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Movies and Film

The 14 Most Influential American Film Actors and Actresses

You can quibble, but here is a list of the stars we regard as the most influential and important in the history of American filmdom. We haven't necessarily included the most talented stars, but rather those who have exerted the clearest and most lasting impact on the art of acting.

  • Mary Pickford. Perhaps the first truly international American film acting phenomenon, Pickford was one of the most powerful figures in silent film and the figurative "mother" of all U.S. movie stars.
  • Lillian Gish. The "First Lady of the Silent Screen," she surpassed Pickford in sheer acting talent and glorified even the most mundane films in which she appeared.
  • Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin crafted the ideal silent acting mode, pantomime, into its greatest incarnation in his hundreds of comedic, parodic, and always moving performances.
  • Buster Keaton. The closest thing to an "actor-auteur," Keaton was the duke of Deadpan, using the most expressive face in the history of film to express his genius as an actor.
  • Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The prototype of the swashbuckling American leading man (without him there'd be no Errol Flynn!), Fairbanks was an immensely popular figure on the screen throughout the silent era.
  • Clark Gable. From the early '30s through the end of World War II, Gable virtually redefined American movie masculinity into the virile sexiness that made women across the country swoon.
  • John Wayne. The Duke once famously remarked that the only acting he ever did was to act like John Wayne—which was enough to ensure him a lasting and defining role in American cinema.
  • Edward Everett Horton. Though you may not have heard of him, we put Horton on the list as our plug for great character actors—and he was the greatest!
  • Marilyn Monroe. The icon of feminine sensuality, Monroe created a look and a persona that will never be forgotten in the annals of film history.
  • Marlon Brando. Perhaps the most gifted pure actor in the history of American film, Brando brought method acting into the cinematic mainstream.
  • Sidney Poitier. A great acting talent by any measure, Poitier was also a huge barrier-breaking force in the integration of American film.
  • Jack Nicholson. A dazzlingly talented artist, Nicholson is one of the most dynamic, exciting, chameleon-like actors to grace the American silver screen.
  • Meryl Streep. With a strong claim to the title of Greatest Living Film Actress, Streep has been nominated for and won so many Oscars that most of us stopped counting years ago.
  • Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman saved method acting for the contemporary era with his combination of dour melancholy and utter absorption in his roles.

From the open-air theaters of ancient Athens to the twenty-first-century projecting booth, acting has embraced a dizzying variety of technique, talent, and titillation. If you learn how to watch and listen for the craft's distinguishing features, your appreciation of film will be all the more enriched in the long run.

The incomparable Lillian Gish, shown here in Orphans of the Storm (1922).

The incomparable Lillian Gish, shown here in Orphans of the Storm (1922).

Meryl Streep, in one of countless Oscar-nominated roles, starring in Sophie's Choice (1982).

Meryl Streep, in one of countless Oscar-nominated roles, starring in Sophie's Choice (1982).

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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