Extry! Extry! Getcha screen legends here!

The American Film Institute's silly list of "50 Greatest Screen Legends" plunks that august body into the same leaky boat as the Letterman Top 10 list.


Nikki Finke
June 16, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Stimulating conversation starter or crass money-raising scheme? That's the question in Hollywood this week after the venerable American Film Institute named its supposed "50 Greatest Screen Legends."

Just when motion-picture lovers thought it was safe to go back into the video store after last year's much ballyhooed (and much criticized) "100 Greatest American Movies of All Time," comes another controversial AFI list. This one, too, is certain to cause fisticuffs not just among cultural critics but also among family and friends ready to argue over where their favorite movie actors are placed in the list. That's right: it's not enough that AFI compiles these artificial rosters; the organization also ranks them. So just who are the top screen legends revealed in a 3-hour CBS special Tuesday night? Humphrey Bogart is No. 1 among men; Katharine Hepburn is No. 1 among women. James Dean made it; Montgomery Clift did not. Marilyn Monroe is on it; Louise Brooks is not. Charlie Chaplin is a yes; John Huston is a no. Absent are Peter Sellers, Steve McQueen and Laurel & Hardy, to name just a few. Click here for the full list.

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Forget, for a moment, AFI's selection process or even what constitutes a "screen legend." The real question is why a generally admired organization like AFI, dedicated to advancing and preserving the art of film, would engage in such People magazine-like fluff. The "50 Greatest Screen Legends" is not a measurement of acting ability but a finger-in-the-wind test of public celebrity. What this has to do with movies as art and not commerce is, in a word: nothing. And that is precisely what all the fuss is over.

Don't for a minute think AFI doesn't want it this way. "There's no better result for AFI in terms of what it wanted to accomplish than controversy," admits AFI spokesman Seth Oster. "In fact, we embrace any controversy about this year's list because it shows people are passionate about the movies. It gets people talking and creates a national conversation about our film heritage."

Well and good, but that's not the only reason AFI loves its lists. Sponsors love its lists, too -- specifically, corporations like General Motors, AT&T, Pepsi and the U.S. Postal Service who helped underwrite Tuesday night's TV broadcast. "Hopefully, a program like this generates some additional revenue to apply to AFI's mission and programs," Oster notes. "We have a $2 million hole every year to fill in." As one Hollywood leader involved in AFI activities told Salon Media: "It's a marketing device to help generate revenue. That's the long and short of it. What it's really done is taken AFI out of its traditional box and leveraged off the franchise. At the same time, who cares if it helps raise some money."

Like many non-profit arts organizations, AFI has been hurt by a deep slash in its federal funding, which used to make up about 20 percent of AFI's annual budget of $14 to $15 million. Recently, AFI's annual federal support has slumped from $2 million to just $20,000. In order to continue functioning, AFI had to find money somewhere. So it came up with the list gimmick.

Fred Pierce, a former AFI chairman who at one time ran ABC, cut the deal with CBS for last year's telecast of the "100 Greatest American Movies of All Time." That broadcast not only attracted 11 million viewers but won the night for CBS, which hadn't posted such a great Tuesday prime-time rating for the all-important 18-to-49 demographic group since the Winter Olympics. Needless to say, CBS was anxious to do it again. So this year, AFI came up with another list.

What exactly is a screen legend anyway? AFI defines it as an actor or a team of actors with a significant screen presence in American feature-length films. In this case, reacting no doubt to last year's criticism that its "Greatest Movies" list heavily favored modern movies, AFI decreed that only actors who made their screen debut before 1950, or died after 1950, would be considered. That meant such living legends as Jack Lemmon and Paul Newman weren't eligible, but Kirk Douglas and Shirley Temple were. Confusing, no?

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AFI didn't just pluck names out of the air. A handful of the organization's historians compiled a roster of nominations. To keep everything politically correct, that list was divided evenly between 250 men and 250 women. Then, 1,800 ballots were sent to what is loosely described as America's film community, including artists, historians, critics and other cultural leaders. AFI steadfastly (and strangely) won't reveal who voted or how many ballots were returned. Nor will the group break down the costs for making up the list or producing the TV program. However, sources say the new source of revenue has been a cash cow for AFI.

"I think it's great. I don't look at it as cheesy," said another Hollywood leader involved in AFI activities. "What's the difference between raising money this way and holding a golf tournament? Besides, who better to talk about the movies than an organization devoted to the movies? This is probably more non-partisan than the Oscars."

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Still, there is something very hypocritical about a whiny Hollywood community that rails against the Academy Awards, an event pitting actor against actor and performance against performance, yet sanctifies an activity which places the august organization in the same leaky rowboat as David Letterman's Top 10 list or Casey Casem's counting down the pop hits. "Hey, it's a competitive world we live in," one of the moguls added. "There's nothing wrong with being No. 1, No. 2 or No. 38."

If one believes AFI's propaganda, last year's "100 Greatest Movies" roster did considerable good for the motion picture industry. "The week before we released our list, 'Citizen Kane' was not among the 1,000 most-rented videos," notes Oster. "The week after and subsequently, rentals of the movie soared by more than 1,600 percent." Many movies on that list were then re-released by Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros. in selected theaters, including New York's Lincoln Center and Hollywood's Cinerama Dome, allowing many movie-goers to see the classics for the first time on a big screen.

Studios also rushed to get the "100 Greatest" out on video. The packaging for each video bore a "100 Greatest" sticker when it showed up in video stores. Turner Classic Movies presented a week-long cable film festival of many of the hundred, and TNT made a 10-part series of one-hour specials last summer examining what made these films so special in the first place. In other words, the entertainment business, too, benefited from AFI's decision to sell out. And, to pay back the favor, the studios bought time to hawk their summer movies during the three-hour CBS broadcast this year.

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Sounds like a win-win situation all around. That is, as long as the list is worth talking about.


Nikki Finke

Nikki Finke is Salon's Hollywood correspondent and the West Coast editor for New York magazine.

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