Jul/Aug 2003 Miscellaneous

Fasten Your Seatbelts: It's Going to Be a Bumpy List

by Diane E. Dees

In the year 2000, the American Film Institute selected the Top 25 Film Actresses of all time. To no one's surprise, Katherine Hepburn was ranked as number one, and Bette Davis as number two. There are some great talents on the list: Sophia Loren, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo. There are also some who had only moderate acting talent: Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner, for example.

In other words, the list has little to do with film acting greatness, but a lot to do with nostalgia and our longing for the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. I think the black and white films of the 30's and 40's were vastly superior to the color films we are now forced to watch, but my love for the older medium hasn't blinded me to the relative talents of the actors.

Katherine Hepburn, to be sure, is one of the greatest film actors of all time. Her inherent wit and intelligence, her extraordinary looks, and her command of the camera have made her an icon of the film industry. Performances such as Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby (my favorite film), Linda Seton in Holiday, Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, and Rose Thayer in The African Queen stand every test of time applied to film criticism.

But Hepburn also made a lot of stinkers, and she could chew up the scenery with the best of them. On Golden Pond is a major embarrassment for everyone in it, and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? doesn't fare much better. Like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, as Hepburn became older, she morphed into a caricature of herself and was sometimes content just to "do Katherine Hepburn" instead of fully fleshing out her character.

Davis, it is sometimes argued, had more raw acting talent than any of them. She was a stunning physical actor. Turn off the sound and watch a good Bette Davis film: the eyes and the hands will tell you everything. Of Human Bondage, The Letter, Now Voyager, and The Man Who Came To Dinner all showcase an actor of stunning range and emotional understanding. Even the campy All About Eve is a great film, and the Margo Channing character is possibly Davis's masterpiece.

When Bette Davis fell, however, she fell hard. Psychological problems and poor judgment led her to accept bad roles in terrible films, and Davis eventually became an object of derision and a drag queen's delight. Her body of work is as bad as it is impressive, and her decline is perhaps the most dramatic of any good actor in history.

Which brings me back to the AFI list. I am not a chauvinist of my generation; if anything, I tend to favor the older films. But it is shocking to me that the list contains no names from films past the 1950's, especially when I consider that some of the greatest American film actors launched their careers after 1960. Consider the immense talent of Susan Sarandon, Faye Dunaway, Mia Farrow, Jennier Jason Leigh, Sissy Spacek, Emma Thompson, and Vanessa Redgrave (Redgrave is generally considered the greatest female stage actor of her generation, but she is no slouch in film, either).

I have given this matter quite a bit of thought, and if I had compiled the list, three of these "later" actors would have been in the top ten, and possibly in the top five:

Meryl Streep

Pauline Kael once said of her, "She makes a career out of seeming to overcome being miscast," and even that was a compliment of sorts. A kind of female version of De Niro, Streep has so many surprises in her bag of tricks that it is easy to see one or two of her earlier films and dismiss her as merely a craftswoman extraordinaire. Her body of work tells a different story, though. Yes, she is talented and clever in Sophie's Choice and The French Lieutenant's Woman. But the depth of her art is showcased in Kramer Vs. Kramer, Silkwood, Postcards From the Edge (my favorite Streep film), and The Bridges Of Madison County, a movie much better than the book which inspired it.

A comic stage actor before she made films—her Kate in The Taming Of the Shrew is a piece of inspired hilarity—Streep was not allowed any comic outlets in film for a long time. When she finally made a comedy, film critics (who apparently don't get out much, after all) hailed the performance as "the actress's first attempt at comedy." The fact is that Streep can not only do both comedy and drama with equal aplomb; she is also a very good singer and stage performer; there seems to be nothing in which she doesn't excel.

Diane Keaton

Keaton made several films before Annie Hall, and some of these early films—notably Love And Death and Sleeper—display her immense comic talent. When Annie Hall caught fire, Keaton had to work hard to remind filmgoers and critics that she could do more than the wonderful "la-de-da" of the unforgettable character she and Woody Allen had created.

Her work paid off. Looking For Mr. Goodbar, Crimes Of the Heart, Baby Boom, and The Good Mother reflect the work of a mature, emotionally affecting actor with a gift for nuance. Keaton's crying/dope-smoking/Beatles-singing scene in the bathtub in Shoot the Moon says it all. One of the greatest comic actors of all time, and also a fine singer, Keaton is one of the most versatile dramatic actors in the history of American film.

Jane Fonda

Possessed of incredible beauty and one of the best voices to ever speak lines, Fonda worked hard to develop her raw talent, and then worked hard again to get Hollywood to notice it. In the early comedies—Period Of Adjustment, Barefoot In the Park, and the sublime Barbarella—she is charming and funny, but these performances do not prepare us for what she is capable of. The turning point was They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, a dark and fascinating film based on Horace McCoy's 1935 novel, in which Fonda plays Gloria, a cynical and desperate woman who is bent on self-destruction.

Fonda's performance in Horses launched her career as one of the great dramatic actors of American film. Klute, Coming Home, The China Syndrome, The Morning After, and Julia allayed any doubts. In Klute, Fonda plays Bree Daniel, a New York call girl who is in control only when she is practicing her profession. Pauline Kael, after seeing Klute, said of Fonda that "her performance is... unadorned by 'acting,'" and "there isn't another young dramatic actress in American film who can touch her."

My personal favorite is Julia, Fred Zimmerman's film adapted from a chapter in one of Lillian Hellman's memoirs. The film is special because it features both Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, and both give heartbreaking performances of gemlike intensity. Still, in the midst of this serious story about Nazi occupation and human loss, Fonda manages to provide some subtle comic relief. There is a great scene on a train in which she discovers there is a lot of money hidden in the folds of her new hat. Frightened and confused about the mission on which she has embarked, Fonda does some sustained physical business with the hat that is both touching and hilarious. It may not be very Hellman-like-who knows?-but it is perfect.

Just for the record, the other three actors in AFI's top five were Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Greta Garbo. I can make a strong argument for Garbo (though not everyone considers her a great actor), and a reasonably strong one for Bergman. But it is still amazing that Streep, Keaton and Fonda do not appear in the top ten, or even in the top 25. The AFI was obviously under the influence of nostalgia, that most potent cultural drug that blurs vision and impairs memory. Perhaps in another 50 years, the Institute will be inspired to include all of the actors whose art transcends popular culture, box office trends, and the AFI itself.


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