AFI Screen Legends List: The Woes of “Underpriced” and “Overlooked” Actors

AFI Screen Legends List: The Woes of “Underpriced” and “Overlooked” Actors

Myrna Loy, ca. 1930s

Jackie Jerkins, Literary Editor

The likes of rock ‘n’ roll and baseball enjoy “halls of fame,” but for film there is little past the Academy Awards, which are fleeting ceremonies in themselves. The closest the classic motion picture industry has is the American Film Institution’s “100 Years…100 Stars” list of American screen legends, which serves as an act of modern immortalization.

The AFI describes an American screen legend as “as an actor or a team of actors with a significant screen presence in American feature-length (40 min) films whose screen debut occurred in or before 1950, or whose screen debut occurred after 1950 but whose death has marked a completed body of work.” Fifty stars (twenty-five men and twenty-five women) have made the “final cut” in the 1999 list, standing as cinema’s greatest actors of all time.

The list is more or less satisfactory—Humphrey Bogart is listed as the greatest male actor and Katharine Hepburn as the greatest female actor, choices with which I find no mistake—but to a great fault. In my humble, humble opinion, there are more than just a few things awry with this list.

First and foremost, let me shed some light on those who I am startled to find on the list at all. James Dean (#18), Audrey Hepburn (#3), Marilyn Monroe (#6), Grace Kelly (#13), Shirley Temple (#18), Mae West (#15), Sophia Loren (#21), and Robert Mitchum (#23)—with all due respect, what?! James Dean made a total of three—count ‘em, three!—films in his lifetime. And yet, Jimmy enjoys a spot on the list instead of, say, Paul Newman, star of acclaimed jewels like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cool Hand Luke, and several others. One of the finest stars from the 1950s to the 1970s, Paul made films well up until his death in 2008.

Speaking of underrated genius! Take Jack Lemmon, one of the screen’s greatest and most versatile actors. Lemmon’s most famous films, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and The Odd Couple all find spots in AFI’s “100 Laughs” list, with Some Like It Hot being ranked as the greatest comedy ever made. Lemmon, who was master director Billy Wilder’s favorite actor (“Happiness is working with Jack Lemmon,” the Austrian-born marvel once remarked), was active until 2000, but his AFI invitation was probably just lost in the mail, right?

Arguments might be made for Dean’s pioneering of Method acting—the realistic, nontheatrical acting we all know as commonplace in movies today—but in such a case I’d be obligated to counter with a mention of Montgomery Clift, who was perhaps American cinema’s first popular Method actor (beginning in the 1940s) and one of the finest actors in any circumstance. Monty, like Jimmy, also met with a tragic fate, but lacks the recognition of a place on the list, despite having starred in some of the greatest motion pictures the industry has ever known (A Place in the Sun, Red River, The Search, and Judgment at Nuremberg).

Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe had the collective talent basin of a lima bean. While they persist as icons of fashion and bearing, I regret to inform the general consensus is that they were all mediocre actresses at best. What jolts me with amusement more than their presence on the list is their ranking—Audrey as the third greatest actress in cinematic history? Marilyn as the sixth? Why is Carole Lombard (whose exquisite influence as a beautiful yet fearless and farcical comedienne commands  My Man Godfrey, Twentieth Century, To Be or Not to Be, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Nothing Sacred) ranked 23rd, then? And Mary Pickford, the silent actress with whom we can attribute arguably the first superstar title of film, ranked 24th? And please, please, tell me, where in the world is Norma Shearer?

As for Sophia Loren, Mae West, Robert Mitchum, and Shirley Temple—don’t get me wrong, they’re all good actors, but in their own right. Their ranges and skills are truly pedestrian when set against giants Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, and Bette Davis.

Similarly, dancing sensation Fred Astaire has a comfortable, lofty position at number five, while Spencer Tracy (my personal favorite actor, and considered by most of the men on the AFI list to be the greatest actor that ever lived) dangles in ninth place. In an amusing twist, the “second coming” dancing sensation Gene Kelly has a step up on Orson Welles, whose 1941 brainchild Citizen Kane (in which Welles, then aged twenty-six, directed, wrote, produced, and starred) has been consistently ranked as the greatest film ever made—most ironically by AFI’s “100 Movies” list. Astaire and Kelly are without question lovely and very solid actors, but next to the likes of Spencer Tracy and Orson Welles, there is simply no competition.

Buster Keaton wallows in the swampish lowlands of the list at number twenty-one, despite having singlehandedly directed, written, and starred in nineteen short films and twelve feature films from 1920 to 1928. His creative genius in the work of special effects and stunt work (all completed by himself, often at the risk of his own life) is both unprecedented and unparalleled. A legend, legacy, and literal da Vinci of film, Buster is cited by Kevin Spacey, Jim Carrey, Mel Brooks, Jackie Chan, James Agee, Billy Crystal, George Arliss, and Roger Ebert as the greatest artist and the greatest actor-director in cinematic history. His place on the list is, in a word, insulting.

In one deep, long breath, I’d like to rattle off a few names of those “forgotten” by the American Film Institute, for effect: John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joseph Cotten, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard, Fredric March, Paul Muni, Loretta Young, Ray Milland, Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Robert Montgomery, Anthony Perkins, Harold Lloyd, Dana Andrews, Natalie Wood, Marion Davies, Hedy Lamarr, Joan Blondell, Lon Chaney, Greer Garson, David Niven, Diahann Carroll, Anna May Wong, Pola Negri, Constance Bennett, Deborah Kerr, Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Montgomery Clift, Rudolph Valentino, Sylvia Sidney, Miriam Hopkins, Merle Oberon, Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Dandridge, Shirley MacLaine, Ann Sheridan, Roscoe Arbuckle, Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn, Tony Curtis, Maureen O’Hara, Kay Francis, Fred MacMurray, Jeanette MacDonald, Jean Simmons, Douglas Fairbanks, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, Clara Bow, Steve McQueen, Marcello Mastroianni—just to name a few. Here lie the legacies of stars left in the dust of superficial prioritizing.


The list’s saving graces are weak but still present: Edward G. Robinson weighs in at number twenty-four, a wretchedly low caliber but a caliber nonetheless. “Eddie G.,” as we fans call him, was a fine actor largely responsible for the flourishing popularity of gangster films (Little Caesar from 1930 remains one of the foremost crime films ever made) usually criminally overlooked—pun intended. Sidney Poitier (hailing from our own native Florida), who is one of the only names on the list still alive, settles in at number twenty-two as another actor who is often undervalued or neglected altogether. It’s a number unbecoming of one of the greats, especially when one realizes Poitier, for all his suffering in an age of unabashed racism and prejudice, was the first black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1963.

While I realize not all of these champions could possibly have been corralled into one list, much less one of only twenty-five per gender, I remain at a steady boil. Sure, there may have been a few outcries if the list had excluded James Dean or Audrey Hepburn, but what the Institute does not seem to realize is that there is a vast difference between fame and the merit of fame. In other words, just because an actor is obscenely iconic or the object of blind public worship does not mean that they at all outshine those whose celebrity has frayed with the oxidization of age.

It brings reminders of von Goethe, who wrote: “The soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone.” Perhaps that is how brilliance was meant to be—treasured by the few that mean it rather than erected in a Town Square statue, free for others to pass it by.