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AFI to release list of top 50 screen legends

Web posted on:
Wednesday, January 13, 1999 4:47:49 PM EST

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Just when you thought the movie debates had subsided, the American Film Institute is coming back for more, with a plan to release its list of the 50 most influential screen legends of moviemaking's first century.

The list, which follows the AFI's controversial list released last year naming the 100 top movies of the century, will be unveiled in June on CBS during a three-hour special entitled "AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Stars." Plans were announced on Tuesday. The list will be presented by 50 of today's top stars, which gives rise to the "100 Stars" in the title.

No modern-day stars

The list will be split between 25 actresses and their 25 male counterparts. The AFI defines "screen legend" as "an actor or team of actors with a significant screen presence in American feature-length films whose screen debut occurred in or before 1950, or whose screen debut occurred after 1950 but whose death has marked a completed body of work."

Are top-100 lists worthwhile? Is it possible to put together a list that might satisfy the majority? Go to the boards!

In other words, modern-day actors like Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep don't have a chance.

This might spark controversy -- at least, the AFI hopes so. The organization's top 100 movies list began a heated debate on film, prompting many newspapers, magazines, movie critics and film institutions to release their own list. The same can be expected when this list is released.

"AFI's list of the 100 greatest movies sparked a national conversation about American film that led millions to discover and rediscover many film classics," said AFI board chairman Tom Pollock. "This celebration of screen legends will no doubt generate a great deal of discussion, even controversy, which AFI encourages."

The nominees are ...

The list of nominated actors and actress was narrowed down by the AFI to a list of 500. Nominated actresses include names like Gracie Allen, Greta Garbo, Betty Grable, Lucille Ball, Hedy Lamarr, Mary Pickford, Ruth Gordon, and Dinah Shore. The actors named include Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Poitier, Kirk Douglas, Harold Lloyd, Sir Laurence Olivier and John Belushi. There are comedy teams such as the Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy, sister sets such as Lillian and Dorothy Gish and father-son duos such as Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Jr.

The final list will be picked by 1,800 people from across the film industry -- directors, producers, critics, historians, executives -- who will consider each nominee's star quality, legacy, popularity, and historical context.

The AFI is a nonprofit group of film historians in the business of supporting U.S. filmmaking. But when the group released its list of top 100 movies, those unacquainted with the group might have thought they were in the business of taking criticism.

The top 100 movies?

The top five films named by the group were, in order, "Citizen Kane" (1941), "Casablanca" (1942), "The Godfather" (1972), "Gone With The Wind" (1939), and "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962). While many people agreed with the top picks, the list seemed to divide people as it cascaded to the century mark.

"I was hoping that this list would be a definitive list," Robert Osborne, a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, told CNN Interactive at the time. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of movies on the list that could be taken off and replaced by something else."

It was a common complaint. The list, which the AFI admitted was a highly subjective enterprise, seemed to focus on the middle of the century, even leaning towards modern-day pictures like "Fargo" and "Pulp Fiction."

Only two were picked from the era that spanned the first three decades of American film -- "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) and Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" (1925).

'Our national movie heritage'

Clearly, the AFI will have its hands full dealing with complaints from its screen legends list, as it ignores most of today's biggest stars -- names like Hanks, Streep, Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Julia Roberts, and Jim Carrey.

"We really wanted to think of this as the century of the American movie, and if you take 1980 or 1970 or 1960, you're dealing with people of today. Perhaps we don't have a sense of perspective" about their careers, said Jean Picker Firstenberg, AFI's chief executive. "You need time."

Pollock says criticism is the surest evidence that the AFI is doing its job.

"Our intent is to get people talking about our national movie heritage, rather than merely a discussion of box office grosses," he says.

Certainly that will be the case come June.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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