Bogie and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Fred and Ginger and Gable and Lombard were once again united as the American Film Institute saluted movie icons in the three-hour television special “100 Years … 100 Stars,” broadcast Tuesday evening.
There was Liz but no Dick, Judy sans Mickey, and the Marx brothers — but no sign of two of the cinema’s most enduring stars, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny.
Ballots were sent to 1,800 people in the film industry, including artists, execs, critics, historians and other cultural leaders.
They chose Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn as the No. 1 male and female stars of the elite gender-balanced list. The top four men following Bogie were Cary Grant, James Stewart, Marlon Brando and Fred Astaire. The top-seeded women were Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Greta Garbo.
Voters were instructed to make choices based on “star quality, craft, legacy, popularity and historical context.” But the actor’s screen debut had to predate 1951, with the exception of performers who had died but whose legacy “marked a complete body of work.”
The only person to make the cut on the latter basis was James Dean (No. 18). Sophia Loren squeaked into the list at No. 21 on the basis of work as an extra when she was a teenager in 1950.
Clint Eastwood and Jack Lemmon — AFI Lifetime Achievement winners — and Shirley MacLaine and Paul Newman missed out because first film roles came in 1954-55.
“In following up on last year’s ‘100 Years … 100 Films,’ we wanted to do something that would again make the art of film part of the national conversation,” AFI communications director Seth Oster said. “I don’t think there’s any question that last year’s program worked in raising the consciousness about classic movies. Video rentals of (first-ranked) ‘Citizen Kane’ went up by 300%, and the studios stepped up their activities in theatrical revivals.”
Last year’s “100 Years … 100 Films” program was criticized for its narrow selection focus and was considered by many to be more commercially tilted than educational. The institute’s National Endowment for the Arts funding has been cut back by more than $2 million during the past three years and that has prompted the AFI’s more aggressive fund raising.
“We were basically told to expect annual cutbacks four years ago by the NEA,” AFI chairman Tom Pollock said. “Thankfully, it didn’t occur all at once. We had to reduce overheads, unfortunately cut some programs and put more energy into fundraising and entrepreneurial efforts. It forced us to think about mass-appeal programs that retained the educational and historic foundation of the organization.”
Pollock said the “100 Stars” event would not make up the $2 million government shortfall but would take a sizable bite out of it: He estimates it could generate between $500,000 and $1 million depending on international TV sales and ancillary income.
Pollock observed that the various lists are not definitive but rather, because of the AFI imprimatur, are “official … the list from which all others can snipe at.”
This year’s selection has already spawned dozens of articles and reader polls in advance of the broadcast.
The San Francisco Chronicle survey echoed the AFI with Bogart and Hepburn at No. 1, and Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh nosing out Astaire and Garbo among the top five.
In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Stewart inched ahead of Bogart by three votes and Davis squeaked ahead of Katharine Hepburn by a single ballot. Both lists shared 80% in common with the AFI selection.
Favorites and forgotten
The “official” list is dominated by obvious choices — favoring icons such as Gary Cooper, Jean Harlow, Gene Kelly and Mae West. Pollock suggests that one probably could have predicted 75% of the choices. Overlooked performers such as Montgomery Clift, Steve McQueen, Myrna Loy and Ida Lupino could very well vault into the pantheon in the next decade. Some, including Viola Dana and Charles Ray, are too arcane and have seen too much of their legacy lost to time and decomposing celluloid.
Steven Hunter of the Washington Post said that McQueen’s absence was his biggest disappointment, and the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Wilmington expressed regret that Walter Huston wasn’t cited.
“You have to recognize that these kinds of lists are mostly banal,” Hunter said. “Once I dispensed with that given, it allowed me to talk about what really interested me — the architecture of the face and the nature of stardom.”
As to the absence of Bugs and Mickey, Oster said their significance was never in question, but both ultimately were eliminated because they lacked a “significant presence in feature film.” The same criteria applied to the Keystone Kops, while Rin Tin Tin and Lassie got the boot because they were embodied by a series of different dogs.
Following the successful promotion of last year’s special, the AFI hopes that a selection of 100 videos representing the honorees and legends will generate extra revenues.