Grading greats really grates: AFI list is
full of talent but empty of meaning
by Roger Ebert
Sun-Times, June 16, 1999, page 45
Humphrey Bogart is a little greater than
Cary Grant, and they are both a little greater than
James Stewart. Katharine Hepburn
is a smidgen greater than Bette Davis, and
Ingrid Bergman is not quite as great as
Audrey Hepburn, but both are greater than
That's according to a list of the "50 greatest screen legends" announced by the American Film Institute on a three-hour
CBS special Tuesday. We learned that degrees of greatness can be measured and that stars who were one of a kind are now
one of 25. Well, at least they weren't left off the list altogether.
The payoff for the AFI is rich: It gets the revenue from the TV special, plus a tie-in with Blockbuster, which now is featuring
100 classic titles in its stores. Fifty of the titles will be by the 50 "greatest stars," and the other half will be by each of the 50
star presenters on the special--which helps to explain their presence on the show.
The AFI will use the money in its campaign to preserve old films. It's a good cause, but it doesn't validate the notion that
movie stars can be ranked from one to 25. It would have been better, perhaps, to list them alphabetically or to raise the money
another way. Movie memorabilia, for example, is pulling in big money. Maybe the AFI could hold an auction of celebrity
Looking at the list, I see that some of my concerns were needless. Four stars whose films did not make the earlier AFI list of
the "100 Greatest Films" now rank among the greatest stars: Buster Keaton, Greta
Garbo, Fred Astaire and Ginger
By making a 1950 cutoff date (nominees' careers had to start before 1950, or they had to be dead), the AFI avoided the
danger of an avalanche of Toms, Arnolds, Demis and Julias crushing the old-timers. Only four of the men
Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas and Sidney
Poitier) and five of the women (Katharine
Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor,
Lauren Bacall and Sophia Loren) are still alive. To the degree that the list encourages video rentals of some of their best films, it
is of course a good thing, since some younger moviegoers believe movie history began with "Star Wars."
But what does it prove that
Chaplin is 10th and Keaton 21st (except that voters were probably not familiar with the films of
either)? That the two comedians are the only two silent stars among the men? (No Douglas Fairbanks Sr., no Lon Chaney, no
Rudolph Valentino.) That two of the top five actresses spoke Swedish as their native language? I don't know. I truly don't.
But I do have an idea for a sequel: "50 More Great Screen Legends." Or the AFI could even list the "50 Greatest American
Directors," although that wouldn't generate such great TV ratings.
Do I sound disillusioned? Sorry, but to me the great stars are unique, individual and incomparable, and shouldn't be ranked
like Kentucky Derby entries.
American Film Institute's 50 screen legends:
© 1999 Chicago Sun-Times