Are the Legends of Tomorrow Already Here?

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.

23 Responses Are the Legends of Tomorrow Already Here?
Posted By swac44 : June 5, 2016 2:46 pm

Don Cheadle had his first role in the mid-’80s, but didn’t really get noticed until a decade later with his scene-stealing turn as a shady character in Devil With a Blue Dress (1995), and then things really started to roll with memorable parts in Boogie Nights, Out of Sight and playing Sammy Davis Jr. in the HBO movie The Rat Pack. Two decades later, he continues to liven up any film he’s in, and recently directed a fanciful take on the life of jazz great Miles Davis, Miles Ahead.

Ryan Gosling continues to make intriguing career choices too, hard to believe the grim dude from Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines could also play the goofy, sympathetic sad sack detective dad in The Nice Guys (especially opposite Russell Crowe, not an actor known for comic deftness, but who also excels here).

On the female side, there’s likely more great work ahead from Elizabeth Moss, Greta Gerwig, Kristen Wiig, Samantha Morton, Mia Wasikowska and many others who aren’t leaping immediately to mind. In general I find there’s a current crop of actors who I find greatly appealing, moreso than a decade or so ago.

Posted By Flora : June 5, 2016 5:09 pm

I really don’t know about the legends of tomorrow, although it does help if you already have some credits.

As for the people you mention, it doe not really matter how many flops O’Toole had eventually – his co-star Omar Sharif did too. But to star in prominent epic films like LOA is amazing in itself.

You could add Orson Welles to that list of legend with their first film.

It also does not define what legend the word means. I don’t really think you can be called a legend at anything until you have been at it for decades. It is only when you look back in time can you say ‘This person” is a legendary director, actor, writer, etc.

As such, of course the legends of tomorrow are already here – and some have not yet arrived.

Posted By Flora : June 5, 2016 5:11 pm

By the way, I did not mean that post to sound mysterious. I just meant that unless you enter the business because you are related to or know someone in it, the chances of you starting at the top today outside of the studio system which groomed their stars and their images are slim.

Posted By George : June 5, 2016 8:19 pm

“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.”

Not for the young ’80s stars from John Hughes movies, but Tom Cruise, Sean Penn and Eddie Murphy were young ’80s stars who have had long careers as stars.

Cruise has been a star since 1983 (the year of RISKY BUSINESS), which means he’s been a star for more years than Bogart, Gable or Flynn were.

Posted By Emgee : June 5, 2016 8:32 pm

You may wonder if the stars of today will get the opportunity to grow into legends. It seems as if many stars are already out of the business or relegated to minor roles within ten years after starting their careers. How many of the 80′s Brat Pack are still making movies with any great visibility?

The studio system, for all its faults, gave actors a chance to mature; Bogart is a case in point, and even he was Lucky that the roles kep getting better after 1940. Will today’s young actors get the same chance or will market forces replace them with younger actors before they reach 40?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 5, 2016 8:46 pm

There do seem to be lots of careers that end quickly but that’s my point, I guess. The hundreds of stars of the thirties translate into a couple of dozen legends later on. Same with the eighties, as evidenced by those I pointed out and then in the opposite direction by those George pointed out. I’d say Tom Cruise and Sean Penn, with two Best Actor Oscars no less, are already in the legend category.

But as Emgee and Flora point out, the studio system really did give actors a much larger window of opportunity to become a legend. They were groomed and put into dozens of movies in a year sometimes. By their third or fourth year, they had as much experience as actors now who have been working for ten or more years.

Posted By Flora : June 5, 2016 8:57 pm

Further to this aspect of the studio system – the studios paid you while you were given lessons in whatever you needed to do for a film – singing, dancing, fencing etc. o you know how expensive it is to take these lessons? Not that Dickie Moore ever wanted to be a star, but he mentioned that he was paid to learn sign language for out of the Past.

Posted By swac44 : June 5, 2016 9:12 pm

And sadly now the system favours men so much more than women in terms of career longevity. It was such a treat to see Susan Sarandon in The Meddler recently, I wish those roles were the rule, rather than the exception. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford never seemed to got out of style as time moved on and their careers shifted. Then again, I don’t need to see Sarandon in a remake of Trog any time soon

Posted By AL : June 5, 2016 11:19 pm

Greg–wow–talk about a provocative premise! ***** I’ll be back!

Posted By George : June 6, 2016 2:32 am

I suspect the last potentially legendary stars were those who emerged in the ’90s: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, and maybe Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

In the 21st century, the “legends” may be superhero costumes, with the replaceable actors who wear them an afterthought — with Robert Downey Jr. as the big exception. He’s the one actor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe who is considered irreplaceable. (Downey began his career in 1970, at the age of 5.)

Posted By George : June 6, 2016 2:51 am

“And sadly now the system favours men so much more than women in terms of career longevity. It was such a treat to see Susan Sarandon in The Meddler recently …”

Was also great to see Jennifer Jason Leigh in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. I’m sure Tarantino took grief from studio execs who would have preferred Jennifer Lawrence or Scarlett Johansson.

I also cheered the appearance of Marisa Tomei as a sexy and relatively young Aunt May in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Isn’t it ironic that the only people in that movie who generate any sexual chemistry are Tomei and Downey, both in their 50s?

Posted By George : June 6, 2016 3:09 am

One reason why people may not believe in movie stars anymore:

When you see a star on screen today, who knows how much of their face or body has been replaced by digital images? If you’ve noticed a suspiciously “plasticky” look about actors’ and actresses’ faces in recent years, well, there’s a reason for that.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 6, 2016 3:24 am

I hate to get all paranoid about the end of movies as we know it, but I gotta be honest, when I read about actors getting CGI plastic surgery in the editing room, it’s depressing as hell. And I never thought I’d say it but I can see a time in the next ten to twenty years when actors will start becoming unnecessary to bigger budget enterprises as their likenesses can be used without them needing to show up. I don’t say it will happen all at once or even take over in our lifetime but, eventually, they will go the way of the miniature set builders and matte painters who also fell to CGI.

Posted By Flora : June 6, 2016 3:46 am

Well, Greg, that I something that saddens me too.

When you talk about somebody like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and all the stunts he did versus a stunt msn, you talk about great editing to not be able to tell when Steve is driving the motorcycle into the fence and when it is the stuntman.

The question is NOT when is it McQueen and when is it CGI.

I would love CGI to be used just for animated films, but that is not going to happen.

Posted By George : June 6, 2016 4:05 am

Some actors are creeped out by this CGI “enhancement,” too. A passage from that NY Times article:

For actors, this evolving technology can be unnerving. Jessica Chastain says she was (digitally) scanned on the set of a mid-budget drama — and wasn’t exactly sure why. “They took me into a room. They scanned my face. Then they asked me to smile, to frown,” Chastain tells me. “I said no. I just didn’t know how they were going to use it.”

Flora: Today it would be a digital Steve McQueen on a digital motorcycle. Later this year we’ll get revivals of Tarzan with CGI apes, and Ben-Hur with CGI chariots. That’s supposed to be an improvement.

I first noticed something strange was going on when I saw PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009). Johnny Depp, then 46, looked 20 years younger. There was not a line on his face, and he didn’t appear to be wearing heavy makeup. I assume CGI was used to erase many years from his appearance.

Posted By Emgee : June 6, 2016 8:21 am

Today it would be a digital Steve McQueen shooting up all the camp guards, blowing up the entire camp and then driving his motorcycle to Berlin and blow up Hitler.

Posted By swac44 : June 6, 2016 11:46 am

Reminds me of playing the PS2 version of From Russia With Love where you have a young digital James Bond, voiced by an old, creaky Sean Connery. I’ve gotta say, it weirded me out.

I suspect Robert Downey Jr. will run out of steam for playing Stark before the Avengers franchise does. Excellent as he is in the role, I’d say we’ll be seeing someone else as the character at some point, unless of course they just make him completely digital and he can just phone in his dialogue from his sofa.

Posted By GGinPG : June 6, 2016 2:24 pm

I see no legends in this current crop. Robert Downey, Jr. is probably as close as we’re gonna get, and I don’t think even he compares to the legends of yesterday. Those who can really act have no name recognition, and the household names are middling actors at best, for the most part.

It’s just a different time with different standards – it’s like comparing crisp shiny apples to slightly moldy oranges. That’s a bit harsh I admit, but over the last decade or so I’ve spent far more money building my classic movie collection than on movie tickets.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : June 6, 2016 5:27 pm

I feel like for Downey Jr to cement legend status, he’ll need to do something memorable at this stage in his career that’s not part of a franchise. It’s been a while since he did something that could be considered Oscar worthy, or at the very least something that challenged his acting skills. I think the last time I saw anything like that from him was Zodiac, and that’s nearly 10 years ago. Unless The Judge or The Soloist, films I haven’t seen, are better than I presume them to be.

I’m surprised no-one’s mentioned Dicaprio. I’m not a huge fan myself, but I have to admit he has a pretty solid body of work. Even the mis-steps are things that would have sounded good on paper, so it’s easy to see why he chose them. And for better or worse, Titanic alone probably bestowed legend status upon him.

Posted By George : June 6, 2016 9:25 pm

Yes, DiCaprio is approaching legend status. His Oscar for REVENANT was more of a career achievement award than anything else. And Leo has done this without ever starring in a sequel or franchise film, and without ever playing a superhero.

Posted By Tom S : June 7, 2016 5:12 am

The previously mentioned Jessica Chastain strikes me as a shoo in- she’s only been prominent for a few years, but she’s worked with at least half a dozen major directors, and is often the best part of the things she’s in with them- like, I hated Zero Dark Thirty, but Chastain’s acting in it is worldbeating, and she manages to make something transcendently human out of a role that could merely be decorative in Tree of Life- alongside great turns in The Martian, Interstellar, Crimson Peak, and Ralph Fiennes’ very impressive Coriolanus, all in the course of a few years.

I suspect that the intense focus on intellectual property over the last few years has lessened the power of stars- people go see something because it is connected to something they love more than for who’s in it, so people like Tom Cruise, who can ‘open a movie’, become less vital. I also suspect that’s something of a cyclical phenomenon, and that a few more breakout roles like RDJ’s will remind people of what a difference star power can make, especially next to the feeble attempts DC has been putting out.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 9, 2016 1:37 am

Jessica Chastain, yes, I love her work. She’s a great candidate, I think, for future legend.

Later this year we’ll get revivals of Tarzan with CGI apes, and Ben-Hur with CGI chariots. That’s supposed to be an improvement.

The very fact that the chariot race is real in the 1959 version is precisely what makes it so incredible to watch. Seeing that level of stunt work is mind boggling. Making it CGI will be like watching the interminably dull pod race in The Phantom Menace all over again. Ugh.

Posted By robbushblog : June 17, 2016 4:13 pm

Jessica Chastain was my first thought too, but she better hurry because she’ll be 40 next year and…well, you know how THAT goes.

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