An actor plays a role. A star plays himself. A legend plays for all time. These enduring performers –who have embodied heroes, villains, ingénues, rebels and rogues- are legends of cinema. In their distinguished, idiosyncratic careers, they have come to define their films in a way that few artists have. They range from a child star who grew into a formidable dramatic actor to a regal Hitchcock heroine who founded her own wild kingdom, from a prima ballerina with a gift for music to a maverick who risked his career in order to do the right thing. But these 11 legends have one thing in common: Whatever they do –act, direct, produce, write, sing, teach- they make it seem effortless. As Cary Grant once told Tony Curtis: “The way you judge a bottle of white wine is that when it’s chilled, it tastes like a cool glass of water. It’s so artful that it’s artless.”
Interviews: Justine Elias
Portfolio: Mary Ellen Mark
Interviews: Justine Elias
"I'm 72 now, but I will never play old men on the screen - there is always a little extra energy that you can see. 'Old' to me is giving up on life."
Age: 72. » Standout performances: Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Some Like It Hot
(1959), The Boston Strangler (1968). »
Explain your sneaky smile.
I smile all the time. When I first started out, there was something about my looks that made everybody think I was roguish. I smile all the time - I can never get over the fact that I'm in the movies. It was hard to hide my enthusiasm even if I played a killer. »
Early in your career, you fought being typecast in "pretty boy" parts. How have you made the transition to more mature roles?
You are looking at a machine made for the movies. I'm 72 now, but I will never play old men on the screen there is always a little extra energy that you can see. "Old" to me is giving up on life. You can be any age you want. In almost 50 years of filmmaking, each year in my life there is always another semblance of myself coming through. »
Your great attitude comes from...?
I've had the most extraordinary life. I've done over 120 movies, traveled everywhere, worked with the finest people - loved by everyone. Everywhere I go in the world, everybody knows me. I'm a happy guy.
At home with girlfriend Jill Vanden Berg, Los Angeles, August 1997
At home, Los Angeles, August 1997
Age: 81. Standout performances: Lust for Life (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960).
Who inspired you to become an actor?
(As a teen-ager) I had a relationship with my English teacher; our sexual relationship was not as important as her contribution to my life. I was just a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Because of her affection for me, I was inspired to read good literature and poetry.
What is your proudest achievement?
Breaking the blacklist. When my company was producing Spartacus, Dalton Trumbo was secretly writing the script under a pen name. “The hell with it,” I said, “We are going to credit the man who wrote the script.” Friends tried to persuade me not to do it, for fear of the consequences, but I was young and stubborn. (When I saw Trumbo later) he looked at me strangely and said softly “Thank you for giving me back my name.” I tell you, that was worth a lot of awards.
Clowning in his bedroom, Westlake Village, Calif., January 1998
Age: 77. Standout performances: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), Boys Town (1938), The Bold and the Brave (1956).
You started performing at the age of 18 months and made your first movie at age 2. Was it hard to grow up in public? No, no, no! The opposite. It was very normal and natural. Growing up doesn’t mean all of a sudden you lose your talent. It’s just a fact. Somebody recognizes you and keeps you in mind for things in the future. I’ve been in motion pictures for 75 years. There isn’t any studio I haven’t worked at. And I don’t call it work –I call it fun. I made some good pictures and some bad pictures, some so bad they weren’t released – they escaped. Just to be in this business is a great privilege that the good Lord has given me –just to be part of the passing parade.”
What’s your attitude towards aging?
Age is nothing more than experience, and some of us are more experienced than others.
At the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, December 1997
Age: 66. » Standout performances: North by Northwest (I99), Crimes and Misdemeanors(1989), Ed Wood (1994)
In out of 2,000 applicants, only you and Steve McQueen were accepted at the Actors Studio. What stands out?[Founder] Lee Strasberg was very rough on me as an actor. Compliments never came. He found fault, but he was right. Yet he encouraged me to teach - he sent students to me when I was only in my 20s: Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, Robert Blake.
On the series 'Mission: Impossible,' you played a master of disguises. Was that a dream role?
It was! it was fun. It was a unique show in that you had to really watch it. Lucille Ball told me she was always baffled by it. And I'd say, "You've got to watch it, Lucy. I mean, you're busy running in and out of the room. "
Any advice for would-be actors?
Work at it. Talent is one thing; use of the talent is another.
EVA MARIE SAINT
At home in Los Angeles, December 1997
Age: 73. » Standout performances: On the Waterfront (1954), North by Northwest (1959), My Antonia (1995).
You won an Oscar for 'On the Waterfront,' your film debut. What do you remember feeling when you heard your name announced? My husband had said, "Promise me you'll count to 10 before you rush up there" - I was due to give birth to my first child in two weeks. In the maternity ward, I've never seen so many flowers in my life, for the Academy Award and for the baby. It was a very heady time.
Any anecdotes about making 'North by Northwest?
We were shooting the big scene in the auction house, and I was in that famous black-and-red dress. [Hitchcock) saw me pouring coffee into a Styrofoam cup, and he said [imitating Hitchcock's voice, "Eva Marie, I want you to go into that little room all by yourself, and they will bring you coffee in a china cup and saucer. You're my leading lady, and I don't want you running around in a $3,000 dress with a Styrofoam cup." (Laughs) I said, "Hitch, that's a grand idea."
In his yard, Beverly Hills, Calif., January 1998
Age: 73. Standing performances: The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), El Cid (1961).
Did you always believe you would be a success?
I don’t think I imagined being a major star –I wanted to make a living. When I started, I was too young, in a way, for all the parts I was right for: 6-foot-3, deep voice, broken nose. Nobody was going to use me as the kid who comes through the door and says: “Tennis, anyone?” But I always thought I’d get every part. And every part I read for, I was thought I was better than the other actors.
What’s the best review you’ve ever gotten?
I took my daughter –she was about 8- to see El Cid. And when the lights came up, tears were running down her face. And I said, “Honey, what did you think?” And she said, “Daddy, you were beautiful!” (Laughs) And I said, “Yeah, baby, I was pretty beautiful!”
At her Shambala Preserve with Pidi, Acton, Calif., November 1997
Hitchcock had a reputation for being manipulative and controlling with his leading ladies. Any truth to that?
No. I can’t speak for the other actresses, but he was not only my director, he was my drama coach. He gave me the feeling that this was something I could do.. The studio was saying, “Hitch, what are you doing? You can’t cast a woman who’s never done a film!” And he gave me the assurance that I could do it.”
Do you have a favorite moment of yourself on film?
Ah, you know, it’s scary watching yourself. My daughter (Melanie Griffith) says that, too. But with Marnie and The Birds, it’s almost like watching somebody else. Of course it was somebody else 30 years ago. I hope I’m a little wiser and a little smarter now.
Choosing a favorite performance is really much like asking me which is my favorite child. I have 13 of them. I can’t pick just one.
Age: 83. » Standout performances: La Strada (1954), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Zorba the Greek (1964).
You studied architecture before acting. How do you compare the two?
I never thought of myself seriously as an actor. I think of myself as an architect, always. Maybe that's why I had some success, because I literally built the characters as I would construct a house.
Though you worked mainly within the studio system, you were one of very few American actors to work abroad, with directors like Fellini and Lean.
The problem is some actors would not be accepted. I mean, if Stallone broke out in an Arab accent, he wouldn't be accepted. They'd hire an Arab actor. But I acted much better in accents.
What performance are you proudest of?
Oh, I have none. It's really very much like asking me which is my favorite child. I have 13 of them. I can't pick just one.
On the grounds of his home, Rhode Island, November 1997 with his wife Kathy Benvin
Age: 76.Standout performances: Your Show of Shows (1950-54, writer, actor), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66, creator, writer, actor), All of Me (1984, director)
How did you first meet Mel Brooks?
In the writers offices of Your Show of Shows. Mel came in late –he ran across the office and slid across the floor, hit the wall with his foot and yelled, “Safe!” like he was sliding into second base.
Who is your best audience?
My wife and Mel. But my best audience is a paying audience.
AGE: 71. Standout performances: The Producers (1967, director, writer), Blazing Saddles (1974, director, writer, actor), Young Frankenstein (1974, director, writer).
Though you are best known for comedy, you’ve produced dramas like ‘The Elephant Man’ and ‘Frances’. How do you balance the two?
I fell in love with the story of The Elephant Man, but I realized that if I put my name on it, people would naturally expect a comedy version of it.
If ‘Blazing Saddles’ were released today, how would it be received?
It’s very politically incorrect. And that’s nonsense. It was all about injustice and prejudice. You can say anything you want as long as you make your point and at the end your heroes win.
At SmashBox Studios, Culver City, Calif., November 1997
In her living room, Los Angeles, January 1998
Age: 76. Standout performances: The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954), Silk Stockings (1957).
What made you a dancer?
I was 6, and I’d had a touch of polio. I was very, very frail, and my doctor suggested to my family that I should take some kind of exercise. That’s how I started; just to build my strength. I joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo when I was 13.
You danced with both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Can you compare the two?
You can’t say Gene was better than Fred or Fred was better than Gene, because they were so different, and yet each one was absolutely the best.
Describe your first dance with Astaire.
The first thing I did at MGM was a number with Lucille Ball, in Ziegfeld Follies, and all the girls were dressed up in black leopard costumes, and she had a whip. And Fred Astaire came on for no reason and sang “Bring On the Beautiful Girls,”, and I appeared in my toe shoes and my leotard, through a screen of soap bubbles, and danced –not with him but around him.
Leopard costumes? Whips? Pretty racy.
I think we got away with murder because the censors didn’t realize what we were doing.