Have We Seen The Last of The Great Movie Stars?

May 30, 2011

Watching a couple of older Meryl Streep films and  the wonderful On Golden Pond this weekend made me wonder about the status of movie stars. Is it possible that we have already seen the end of the era of those kinds of stars?

Watching the inimitable Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond made me wistful for the Old Hollywood days when stars such as Hepburn, Fonda, James Stewart, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Paul Newman, and so many others enjoyed movie careers and stardom that spanned a few decades.

The American Film Institute listed the following 50 stars as the greatest of all time, “as selected by more than 1,800 leaders from across the film community.”


1. Humphrey Bogart
2. Cary Grant
3. James Stewart
4. Marlon Brando
5. Fred Astaire
6. Henry Fonda
7. Clark Gable
8. James Cagney
9. Spencer Tracy
10. Charlie Chaplin
11. Gary Cooper
12. Gregory Peck
13. John Wayne
14. Laurence Olivier
15. Gene Kelly
16. Orson Welles
17. Kirk Douglas
18. James Dean
19. Burt Lancaster
20. The Marx Brothers
21. Buster Keaton
22. Sidney Poitier
23. Robert Mitchum
24. Edward G. Robinson
25. William Holden

1. Katharine Hepburn
2. Bette Davis
3. Audrey Hepburn
4. Ingrid Bergman
5. Greta Garbo
6. Marilyn Monroe
7. Elizabeth Taylor
8. Judy Garland
9. Marlene Dietrich
10. Joan Crawford
11. Barbara Stanwyck
12. Claudette Colbert
13. Grace Kelly
14. Ginger Rogers
15. Mae West
16. Vivien Leigh
17. Lillian Gish
18. Shirley Temple
19. Rita Hayworth
20. Lauren Bacall
21. Sophia Loren
22. Jean Harlow
23. Carole Lombard
24. Mary Pickford
25. Ava Gardner

It’s pretty striking, isn’t it, how rare those kinds of stars have become in the last 20 or 30 years?

Today, we certainly have the aforementioned Ms. Streep whose body of work certainly ranks her among the greatest stars of all time. Robert deNiro, Al Pacino, Shirley Maclaine, and Dustin Hoffman certainly qualify for their longevity and diversity of roles as well. More recently, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, and Julia Roberts stand out as well, plus maybe a couple of others ….but very, very few. And who behind them might pick up the mantle for the next 20 or 30 years?

What’s happening here?

The New Hollywood’s myopic and almost obsessively exclusive focus on genre, visual effects-laden, and broadly comedic films for those in Act 1 of life has made so few roles in so few films available that it is almost impossible today to have the kind of career that The Old Hollwyood stars enjoyed.

There are some absolutely wonderful young actors today such as Ryan Gosling, Amy Adams, and Natalie Portman but their opportunities to star in performance-oriented films  are so incredibly limited that we basically only see those kinds of films in theaters during the last 3 months of any given year.

We need more films about, for, and starring people in Acts 2 and 3 of life….and that is yet again another reason why we need to bring back The Old Hollywood.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Asha Hawkesworth May 30, 2011 at 5:24 pm

With the exception of Poitier, that list is pretty white, though. So one good thing is that we have some diversity in Hollywood (I know — it isn’t perfect). But at least hispanic actors can now actually have hispanic names…

I think we absolutely have as much talent now as then, however. But some stars take their light to the stage (such as Kathleen Turner, who apparently looks too old to appear in a film, according to someone, somewhere). It could also be partly due to the demise of the studio system. Actors aren’t owned, and they can go where they like. Unfortunately, being just a star is no longer good enough. You have to be a superstar to win back the ridiculous investment the studio made in some of these films. And then we get Johnny Depp, who is one of my favorite modern actors, in Pirates of the Caribbean, part 50. I remember an interview with Val Kilmer when he was doing Batman. He said he had to stoop to the bat suit to pay the bills so he could do more interesting, independent films that didn’t pay well. I assume most actors do this, if they get that kind of opportunity. Well, who would pass up that kind of payday?

One thing I really miss, though: the character actors of the past. Those familiar faces you saw everywhere, playing “that guy” or “that girl.” There were some really stellar ones. I miss that kind of depth in films…


Jay Wheeler May 30, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Great points made! I would also like to add a couple of things, though. Today, bankable does not mean the same thing it used to because the target audience is not the same. Today’ target audience is the teenage demographic (or younger), so the bankable stars trend younger. Therefore the true talent that shines forth in the most successful movies is in the CGI and cinematography. Additionally, the top grossing actors today get paid not to expand their craft, but to play the same character over and over again in different movies to maintain their success. When Sandler and Ferrell make movies that show their true dramatic abilities, they flop at the box. So they’ll continue to pull their $20m per, while playing Ricky Bobby Deeds Madison. And that is a shame because if you see them outside of that genre, they have talent.

In looking at the AFI top 50, I find it interesting to also note that many of those listed didn’t necessarily have much longevity as it relates to relevant work, whether by choice (Garbo, Brando, etc) or not (Dean, Bogart, Harlow, etc). But what all of th unquestionably had was a mystique, an aura. I attribute a lot of that to the fact that they didn’t have nearly as many media outlets/resources feeding the public every minute detail of their lives. There is no way Spence and Kate could have pulled off a 25 year affair on today’s day and age, and part of the allure of the two of them is the knowledge of that fact. Of the names you mention as true icons of recent times, each of them has pretty much remained scandal free (although could argue that Mr. Cruise has endured enough for the rest of them collectively-which is unfortunate). They have been able to remain relatively private.

Finally, I would like to agree with the previous response that there is no studio system ‘machine’ to create the public’s image of talent as was the case previously. Rightly or wrongly, people felt the way the studios wanted them to feel about their stars. Many of the stars of yesterday would simply not be so today, because they would not have a filter to hide their indiscretions.

That’s my two cents, and I hope everyone has had a GREAT Memorial Day weekend!


Asha Hawkesworth May 30, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Good points, Jay, but I have to wonder: in the past, “scandal” ended or seriously damaged careers (Ingrid Bergman, Fatty Arbuckle), and while it certainly depends on the scandal in question… (Robert Blake, for example), it doesn’t really seem to hurt people nowadays. I mean, Charlie Sheen is raking it in on his tour? Really? Yeah, he lost his job… until the next one. It seems to me that Hollywood can bank on some scandals (and does)–who said, “There is no such thing as bad publicity?” Though as Stephen pointed out previously (Mel Gibson), some do become sacrificial lambs… And I am not arguing about the merits or demerits of any particular actor in this case. That is, I think “bad behavior” is bad behavior in any context… Still… 🙂


Jay Wheeler May 31, 2011 at 7:35 am

Good point, Asha. And I certainly agree with you. Bad behavior is bad behavior. I think the point I really am trying to make is that with so much media covering every move the stars of today make, there’s no real sense of mystery.


Stephen Simon May 31, 2011 at 7:35 am

Asha/Jay—thanks so much for the incredibly perceptive comments….you both made my day!


Jennifer S Dibble August 3, 2015 at 1:57 pm

Amen! Thank you TMC and Robert Osborn, (Sally, fix your hair!)


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