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Grading greats really grates: AFI list is full of talent but empty of meaning

by Roger Ebert

Chicago 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 Greta Garbo

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 artifacts. 

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 Rogers

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 (Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas and Sidney Poitier) and five of the women (Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley Temple, 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

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