitchum, Carole Lombard

24: Edward G. Robinson, Mary Pickford

25: William Holden, Ava Gardner

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10 responses to “The Making of a Hollywood Legend

  1. For the most part, yes. I have to say that I agree with the AFI’s rankings. Although I’m not the biggest Audrey Hepburn fan and would like to have seen her score lower on the list, there’s no denying the fact that she’s become a legend overtime and deserves the #3 spot.

  2. I think Audrey is definitely one of the “star power” ones. She had so much natural charisma and attractiveness (physically and otherwise), everybody is just drawn to her…say what you will about her skill as an actress. She just had that “je ne sais quoi” that I talked about in the post.

  3. Pretty good list but I feel like you can’t do this sort of list without Rudolph Valentino. Like Chaplin and Olivier, the name Valentino still evokes a certain image and familiarity in people’s minds today even if they don’t know his work off-hand. That’s legend status right there.

  4. Lara I truly thank you for starting this blog, which gives everyone the opportunity to speak their minds on various topics. I thought long and hard about this subject and while I am glad to see people I think are important, I wonder always how these polls are decided. Humphrey Bogart as number 1
    is that for popularity?Is Miss Lillian Gish number 17 for her body of work?Why is Mary Pickford who gave unknown performers a name rated so low? Did you understand what I am trying to say? An actor who was working a decade and was a Star at the beginning or end of that ten year period, are they held as high as someone who was a bankable person twenty years? People have favorite Stars and the value of each person has worth to someone for some reason, and that is why I really do not like lists.

  5. Thank YOU, Jo Anne! I’m so glad you enjoy reading. You point to exactly what I mean–the concept of “legend” is so complex that it’s hard to know why one person placed higher than another. Lists are inherently flawed, for this reason.

  6. I completely agree with you about Valentino. That was a monstrous oversight.

  7. You’re right – it is hard to separate one’s own opinions from the concept of “star power”. I see names ranked near the top of the list that I don’t agree with, but I have to keep in mind that it is their legendary status that is the criteria. Still, it is an interesting list and I am so pleased to see Edward G. Robinson there.

  8. While I personally will have to think things over about my list and rankings. I love and am familiar with everyone on the list here. Growing up in Oklahoma City western films were a staple of the movie going experience. I was not shocked to find John Wayne among those listed. But was shocked to see he was thirteenth on the list of male actors . One could not hardly disagree that The Duke is an American legend. It says so in the congressional record of the United States .

    Maureen O’Hara spoke from the heart when she said, “It is my great honor to be here. I beg you to strike a medal for Duke, to order the President to strike it. And I feel that the medal should say just one thing,

    “John Wayne, American”

    There were many testimonials given in Washington that day, asking Congress for the medal. Among those attending the proceedings were Elizabeth Taylor, the president of the Screen Actors Guild and General Albert Coady Wedemeyer, one of America’s most distinguished soldiers. Congress approved the bill and President Jimmy Carter signed it. Production of a gold coin by the U.S. Mint started in May, 1979. The medal was presented to John Wayne’s family at the Capitol on March 6, 1980.

    Surely this should move his ranking up higher than 13th.

    This was my only beef with the rankings. Yes there are many not even on the list. My having been raised in the Midwest most likely sways my opinion here. But I love reading the blog . Very interesting and certainly thought provoking.

  9. Susan Reynolds

    Hey Lara, lists sure are fun to compile and argue about, and I wouldn’t even try to rank the top 25 male and female actors. However, having said that, and writing as a self-confessed Bette Davis fan, I would make an argument that Davis, rather than Hepburn, should be considered for top billing. Davis, more than any other actress, changed the face of acting, embracing physically and morally ugly characters, transforming herself to reflect the reality of a gangster’s beating or the aging process. We take her attitude towards acting for granted now, but Bette was a pioneer who fought for strong, contrary, sometimes cruel, sometimes murderous women on the screen. And for that I am a Bette fan forever.

  10. Excellent, she also was the first woman head of Actor’s Guild, she and John Garfield started the Hollywood Canteen and something not talked about it was open to Black servicemen as well. That Bette was special!

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