WARNING: The following contains heavy semantics. This is the equivalent of letterboxd users breaking down their dumb rating systems. OK, not as bad, but still! You have been warned!
I’m starting a new (and final) iteration of something I’ve done my whole life. A single list of my 50 Favorite Actors, covering the full scope of era and gender. I’ll make a new one from scratch each year as a kind of record. 50 doesn’t leave too much room for sudden or drastic evolution, but the long game is what I’m playing at.
All of my old lists (of any kind) used to be ranked. Frankly, fuck that. I’m all for ranking within narrow frameworks (Top Ten By Year, etc) but general lists like favorite actors and movies? Why do it? Numbers make the whole thing an arbitrary assessment, isolating the actors and films into a misguided hierarchy that doesn’t add any insight or clarity. Lists and rankings are such an oversaturated aspect of culture content as it is, and I’d like to avoid this feeling like just another ranking. The collective group is the thing, the totality of taste, interest, and meaning. Keeping this a singular entity (with one or two caveats) preserves this as a personal journal entry of sorts, a snapshot and not the end-all be-all. It’s a way of capturing my taste in film and the people in it. I’ve put a star next to my ten favorites, and I’ve got a separate long list of people I considered but ultimately didn’t add, and that’s the extent of it.
Growing up, I made favorite actor lists obsessively. When I was around six or seven I would play ‘School’. I was the teacher. My students? The likes of Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, and John Travolta. I had pages and pages of any actor whose name I knew (the entire casts of Angels in the Outfield and Addams Family Values were represented). I took very careful attendance to make sure everyone was present, calling out each name and imagining that yes, they were there. Each actor received a little check in their row of squares (I made sure I had the checkered graph paper to keep everything orderly and precise).
Then there were the dark days, the days when tween Katie made lists like Top Ten ‘Cutie-Patootie’ Actors (a reference to the Rosie O’Donnell Show, yes, the Rosie O’Donnell Show, seen above). As you can see, the kid from Dennis the Menace topped that one. I also had my constantly revised Top Ten Favorite Actors & Actresses. Five actors from the lists pictured above are also on this current one: Nicole Kidman, Jim Carrey, Winona Ryder, John Travolta, and Michelle Pfeiffer. They were major icons for me then, and they remain so now, 20 years after the fact. They are forever favorites.
What followed were continuously updated versions of this, covering half my lifetime: Top Blank (at varying points it was 20, 30, and 50) Modern Actors, Modern Actresses, Classic Actors, and Classic Actresses (‘Classic’ accounted for the Hollywood studio era). They were always divided into those four quadrants. I can timestamp the years by who was on them. Simon Pegg at the top? Must be 2008. Katee Sackhoff near the top? I must have been watching “Battlestar Galactica” then. You can find the 2012 versions on this site: here and here.
These categories created considerable grey area, swaths of actors that never really fit comfortably in their group. Those who either featured in films from both eras (Jack Lemmon) or were technically of the ‘Modern’ era but with careers that didn’t really transition into the current (Faye Dunaway). And those ‘Modern’ lists were always much more about the now. I never made room for these actors who qualified as ‘Modern’ but who could be pinpointed to the past. I wanted to feature the up-and-coming, people whose careers I was excited about now! Filmographies I could follow along with as they progressed.
This factor, which meant so much to me then, means nothing re: this new list. For one, I don’t follow current stuff to the degree I used to. 21st century film is less interesting to me (current TV far less so). But I’m really fond of a lot of actors working today, from relative newcomers to tried-and-true character actors to cemented A-listers. The group there was no room for, not by a long shot, were the relative newcomers. I’m an easy lay when it comes to loving actors. But with over a century of performers to choose from, it doesn’t leave much room for the young “oooh I love him/her/them, I can’t wait to see what they do next” ones.
But for the record, the fresher (2010 to present) faces that I’m most invested in are Adam Driver, Elizabeth Debicki, Tom Hardy, Lakeith Stanfield, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Plemons, Nicholas Hoult, and Jonah Hill (whose career trajectory I’m endlessly intrigued by, a man funnier than most of his peers, with the unstable depths of a Chris Penn, whose hyper-sensitivity about being taken seriously and joining the ranks of the prestigious show up on the screen).
The old lists, especially the 50-each ones that totaled to 200 actors, were actually more challenging than this list. Because with so much room, you’re fooled into thinking everyone can be represented. But they can’t; even those lists fill up quick. And now, with just 50 total, it gets down to essentials. There are the favorites, and then the ones who matter most. Oh, I love them? Cool, next! Oh, I love them a lot? Cool, next! Omgtheyaresoamazing? Cool. Next!
There are so many actors whose performances I consistently love or enjoy, that I always look forward to seeing and am often moved by. But there’s a difference between actors who frequently deliver great work, and actors who make something inherently more just by being there, that make me sit up in my seat because what they give either draws out extra engagement from me or they are so distinctive a presence that the fabric of the film/show is thereby altered. But none of this exists without the secret ingredient: that chemical thing that just draws you to one person’s talent and onscreen life more than another.
The factors are endless. Above is my next tier of favorites, the ones that I didn’t go with but thought about and in some cases agonized (yes, agonized) over whether to include or not.
What do you do when a specific stretch of someone’s work means more to you than most people’s entire careers? Most don’t make it (Patty Duke, Diane Lane, Juliette Lewis, Marlon Brando, etc) But a few do: pre-Dick Tracy Warren Beatty, Eric Roberts in the 1980’s, and Sandy Dennis in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
What do you do with the actors who are still alive but not working regularly, at all, or at the same caliber they used to? Most don’t make it (Nancy Allen, Tim Curry, Kathleen Turner, Fairuza Balk, Sheryl Lee, etc). But a few do: Jim Carrey, Shelley Duvall, Theresa Russell (a spot that could have been occupied by many that mean just as much to me, but I went with Theresa this time because it felt right), Eric Roberts, and John Travolta.
What do you do with the actors who mean a lot to you but whose careers were so brief that it’s hard to justify adding them over others? Unfortunately, almost all of those actors didn’t make it (Linda Manz, Paula Sheppard, Laird Cregar, Zoe Lund, James Dean, Pamela Franklin, etc). One does: Louise Brooks.
What do you do about the actors you love watching more than most but whose work you aren’t familiar enough with yet? None of them make it (Natasha Lyonne, Yaphet Kotto, Silvana Mangano, Helmut Berger, Dagmar Lassander, Tuesday Weld, etc). There are plenty of films from the 50 I’ve yet to see, but I’ve at least seen enough.
Then there are all the others, the really tough ones. I think about James Gandolfini more and more as the years go by. Harvey Keitel’s performances resonate a lot more as I get older (those defiant eyes, I can often feel him). I can’t believe I didn’t make room for Christina Ricci. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the defining comedienne of my lifetime. There is only one Carol Kane, Donald Sutherland, Nicolas Cage, Joan Cusack, Parker Posey, Lily Tomlin, Crispin Glover. I get distinct pleasures from watching each of them. Some of my favorite immortals are Marlene Dietrich, Alain Delon, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Buster Keaton, Cate Blanchett. I’m pretty sure I talk about Jude Law all the time. I will, and have, watched Jean-Claude Van Damme in anything I can find. In recent months I’ve rewatched a lot of key Samuel L. Jackson performances (Jackie Brown, Pulp Fiction, Black Snake Moan, Django Unchained), and was newly reminded that he is one of our most compelling living actors. His pervasive and phoned-in presence in every imaginable franchise had led me to forget that. I’ve been hooked on Gene Wilder, Charles Laughton, Eva Green, Cillian Murphy, and still am. It goes on and on and on.
But this is the challenge of it, and the fun of it. My 50 favorites capture my fascination with stardom and long-range careers with eras & reinventions (ex. Crawford, Cruise, Fonda, Monroe, DiCaprio, Farrell, Taylor), physicality (ex. Chan, Ball, Phoenix, Reeves, Olyphant) & commanding physical presence (ex. Reed, Kidman, De Niro, Mitchum), blue moon charisma (ex. Pfeiffer, Russell, Walbrook, Cagney, Reed, Nicholson), the ones I feel a deep connection to (all of them but especially Carrey, Brooks, & Hoffman) & offbeat god-tier character actors (Dennis, Dourif, Roberts, Black, Duvall) I would take a bullet for.
I start to realize some of the people that aren’t even on this second list: Tilda Swinton, Kate Winslet, Robin Williams, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Katharine Hepburn, Michael Shannon, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Jeanne Moreau, Saorsie Ronan, Brad Pitt, Gena Rowlands, Dirk Bogarde, James Mason, Jeff Bridges, Ethan Hawke, Jeff Goldblum, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Catherine O’Hara, Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Charlize Theron, Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Michael C. Hall, Michael Caine, Malcolm McDowell, John Hurt, Paul Newman, Anjelica Huston, Sigourney Weaver (every time I watch her in something I think about how much I love her. Her work in Alien 3 means a lot to me), Elliot Gould, etc etc etc. Hell, Peter Mullan is the only person on either list who appears in any Harry Potter film, and that franchise employed basically every British actor you can think of. Most of these actors have been on other lists in the past. Some you’d always be guaranteed to find there (Binoche, Deneuve, etc). As I type this I am realize I forgot Michael Stuhlbarg and John Hawkes in that second group. At the end of the day it just becomes about knowing who there was never any question about, and going with your gut on the rest.
But these 50 (ok, 52, I cheated, the truth is out!), the ones I ultimately chose, are the actors whose work collectively means more than the rest, my ultimate favorites: the ones I can lose myself in, and then find myself in. Who are yours?