Don’t watch this
The problem with evaluating old actors is that their most famous and most honored roles are sometimes not their most memorable. Icons like Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart have their share of underrated and overrated films, but they also have signature roles in legitimately great films like It Happened One Night and Casablanca to tether their legacies.
However, the signature roles of some classic-movie stars were in vehicles that, while successful in their own eras, creak and crumble today. Here are some old greats in need of a historical recontextualization of their “classic roles”:
Deborah Kerr. Don’t watch this: Birthday-cake-colored schmaltz like The King and I and An Affair to Remember. Watch this instead: Her achingly beautiful three-role turn in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the icy cool of Bonjour Tristesse, or her skin-crawling madness in the Henry James-inspired The Innocents.
Gary Cooper. Don’t watch this: Totem-pole stiffs like Sergeant York, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Fountainhead. Watch this instead: Cooper’s irresistible playful side emerging in lively and underrated comedies like Design for Living and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, as well as the irreverent oater The Westerner.
Jerry Lewis. Don’t watch this: Any film in which the spastic comedian acted for a director not named Jerry Lewis or Martin Scorsese; Lewis’ own overrated The Nutty Professor. Watch this instead: Any of Lewis’ first three self-directed efforts—the brilliant collection of blackout gags in The Bellboy, as well as the outrageous sets and sublime madness of The Ladies Man and The Errand Boy.
Gérard Depardieu. Don’t watch this: Anything Depardieu made after he started making movies in America. Watch this instead: There’s much to choose from in this pre-Green Card phase, but my favorite is his devastating turn as the hunchback in 1986’s Jean de Florette.