In order to preserve the legacy of American cinema, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the American Film Institute, which has been compiling definitive lists of the best movies, directors, genres, and actors for their “100 years…” series for 25 years. Although the AFI has yet to release an updated list since its 2008 edition, which had strict criteria regarding actors and their feature debuts before 1950, these lists, which divide acting into the best actors and actresses, are fascinating. It’s difficult to predict much in the way of change, given the legendary statuses of its current occupants, whether it is updated soon or in 20 years. Let’s look at the top 10 actors in history, according to the AFI.
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The legendary Cary Grant, born and raised as Archibald Leach in Bristol, England, always showed a flair for the stage. At age 16, he left home and joined the circus, and he later discovered his calling as a pillar of Hollywood. During the Hollywood Golden Age, Grant was a well-known character who personified the stereotypically attractive male lead. The star of North by Northwest, who was a founding member of the “Rat Pack,” continues to hold the second-best actor of all time ranking from the American Film Institute. Grant was exceptional in everything he did, from his great comedies (Bringing Up Baby, Arsenic and Old Lace) to his incredibly romantic thrillers (To Catch a Thief, Charade).
Without a doubt, Charlie Chaplin, also known as the Little Tramp, was the iconic figure of the Hollywood Silent Era. The Londoner made an astounding 82 film appearances over the course of a more than 60-year career, many of which he wrote and directed. A King in New York, Monsieur Verdoux, The Kid, The Great Dictator, and The Gold Rush are just a few of the classic movies on Chaplin’s list, which is nearly as long as his filmography.
After the unwavering critical success of 1939’s Gone with the Wind, Clark Gable earned the moniker “The King of Hollywood.” Clark Gable had a 37-year career and won an Oscar for his outstanding performance in It Happened One Night. It’s interesting to note that Steven Spielberg discreetly paid for Clark Gable’s lone Academy Award and returned it to the organization in 1996. In addition to having impeccable comedic timing, Gable was one of the great early actors who could also provide very sad and heartbreaking performances that subverted his image as a star in movies like The Misfits.
The fact that Fred Astaire is regarded as the fifth-best actor of all time is all the more amazing considering how well-known his dancing and choreography are. Astaire, who was born Frederick Austerlitz, made his cinematic debut in his 30s after spending the previous decades honing his talent on stage. Astaire, who received a Best Supporting Oscar in 1975, had consistently violently objected to anyone creating a film about his life; nonetheless, in 2021, it was revealed that Tom Holland had been chosen to play Astaire in a forthcoming biopic.
With Astaire becoming one of the greatest musical artists of all time as a result of his early collaborations with the legendary Ginger Rogers in films like Top Hat, Shall We Dance, and Swing Time, it was undoubtedly a fascinating existence. Later masterpieces like The Band Wagon, Daddy Long Legs, and Finian’s Rainbow would further his career.
In addition to being a devoted hobbyist and scoutmaster, Henry Fonda held the record for 39 years as the oldest Best Actor Academy Award winner ever after winning it for his performance in On the Pond. Anthony Hopkins, then 83, deposed Fonda in 2020. Henry Fonda, the father of actors Jane and Peter Fonda, honed his craft over the course of a long career, producing such classics as Once Upon a Time in the West, 12 Angry Men, The Grapes of Wrath, The Wrong Man, and The Grapes of Wrath.
After finding employment in the Navy, Humphrey Bogart, or “Bogie” as his friends called him, started his illustrious acting career on Broadway with Spencer Tracy. After appearing in his first full-length feature, A Devil with Women, in the 1930s, Bogart went on to star in enduring black-and-white films that would transcend his time and cinema in general. He began as a routine supporting actor, but his acting prowess was immediately noticed. He eventually won the 1952 film The African Queen’s sole Academy Award for Best Actor, and he unquestionably deserved more credit for his roles in Casablanca, In a Lonely Place, and The Maltese Falcon.
One of the greatest actors to ever appear in front of a camera, according to Orson Welles, was James Cagney. Cagney, who was well-known for having impeccable comedic timing and being a unique orator, won his first and only Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy. Cagney is regarded as one of the best gangster movie actors of all time, having given memorable performances in movies like The Public Enemy and White Heat, in addition to his tremendous musical and comedic abilities. After retiring from the movie business for twenty years, Cagney closed his career by making an appearance in the underappreciated, epic Ragtime.
Today, the idea of actors being drafted into the military is extremely perplexing – just picture fighting alongside Brad Pitt, George Clooney, or Daniel Craig. But for the soldiers who served in James Stewart’s US Army regiment during World War II, this was the truth. The New Yorker joined the American war effort after appearing in over 25 movies, including the critically acclaimed The Philadelphia Story (for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor).
Stewart made his big-screen comeback with It’s a Wonderful Life, reuniting with one of his best directors, Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can’t Take it with You), after a five-year acting break brought on by military service. His most well-known works, however, including Rope, Vertigo, Rear Window, and The Man Who Knew Too Much, were created with Alfred Hitchcock. Stewart’s great run of gritty Western movies under Anthony Mann’s direction shouldn’t be disregarded, either.
Marlon Brando won two Academy Awards, including one for Best Male Lead in 1954’s On the Waterfront and another in 1972 for The Godfather, which he famously declined in protest. He is perhaps best known for playing mob leader Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic The Godfather. One of the greatest performing inspirations of all time, Brando was a highly regarded method actor. Brando undoubtedly transformed the public perception of acting with his performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, Apocalypse Now, and Last Tango in Paris, despite the fact that many thought he was notoriously difficult.
In 1937 and 1938, Spencer Tracy became the first person to ever win two consecutive Academy Awards for Captains Courageous and Boys Town, respectively. Tom Hanks would accomplish the same feat 55 years later. Tracy was regarded as America’s “on-screen Dad,” and it was this endearing paternal quality that made him such a well-liked movie character. Tracy was excellent in everything he did, whether it was his great comedies with Katherine Hepburn (Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib), his aged, stern roles in his later years (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Judgment at Nuremberg), or his intense dramas (Fury, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo).
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