By putting together this Top 10 list of most important leading Hollywood actors of all time I have tried to be as objective as possible (for instance my personal favorite actor is Robert Mitchum, who’s 10th on this list) by applying the following criteria: the importance of their specific roles, the variety of their oeuvre, their influence on other actors (as far as can be traced) and the directors they worked with. O.K. Let’s get started:
10) Robert Mitchum (1917-1997)
Robert Mitchum known for his apparent laconic acting. Besides his excellent performances in the Film-noirs (Crossfire (1947),Out of the Past (1947)) and Westerns (Man With the Gun (1955), Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1966)) of the Fifties he’s probably best known for his portrayals of the sadistic psychopaths in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955) and in J.L. Thompson’s Cape Fear (1961) which were both tangibly sordid performances and among his best. Mitchum saw acting as a profession and considered being a star as a thing of minor importance. When he turned down the leading role in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and instead played a comparable role in Henry Hathaway’s 5 Card Stud (1968) as he did in Night of the Hunter, he claimed that both are Westerns.
9) Robert de Niro (1943)
The cooperation between Robert de Niro and his friend and director Martin Scorsese was crucial to the success of both artists. In their first project together Mean Streets (1973), about a group of young adolescents in New York struggling to make a living out of loan-sharking, de Niro (who’s educated in the “method acting style”) steals the show as the violent and unpredictable Johnny Boy. Their real breakthrough came with Taxi Driver in 1976, in which de Niro played the introverted Vietnam vet Travis Bickle, who roams the streets in his cab, slowly transforming into a horrible avenger on the derailed world he witnesses. De Niro won his second Oscar (The Godfather II (1974), his first as Supporting Actor) for his role as the legendary boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (after persuading Scorsese to direct the film). His best films of the Nineties are without a doubt Goodfellas (1990) and Heat (1995). In the first De Niro is perfectly cast by Scorsese as the middle-aged Irish hood of considerable ruthlessness and repute who is Ray Liotta’s mentor, Jim Conway. In Michael Mann’s masterly crime epic Heat he plays the master criminal Neil McGauley cast opposite (for the first time in a film together) to the other movie icon Al Pacino as his cop nemisis. In Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) De Niro underplayed, that way giving his colleagues more space to excel.
8) Burt Lancaster (1913-1994)
Burt Lancaster’s film career started in the Forties in the stifling melodrama’s of Robert Siodmark (The Killers (1946), Criss Cross (1949). After some “light” films in the early Fifties he returned to the genre of Film-noir in the dark film Sweet Smell of Success (1957) in which he played the cynical and powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker who destroys his sister’s relationship with her boyfriend. Also memorable is his role in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and his Oscar winning performance in Elmer Gantry (1960). Lancaster also build an impressive career in Europe where he worked with the Italian directors Luchino Visconti (The Leopard and The Conversation Piece) and Bernardo Bertolucci (1900). His last important role was in Louis Malle’s masterpiece Atlantic City U.S.A. (1980)
7) James Stewart (1908-1997)
James Stewart, the long thin man with his famous drawling voice has been an important leading actor for thirty years and a modest and beloved star. His first striking performance was in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) by Frank Capra in which he played a gangly, shy and idealistic senator who exposes corruption. The Fifties has been his most decisive period of his acting career. His startling performances in Anthony Mann’s Westerns (they made 5 together) in which he mainly personified grim and cynical men (The Naked Spur (1953) and especially The Man From Laramie (1955)) are diametrically opposite to most of his work before and after this series of films. Stewart made four films with the suspense maestro Alfred Hitchcock. The two finest (for probably both the actor and director) are the magnificently staged Rear Window (1954), with Stewart as the immobilised photographer who has a broken leg and witnesses a murder while looking through his binoculars and the enigmatic and bleak mystery Vertigo (1958) in which he portrayed a neurotic detective who falls in love with his friend’s wandering wife whom he has to trail. The old Hollywood star brought a level of neurotic energy to his best roles that few Method actors could match.
6) Montgomery Clift (1920-1966)
“He’s a little queer, don’t you think so?” John Wayne remarked to his secretary after meeting Montgomery Clift his co-star in Red River (1948). Later, when the film was finished he was won over by the great professionalism of the young “method” actor. When Clift was 15 he already played small professional roles. With his slender stature, thin face and expressive eyes he soon became a romantic hero, especially when persistent rumors arose about a relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. With her he co-starred in three films (A Place in the Sun (1951), Raintree Country (1957) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and they remained friends for the rest of his life. In the Fifties Clift was the most sought after actor but he was very reluctant and critical on the roles he chose. During the production of Raintree Countree Clift had a terrible car accident, which damaged him both physically and emotionally. His life after that has been described as the longest suicide in the history of Hollywood (alcohol and drug addiction). Despite of his addiction he continued acting and had some memorable and heartbreaking performances in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and The Misfits (1961). He was nominated for an Academy award four times and died from a heart attack at the young age of 46 years old.
5) Henry Fonda (1905-1982)
Henry Fonda embodied integrity on the screen (and also in his personal life). Almost all the characters he portrayed breathed dignity, from the young farmer leading his family in John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940), the drifter Gil carter defending a convict against an excited mob in William Wellman’s The Oxbow Incident (1943), Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946), the musician Manny Balestrero wrongfully accused of murder in Alfred Hitchock’s The Wrong Man (1957) and Juror #8 in Twelve Angry Men (1957). In Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) he proofed he also could play a depraved and unscrupulous villain. The only “flaw” in his magnificent acting career is that he very seldom appeared in comedies while he was known as a humorous man in his personal life. For his portrayal of the grubby retired professor Norman Thayer Jr. in On Golden Pond (1981) he finally won an Oscar.
4) James Dean (1931-1955)
Countless books have been published and films have been released on James Dean, its subjects varying from the man behind the legend, his sexual preferences, his so-called death wish and his role as a symbol of the disillusioned youth. With a legacy of only three films, Dean played characters who embodied loneliness, frustration and anger to whom a young audience (the post war generation) could identify. He was educated in the Method Acting style, like his idol Marlon Brando, and because of his troubled youth (his mother, of whom he was very fond, died when he was 9) he could empathize with his characters very easily. As Dean proofed in his roles as Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955) in the emotionally charged scenes when he tries to win his father’s (Raymond Massey) respect or as the misunderstood adolescent Jim Stark in Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) who forms a ‘surrogate family’. In his final role (before his tragic car accident) as Jett Rink in George Steven’s epic melodrama Giant (1956) he also showed his capability to play middle-aged men.
3) Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957)
Humphrey Bogart who would become a legend with his roles as the snarling and sardonic P.I.’s Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade started his acting career in the Twenties on Broadway. He had a breakthrough with his performance in the film The Petrified Forest (he already played in the stage version the year before) in 1936, as the savaged Duke Mantee (inspired by John Dillinger). In the Forties he became one of the most dominating actors in Hollywood with excellent performances in High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), The Big Sleep (1946), Key Largo (1948), The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951). The characters Bogart played late in his career, like Dead Reckoning (1947), In a Lonely Place (1950) and The Harder They Fall (1956) were embittered, self-loathing types, and are his most daring and original work.
2) James Cagney (1899-1986)
The thesis that a film role has to be a projection of the personality of the actor is especially applicable on James Cagney. His ability to portray heroes, sympathetic villains and psychotic egoists with an electrifying energy, is unmatched in the history of cinema. His first leading role in William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) as the gangster Tom Powers made him an instant star. In the following years he continued playing gangsters (Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Roaring Twenties (1939) for the Warner Brothers studio who were known for their gritty and realistic pictures. In 1942 Cagney won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in the musical Yankee Doodle Dandy which showed his diversity. After the comedy One, Two, Three in 1961 he retreated only to return one more time in the film Ragtime (1981) as the authoritative police chief Waldo.
1) Marlon Brando (1924-2004)
What’s so striking about Marlon Brando’s impressive career is that he also performed in a lot of superfluous films. The actor, who would heavily influence actors like James Dean, Robert de Niro, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman and many others, derived his acting method from the Stanislawski system. Brando was one of the first members of The Actors Studio founded by Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan. With Kazan he made the groundbreaking Streetcar Named Desire (1951), playing the charismatic but violent Ed Kowalski (nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor) whom he already had portrayed in the Broadway version based on the eponymous book of Tenessee Williams. In the following years his roles in Viva Zapata! (1952), Julius Caesar (1953) and On the Waterfront (1954) were all nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor (8 times in his whole career) with the latter awarded. In 1961 he directed and played in the eccentric Western One-Eyed Jack’s, after Stanley Kubrick retreated from the project, together with his life-time friend Karl Malden. In the Seventies he returned with iconic performances in The Godfather (1972), Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1976). After these films Brando’s appearances were short, expensive and permeated by self-deprecation. His last important role was in A Dry White Season (1989), in which he portrayed a human rights attorney who fights against the Apartheid system in South-Africa.