Monday, August 18, 2014

AFI's 25 Greatest Actresses, Part 4

We have now counted through the women on the American Film Institute's 25 Greatest Actresses list (click here and here and here and then return to us so that you're all caught up with the actress love-in that has sprung up this week in celebration of the life of Lauren Bacall).  You may be asking what's next?  What else could you possibly have to say about a 15-year-old list?  The answer is, well, plenty.

Since the internet was in its toddler stage fifteen years ago and because this blog didn't exist yet, I wasn't able to discuss that most critical of questions-who just missed the cut?  The requirements at the time were that it had to be a woman that had made her film debut in or before 1950, or had completed their body of work (had died).  With only 25 women listed, certainly a number of the overall nominated women (250 actresses were contenders, all listed here) just barely missed the cut, and Ava, Mary, and Carole probably had some stiff competition.

The question is-who was in 26th place just waiting to be given this honor (it's worth noting that every single one of these 25 women have the "greatest star" title listed on their Wikipedia page, so clearly some of these women probably would have wanted the citation, even posthumously).  Looking at the list, you find that the AFI isn't just weighing the 25 greatest actors of the era, but also those that had significant cultural impact and longevity within the public consciousness.  Someone like Grace Kelly, for example, didn't have a particularly robust filmography, but her position in Hollywood was astronomical.  Therefore, in choosing the ten women below, I didn't just go for strong actors, but also for people that have permeated modern movie consciousness and some who were more celebrities or stars than they were thespians.  I have listed the ten below in alphabetical order, as well as my postulation as to why they missed the cut.  In the comments, if you're feeling inclined, take a guess at which of these women were the closest to making the list and which one I'm insane for assuming could be so close to the AFI's greatest.

(Side note before we get in-I get a teensy bit negative in the "Why She Missed" sections, so keep in mind that this isn't my opinion that they should have missed (I'll save my favorite actresses of this era list for a different (very distant) day), but simply why I think they were skipped by the collective AFI voting committee; conversely, the "Why She Was Close to the List" section is arguing why they would have voted for these women, not whey they should have)

Jean Arthur (1900-1991)

Oscar Nominations: One nomination, for The More the Merrier (she lost to Jennifer Jones)
Why She Was Close to the List: Like Carole Lombard, she was one of the leading ladies of the 1930's in comedies, and in particular starred in three major motion pictures from Frank Capra: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  She was a major star of the screwball comedy and a significant box office draw in her day (she even starred late in her career in the classic western Shane).
Why She Missed: Arthur had a short reign in Hollywood, but unlike some of the other short reigns, hers was self-designed.  Arthur was an intensely private person and loathed interviews, and so as a result her public persona is almost entirely based on what she brought to the screen, unlike most of the other women that made the list.  I mean, she spent a good chunk of her late career as a teacher rather than a performer (she actually taught a young Meryl Streep at Vassar).
My Favorite Performance: Surely her bubble gum snap in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is the quintessential Jean Arthur performance (though Shane is by far my favorite of all of her films...and one of my favorite films, period).
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: Probably the George Stevens' classic The Talk of the Town with Ronald Colman and Cary Grant, which would go on to win a Best Picture nomination.

Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968)

Oscar Nominations: Ms. Bankhead never received an Oscar nomination or win.
Why She Was Close to the List: If you're going for iconic stars whose work still stands (Theda Bara isn't on this list because almost none of her films still exist to perpetuate her legend), you cannot get much better than deliciously scandalous Tallulah.  The daughter of Speaker of the House William Bankhead, she was a sensation both internationally and in the United States for her daring private life and fluid sexuality (almost every major star of the era has been rumored to an affair with her).  She also had an extremely iconic role in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat.
Why She Missed: While Mae West was also more known for her bawdy behavior and celebrity, she did manage to make a film or two.  Bankhead was more noted for her stage work, and in particular for originating roles that would go on to be played onscreen by Bette Davis (Dark Victory and The Little Foxes).
My Favorite Performance: I mean, isn't everyone's favorite performance by Tallulah in Lifeboat?  You'd be hard-pressed to find a more significant film in her oeuvre.  
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: It'd have to be Devil and the Deep, an early film in her career where she managed to get top billing over Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and Charles Laughton (quite the combination).

Doris Day (1922-Present)

Oscar Nominations: Despite a dazzling career and being a major public draw for fifteen years, she only received one nomination in 1959 for Pillow Talk (she would lose to Simone Signoret).  Every year, though, like clockwork, the rumors spread that she'll win an Honorary Award.
Why She Was Close to the List: Probably the most surprising exclusion from the list, Day was at one point the most financially successful actress in Hollywood.  A Box Office superstar, she was all the public could demand from the mid-1950's to the mid-1960's and starred in a string of romantic comedy hits.  Even today her name is extremely well-known with audiences (even if her movies aren't necessarily) and everyone knows her as one of America's Sweethearts.
Why She Missed: It may be that her role and persona could be too dated?  Most of the other women toward the bottom of the initial list had either more artistic (such as Gardner or Lombard) or pioneering (Pickford) credit that Day, who was merely a titan of her industry.  Still, this is definitely the most surprising exclusion and was (my hunch) 26th place.
My Favorite Performance: I've seen many Doris Day films through the years (my mom was a big fan of hers), so I'm going to go with a childhood favorite right now in Calamity Jane.  It doesn't age particularly well (some of the songs are pretty sexist), but the music and sets and in particular Day are incredibly game and "Secret Love" is heavenly (and an oddly resonant coming out song for anyone who reads between the lines).
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: There's a few options here, but since I've seen some of the biggest pictures of her career, I'm going to go with one that intrigues me most: Move Over, Darling, where Day is united with James Garner and Polly Bergen.  The film was a huge hit and kept the lights on at 20th Century FOX after Cleopatra (not to mention I want to see how Day does in a role that was originally intended for Marilyn Monroe).

Olivia de Havilland (1916-Present)

Oscar Nominations: De Havilland would receive five Oscar nominations during her career, winning twice in 1946 and 1949 for To Each His Own and The Heiress, respectively.
Why She Was Close to the List: Both Olivia and her sister Joan Fontaine could arguably have made this list without much fuss, but despite Joan being Hitchcock's great muse in Rebecca and winning the Oscar first, it was Olivia who enjoyed the more enduring star.  The second female lead in the great Gone with the Wind, she was a major movie star in the 1930's with her wildly successful string of eight pictures with Errol Flynn (the most critically-celebrated of these being The Adventures of Robin Hood) and had a long line of highly successful dramatic pictures in the 1940's and early 1950's.  Plus, considering that the AFI collected film scholars and actors, most of them would be aware of her landmark 1943 legal victory which gave greater control to performers in their contracts with studios.
Why She Missed: De Havilland was always seemingly sharing the spotlight with someone, and frequently another actress.  Whether it was playing second place to Vivien Leigh (it doesn't help that on a list of actresses where all 25 were leading ladies, de Havilland's most famous role was a supporting one) or her longtime feud with her sister, she never seemed to take the spotlight entirely onto herself.  Her name endures more today with casual film fans for Gone with the Wind and her longstanding rivalry with Joan rather than her initial celebrity.
My Favorite Performance: I'm going to go cliche with her bravura work as Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, though I've always had a soft spot for her work as Catherine Sloper in The Heiress.
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: I have never seen The Adventures of Robin Hood, which is one of the few classic films of that era that I haven't caught yet that I'm genuinely looking forward to seeing, and I believe that it's actually toward the top of my Netflix queue, so we'll be getting there pretty quickly.

Greer Garson (1904-1996)

Oscar Nominations: A staggering number of them in her career, she received seven nominations, including five of them consecutively, and won as the titular Mrs. Miniver in 1942's Best Picture.
Why She Was Close to the List: Seven Oscar nominations is a spectacular number for lead actress, and Garson was one of the most significant stars in the MGM lot throughout the 1940's when she was amassing that collection.  She starred in a number of iconic roles during this period, particularly Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (had she been Oscar-nominated for that role, which very well could have happened considering the critical acclaim, she would have been nominated seven years in a row).  The only other actress with a five-in-a-row streak was Bette Davis, and she landed in slot number two.
Why She Missed: For some reason there are actresses from every era that seem to slip into the background of history (think Garbo, Crawford, and then Norma Shearer), and Garson's luster never was quite as iconic as Davis's and Hepburn's following this time period.  It probably doesn't help that her frequent collaborator (all of the women of this era seemed to have one) was Walter Pidgeon, a name that is far less known than Garson's today (whereas Hepburn got someone like Spencer Tracy).  Garson also was almost exclusively a dramatic actress during her years at the top, and most of the women on this list either have a comic off-screen persona (Davis) or frequently starred in comedies onscreen (the Hepburns).
My Favorite Performance: Probably Mrs. Miniver, which was the exact right moment to give a major motion picture star her Oscar, as she totally nailed that role (and managed to carry it to a Best Picture win).
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: I have long thought that if I ever actually saw it Random Harvest would be the sort of Waterloo Bridge-style picture that I would latch onto pretty quickly, so I'll say that.

Lena Horne (1917-2010)

Oscar Nominations: Ms. Horne never won an Academy Award nomination or trophy during her long career, though one could have argued pretty validly that she deserved an Honorary Oscar toward the end there.
Why She Was Close to the List: I may get an eyebrow raise here as Lena Horne wasn't particularly well-known outside of the 1940's and even then had only a handful of film roles, but A) Grace Kelly had less roles in the movies and she made the list and B) as we've seen with a few women on the list, it's not just about the size of their filmography, but also their historical importance.  Horne was a pioneer during her era, the first African-American performer to sign a long-term contract with a Hollywood studio, and likely the most important black actress of her generation.  She starred in a couple of major MGM musicals, including Stormy Weather and The Cabin in the Sky.
Why She Missed: Her filmography, as I illustrated above, is pretty light when you throw out those two movies, and she didn't seem as smitten with Hollywood in the years after her heyday, instead preferring music and the stage.
My Favorite Performance: I'll admit right now, I have never seen a Lena Horne movie, though I've seen her perform many times in television specials and will sing her version of "Stormy Weather" in the shower at least once a week.
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: Either Stormy Weather or The Cabin in the Sky would seem appropriate, though considering that shower comment I'll probably select the former.

Deborah Kerr (1921-2007)

Oscar Nominations: Six nominations for Best Actress, never winning.  Only Thelma Ritter and Glenn Close have been nominated as an actress as many times and never won (and Kerr is the only person to have done so exclusively in the lead category).  She won an Honorary Academy Award in 1993 "in recognition for a full career's worth of elegant and beautifully crafted performances."
Why She Was Close to the List: Like Greer Garson, Kerr has a long history with the Academy Awards and is widely recognized as an actress of great talent and poise from this era.  Unlike Garson, though, Kerr has some films that have actually survived in the modern popular culture.  Films like The King and I, An Affair to Remember, and of course From Here to Eternity are frequently referenced today, and her wave-soaked make-out session with Burt Lancaster in the latter film in particular has been lampooned as frequently as Janet Leigh's shower and Darth Vader's paternal confession.  Kerr was also a frequent collaborator with Robert Mitchum, who did make the cut on the men's side (most of the famous cinematic "pairs" made it on both sides of this list-Kerr/Mitchum is one of the few that didn't).
Why She Missed: Like Garson, she isn't quite the iconic figure that some of these other women were, particularly offscreen where she had a relatively stable marriage for the latter half of her career to Peter Viertel (and she was never married to a movie star, which helps in boosting your legend).  It also has to be said that Kerr was always a bridesmaid with Oscar, and winning an Oscar does tend to help the immortal ones have an extra aura.
My Favorite Performance: I could and probably should go with Anna, but An Affair to Remember is one of my all-time guilty pleasure movies, and I love the way that only Kerr can sell some of the clunky and yet terribly romantic dialogue.
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, much like Random Harvest, is one of those movies I'm near certain that I will love, and probably will as soon as I get to it, so I'll go with that.

Myrna Loy (1905-1993)

Oscar Nominations: Loy is one of the most famous cases of the Oscars completely missing a major star (she's frequently toward the top of the list of actors who were never nominated).  Loy never received a competitive Oscar nomination, but the Academy made up for it in 1991 when she received an Honorary Academy Award for career achievement.
Why She Was Close to the List: Wildly popular in her day, she is survived today by her indelible Nora Charles, the drunken half of one of the cinema's best-known detective teams.  Even if it weren't for The Thin Man, she would have a pretty solid filmography with The Best Years of Our Lives and Cheaper by the Dozen amongst them, and was one of the most significant leading ladies of the 1930's and 1940's.  She was also insanely well-liked in Hollywood (something not all actresses can claim), and was noted for her work with the United Nations.
Why She Missed: She never had that "star turn" moment that seems to transcend all decades.  While very beautiful, she wasn't a glamour doll like Marilyn and she lived a fairly conventional life, even if she went through husbands and lovers with Liz Taylor-like regularity.  I guess she's the sort of actress that everyone slaps their forehead and says "of course, include her on a greatest list," but not necessarily when they aren't prodded to do so.
My Favorite Performance: Of course it would be Nora Charles in The Thin Man, one of the funniest movies I've ever seen-her chemistry with William Powell in these films was electric.
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: I have seen Myrna Loy with Gable and Powell, but never with Cary Grant, so I'd be interested in seeing her in the classic comedy Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, which was cited by AFI for the Best Comedies list the year after the stars list was made.

Maureen O'Hara (1920-Present)

Oscar Nominations: Despite starring in a host of Oscar-nominated films (including the lead in a Best Picture winner, making her the extremely rare actress to not get nominated despite leading a Best Picture winner), O'Hara herself has never won or been nominated for an Oscar.  Like Doris Day, every year cinephiles complain that she should get one, but unlike Day I think she'd actually show up to receive it so I don't know what the hold-up is here.
Why She Was Close to the List: Iconic for her red hair and fiery onscreen personality, O'Hara has starred in a number of classic films through the years.  How Green Was My Valley, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Quiet Man are toward the top of the list, but like several women on both the official list and this "runners-up" list, she's starred with almost every major leading man in Hollywood.  Also, like Bacall, Kate Hepburn, and Ginger Rogers, she had a frequent onscreen collaborator in John Wayne (who did make the male list), making her a likely candidate to make it (if Wayne made your ballot...).
Why She Missed: For some reason I've never been entirely certain of, O'Hara hasn't ever had the sort of respect with cinephiles or awards bodies that she seems to have deserved.  I don't know if it's because she gave up her career for stay-at-home-momdom (unlike someone like Bette Davis or Ingrid Bergman who kept working right up until the end) or if it simply was that her skills were too comedic, but she's never quite landed compared to some of her dramatic counterparts.
My Favorite Performance: Sure, everyone's going to pick The Quiet Man, which is a great movie, but I grew up watching McLintock! at every family get-together, so if I'm going to go with a personal film, it would have to be this one.
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: Most assuredly it would be The Hunchback of Notre Dame (seriously, another classic-get on this AMPAS!), uniting her with her pre-John Wayne frequent collaborator, Charles Laughton.

Natalie Wood (1938-1981)

Oscar Nominations: Wood received three Oscar nominations in her career, though she lost for all three.
Why She Was Close to the List: Iconic actress still referenced today.  Check.  Critically-acclaimed.  Check.  Incredible beauty.  Check.  Tragic demise.  Sad check.  Wood manages to hit all of the things that the AFI was going for, and was a star in three absolute classics of American cinema (Miracle on 34th Street, Rebel without a Cause, and West Side Story).
Why She Missed: Perhaps she was too young?  While she technically qualified under the rules, she'd have one of the smaller filmographies of any of the actors on the list and would be easily the youngest.  Plus, she had most of her impact in 1960's cinema, toward the end of Classical Hollywood, and Sophia Loren was really the only person on the list who could boast that.
My Favorite Performance: I mean, can you really top the sexual frustration of Splendor in the Grass?  Completely mesmerizing work, with Wood going through all of the stages of youth (and being driven insane by the prospect of losing a 1961-era Warren Beatty...which is surely understandable).
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: I've honestly seen all of the major pieces of Wood's filmography, so I'm going to go with Gypsy, which she has a supporting part in if only for the curiosity of how Rosalind Russell handles one of the most iconic roles in the American theater.

And there you have it-my guesses as to the ten runners-up for the AFI list.  We've got one more quick addendum to this series, but before we go-which of these women do you think was the closest to AFI's list?  Which do you think I'm off my rocker for assuming was close?  And what other women do you think may have been in strong contention that I don't check-point?  Share in the comments!

No comments: