Great American Film Actor

“If you were not selected, please stay seated and put on your sunglasses.”

“If you were not selected, please stay seated and put on your sunglasses.”

Last December, I argued that John Travolta had assumed Marlon Brando’s role as the once talented and beautiful actor most prone to lazy acting, egomania and public disgracefulness. Did you see Travolta prancing about with a soccer ball at the World Cup press conference? Called it!

That settled, my next question is who holds Brando’s other former position, that of Great American Film Actor? Brando held the title through 1955, when he was supplanted postmortem by James Dean, then again briefly in the pre-Robert De Niro early 1970s.

Actors as diverse as Fredric March, Jimmy Stewart and Al Pacino have laid claim to it, but right now the belt is up for grabs. I’ll list my top five candidates next week—with a companion column on actresses next month—but first, some guidelines.

For starters, even though Daniel Day-Lewis is arguably the best actor working today (Nine makes a compelling argument for “con”), the belt is for Americans only. Benicio Del Toro was born in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, so he’d technically be eligible if he could still act.

The Great American Film Actor title is a reflection of the quality and significance of an actor’s current output, not past achievements (De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, you’re out), box-office bankability (so long, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Tom Hanks), as-yet-unfulfilled promise (paging Ed Norton, Mark Ruffalo and Peter Sarsgaard), or awards-show validation (Adrien Brody and Jamie Foxx? Really?).

Actors who have fared best in character roles were excluded, so sayonara, John C. Reilly. Johnny Depp once had momentum, but his career has fallen into a Robert Downey Jr.-esque torpor. Leonardo DiCaprio tries hard, but so much that we see the strain. Brad Pitt gives entertaining performances, but he doesn’t exactly possess “range.” I like George Clooney and Matt Damon, but no.

Next week: five candidates for Great American Film Actor.