Class and Classic Actors: A Dissection

Clark Gable: so fresh, so clean.

The big winner from the 84th Academy Awards, “The Artist,” was a perfect Oscar movie: a feel-good work that was entertaining and engaging. And safe. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a neat idea for a film — a cute, attractive, clean story predicated on its novelty, which it played to the tune of five Oscars. But it hardly took risks.

I bring this up not to make a grand point about the failure of the Hollywood voting system. (That’s for a later column.) Rather, I want to look at why “The Artist” won Best Picture and what this tells us about the industry. It’s really simple: Hollywood loves nostalgia.

They don’t make movies like they used to — that much is certain. Actors today are plainer, rougher. Better? Perhaps. But the stars aren’t like they used to be. They aren’t the true stars that commanded shock, awe and respect. We don’t regard Brad Pitt the same way our grandparents bowed before Charlton Heston. And even he (though I love him) was nothing compared to the great classical American actors, the ones that defined starpower, that carried the greatest film studios of all time on their very backs while never (publicly, at least) resembling anything other than true gentlemen.

Sure, the classic actors were products of a different time. With censorship boards screening all of Hollywood’s prereleased films and American social conservatism breathing down everyone’s necks, you had to be subtle and discreet. The classical films were thus built on understatement and grace. Anything less and the movie wasn’t getting released.

In a lot of ways, it was this cool, calm approach to filmmaking that defined the era. Actors were completely in control of themselves and their characters, both living within and acting outside of the plot. You listened to what they said to pick up on what was not said. And you enjoyed the hell out of the show because of it.

That was class.

So, with that exposition out of the way, I suppose there’s not much more for me to do than to run through a short list of the very actors that embodied class-on-screen, in every sense of the phrase, keeping in mind that without these 10 men, you have nothing.

10) Gregory Peck

Peck was a fine actor and a complete gentleman, capable of playing any part presented to him. (My evidence: He starred in “Moby Dick” and “Designing Women,” back-to-back.)

See: “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) — Best. Father. Ever.

9) John Wayne

In a career stretching 50 years, Wayne appeared in well over 100 films, kicking asses and not bothering to take names all along the way.

See: “The Searchers” (1956) — Only John Wayne could make you sympathize with a racist, genocidal ex-Confederate soldier.

8) Gene Kelly

What gets me the most about Kelly is how effortless he makes it all look. He just performs. No faltering, no fatigue, no focus. It all comes straight from the heart.

See: “Singin’ in the Rain” (1954) — Quite simply, the best musical ever made.

7) Joseph Cotten

The most underrated American actor ever. When you talk about the great names in American cinema, Cotten’s is always passed over. Why? I blame Orson Welles, with whom Cotten collaborated on many of his best projects, a name that overshadowed Cotten’s legacy.

See: “The Third Man” (1949) — One of my top five favorite films.

6) Cary Grant

Before Sean Connery, Alec Guinness and Russell Brand, there was Cary Grant, the quintessential English actor. Always a leading man, Grant exuded charm like incense exudes strong odors — overpowering but hardly overwhelming.

See: “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) — The definition of double-entendre.

5) Laurence Olivier

There’s never been a Shakespearean of such talent on screen before or since, and Olivier’s adaptations of the Bard’s best plays do something that many films are unable to do: become Olivier’s personal products, not just simple rehashings.

See: “Hamlet” (1948) — The best screen adaptation of a Shakespearean drama.

4) James Stewart

The sweetest man who ever lived. Jimmy Stewart’s career is unmatched — he’s appeared in nearly every iconic American film you can think of, from Frank Capra romcoms to Hitchcock thrillers to John Ford Westerns. Stewart is also universally considered a consummate professional, a soft-spoken nice guy who never let anyone down.

See: “Vertigo” (1958) — Jimmy Stewart could be quite dark, if you let him.

3) Humphrey Bogart

Bogie is probably the most famous American actor, and deservedly so. The epitome of noble, hardboiled cynicism, Humphrey Bogart milled around Broadway and Hollywood for nearly 20 years, accepting supporting roles and hunting for a breakthrough performance. He finally found one in “The Maltese Falcon” in 1941 — Bogart never looked back.

See: “In a Lonely Place” (1950) — Bogie’s finest role is also his most sinister.

2) Fred Astaire

Simply put, without Fred Astaire, the entire history of dance on film vanishes. But unlike Kelly, what made Astaire so inspiring was not his energy but rather his extreme precision and grace. He was smooth, not frenetic; artistic, not passionate; economic, not gimmicky. That was his beauty. Unelegant elegance.

See: “Top Hat” (1935) — This famous Astaire film is admittedly not his best, but “Cheek to Cheek” is one of the most graceful numbers in American cinema.

1) Clark Gable

Suave. Arresting. Masculine. All Man. And then some. He was the King of Hollywood. No one before or since defined starpower quite like Clark Gable, who practically gift-wrapped careers for his female co-stars and made his studios millions upon millions upon millions (remember, this was the 1930s).

See: “It Happened One Night” (1934) — The film made Gable’s career and influenced the creation of Bugs Bunny. Enough said.

That’s that. I’m thinking about doing a retrospective of classical actresses next. (How the hell did we go from Audrey Hepburn to Lindsay Lohan? I blame Marilyn Monroe.) In the meantime, check out totalnotebook.me for more commentary on the above screen legends.

Stay classy, my friends.

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