Let’s get really grand here. Let’s go through the entire history of Hollywood movies and pick the 10 Best Male Movie Stars ever, based on their talent, appeal and output. Don’t want to? Too daunting? OK, I’m game. Here are my choices:
Cary Grant (1904-1986)
The man never won an Oscar, but his enduring legend is his award. The British-born actor was cool, sophisticated and unbeatable, whether in sparkling comedies (“The Awful Truth,” “His Girl Friday,” “The Philadelphia Story”) or thrilling Hitchcock romps (“Notorious,” “North By Northwest”). In many ways, he was the quintessential movie star. We could all use a little Cary Grant, all the time.
Fred Astaire (1899-1987)
The reaction to Fred’s first screen test is now legendary: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” They should have added, “But is the greatest dancer the screen will ever know and radiates an appeal that will make him legendary.” Whether tripping the light fantastic with his best partner, Ginger Rogers, in “Top Hat,” or singing and spinning with Judy Garland in “Easter Parade,” Fred was suavely sensational, coming up with extraordinary gimmicks and elaborate stagecraft. I even liked him in “The Towering Inferno.”
Sidney Poitier (1927-)
Sidney broke boundaries as the screen’s noble African American, giving textured performances in “In The Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” and “Lilies of the Field.” Graciously accepting the burden of being a history changer, he generally played strong-willed characters who, through sheer decency and skill, altered the mindset of the white racists. Few actors have been not only as good, but as important.
Daniel Day-Lewis (1957-)
The Brit megatalent is the only person in history to win three Best Actor Oscars — not surprising, considering the passion and fury he dives into his roles with. Day-Lewis gained notice with his quirkily arresting turn in “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985), then launched into Oscar glory with the disability biopic “My Left Foot,” the fiery “There Will Be Blood” and the historic “Lincoln.” I found him unconvincingly over the top in “Gangs of New York,” but multiple Oscar winners should be allowed a misstep (and he was nominated for it anyway!) Runner-up: The equally radioactive Sean Penn.
Robert DeNiro (1943-), Jack Nicholson (1937-)
Yes, this has to be a tie. The New York-born angstmeister DeNiro is a master at inchoate rage, soaring in “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” then continuing to haunt and surprise (despite a slew of later-period “Quick, cash the check”-type films).
Nicholson rose out of the giddy schlock of Roger Corman movies, emerging as a superstar whose sardonic manner electrified films like “Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces” and “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” His grin alone can pierce through the bull and shine a light on bare truth. He’s got three Oscars and many classics, but no movie out since 2010! Get this man back to work pronto. All play and no work makes Jack a dull dog.
Marlon Brando (1924-2004)
It’s common knowledge in the business that no one should ever try to play a role that Brando once did. “The American Olivier,” he put such a personal stamp on each performance that, even if you didn’t like what he came up with, it’s all you can think of whenever someone else goes near it. Brando put that stamp on his unapologetically brutish Stanley in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” his idealistic longshoreman in “On The Waterfront” and his mumbly mafia don in “The Godfather.” Putting him on this list was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977)
“The Little Tramp” had a lot of scandal in his life, but not onscreen, where his cane, bowler hat, and ‘stache signaled a fascinating blend of pathos and hilarity that brought indomitability and hope to a darker time. Whether silent (“Modern Times,” “City Lights”) or talking (“The Great Dictator”), Chaplin always made it easy to believe in his theme song: “Smile.”
Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957)
With his average looks, gruff voice and weird lisp, Bogie might not have seemed to have the makings of a world-class movie star. But that’s what makes him so special. He was an anti-hero to die for, and he always delivered the Bogie allure rather than drastically change his screen persona from film to film. People wanted to see Bogie, and that’s what they got, complete with speech patterns, toughness and catch phrases. A stage actor, Bogie found his niche in macho flicks like “The Maltese Falcon,” “Casablanca” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Battling the elements–and Hepburn–in “The African Queen” got him his Oscar, but it was basically a career achievement honor for the man who taught people how to whistle.
Brad Pitt (1963-)
Today’s stars are a rich bunch, from the oddball genius Johnny Depp to the game and versatile Leonardo DiCaprio, but Brad is the best movie star of them all. He stole the hearts of Thelma and Louise, then went on to pilfer the world’s, emerging as a leading man capable of Clark Gable-esque dramatics and flinty comedy. The Oklahoma-born good guy has scored majorly in biggies like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Moneyball” and in the art film “The Tree of Life,” plus he was pivotal in “12 Years A Slave.” I hear his girlfriend’s pretty good, too …
James Stewart (1908-1997)
When the Pennsylvania-born Stewart followed pal Henry Fonda to Hollywood, cultural history was changed. His “aw, shucks” manner and winning way with the subtleties of a comedy/drama made his Capra collaborations (“The Philadelphia Story,” “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” etc.) soar into classic status. And he had a fertile cinematic relationship with Hitchcock, too, tapping into his darker side for gems like “Vertigo” and “Rear Window.”
Special shout-out here to Jack Lemmon, another stammering everyman that I find irresistible. And I adore Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Olivier, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Denzel Washington …