This Article is Part of a 15-Year Anniversary series commemorating the American Film Institute’s 25 Greatest Stars. For the Actresses, click the numbers for Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.
One of the things that I learned with the 25 Greatest Actresses list is that I still have a lot to learn when it comes to actresses, but for whatever reason (perhaps the length of their careers or the fact that Best Picture nominees tend to have lead actors), I do considerably better at catching the classics of the most famous actors. In fact, there is no actor on the list that I haven’t seen one of their pictures. Still, though, there are a number of actors that I am missing a major part of their filmography, and I’m sure this is the case for you as well, so share along in the comments. We’ll investigate the first eight men on the list, and then explore the remaining men, the “just-misses,” and the living nominees all throughout the next week or two. Without further adieu…
1. Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957)
Oscar Nominations: Three, with a win for Best Actor in 1951’s The African Queen
Probably Best Known Today For: Being the tough-but-sensitive man who charmed Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. It’s amazing how a gigantic career can come down to a single role, and indeed Bogie has had a pretty impressive set of characters throughout his career, but Casablanca and his trench-coated Rick is easily what he is most identified with today.
My Favorite Performance: Casablanca is my favorite movie, and there’s really no beating Bogart in it-his Rick is a lost soul content with living in his memories, until they come back to bring him into the present. It’s a wonderful performance in the greatest of films. That being said, I do adore Bogie in general when he’s playing a guy skirting the law, and any of his noir films are toward the high end on my personal list.
Glaring Miss in His Filmography: I’ve seen most of his bigger films (The Maltese Falcon, African Queen, Key Largo, Sabrina, Treasure of Sierra Madre, and of course Casablanca), but I have somehow never gotten around to In a Lonely Place where he charms the eternally sexy Gloria Grahame, despite it being high on my personal to-do list.
2. Cary Grant (1904-1986)
Oscar Nominations: Two, for Penny Serenade and None But the Lonely Heart; Grant also picked up an Honorary Oscar at the 42nd Academy Awards
Probably Best Known Today For: Being the guy that inspired George Clooney (kidding, kidding, though Clooney frequently gets compared to him). Grant’s known to modern audiences for his class, handsomeness, and consistent charm, even if they’ve never seen one of his movies-everyone is enchanted with Cary Grant.
My Favorite Performance: Like all things in life, it’s a tough call between Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story, though in this case I’m going to lean toward Philadelphia (the opposite of what I did with Katharine Hepburn in the same circumstance, for the record). His C.K. Dexter Haven is just mischievous enough to charm everyone on the screen, and I find him as a cad more believable than as a loveable nerd.
Glaring Miss in His Filmography: My mom’s favorite actor is Cary Grant, and so I’ve seen basically every major Cary Grant film. I’ve seen all of the films with the Hepburns, all of the films with Hitchcock, and most all of his screwball comedies. Looking through his filmography, though, I do notice two misses: His Girl Friday his bouncy film with Rosalind Russell in 1940 and the previous year’s Gunga Din with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
3. James Stewart (1908-1997)
Oscar Nominations: Stewart won five Oscar nominations in his career, winning Best Actor for 1940’s The Philadelphia Story. He also went on to win the Life Achievement Award at the 57th Academy Awards.
Probably Best Known Today For: Being the guy that inspired Tom Hanks (again, kidding, kidding, though Hanks frequently gets compared to him). Stewart’s the affable, awe shucks nice guy that everyone seems to admire. A war hero in his day and one of the great stars, he’s best known to modern audiences for that Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life with Donna Reed (you know it-every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings…)
My Favorite Performance: I’m going to go against type here. I do think Stewart is sensational in It’s a Wonderful Life, but there’s no comparing to what he did in Vertigo-it’s so jarring seeing the nicest guy onscreen play a ruthless, obsessed man torturing poor Kim Novak. It’s Hitchcock’s best film, and Stewart’s as well.
Glaring Miss in His Filmography: I’ve seen most of his biggest hits (again-most people have, which is why the comments should be interesting here if you’ve only missed one or two films). I’d probably go with Anatomy of a Murder, the only of his Oscar-nominated work I haven’t gotten around to, but I’ve seen basically every other major film he was in.
4. Marlon Brando (1924-2004)
Oscar Nominations: Brando nabbed eight nominations in his career, winning for 1954’s On the Waterfront and 1972’s The Godfather.
Probably Best Known Today For: Being the greatest actor of all-time? At least to some people that is (myself included). For others, he is one of those names you throw out when you try to benchmark great acting like Meryl and de Niro. And of course, he is running through the street screaming "Stella!" and constantly making people offers they cannot refuse.
My Favorite Performance: Brando is so good so often he's one of those rare actors who could genuinely equal Katharine Hepburn's four wins with me for the OVP. For me, though, he will always be the sexiest man in the history of the screen, seducing everything in his path in A Streetcar Named Desire, in my opinion a tie for the greatest performance of all-time (with Vivien Leigh...in A Streetcar Named Desire).
Glaring Miss in His Filmography: I've seen most of Brando's biggest films because he's my favorite actor, but I've never seen his musical debut in Guys and Dolls-that would probably be the one with the biggest intrigue around it.
Oscar Nominations: Astaire only received one competitive Oscar nomination in his career (for The Towering Inferno of all things), but did receive an Honorary Award in 1950, presented to him of course by Ginger Rogers.
Probably Best Known Today For: Being the classiest hoofer of them all. His longtime partnership with Ginger Rogers onscreen is the stuff of Hollywood legend, and even if you're someone who has never seen an Astaire/Rogers film (and I insist that you rectify this situation immediately), you'll know that Astaire is one of those actors who's "gotta dance."
My Favorite Performance: Astaire was an extremely classy dude onscreen, but he, like Rogers, frequently played himself. I'm going to go with Top Hat in a slight nod over Swing Time (since that's always been my favorite of their films, despite modern enthusiasm being for the latter film). Funny Face is also wonderful, but I can't list it because the age difference between Hepburn and Astaire has always given me the heebie jeebies (though it's a marvelous movie otherwise).
Glaring Miss in His Filmography: Astaire is the first actor on this list where I can say that I've got some work to do. While I've hit a couple of his major films with Rogers, films like The Gay Divorcee and Follow the Fleet are still in the ole Netflix queue. However, some later Astaire (including Easter Parade, The Band Wagon, and Daddy Long Legs) is still on the to view list, so this would need to be a marathon.
Oscar Nominations: Just two for acting, but boy did he make them count: The Grapes of Wrath, for which he lost to Jimmy Stewart, and On Golden Pond, for which he won Best Actor. He was also nominated for producing 12 Angry Men and won an Honorary Award in 1980.
Probably Best Known Today For: Being the father of an acting dynasty, as well as his work in The Grapes of Wrath, a move most high school students will sit through at some point (and he's also in 12 Angry Men, another high school movie staple). His larger career isn't quite as consistently noteworthy as Stewart, Grant, or Brando, but the highlights are known by pretty much anyone.
My Favorite Performance: I feel really weird not listing Grapes of Wrath (Fonda is just wonderful in that movie), but for me there is no topping cold-hearted Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West, the greatest western ever made, and one where Fonda plays duly against type as a ruthless villain being challenged by good guy Charles Bronson.
Glaring Miss in His Filmography: I've seen most of his major hits, so if we're ranking by fame I'd probably have to go with something on the B-roster of Fonda movies like The Ox-Bow Incident or The Wrong Man, but personal preference would be for The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, which was one of my grandpa's favorite movies and one that I have oddly never seen.
Oscar Nominations: Gable received three, winning for 1934's It Happened One Night.
Probably Best Known Today For: Not giving a damn. It's amazing how a single scene or line can make someone immortal amongst the public, but while Gable was once the King of Hollywood and starred in multiple classic film roles, his work as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind will eternally be the film that he is most famous for with the general populace.
My Favorite Performance: This is a tough call, as I really love Gable in It Happened One Night, and he's probably my fourth favorite performance in GWTW. Still, fourth in GWTW is toward the top of my personal list, and so I'll go with his "not a gentleman" work in that movie. What I love about that film, even today, is how desperately modern both he and Vivien Leigh's work seems-the script may be dated, but the performances could work just as well today.
Glaring Miss in His Filmography: For some reason, I have never gotten around to Gable's third Oscar-nominated performance in Mutiny on the Bounty (this is also one of the extremely rare Best Picture winners that I've never seen). That would definitely be toward the top of the list, and I honestly think it actually is-I want to say it's in my next ten movies on my Netflix queue.
Oscar Nominations: Cagney received three nominations in his career, winning for 1942's Yankee Doodle Dandy
Probably Best Known Today For: He's not as well-known today, if we're being honest. This was one of the more surprising elements of the AFI list not because Cagney didn't deserve to be on the list, or that I didn't expect him on the list (I did and would have), but because he's clearly the least well-known in the Top 10. That said, Cagney's work today is probably most known due to his early gangster pictures. People picture him holding a gun, not wanting to get caught, and cheering for him to get away.
My Favorite Performance: I mean, there's no really beating White Heat is there? His demented Mama's boy is a startlingly real and powerful performance, and one that seems to get lost when you're listing the classic performances of the 1940's, but it shouldn't be.
Glaring Miss in His Filmography: I am going to say The Public Enemy. Part of me thinks that I've actually seen this movie, but I'm not 100% certain if I have (I've seen a lot of movies...part of the reason that I started this blog was to keep track of them and my opinions on them)-maybe it's just that I've seen Cagney shove that grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face so many times that I feel like I've seen the movie. Either way, that's the top of the list (...or, since it's Cagney, perhaps top of the world?).
Those are the first eight actors on our (what will be five-part) series on the AFI's 25 Greatest Actors list. These are some of the most famous film stars of all-time, so I know you've got opinions on their best, worst, and the films you're most looking forward to seeing-share them in the comments!