Posted by Greg Ferrara on June 5, 2016
Today on TCM, the 1982 comedy My Favorite Year airs and it marked Peter O’Toole’s twentieth year as a star. His stardom began with his breakout role in Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 and continued, with some ups and downs, for the next 50 plus years. He even has a movie out in 2016, three years after his death. It’s The Whole World at Our Feet and obviously whatever part he has in it was filmed some time ago. His career, on the whole, probably has many more duds than hits and his selection wasn’t always the best. There were long dry spells in his career, enough that his starring role in The Stunt Man, released in 1980, was considered a comeback for him, even though he’d been nominated for Best Actor just eight years prior for The Ruling Class. The problem was, after The Ruling Class, he appeared in one flop after another. Still, there’s no doubt that O’Toole left this life a legend and also little doubt that his eventual status as a legend was probably cemented right out of the starting gate with that breakout role as Lawrence. For many others, the path has not been so clear.
In 1930, Spencer Tracy made a not so auspicious debut in the little known John Ford film Up the River and spent the next five years making over twenty movies that didn’t exactly light the movie world on fire. One of them, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, was a big enough hit to keep him on the map and a couple of others, like Dante’s Inferno in 1935, kept that map in print. Finally, in 1936, he had a bona fide smash hit with San Francisco and his first Oscar nomination. Before the decade was out, he had two Best Actor awards, back to back no less, and everyone was pretty sure he was here to stay. They were also pretty sure he would leave the screen as a legend. He did. His costar in Up the River, Humphrey Bogart, took even longer.
Humphrey Bogart had quite a successful career in the thirties, usually as the heavy and usually in a supporting role. He had plenty of hits and some highly acclaimed movies, like The Petrified Forest and Dead End, under his belt by 1940 but still nothing that would have many people in 1939 saying he was going to be a legend. Even High Sierra didn’t really cement that deal but with The Maltese Falcon, it started to become clear. By Casablanca, the deal was cemented: Bogart was going to be a legend.
Other actors and actresses looked like they might be legends in their own time when, in fact, their stars faded quickly and others took their place. Gene Raymond starred in Flying Down to Rio, with future legend Dolores Del Rio, and it was only his third year in the movies. He started in 1931, did a few movies, including Red Dust, that made some noise, though mainly for Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, and then got that romantic lead in Flying Down to Rio. Unfortunately for him, it was two other performers, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, that everyone noticed. They became legends almost immediately. Raymond made a lot more movies and had a long career. He didn’t end up a legend though. Famous, yes, but that’s not the same thing. George Brent was famous, John Wayne was a legend. Speaking of which…
John Wayne in 1939, before Stagecoach‘s release, wouldn’t have been anyone’s guess for a future legend. For more than ten years before Stagecoach, Wayne had appeared or starred in dozens upon dozens of movies. He was known, but not highly regarded or particularly popular. Then Stagecoach made him a star. He already had so many other films he had appeared in or was contracted to appear in when he made Stagecoach that even after it he still has a lot of uneventful B-movie appearances but by 1941, he was on his way and by Back to Bataan and They Were Expendable, he was at the top.
The point is, many legends don’t start out that way. A few do, like Katharine Hepburn who, despite setbacks after her early career Oscar winner in Morning Glory, was still an Oscar winner and acclaimed actress right off the bat. She may not have won for Alice Adams, but most people felt she deserved it and Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story certainly ensured her legendary status early. Don’t believe the hype about those distributors calling her box office poison back in the thirties. It was clear pretty early on she was a legend, just look at all the high profile, big production starring roles she had. But most actors don’t have that much clout that early on and others that do sometimes quickly fade. Timothy Hutton won an Oscar almost immediately in his cinema career and while he will certainly be remembered, he won’t be the kind of legend many might have thought after Ordinary People. Other young winners have suffered the same fate. Look at the big stars of the eighties, the young ones I mean. The Molly Ringwalds, the Judd Nelsons, the Ally Sheedys. They’re all still working but legendary status never panned out for them. That’s fine, of course, not everyone can be a legend. The question is, I guess, how do you see one coming?
Who are the legends of tomorrow, today? It’s predicting the future based on the information we now have and that never works out too well. I know who the big stars are now but that doesn’t mean they’ll be legends. And I know who the legends are who are still working today, that’s easy because they’re already legends. People like Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, and Robert de Niro. But who, that started in movies in the last five to ten years, is headed for legendary status? It’s a tough one because five to ten years can establish you as a star but not a legend. William Holden was a star for over ten years before Sunset Boulevard put him on track to be a legend. As we approach another Summer Under the Stars, I can’t help but wonder who, in fifty years, will be the legends that we’re already watching but haven’t discovered yet.
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