Years ago the word Hollywood conjured up images of glamour, legend and famous actresses and actors. Movie fans clamored for movie magazines that had in-depth stories about the stars’ lives and couldn’t wait to see them on the big screen. Movies were designed around star power and if the plot was exceptional – it was added value to the experience.
Today the word Hollywood has more significance when followed by the words video, sign, tans, or walk of fame. Little about the name creates an imaginary world of make believe in our minds as it once did. Fan magazines today have little to read and mostly include paparazzi photographs of celebrities walking their kids or dogs or what 30 of them wore at the last big event.
At the beginning, my list of stand-out actresses totaled more than 50 names. Challenged to narrow down the list, I looked for certain criteria: What made them famous? Were they more than just beauties? How did they sustain their careers? What did their name add to a picture?
That question was recently answered when I had the privilege of seeing the 100-year-old, two-time Oscar winner Luise Rainer at the Turner Classic Movies film festival. Flown from England to talk about The Good Earth (1937), even the non-star-struck Robert Osborne glowed with awe as he began to interview her. Rainer immediately told everyone her hearing aid had just broken, but a pad of paper took care of that as the still-beautiful actress answered each question with detail, passion and a keen sense of humor. She was still a true star and a pure delight talking about everything from making The Good Earth to her favorite star, Greta Garbo. “I loved Greta Garbo because she was so beautiful, she had a face like … Aphrodite’s, everything was beautiful up, but she had big feet,” Rainer said.
Swedish star Greta Garbo had a short film history in the U.S. She made only 25 films. The fact that she garnered four Oscar nominations – Romance, Anna Christie, Camille, Ninotchka – in a 10 year period speaks volumes about her work. Garbo was a woman in control of her own destiny first and as an actress second. A consummate pro she needed few second takes and had command over who could and could not be on the set. Her enigmatic personality, along with her flawless beauty, were major draws that made her one of MGM’s best early assets.
Among today’s actresses I would compare Jessica Lange to Garbo. Lange had a bumpy beginning trying to recreate Fay Wray’s role as the temptress who brought King Kong to his
death in the 1976 remake. But the beauty with a warm and generous laugh make friends with the camera and it has brought her a successful career with 36 major films and two new ones in the works. Lange has been nominated for six Academy Awards and won two – Tootsie, Blue Sky. She surprised audiences with her intense and seductive performance opposite Jack Nicholson in The Postman Always Rings Twice. I think she should have been nominated for this performance but the fact that it was only her fourth film may have influenced Academy members. Another role I thought she deserved a nomination for was Rob Roy (1995). As the 18th Century Scottish Mary MacGregor, Lange fed her character the love, will of iron and courage her husband (Liam Neeson) needed to battle for his country. Lange splits her enormous talent between films, TV and the Broadway stage.
Holding her own among legendary actors such as John Wayne and John Ford would take an
actress with the spirit and confidence of Maureen O’Hara. She could steal a scene from a rough and tumble cowboy in an instant – maybe something she leaned from taking fencing lessons at age six. She was a classic beauty whether playing opposite a tortured sole in The Hunchback of Notre Dame or being a damsel in distress opposite Tyrone Power in The Black Swan. Although she never received any Academy nods, O’Hara certainly had an impact on her fans. The young Irish actress oozed confidence, something co-star Charles Laughton saw when he helped her land a role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica (1939), which launched her career. Of course her flaming red hair and peaches and cream complexion didn’t hurt either. It’s rumored that Herbert T. Kalmus, inventor of the Technicolor process, found favor by lending his process to films she appeared in. Again, she was as strong a woman as an actress, setting milestones in women earning the same money as men. She even ran an airline company when her husband aviator Charles Blair died.
Julia Roberts embodies many of O’Hara’s qualities. Although Roberts wanted to be a
veterinarian, her parents were actors, playwrights and taught acting lessons to children. So it wasn’t a surprise when she stepped in front of the camera for her two-word debut supporting role along side her brother Eric in Ted Blood (1989). Her dazzling career includes 46 films, with nine in development. Roberts’ range of depth in widely different genres – thrillers, dramas comedies, animation voices and even playing Tinkerbell in Hook (1991) – mimics talents we saw in O’Hara. As a heartfelt young bride with diabetes, Roberts earned her first Academy-Award nomination for Steel Magnolias (1989). Her incredibly funny portrayal of a hooker in Pretty Woman (1990) earned her second Oscar nomination. Roberts struck gold when she won the Academy Award in 2000 for Erin Brockvich, for her riveting portrayal of the real life unemployed single mother, Erin Brockovich, who brought a major corporation to its knees. Like O’Hara’s ability to hold her own with strong male stars Roberts had no problem getting a nod of approval from her co-stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Andy Garcia and Matt Damon when they appeared in the Ocean’s films. While some female stars might think of themselves in Roberts shoes as a BMW, she does not. In one interview I did with her where James Gandolfini described her as a Ferrari, she likened herself to a Volkswagen – “one of the original beetle convertibles, nice noise, you know it’s coming, good gas mileage!” she said.
Jean Harlow broke into Hollywood in her teens. Scarlett Johansson appeared in her first film at age 10. Both woman treaded lightly up the success ladder. Harlow appeared in early talkies, then comedy films and finally the World War I film Hell’s Angels (1930) that opened the door to stardom. Johansson was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead for her performance in 1996’s Manny & Lo. She was 12. Slowly the consummate actress began to surface in films such as Lost in Translation, Girl with a Pearl Earring, A Love Song for Bobby Long and Match Point, all of which earned her Golden Globe nominations.
From 1930 on, Harlow became a blond bombshell. Her films Platinum Blonde (1931), Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Bombshell (1933), awarded her with the accolade of Hollywood’s first true “sex symbol.” Johansson’s sex appeal didn’t surface as quickly as the awareness that she was becoming an actress of stature. She is often hailed by critics as an actress who can stand still and wordlessly convey the essence of a scene. But she was begging to sizzle. In The Prestige she was provocative. She was sultry and pouty in The Other Boleyn Girl, flirty and amusing in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Playing the Black Widow in the new Iron Man 2 won’t win Johansson the title of Hollywood’s best sex symbol, but her coy, teasing temptress of a character certainly moves her into the running. And in her most recent appearance at the Tony Awards where she won the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play (A View From the Bridge) her luminous beauty ranked right up there with Jean Harlow.
Two of the most iconic actresses of all time are Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep. Hepburn was nominated for 12 Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role and won four. Streep tops those nominations coming in with 16 for Best Actress in a Leading or Supporting Role.
Almost becoming the poster child for nominations, Streep has taken home Oscar only twice – for Kramer vs. Kramer (1969) and Sophie’s Choice (1982). But the two actresses have more in common than their awards.
Hepburn has been called the “Best Classic Actress of the 20th Century” and is ranked #1 woman in AFI’s “50 Greatest Movie Legends.” It was her second movie, A Bill of Divorcement (1932), opposite John Barrymore, that earned Hepburn an RKO contract. Only one year later in Morning Glory (1933), her role as a stage actress earned Hepburn her first Academy Award. While her next movie, Little Women (1933), became one of the most successful pictures of its time, Hepburn was getting some rather negative publicity. She lost immediate favor with both audiences and filmmakers because of her erratic behavior – refusing to sign autographs or wear makeup, and wearing pants at time before it was considered appropriate for women to do so. Yet her intriguing gravely voice and growing exceptional talent helped blaze a trail of film successes for the strong-willed woman. From comedic movies such as The Philadelphia Story (1940) to serious roles as in The African Queen (1951), Hepburn earned many Oscars, had affairs with prominent male actors and remained true to her own feisty personality. For a woman who would rival Hepburn’s film successes, how odd that Hepburn actually professed a dislike for Streep.
Unlike Hepburn’s often flawed reputation, Streep is highly admired by fans, filmmakers and co-stars. She shies away from admiration, brushing off the greatest actress fame with the nonchalance of whisking bread crumbs from her lap. Yet with a career that spans 32 years and her more Academy Award nominations than pins on a bowling lane; the label makes sense. Comedies dramas, historicals and even musicals – there’s not a genre that Streep hasn’t tackled without totally immersing us in her character. She’s also a master of accents as she’s proved more than once and of late in her Oscar nominated role for Julie and Julia. Streep touched our hearts in Sophie’s Choice (1982); inspired us in Silkwood (1983); surprised us with her singing and dancing talents in Mamma Mia (2008); touched our romantic hearts in The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and highly amused us in The Devil Wears Prada (2006).
In addition to being one of America’s favorite actresses, Streep is admired for her ability to manage a busy career but keep her love of family foremost. John Patrick Shanley, who directed Streep in Doubt, probably summed Streep up best when he said, “Meryl is a protean actress. Her heart and her soul and her imagination are wide open. It’s like capturing lightning in a bottle when you’re shooting with her because every take is completely different, yet each one is justified and grounded in the very depths and truths of the character.”
So many iconic actresses could not be covered in one article, so watch for parts two and three of this fascinating subject.