Thursday, August 14, 2014

AFI's 25 Greatest Actresses, Part 1

So, with the recent death of Lauren Bacall, the American Film Institute's list of living "greatest actors" just got one person shorter.  Created in 1999, and for only actors who made their film debuts after 1950 (or had already passed away at the time), the list at the time was already pretty short on still-living members (only nine including the men), but is now down to three, and just one of those in females.

So in honor of this list, and Ms. Bacall, I thought it would be a cool idea to do a rundown of the actors on it, and my favorite of their performances.  This is partly both a public service and a personal bit of a shaming.  One of the sadder things that happened to me yesterday while discussing Ms. Bacall's passing was that I realized that most people I was talking to about her had never heard of her.  This is sad not only because modern cinema doesn't celebrate its past enough (cough, the Governors Awards, cough), but also because they are missing out on Ms. Bacall's work.  However, while I am certainly aware of all of the women on this list, I will admit heartily that I haven't extensively been watching most of their filmographies, and most of them have at least one major glaring miss from me in their filmography.  As a result, my Netflix queue (and hopefully yours) is going to be a lot fuller when all of this is done.  Let's start, and in anti-climactic list reading fashion, we're going to start at the top of the list instead of the bottom (they're all legends, why not mix it up as a result?).

1. Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003)

Oscar Nominations: 12, with four wins for Morning Glory, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter, and On Golden Pond
Probably Best Known Today For: Hepburn's warbling voice is oft-imitated, and I'm guessing that today she's best known for that rather than an actual film role.  If it is a film role, it's likely On Golden Pond, which was a HUGE success in 1981 (the second highest-grossing film of the year after Raiders-it beat Superman II, can you imagine that happening today?!?).
My Favorite Performance: This is a tough one, as Kate's one of the few actors on this list that I've seen a boatload of her movies.  I'd probably have to go with Bringing Up Baby over The Philadelphia Story, though (even though I like the latter film better) since Hepburn is just on all cylinders in that film (the jailhouse scene still leaves me in stitches).
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: This is the part of the post where I reel out certain missing elements of my cinematic credentials.  I have seen eight of Hepburn's Best Actress-nominated performances, but probably the most famous that I'm missing is Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.  It's been considered quite dated and not as good by modern audiences, but there's no denying that it certainly has a pop culture cache, so I'll go with that one.

2. Bette Davis (1908-1989)

Oscar Nominations: 10 nominations, with two wins for Dangerous and Jezebel
Probably Best Known Today For: ...Having those Bette Davis eyes.  Kim Carnes immortalized Davis in a way few of her films ever could for Generation X, but cinematically she remains forever Margo Channing, fascinating her seatbelt for a bumpy night.
My Favorite Performance: I could be provocative and pick one of her other truly strong performances (Davis was the Meryl Streep of her day, for context), but you just cannot beat All About Eve.  The phrase "she was born to play that role" is a hackneyed cliche, but I'll be damned if it isn't true here.  Claudette Colbert was originally slated to play the part, but she had to back out due to an injury, and Bette Davis gloriously filled in.
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: I'm missing a few of her Oscar-nominated roles, the most glaring of which is probably Dark Victory, a performance that probably would have won her a third Oscar before even Walter Brennan got there were it not for some Civil War film where the main character has the same name as a color.

3. Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993)

Oscar Nominations: 5 nominations, winning competitively for Roman Holiday and eventually winning the Jean Thalberg Humanitarian Award.  Hepburn would also receive the EGOT, the only actress on this list to do so.
Probably Best Known Today For: Her incomparable style (she's still regularly featured in ads for fashion houses) and Breakfast at Tiffany's, one of those few classics that has transcended generations in terms of its cultural significance.
My Favorite Performance: Holly Golightly is a tough act to beat, and I'm not going to try.  Her work in Breakfast was complicated, airy, with just enough of a scent of melancholy to keep the film grounded in Truman Capote's original story.
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: I have seen all but one of her Oscar nominated roles (I'm missing The Nun's Story), and I've actually seen most of her most significant non-nominated work (this is probably the most complete of all of the filmographies we're going to discuss today), so I'll go with that.

4. Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982)

Oscar Nominations: 7 nominations, winning three of them in one of the best track records in the history of the Oscars (she won for Gaslight, Anastasia, and Murder on the Orient Express
Probably Best Known Today For: Casablanca, one of the truly iconic classic films and one of those few films that is thrown around as an indisputable high point of the art form (in the same way War and Peace is for the novel).
My Favorite Performance: Casablanca is my favorite film, and she's my favorite performance in it, so you do the math here.  Bergman has long been one of my favorite actresses because she brought that quiet, introverted acting style that is so celebrated now to life much earlier in her career than most people did.  She's also, in my opinion, the most beautiful woman in all of classic cinema (give or take Rita Hayworth).
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: This is one of the final actors before I start ducking my head for cover and wondering if I can call myself a movie fan, as I've seen most of Bergman's most significant work.  From a curiosity standpoint you cannot beat Bergman meets Bergman in Autumn Sonata, but I think the most important film I haven't seen from her is For Whom the Bell Tolls.

5. Greta Garbo (1905-1990)

Oscar Nominations: Garbo received three nominations in her career (though four...kind of; back in the day you could be nominated for more than one film), but never won a competitive Oscar.  She did receive an Honorary Oscar in 1954, though she didn't show up to receive it (it was mailed to her house).
Probably Best Known Today For: Wanting to be alone.  Garbo's films have largely gone by the wayside in the public consciousness, but she herself remains an iconic figure of reclusion and thespian mystery.
My Favorite Performance: I have seen none of Garbo's most iconic roles, so I will go with the one Oscar-nominated performance of hers I have seen, Romance.
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: Where to begin?  Probably with Camille, which is considered her greatest performance and got her her second Oscar nomination.  And considering she landed a nod in 1939, generally considered the greatest of all movie years, Ninotchka surely should also be mentioned.

6. Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962)

Oscar Nominations: One of the only actors on this entire list with no history with Oscar, Monroe never received a nomination or a win.  She did win a Golden Globe for Some Like It Hot, however.
Probably Best Known Today For: Never having left us.  No other actress on this list can remotely compare to Monroe in the ways that they have permeated modern pop culture.  She's still on billboards, in advertisements, and sold as poster art.  Andy Warhol helped, but pretty much every pop culture scribe has at some point gone to the Marilyn well for inspiration.  Most people would struggle to name one of her actual movies, but everyone knows HER.
My Favorite Performance: Of course it would be Some Like It Hot, which is one of the greatest screwball comedies ever made and Monroe is dynamite as Sugar Kane, the ukulele player.
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: Unlike most of the public, I've actually seen most of Monroe's most significant work.  Probably the biggest miss would be The Seven Year Itch, which contains her iconic white dress subway scene.

7. Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

Oscar Nominations: 5 nominations, including two competitive wins for Butterfield 8 and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; like Audrey Hepburn, Taylor also won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, getting her Oscar count up to three.
Probably Best Known Today For: Her many marriages.  Taylor was married eight times and was a tabloid sensation, most notably for her two marriages to Richard Burton.  Taylor also became hugely identified with AIDS research in the 1980's and is perhaps the celebrity best known for her advocacy for HIV-infected people.
My Favorite Performance: It's tough to top what she did as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and I'm not going to try-that is a performance that has to be seen to be believed, and she heartily deserved her Oscar citation.
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: I've actually seen most of Liz's most significant work, though I'm missing two big ones: National Velvet, her most iconic role as a child, and Cleopatra, the film that nearly bankrupt 20th Century FOX.

8. Judy Garland (1922-1969)

Oscar Nominations: 2 nominations for A Star is Born and Judgment at Nuremberg, though she lost for both.  Garland did pick up a Juvenile Award for The Wizard of Oz/Babes in Arms in 1939, though.
Probably Best Known Today For: The Wizard of Oz is a classic that every generation encounters on television, and Garland's Dorothy Gale is the heart of that story.  She's also the pinup for the "tragic child actor" story, as her work has long been overshadowed by her personal demons with drugs and booze.
My Favorite Performance: Definitely A Star is Born, which is really one of those brilliant art-imitating-life situations (Garland herself would become a tragically forgotten Hollywood star), and she just nails every aspect of this really superb movie (particularly that unforgettable intro in "The Man That Got Away").
Glaring Miss in Her Filmography: Garland has three truly iconic films, and I have viewed all of them (the other being Meet Me in St. Louis, for those keeping track at home), so I have to go with the B-work.  I could pick Nuremberg, but she's got such a small part in that so I'll instead pick one of the MGM classics, Easter Parade.

And we'll end there and make this a three-parter.  It's now time to confess-which of these women do you love and worship and which of these ladies do you have glaring misses in their filmography (or gulp, maybe haven't seen them in anything?).  Share in the comments!

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