American Movies

The Hollywood Sign, Los Angeles, California. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

American cinema has made tremendous contribution to world pop culture over the last century. There are four main periods in film history that are recognized: The Silent Film era, Classical Hollywood Cinema, New Hollywood, and the Contemporary Period (post-1980). Since the early half of the 20th century, the American film industry has made more money per year than that of any other country.

In 1894, Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope was used in the world’s first commercial motion picture exhibition in New York City. Following this exhibition, the U.S. led the world in the development of sound film. The U.S. film industry is primarily based in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California.


“What’s American About American Movies?” – an article by Professor Thomas Doherty: 

The American film industry, despite its critics, continues to dominate the world market for movies. The author discusses why this is and relates the impact of several recent movies in the United States and abroad. Thomas Doherty is a professor of film studies at Brandeis University near Boston, Massachusetts, and the author of several books, including Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (1999) and Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s (2002).

“The Americans have colonized our subconscious,” says a character in Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road (1976), speaking as much in admiration as complaint, which only makes sense in a road movie by a German director who, first chance he got, rushed to shoot a picture on location in Monument Valley, Utah, an area frequently used by famed Hollywood director John Ford.

Wenders’s double-edged attitude to the mother country of the movies expresses a common enough sentiment among the “colonials,” one often shared by the host country nationals. Hollywood’s genius for projecting the stuff that American dreams are made of may be undeniable, but non-American moviegoers can’t help but resent this invasion of their brainstem. No wonder every year at the Cannes Film Festival the cinephiles joke that the odds-on favorite for the Palme d’Or is always an anti-American film … from America. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) fit the bill perfectly.

Despite onslaughts from DVD pirates and YouTube videographers, the company town for the mass production and widescreen exhibition of American values in the 20th century seems poised to dominate the market well into the 21st century. Detroit, Michigan, home to the American automobile industry, may have buckled under the competition of carmakers in Toyota City (Japan) and Sindelfingen (Germany), but Hollywood still retains its brand supremacy in popular entertainment. In part, the preeminence of the American logo is due to the intrinsic appeal of a quality package filled with gleaming treasures: individualism, freedom of movement, upward mobility, pursuits of happiness (erotic and financial), and heroes who achieve moral reform through violent means. Yet the corporate descendents of film companies 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and MGM have also thrived by doing what automobile manufacturers have not: adapting to new market forces and co-opting the competition. Today the Hollywood product line is not only being manufactured to overseas specifications but assembled by imported engineers.

International Influences

According to the entertainment news source Variety, more than 50 percent of Hollywood’s box-office revenues typically derive from ticket windows beyond American shores. Often the gross receipts—upwards of 70 percent in the case of transnational blockbusters like Casino Royale and The Da Vinci Code—surpass domestic tallies. That is, the bonehead antics, brain-dead plots, and really big explosions that, in the eyes of foreign detractors, define the worst exports result from Hollywood’s trawling for a global mandate, not a domestic constituency. A simple, predictable plotline, dazzling visual effects, and monosyllabic grunts that require minimal subtitling travel better than intricate webs of narrative causality, multilayered characterizations, and fast-breaking wisecracks—which is why the ticket queues from Singapore to Senegal match up pretty well with the buying habits of American teenagers.

Of course, as an international industry hustling to sell its wares beyond American shores, Hollywood has always had an eye out for foreign customers. Even during the classic studio era, when soundstage-bound motion picture production meant that the movies were 100 percent made in America, they were never 100 percent made for America—or, more to the point, made by Americans. Then as now, the ratio of indigenous ingredients to exotic elements recorded a variable percentage, with the play-off between native-grown and foreign-born influences changing on a film-by-film basis. The most visible signs of the mix and match were the very names on the marquee, stars and directors alike. Hollywood’s only prejudice was against the foreign talent who could not be bought out. In the 1920s and 1930s, German and British directors willingly succumbed to the open checkbooks of American film producers Louis B. Mayer and David O. Selznick; lately, Mexican and Taiwanese filmmakers have proven just as susceptible to the lure of magical technology and bloated budgets. In short, perhaps what makes American movies most American is how readily the non-American strains are absorbed.

Every year-end wrap-up of the past season’s release chart offers evidence aplenty that Hollywood has long since supplanted Ellis Island as the emblematic port of entry for offshore talent angling for a piece of the action. However, the 2006 vintage, Oscar-worthy and not, offers a particularly rich sampling of immigrant success stories. It is a testimony to the assimilationist power of the medium, and the business, that the films with the deepest American roots are not always credited to an American name above the title. Consider:

The Departed: Martin Scorcese’s latest study of the rituals of American gangsterdom is a mixed-blood crossbreed: a blarney-drenched remake of the Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs (2002) recast with Hollywood stars, set among the Boston Irish, and rendered with the adrenaline energy that has been the Italian-American Scorcese’s signature touch since Mean Streets (1972). Featuring native Boston sons, actors Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg, spitting out their distinctive accents in authentic area locations (a commitment to verisimilitude that is no minor attraction when the chameleon cities of Canada are usually hired to impersonate stateside metropolises), the film made the tribal national and (judging by its huge popularity overseas) international. Highly acclaimed, the film won the best film and best director Academy Awards.

Dreamgirls: Jump-cutting to another American city, Detroit, known for more melodious tribal pastimes, Bill Condon’s adaptation of the Broadway smash is the kind of bloated, bombastic, big-screen musical behemoth that only the soundstages of Hollywood could choreograph. A thinly veiled musical à clef of the rise of Motown Records and a Supremes-like girl group, the film speaks to the cost/benefit of breaking into the Top Forty radio charts while the civil rights movement unfolds offstage. For Americans, the subtextual undertones of the success story reverberated as rhythmically as the soundtrack: Break-out star Jennifer Hudson, who was voted off the small-screen American Idol in 2004, morphed into an authentic big-screen American idol in the musical competition that is Dreamgirls. It was a good year for musicals with an American backbeat: The family-friendly Happy Feet featured computer-animated penguins gyrating to a rock-and-roll soundtrack and inculcating environmental consciousness, in a kind of kiddie version of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Little Miss Sunshine: The most kid-centered American film of the year was also the most adult. Not unlike Wim Wenders, co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris took inspiration from Huck Finn, Jack Kerouac, and a rack of Hollywood road movies, packed a dysfunctional family into a beat-up Volkswagen van, and lit out for the territory. As always, the destination (California—where else?) is less important than the trip and the passengers along for the ride: a child beauty pageant contestant, a failed motivational speaker, a heroin-snorting grandfather, an alienated and a wife and mother who holds it all together. Enormously popular—even beloved—stateside, Little Miss Sunshine has not fared as well overseas. Hollywood may have perfected a global positioning system of awesome efficiency, but the international swath has also meant a leveling homogeneity. A film that is too verbal, too vernacular, and too nation-specific will not cross borders profitably. Better to cultivate the transnational tagline that all true blockbusters aspire to: “a nonstop roller-coaster ride!”

The Devil Wears Prada: Faring better overseas was an impeccably coiffed comedy-melodrama, directed by David Frankel from the novel by Lauren Weisberger, a Cinderella story where the princess wears not a single pair of glass slippers but a wardrobe full of high-end designer clothes. As the golden girl ingenue played by Anne Hathaway swans down the catwalk of the big screen, sleek, cool, and fabulous, the dragon lady fashionista played by Meryl Streep suffers the sad fate reserved for victims of what film critic Robin Wood diagnosed as the Rosebud syndrome: Even in America, wealth and fame is not enough without heart and character, and the soulless greedmonger will wind up like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941), dying alone, pining for the lost innocence of childhood.

Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima: Clint Eastwood’s ambitious double bill was a roll of the dice unprecedented in Hollywood history, two separate films telling the same story from behind two different enemy lines. The staggered-release twinpack ranked high on the year-end “Ten Best” lists from elite film critics, but neither film was embraced by the American audience, for whom World War II is a sacred site, never an exercise in futility or moral equivalence, always a passage to celebrate.

Ironically, or appropriately, foreign-born artists read the American pulse more accurately than Eastwood, the iconic American actor-auteur. Like previous generations of fresh-off-the-boat émigrés, they brought their baggage from overseas, but quickly learned the lingo of the locals and achieved both critical and commercial renown.

The Queen: The stateside success of Stephen Frears’s modern-day costume drama reflects the longstanding American fascination with English royalty, but the byplay between a democratic ethos of feel-your-pain (Prime Minister Tony Blair) and a regal fidelity to stiff-upper-lipness (Queen Elizabeth II) sides in the end with the unexpected party as each reacts to the death of Princess Diana. Counterintuitively, the queen’s traditional stoicism proves more ennobling than the easy tears shed by a celebrity culture.

United 93: A British director also helmed what was, for many Americans, the most resonant and wrenching experience of the year in film. Paul Greenglass’s inside-the-cockpit thriller was the first feature-length film to depict in detail the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Low-tech and cinema verité in style, unspooling virtually in real time, the film needed no star power to hit a raw nerve in the American body politic. To see United 93 in a movie theater stateside was to receive a collective gut-punch, a bracing memento mori whose impact, I suspect, did not transfer to theatrical venues beyond American shores.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan: No discussion of the impact of guest workers in American cinema would be complete without mentioning the crudest and rudest arrival hailing from the normally well-mannered United Kingdom, the agent provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen, whose twisted road movie traces the classic frontier trajectory from East (New York) to West (in search of actress and model Pamela Anderson). Though not exactly Alexis de Tocqueville, Cohen’s clueless alter ego ends up showing Americans sides of themselves heretofore unseen, namely their limitless tolerance for the most intolerant of foreigners.

Pan’s Labyrinth, Babel, and Children of Men: The serendipity of three Mexican directors (Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Alfonso Cuarón) producing three high-profile marquee titles about, respectively, a nightmarish past, an interlocking present, and a dystopian future provided the most obvious proof of the infiltration of foreign agents into Hollywood. Dubbed “The Three Amigos” by the entertainment press, the trio brought a painterly texture and a tragic sense to the glittering veneer and chirpy optimism of the American mainstream, a south-of-the-border sobriety where heroes die in the end and the world is a very nasty place impervious to human intervention.

Of all the American movies from 2006, born in the USA or foreign-made, Babel, a film that belies its title, may be the best predictor of Hollywood’s multilingual, multinational future: a congenial mélange of cross-cultural elements in casting, creators, location sites (Morocco, California, Mexico, and Japan), and sensibilities. Returning a payment in kind, the foreigners are colonizing American movies.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.

Read the full article here: What’s American About American Movies? (pdf 2.9 MB)

Unlike many countries where the government oversees cultural programs, including cinema, the United States does not have a government office or ministry that regulates the film industry. Government, however, does interface with the movie business in several ways.

Film Production

In the United States, films generally come from two sources: large studios that produce many films and television programs each year and independent filmmakers, including both students and experienced filmmakers. Sometimes—through grants from universities or arts or humanities councils—independent filmmakers do receive support indirectly from funding that originated with the local, state, or federal government, but more often funding comes from private investors or through philanthropic organizations concerned with either promotion of the arts or promotion of a cause being addressed by a film.

While there is no ministry of film, there are many government offices that interact with the film industry. At the state and local levels, government film offices promote local film locations because use of their locale brings employment and other economic advantages, promotes tourist sites, or shows their region in a favorable light. These offices also help filmmakers work with the police and others to arrange for filming that impacts traffic, uses public buildings, or otherwise needs special consideration.

Filmmakers can gain access to military sites and equipment.

Similarly, government entities, especially the branches of the military, have offices that help coordinate filmmakers’ use of facilities, equipment, and even personnel. It would be difficult, for example, for a filmmaker to construct a make-believe aircraft carrier or to hire a cast of extras to be in the background of a movie who look like real soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines (whose haircuts, fitness levels, and posture are often different than that of civilian actors). The military is willing to make their facilities available, within reason, for approved projects, and each branch has an office that handles these requests. Other branches of the government address requests to use public spaces and buildings, such as monuments or parks.

Many years ago, the U.S. government did produce some feature films and worked closely with Hollywood on films that would encourage public morale during wartime. However, since World War II, these programs have been eliminated through a combination of budgetary and philosophical concerns. One exception has been work carried out by government offices that, by definition, deal with external audiences, domestic or foreign. The United States Information Agency, for example, for many years produced films for exhibition to overseas audiences to complement its other educational programs. One such film, John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums, a posthumous tribute to the assassinated president, even won the 1965 Academy Award for best documentary. This agency, now a part of the U.S. Department of State, no longer produces original films.


There have been times, especially during World War II, when national security was an issue and certain types of information were restricted from wide distribution, but, in general, the government has remained hands-off with regard to censorship. In efforts to balance free speech concerns with those of public welfare and public taste, voluntary standards enacted by the motion picture industry have resulted in a rating system (G for general audiences, R for restricted audiences, and several other categories) that industry—not government—censors apply to films, allowing viewers, parents, and theater owners to better gauge the sexual, violent, or profane-language content of a film.

Film Distribution

Today, with very few exceptions, films produced in the United States are distributed domestically and in other countries through commercial channels that are controlled by the market. If a film does not attract an audience, its run in the theater will be cut short and another will take its place, hoping to be a hit. In the first half of the 20th century, there was some government support to send abroad films that helped showcase American ideals. This effort has largely been reduced to a small office in the State Department that will, for example, help U.S. embassies get access to commercial films for showing to local audiences, usually in collaboration with a local sponsor, such as the ministry of culture or a university. In this way, the U.S. government supports efforts to organize film festivals and other local programs.

They have not all achieved the spectacular success attained by the late President Ronald Reagan or current California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but many American actors have followed the path from stage and screen to political office for decades.

The line stretches back at least as far as Helen Gahagan Douglas, a 1920s Broadway actress who starred in the 1935 movie She. Entering politics as a liberal Democrat, she was elected in 1944 to the first of three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Gahagan Douglas ran for the Senate in 1950 against Republican Congressman Richard Nixon.  In what her supporters decried as a smear campaign, Nixon accused her of Communist sympathies. He had used similar tactics in wresting his House seat from former Representative Jerry Voorhis and launching a career that would lead Nixon to the presidency.

Referring to Gahagan Douglas as “the Pink Lady,” Nixon said she was “pink right down to her underwear.” In return, she derided him as “Tricky Dick,” a nickname that endured throughout his life. But Nixon won the election decisively, ending Gahagan Douglas’ career in electoral politics.

Acting Skills No Guarantee of Political Success

Zelda Fichandler, chair of the graduate acting program at New York University, sees actors having a “natural affinity” for politics, and said even non-actors who run for office must acquire certain stage skills to be successful.

“I can tell that Hillary [Clinton] gets lessons in how to exhibit different aspects of her persona,” Fichandler told USINFO. “Her voice has changed; her public manner is more open and more expansive and more embracing than it used to be. She’s getting critiqued, and she’s being helped.”

But Shannon Jackson, chairwoman of the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, told the New York Times that acting training does not guarantee political success.

“There’s the expectation that if you’re a performer, you’ll be good at any kind of performance, but that’s not true,” she said. “Certain performers are used to having scripts that they can practice and rehearse. They find challenges when they don’t have a script, or the required script changes and they have to improvise.”

Perhaps the most famous star to fail in a bid for political office was Shirley Temple.

A child actress in the 1930s who ranked for four straight years as the top-grossing box office star in America, Temple continued to make movies throughout the 1940s.

In 1967, the actress, now Shirley Temple Black, sought the Republican nomination to replace the late California Congressman Arthur Younger.  She ran on a platform that supported U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, but was beaten by war opponent Pete McCloskey.

Though unsuccessful in electoral politics, Black was appointed a U.N. delegate by President Nixon in 1969, later served as U.S. ambassador to Ghana and to Czechoslovakia, and became the State Department’s first woman chief of protocol.

Clint Eastwood, who achieved acting fame as “Dirty Harry” in a series of 1970s and 1980s films and later became a top director, ran successfully for a single term as mayor of Carmel, California, in 1986.

Other actors have started their political endeavors with more humorous roots.

From Comedy to Congress?

At least three television comedy stars moved into congressional careers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Fred Grandy, who played the ship’s purser, “Gopher” Smith, on the Love Boat, won the first of four terms as a Republican congressman from Iowa in 1986. He candidly acknowledged to People magazine, “If there were no Gopher, there would be no Fred Grandy for Congress.”

Ben Jones, known as Cooter Davenport on the Dukes of Hazzard, served two terms as a Democrat from Georgia starting in 1988. Defeated for re-election in 1992, he returned to acting. In an unusual twist, he tried but failed to make an electoral comeback from another state, Virginia, in 2002.

Perhaps the most famous of the trio, Sonny Bono, was elected as a Republican from California in 1994 after a career as an actor, singer and record producer that peaked with a popular 1970s television variety show, The Sonny and Cher Show. Bono died in a skiing accident during his second term.

Comedian Pat Paulsen turned fame achieved on television’s Smothers Brothers Show into a satirical presidential campaign as a write-in candidate in 1968, using the slogan, “Just a common, ordinary, simple savior of America’s destiny.”

More recently, satirist Stephen Colbert, host of The Colbert Report, mounted a tongue-in-cheek campaign for the 2008 presidential nomination. Colbert announced in October a candidacy limited to his home state of South Carolina. The state’s Democratic Party executive council rejected his bid to get on the ballot, saying he was neither a serious nor a viable candidate. Colbert abandoned plans to file also as a Republican because of the $35,000 fee, so his presidential bid seems over.

In 2017, the American Film Institute conducted a survey to find the top ten best American films:

1) Citizen Kane (1941)

2) The Godfather (1972)

3) Casablanca (1942)

4) Raging Bull (1980)

5) Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

6) Gone with the Wind (1939)

7) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

8) Schindler’s List (1993)

9) Vertigo (1958)

10) The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Source: American Film Institute (AFI)  

Guys love to hang out with him. Women embrace him in public. His name is on everyone’s lips and, despite his seventy-six years, many will do almost anything to be honored by him, treating him as if he were gold-plated.

As a matter of fact, he is gold-plated, stands less than two feet tall — and his name is Oscar. Actually, his name is the Award of Merit of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Wouldn’t you rather be called Oscar, too? (One actress, it is said, holding her newly-won statuette said, “He looks like my Uncle Oscar.” The name stuck.)

Millions of us hang on the results of the Academy’s voting more than for most political races in our own countries. Why? Maybe because our dreams matter that much. Unabashedly, that is what Hollywood has delivered for nearly a century — dreams. These dreams are not simply illusion, though there is plenty of that in Hollywood movies too. They are, as dreams should be, more real than our waking lives. How many men have seen Gary Cooper in a tuxedo and realized that this was an ideal of masculine grace? Women see the indomitable spirit, humor and unorthodox beauty of Katherine Hepburn, and allow that dream to enter their lives. We have learned of courage, glamour, wit and adventure from the movies, and found how to live them, just a little bit, ourselves. We have seen heroines endure tragedy, heroes confront death, gangsters meet justice and comedians face cream pies in ways that leave us forever changed. This is what Hollywood movies, for all their excesses, are about and what the Oscars honor.

On the evening of the ceremonies February 29, the tension will sometimes be almost unbearable for even the most seasoned professionals as they wait to see if Oscar will nod to them. How many times, as the nominations are read out and the nominees’ faces appear to us one by one on the television screen, have we suddenly pitied these great stars, waiting out that eternity between the opening of the envelope and the calling of the winner?

We care and they care because the Oscars are something more than just awards. Like the movies themselves, they transcend their own existence and become themselves the stuff of dreams.

Sure, there are plenty of other awards given at other ceremonies — the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, the Golden Globes. Many say that these awards, divorced from the obsession with money that seems to propel Hollywood, and coming from critics who have applied high standards, are better measures of cinematic merit. Who cares? Who has ever seen a movie about a young actress aspiring to win the Golden Globe?

If you have any doubts about which is more important, look at the schedule for award-giving. All the other organizations plan their ceremonies before the Oscars, because they know that when Oscar has spoken there is no more to be said.

For a dream-producing machine, Hollywood suffers endless accusations of crassness and commercialism. And there is some truth in them. For many Hollywood professionals, a good movie is one that makes money. A bad movie is one that doesn’t. Regarding great art and profound messages, Samuel Goldwyn once famously interrupted one of his directors to tell him, “If you want to send a message, go to (the telegraph office).”

Behind all their prestige and glamour, there is an element of hard-headed business to the Oscars, too. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded in the mid 1920s to promote the film industry. The awards were only an afterthought among their many activities. But when studio executives saw that audiences flocked to Oscar-winning movies, the tail began wagging the dog and now the Oscars are the most important thing the Academy does.

Are there politics to the Oscars? What election doesn’t have politics? Especially one in which there is so much at stake. Winning an Oscar can mean millions of dollars at the box office. Knowing this, the studios put great pressure on the motion picture guild members, who vote for the nominations, and on the Academy members, who select the winners, to support their films. The studios also run often tasteless publicity campaigns pushing their movies. Happily, the weakness of the studios, which have wasted away to thin wraiths since their heydays in the 1940s, assures that most Academy members will exercise their independence. Make no mistake, though, the winners reflect, for good and bad, Hollywood’s idea of what a great movie is.

Winning an Oscar means more than money, of course. Winners cherish them because the awards are voted by their peers. Winning producers or writers or directors rise in stature. Winning actors and actresses become legends, part of the lore of Hollywood. For some, the Oscar marks the apotheosis of a great career. John Wayne and Paul Newman, two of Hollywood’s greatest leading men, were both in their sixties before Oscar finally nodded their way. The Oscar can also mark the rise of startling new talent. Marlon Brando’s 1951 Oscar for his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” marked the rise of a new style of acting. Denzel Washington’s 1989 Oscar for “Glory” brought sudden success to a young actor who is now one of filmdom’s biggest stars.

If Hollywood is hard-headed about business, it is also mighty sentimental about itself. The whole ceremony is a sentimental tribute; Hollywood celebrating Hollywood. Those sentiments can have a lot to do with who wins. John Wayne, many said, got his award, not for his acting in “True Grit”, but for having been one of movies’ most popular stars over a span of thirty years and through many unforgettable performances. Elizabeth Taylor herself thought that she got her first Oscar, for “Butterfield 8,” less on merit than because she had nearly died of pneumonia near the time the voting was taking place. Henry Fonda’s Oscar for “On Golden Pond” was helped along in part because, with Fonda aging and in ill health, the voters knew that they would not have another chance to honor one of its great stars. In the perfect Hollywood ending, with Fonda too unwell to attend the ceremony, his daughter, Jane, an Oscar winner herself, who had endured a famously difficult relationship with her more conservative father, accepted the award for him and, in a very public moment of personal reconciliation, spoke movingly of her love for and pride in him.

Soon hundreds of millions of living rooms around the globe will flicker with the televised images of glamour and surprise (and occasional tedium) of the Academy Awards ceremony. Its longtime host, Bob Hope, once said, “We have two hours of great entertainment for you — spread out over three and a half hours.” Other than football’s World Cup competitions, the Academy Awards ceremony is the most watched television program in the world. Watching it, we will wait for those unscripted moments that give the telecast its excitement. Sally Field sobbing, “You like me, you really like me.” Halle Berry’s wild exuberance. David Niven falling flat on his face as he rushed up to accept his Oscar, then having the wit to say that he had been too loaded down with lucky charms to walk. Marlon Brando sending out an actress to refuse his Oscar for “The Godfather” because of Hollywood’s dismal portrayal of American Indians. Some actress will almost certainly gasp and say that the Oscar is “so heavy.” (This writer has hefted a friend’s Oscar and, believe me, they are much heavier than they look.) Someone will make an acceptance speech that goes on forever. Greer Garson’s speech after winning Best Actress in 1942, in which she thanked “all the little people,” went on for more than five minutes, though Hollywood lore now has it at anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. Someone might just be frank; one winner said he wasn’t going to thank anyone because he won it all by himself. And the program will run longer than scheduled.

From its perennial location in Los Angeles, California, still the motion picture capital of the world, we will see famous directors, bevies of beauties, noted screenwriters and producers.

Most adults will roll their eyes at the term movie star and say that they have grown up and these things have no hold on them anymore. Yet, in the private darkness of the movie theater, those same eyes will glow with emotion, the wonder and the sheer enjoyment of the dreams that Hollywood can deliver. That is what the Oscars celebrate.

This is the American Film Institute’s list of the 50 Greatest American Screen Legends, the top 25 male and top 25 female legends selected by more than 1,800 leaders from across the film community.


  1. Humphrey Bogart
  2. Cary Grant
  3. James Stewart
  4. Marlon Brando
  5. Fred Astaire
  6. Henry Fonda
  7. Clark Gable
  8. James Cagney
  9. Spencer Tracy
  10. Charlie Chaplin
  11. Gary Cooper
  12. Gregory Peck
  13. John Wayne
  14. Laurence Olivier
  15. Gene Kelly
  16. Orson Welles
  17. Kirk Douglas
  18. James Dean
  19. Burt Lancaster
  20. The Marx Brothers
  21. Buster Keaton
  22. Sidney Poitier
  23. Robert Mitchum
  24. Edward G. Robinson
  25. William Holden


  1. Katharine Hepburn
  2. Bette Davis
  3. Audrey Hepburn
  4. Ingrid Bergman
  5. Greta Garbo
  6. Marilyn Monroe
  7. Elizabeth Taylor
  8. Judy Garland
  9. Marlene Dietrich
  10. Joan Crawfordv
  11. Barbara Stanwyck
  12. Claudette Colbert
  13. Grace Kelly
  14. Ginger Rogers
  15. Mae West
  16. Vivien Leigh
  17. Lillian Gish
  18. Shirley Temple
  19. Rita Hayworth
  20. Lauren Bacall
  21. Sophia Loren
  22. Jean Harlow
  23. Carole Lombard
  24. Mary Pickford
  25. Ava Gardner