Murray Ferguson looks a ten Golden Age Hollywood stars and their modern successors…
Awards season is in full swing, meaning endless discussions of which performances deserve to be rewarded and who has been snubbed. This means it is as good a time as any to celebrate some of the best talent to emerge from Hollywood. Different filmmaking styles have developed significantly since the Golden Age of Cinema, as have the range of performances on offer to audiences. This doesn’t mean today’s films necessarily surpass Hollywood’s heyday. Some may consider older films to lack the crucial societal themes of today, or to be more theatrical than the more grounded projects of the 21st century. However, this would be a gross oversimplification of a fantastic period of film history. In some ways, filmmaking has changed a great deal; in other ways, it stays rightfully similar. One way to showcase this is to highlight some of the best performers of Old Hollywood and illustrate how their performance styles, film choices and personalities still feel present in many of today’s popular actors. Below are just ten examples of film icons and their modern counterparts.
Cary Grant – George Clooney
Suave gentlemen who love to undermine their good looks, Grant and Clooney reflect the archetype of the charming leading man. For the former, his looks always came second to his comic timing. Achieving fame through the screwball romances of the 1930s and 1940s, Grant exhibited a witty, fast-talking persona that he knew was his real strength. This carried him through to drama and thrillers, where the performances were more toned down but he never lost his persuasive, humorous nature.
Much the same can be said for Clooney and his knack for subverting expectations by playing foolish or unsavoury characters. His collaborations with the Coen Brothers in black comedies like Burn After Reading bear a strong resemblance to Grant through his droll and lively demeanour. Rather than coast on his movie star looks, Clooney has also experimented with other genres. The Descendants is a strong example of Clooney bringing humour to an otherwise sombre film and allowing himself to be both vulnerable and still conventionally masculine. If Clooney was working in Old Hollywood, he’d be a definite rival for Grant when Hitchcock was casting Notorious and North By Northwest.
James Stewart – Tom Hanks
If there is ever going to be a biopic of the great Jimmy Stewart, look no further than Tom Hanks to perfectly embody his effortless likability. Both share a winning persona of the humble everyman; they possess such a kind and gentle nature that makes it difficult for them to ever be disliked. Stewart’s trademark drawl and Hanks’ comforting tone and warm smile are key to their relatability onscreen. They could be just about anybody and yet their voices are so distinctive that they remain instantly recognisable. Hanks has replicated Stewart’s success as a natural comedic talent, even inhabiting Stewart’s role in the remake of The Shop Around the Corner, updating handwritten letters to emails in 1998’s You’ve Got Mail. While presented as a comedy, Hanks’ paranoid suburbanite in The ‘Burbs also borrows heavily from Stewart’s Hitchcock thriller Rear Window.
Despite their innate charm, both stars easily transition between feel-good fare to serious, darker material. Stewart was able to reflect the sinister side of the everyman and his male gaze in Vertigo and exceled in the dramas Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Anatomy of a Murder. Similarly, Hanks uses his extraordinary ordinariness in the likes of Philadelphia and Captain Phillips, drawing the viewer into the courageous acts of normal people. Watching these two doesn’t feel like witnessing some untouchable star but rather a regular person unafraid to spill their emotions onscreen.
Humphrey Bogart – Harrison Ford
Who better to carry on Bogart’s legacy of playing tough, cynical heroes than Indiana Jones himself? Just as Bogart rose to prominence through film noir and old school adventures like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Harrison Ford is iconic for his work as a space smuggler and archaeologist. His deadpan sarcasm and rough around the edges persona compliments the often sketchy but generally noble characters played by Bogart. Using a hard exterior to shield themselves against a cruel and merciless world, Casablanca’s Rick Blaine or The Big Sleep’s Philip Marlowe would be well-adapted to the neon-soaked misery of 2019 Los Angeles in Blade Runner.
However, both actors deserve credit for their romantic efforts, and not least because they both starred in film adaptations of the play Sabrina Fair, in 1954 and 1995, respectively. When not playing the hero, Bogart and Ford are effective as the more pragmatic and stubborn characters who soften after falling in love. Case in point, it’s hard not to see Ford’s scruffy pilot in jungle romance Six Days, Seven Nights as an attempt to replicate the success of Bogart’s steamboat captain in The African Queen.
Marlon Brando – Johnny Depp
It’s difficult to find a direct comparison for such a legendary powerhouse of Hollywood, so why not pair him with an equally exceptional talent and entirely original personality? There may not be a huge correlation between specific characters but they have both found themselves drawn to rebellious outsiders which reflects their refusal to conform to typical Hollywood standards. Dedicated to their craft, they are both known to become heavily involved in the creation and direction of their characters while being self-deprecatory about their talent and achievements. Roles where hostility gradually reveals a great sensitivity convey their deeply poetic nature.
Both share a desire for privacy but exhibit great honesty in describing their personal struggles and difficult childhoods. This fosters mischaracterisation in the media regarding their personal quirks but can reflect their admiration for troubled characters misrepresented by society. Working together on Don Juan DeMarco and The Brave, their admiration for one another is obvious. The former is a particularly apt example, as Brando’s doctor bonds with Depp’s defiant fantasist and his wish to disappear into someone else entirely; they use fiction as a means to escape their hardships in life.
Audrey Hepburn – Amy Adams
Known as a style icon as well as a respected actor, there’s perhaps nobody that can quite match the elegance Audrey Hepburn possessed. However, in terms of screen persona and emotional arcs, Amy Adams is certainly a worthy successor. Hepburn memorably played several assertive yet vulnerable characters. Her early performances brimmed with excitement and wide-eyed innocence. Her runaway princess in Roman Holiday joyfully experiences a different world and is fascinated to be interacting with ordinary people. While certainly less grounded, Adams’ Disney princess in Enchanted displays a similar sense of wonder for the everyday things in life as she finds herself trapped in New York.
Adams’ excellent turn in Junebug offers another endearing portrait of someone who can find enthusiasm in any topics while hiding her own insecurities. Both gravitated from naïve, optimistic roles to darker material, as seen with Hepburn’s turn in The Children’s Hour and Adams in Nocturnal Animals. Their later performances are less animated and more composed, stylish and contemplative. They naturally shift into the next stage of their careers, relinquishing innocence but retaining a bold command of the screen.
Robert Mitchum – Javier Bardem
One of the best villain performers of Old Hollywood, Robert Mitchum achieved considerable success in film noir, starring as Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter and Max Cady in Cape Fear. His relentless pursuit of two children in the former bears a resemblance to No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh, as played to Oscar-winning perfection by Bardem. While less talkative than Mitchum’s maniacal preacher, Chigurh shares a desire to wipe himself clean of wrongdoing, exchanging the Lord’s work for fate and destiny within a coin toss. Mitchum and Bardem are both domineering presences and need say very little to achieve their desired effect. Their imposing frame and eerie expressions create the illusion of unstoppable monsters, even if they carry a sense of grace with their acts of cruelty.
In Skyfall, Bardem plays another villain who exudes confidence. Just as Mitchum instils Cape Fear’s psychopath with a great sense of bravado, controlling the audience’s gaze with his movements, Bardem ensures his Bond villain is similarly menacing. The actor takes great relish in his character’s taunting menace, finding great amusement in his actions as he, like Cady, sets himself on a bloodthirsty quest for revenge.
James Dean – River Phoenix
Dying just one year younger than the 1950s rebel, River Phoenix is similarly regarded as a Hollywood icon who left behind a short but incredibly impressive legacy. Both actors were known for their portrayals of misunderstood, sensitive young men unable to conform to societal norms. In East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, Dean searched for purpose and a desire to create a family in which he would be loved and accepted. Phoenix manifested these intentions in Running on Empty and My Own Private Idaho, two roles rife with sadness and regret but delivered with an assurance beyond his years.
Dean and Phoenix could switch between aggressive and sweet, at one moment mature and then a lost child. While their respective careers ended long before they could prove what more they had to offer, the immense commitment they gave their roles has left a lasting impression on the industry, continuing to inspire many actors working today.
Natalie Wood – Emma Stone
Blending a girl-next-door quality with a strong air of restlessness and determination, Emma Stone exudes a passion that ensures she is always a memorable presence onscreen. In a twist of fate, her budding actor in La La Land meets Ryan Gosling’s jazz fanatic and he insists they see Rebel Without a Cause in the cinema. Similarities can be drawn between Stone and the 1955 melodrama’s Natalie Wood, who also played characters struggling to conform and fighting against a ‘good girl’ image.
In West Side Story, Splendor in the Grass and This Property is Condemned, Wood explored tumultuous romances and casual misogyny of the 1950s and 1960s. Stone displayed similar characteristics in comedies like Easy A, showing maturity in a story about abstinence and ‘slut shaming’. The Favourite continued this trait of performing astute characters willing to project a false idea of themselves in order to further their own objective.
Jack Lemmon – Jim Carrey
Carrey is a comic actor quite unlike any other but on several occasions he has proved to be a considerable dramatic talent. In this manner, he brings to mind the performances of Jack Lemmon. While not as absurd as some of Carrey’s work, Lemmon was nonetheless known for wacky and neurotic characters like in Some Like It Hot and The Odd Couple. In the former, Lemmon threw himself into the role of a cross-dressing musician – a bold move at the time which prompted questions of homosexuality. Carrey exhibits a similarly carefree attitude when playing eccentric figures such as his gay conman in I Love You Phillip Morris.
Despite their reputation for energetic performances in light comedies, both have surprised viewers with their lowkey, heartfelt work with darker material . Lemmon dealt with serious themes in The Apartment and Days of Wine and Roses, while Carrey can be entirely sincere in touching stories such as The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Robert Redford – Brad Pitt
Not only does Pitt bear a striking resemblance to a young Redford, but the pair have actually worked together on two films. Both achieved success with early films that emphasised their handsomeness and roguish charm, often placed in situations where this could greatly benefit their characters’ goals or conceal their intentions, as with Redford’s conman in The Sting and Pitt’s criminals in Fight Club and Ocean’s 11. Their leading man charisma has allowed them to star in a variety of productions, ranging from espionage thrillers to romantic dramas and poetic westerns concerning mortality. Films like All the President’s Men and Moneyball demonstrate the serious side of Redford and Pitt and effectively convey their commitment to cinema.
The only older star on this list still alive today, Redford continues on a similar trajectory to his modern counterpart; the pair utilise their maturity to lead slower, self-reflective features which reveal how far they’ve come while also harkening back to their old movie star appeal. Redford has The Old Man and the Gun, while Pitt’s nuanced work in Ad Astra and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood showcase characters struggling to grow and reconcile themselves with their past actions.