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.
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