Triangulating an Actor’s Career

Dodsworth plays tonight on TCM and it remains a personal favorite, a movie I emotionally connect with and a lead performance, by Walter Huston, I find to be quite amazing.  Walter Huston has always been a favorite of mine and when I think of him, three performances come to mind, and Dodsworth is one of them.  In fact, what I try to do with a lot of favorite actors is pick out the three performances that I would show to a newcomer that would best illuminate that actor’s talent, range and versatility.  Even if they never stray very far from a given characterization, there might be three performances of those that best exemplify who they are and what they do.


Back to Walter Huston.  If I had to pick three performances to initiate a Huston recruit, the choices would be easy.  I’d pick the three performances that, for me, show the three faces of Walter, so to speak.  The first would be Dodsworth.  This is the Walter Huston that plays the noble, stoic characters in movies like Abraham Lincoln and Yankee Doodle Dandy.  His character in Dodsworth probably best mirrors who Huston was as a person or, at least, I’d like to think so.   Dignified and responsible but also emotional and passionate.  It’s a great performance in a great movie but it doesn’t scratch the surface of what he could do.

Did someone say “scratch?”

Yes, the next performance would be from the great The Devil and Daniel Webster (aka, All That Money Can Buy).  Huston plays Old Scratch, who happens upon a poor farmer down on his luck and willing to sell his soul for a chance to turn it around.  Huston is so energetic and devilishly(!) wonderful in this I still have a hard time accepting he didn’t win Best Actor for it.  But he did win an Oscar for the final of my three, only it was a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and what support it was.

For the third performance, I’d choose Huston’s Oscar winning turn in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  His old prospector is full of life and energy in a way so optimistic and good-humored, it provides the perfect counterpoint to Old Scratch and shows his ability to range from stoic and noble in Dodsworth all the way out to craggy and grizzled in this one.  Another great performance, another great movie.

But Huston’s just one actor and there are so very many to cover.  I expect there will be lots of disagreement on these, and maybe a few favorite performances won’t be mentioned, since I’m going for roles that “explain” the actor, for lack of a better word, to someone unfamiliar with them, but also shows their range.   Let’s get to it.

Humphrey Bogart:  I’m going to leave out some big ones, some really big ones, but keep in mind, I’m going for understanding and range.  For Bogart, who had so many cynical hero roles, I’d have to pick Casablanca as the one to exemplify them and leave out a host of others, from The Maltese Falcon to The Big Sleep.   Next, to show his ability to play the weasel or unflattering jerk, I’d go with either Dead End, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, In a Lonely Place or The Caine Mutiny.  Very tough choice but I’d go with Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Finally, to show the lighthearted side of Bogie, I’d go with The African Queen.

Bette Davis:  I’d like to pick the performance that first brought her big time recognition, Of Human Bondage, but honestly, it’s not really representative of Davis at all.  Neither is Jezebel.  The thing with Davis is, she really played a lot of different roles that were notable performances but also not necessarily what one would call a representative Davis performance.  What was unique with Davis was her willingness to play very unflattering characters or brutally honest characters and so coming up with three performances to define Davis is difficult.  But here goes: The Letter, All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.  Interpret that how you will.

James Cagney: One cannot give anyone an idea about Cagney without including his gangster roles and while Public Enemy put him on the map, it was White Heat where he truly ramped up the terrifying gangster role to its horrifying conclusion.   And then there’s Cagney the hoofer.  We all know the role to include for that: Yankee Doodle Dandy.   Finally, Cagney the mean, old man:  Mister Roberts.

Barbara Stanwyck:  Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, Ball of Fire.  There’s a fourth Babs, the older, matriarchal one of Titanic, Executive Suite and, later on television, The Big Valley.  But I think the three given represent the best of Babs, from self-sacrificing to conniving to carefree and spirited.  Substitute at will.


Ingrid Bergman: Casablanca, Notorious, Anastasia.  Bergman won Best Actress for Gaslight, and she’s great in it, but she’s better in Notorious in the same (very roughly speaking) imperiled woman waiting for salvation from handsome hero.  Notorious is a deeper, richer character.

Cary Grant:  Picking North by Northwest is easy.  Picking the other two is hard.  For comedy Grant, I suppose I should go with Bringing up Baby but I think his comedy talents in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House are on better display.  Serious Cary?  Hmmm, Penny Serenade might be an obvious choice but, like the previous entry, I’m going to go with Notorious.  Not the same kind of serious, but a bold hero performance that showed what Cary could do.

Katherine Hepburn: Woman of the Year, Summertime, Lion in Winter.

John Wayne:  Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers.

Marlon Brando:  A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Godfather.   And then there are the dozens of oddball, singularly unique performances he gave that, each one on its own, wouldn’t give any clear idea about him (Reflections in the Golden Eye, The Young Lions, Mutiny on the Bounty, Julius Caesar).  He and Bette Davis encounter the same problem in selection.

Marlene Dietrich: The Blue Angel, Destry Rides Again, Touch of Evil.

Jimmy Stewart: It’s a Wonderful Life, Vertigo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Irene Dunne:  Theodora Goes Wild, Love Affair, I Remember Mama

Claudette Colbert: It Happened One Night, Since You Went Away, The Egg and I

Clark Gable: It Happened One Night, Gone with the Wind, The Misfits

Boris Karloff: Frankenstein, The Black Room, The Body Snatcher

Greta Garbo: Grand Hotel, Queen Christina, Ninotchka

Judy Garland: The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, A Star is Born

Gregory Peck:  Spellbound, The Yearling, To Kill a Mockingbird

Norma Shearer: The Divorcee, Marie Antoinette, The Women.

Spencer Tracy: Boy’s Town, Father of the Bride, Bad Day at Black Rock

Joan Crawford: Dancing Lady, Mildred Pierce, Johnny Guitar.

Fredric March: Design for Living, The Best Years of Our Lives, Seven Days in May

Peter Lorre: M, The Maltese Falcon, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Elizabeth Taylor:  National Velvet, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Claude Rains: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, Mr. Skeffington

Jean Arthur:  Easy Living, Only Angels Have Wings, A Foreign Affair

And… and… I’m going to stop there.  If I continue, including all the Ritter Award winners of a previous post, we’d be here all month.  And, yes, I know, I’ve left off tons of big stars, too.  Feel free to fill them in.  I imagine there won’t be anywhere near full agreement on any of these but that’s what so engaging about selecting these kinds of things: Halfway through the post, I realized I didn’t agree with myself on some of these and starting changing them.  Then I realized I disagreed with my reassessment and switched back.  I mean, Joan Crawford?! Are you kidding me?!  Three performances?!  I didn’t even mention Humoresque or The Women which each give, I think, a completely different side of Joan than the three I selected.  But if I made it five performances or ten or twenty, it wouldn’t be as challenging.  There’s something about trying to select the perfect three performances to encapsulate a performer’s career that makes you rethink what their talents were and what movies best utilized them.  Once you do that, you’d be surprised where you end up, often leaving off some of their best known work because, somehow, it doesn’t feel as representative.  Acting is great that way.  One performance, captured on film for eternity, can change before your eyes if you live long enough.

Oh, and since she’s our Star of the Month…

Mary Astor: Other Men’s Women, Dodsworth, The Maltese Falcon.

33 Responses Triangulating an Actor’s Career
Posted By swac44 : March 5, 2014 3:29 pm

Treasure of the Sierra Madre is my favourite movie of all time (yep, got it down to just one, that’s never going to change) and Huston’s performance is the one that gets better every time I see it, although Bogie and Holt are at the tops of their respective games as well. Haven’t seen Dodsworth but my DVR will help me correct that error this week.

For that John Wayne trilogy, I notice none of them really show him in a lighter mood, maybe substitute Donovan’s Reef or even Hatari! for one of them? I was going to include True Grit, for anyone who can overlook Glen Campbell’s stiff stab at acting in that.

Posted By Arthur : March 5, 2014 3:59 pm

Interesting topic. Yes those three performances by Huston really stand out. Regarding Joseph Cotton, I would select The Third Man, Portrait of Jennie and Shadow of A Doubt.

Posted By LD : March 5, 2014 5:50 pm

This really was difficult but I came up a with a few choices.


Robert Mitchum OUT OF THE PAST

Olivia de Havilland TO EACH HIS OWN

Joan Fontaine REBECCA


For CARY GRANT I would have tried to work in GUNGA DIN, for John Wayne, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and for Joan Crawford, POSSESSED (1947). I just don’t know what I would have swapped them with.

Posted By Marty : March 5, 2014 6:59 pm

Marlene Dietrich: Add Judgement at Nuremburg
Jimmy Stewart: Add Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Call Northside 777
Irene Dunne: Add Showboat
Claudette Colbert: Add So Proudly We Hail
Clark Gable: Add Run Silent Run Deep and The Hucksters
Boris Karloff: Add The Mudlark
Judy Garland: Add Judgement At Nuremburg
Gregory Peck: Add The Great Sinner
Spencer Tracy: Add Captains Courageous and Adam’s Rib
Joan Crawford: Add A Woman’s Face
Fredric March: Add Inherit The Wind and The Bridges At Toko Ri
Peter Lorre: Add Casablanca
Elizabeth Taylor: Add A Place In The Sun and Suddenly Last Summer
Jean Arthur: Add Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

Posted By Richard Brandt : March 5, 2014 7:21 pm

No one can appreciate Peter Lorre who hasn’t checked out his amazing work in MYSTERIOUS MR. MOTO and THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS. He has scenes that just made my jaw drop. (Pauline Kael once said Lorre’s best roles were Moto and Raskolnikov.)

Well, since someone mentioned Tim Holt, I guess I’d have to go with THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE…and ask myself, once again, why after each one did he always go back to cranking out B westerns?

Posted By Andrew : March 5, 2014 8:03 pm

The only little substitution I might suggest is for Jimmy Stewart. Instead of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, I would look for something more like Firecreek or Winchester ’73.

Posted By Emgee : March 5, 2014 9:18 pm

Dignified and responsible? I’m doubtful John Huston would agree, since his dad was gone for his entire childhood. Bu fortunately they got on great as adults.
For years i didn’t know Walter was the more famous one, until his son’s career peaked. I’d only seen him a a grizzled gold miner, but have seen many great movies with him since.

Katherine Hepburn: Phildelphia Story, surely?

Irene Dunne: The Awful Truth is a must see
Claudette Colbert: Palm Beach Story
Boris Karloff: Bride of Frankenstein
Spencer Tracy: Fury, Adam’s Rib
Fredric March: Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Posted By Marjorie Birch : March 5, 2014 10:35 pm

Claude Rains — Casablanca, Notorious, and a toss-up between Deception and The Passionate Friends.

Posted By M.T. Fisher : March 5, 2014 11:01 pm

For Wayne, a better trio would have been Stagecoach – The Quiet Man – The Shootist.

Great article, btw.

Posted By Doug : March 5, 2014 11:32 pm

Not a contrarian note, but Walter Huston’s turn in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” had quite an advantage with his son directing. Not often does an actor have a part so tailored to their strengths. He deserved the Oscar, no doubt, and his reputation was made before John ever got in to the business…but Walter Huston benefited by working with John, who knew just how to present his father in the best way.
Ah well.
Jack Lemmon: Mr. Roberts, The Odd Couple, Grumpy Old Men.
Shirley MacLaine: Can-can, Sweet Charity, The Apartment.
Ginger Rogers: Top Hat, The Major and The Minor, I’ll Be Seeing You.

Posted By tdraicer : March 6, 2014 3:44 am

I’ll throw in some more Brits, and in keeping with Greg’s posts those are “range” choices rather than “favorites” or “best of” (though many are both for me):

James Mason: A Star is Born, The Desert Fox, Murder by Decree

Laurence Olivier: Henry V, Marathon Man, Boys From Brazil (the less two showing him transform from evil Nazi to good Nazi hunter).

Alec Guinness: Oliver Twist, Bridge on the River Kwai, The Horse’s Mouth

Peter O’Toole: Lawrence (obviously), My Favorite Year (ditto), Creator

Robert Donat: The Count of Monte Cristo, Goodbye Mr. Chips, That Winslow Boy

Maggie Smith: Othello, The Honey Pot, Evil Under the Sun

Peter Ustinov: Spartacus, Viva Max, Hot Millions

George Sanders: The Picture of Dorian Gray, All About Eve, Village of the Damned

But like Greg, I’m already second-guessing myself on these choices, so I’ll stop there.

Posted By tdraicer : March 6, 2014 3:46 am

“those” are range choices? The “less two?” Sorry, my typing was clearly running on a different track than my thoughts.

Posted By Michaela : March 6, 2014 5:07 am

For Fred Astaire, I’d pick one from each decade he worked in.

1930s–Top Hat
1940s–Easter Parade
1950s–The Band Wagon

I think that all three are variations of the romantic hero Astaire played, and they show how his dancing evolved and got more daring and explorative.

This would be great to do with directors, too. Although if you ever asked me to pick just three Hitchcock pictures, I can guarantee you my head would explode.

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) : March 6, 2014 2:03 pm

A different JOHN WAYNE grouping: The Quiet Man, Island in the Sky, True Grit

An evening with BORIS KARLOFF: The Body Snatcher, The Black Room, Targets

EDWARD G. ROBINSON Theatre: The Sea Wolf, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, Key Largo

IDA LUPINO at the movies: On Dangerous Ground, The Hard Way, Road House

JANE WYMAN triple bill: The Yearling, All That Heaven Allows, Here Comes the Groom

Posted By kingrat : March 6, 2014 9:18 pm

Great topic, Greg, and some great responses from your fans. One poster on the TCM site said that he didn’t begin with an actor or a director’s greatest work in recommending starting points for new classic fans. His theory is that sometimes a smaller part or a lesser film may get the viewer used to the artist, and then they can proceed to the best-known work.

An example might be to recommend THE MEN rather than ON THE WATERFRONT as the first Marlon Brando film, or SEVEN MEN FROM NOW as a first Lee Marvin film.

Posted By Margarita Landazuri : March 6, 2014 10:23 pm

Star of the Month Mary Astor was also superb in comedies, and none of the three you list shows that talent. If you want to show her range, I’d replace OTHER MEN’S WOMEN with either THE PALM BEACH STORY or MIDNIGHT.

Posted By Brian : March 7, 2014 1:57 am

For Cary Grant I’d throw in Father Goose. He made so many great comedies but the boozing, foul mouthed Walter Ecklund was a real treat.

Posted By Doug : March 7, 2014 3:06 am

I feel like I’ve been through something special tonight-just finished watching Leo McCarey’s “Make Way For Tomorrow” and it touched me as great art does. Beulah Bondi-having seen her in “Vivacious Lady” made a year after McCarey’s classic, I knew that
she was playing much older in “Make Way For Tomorrow” but she does so flawlessly. If IMDB can be trusted, when she made the film she was seven years younger than I am now,which is an eye opener.
A great film.

Posted By Jenni : March 7, 2014 1:34 pm

What a fun post! I’d put in Van Heflin as I think he showed good range in his roles through the years he acted in films. For him, I’d pick Johnny Eager-The Prowler-Shane. My actress pick, Rosalind Russell, I would pick Night Must Fall-His Girl Friday-Picnic.

Posted By gregferrara : March 7, 2014 5:52 pm

Thanks for all the great responses. I was busy the last couple of days with deadlines and looking back can already see how difficult I made this. I would probably change at least half my choices now, many based on what I’ve read here. It’s really helpful in pointing out just how versatile actors are. For instance, when it was suggested that I left out the lighter side of John Wayne, I immediately thought, this is good way to illustrate exactly how versatile these stars were when ever anyone throws out the old, lazy saw that they’re just playing themselves.

Posted By gregferrara : March 7, 2014 5:53 pm

Oh, and by the way, I really do love Cary Grant in Father Goose, too. I can’t defend it as a great movie, but I sure do love it.

Posted By kingrat : March 7, 2014 6:10 pm

Gary Cooper: Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Ball of Fire, High Noon

Merle Oberon: Dark Waters, Night Song, Desiree

Jennifer Jones: Love Letters, Beat the Devil, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing

Linda Darnell: Fallen Angel, A Letter to Three Wives, No Way Out

Posted By Len Hanger : March 8, 2014 1:49 am

How about Twentieth Century Fox idol–Tyrone Power. He was the Fox star for many years although he passed on at a young 44. My three to highlight his career are:
Lloyd’s of London
The Black Swan
The Razor’s Edge

Posted By swac44 : March 8, 2014 11:53 pm

For me, any discussion of Power has to include Nightmare Alley, probably one of the riskiest ventures for any matinee idol at that time.

Posted By Len Hanger : March 9, 2014 1:02 am

You are so right about Nightmare Alley. I had forgotten about it. It was risky. Great picture. Tyrone at his best.

Posted By jbryant : March 9, 2014 1:12 am

Yeah, I agree the NIGHTMARE ALLEY would have to be in a Tyrone Power “triangulation.” I’d also be tempted to include one of his superb late performances, too, probably THE LONG GRAY LINE (he also does a great job in an impossible role in THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY).

THE AWFUL TRUTH would have to be my first Cary Grant choice over BRINGING UP BABY. McCarey practically “invented” Cary Grant in that film. NOTORIOUS and NORTH BY NORTHWEST would probably be the other two.

Patricia: Great to see a mention of John Wayne in ISLAND IN THE SKY. He’s so excellent in that – probably one of my three favorite performances of his.

Marty: I can find no reference to Karloff appearing in THE MUDLARK.

Posted By Len Hanger : March 9, 2014 1:56 am

Another favorite for me is: Dean Jagger

Bad Day at Black Rock
Western Union &
Twelve O’Clock High (Oscar winner)

Posted By Richard Brandt : March 9, 2014 6:00 am

To consider Jane Wyman’s range, compare THE YEARLING to NIGHT AND DAY…which she was filming back to back!

Leonard Maltin once described Cary Grant as “miscast” in FATHER GOOSE…apparently anyone is “cast against type,” that’s “miscasting” in Maltin’s book. Probably my favorite Cary Grant movie, because (a) I first saw it in the theater as a kid, and (b) Peter Stone’s smashing contribution to the dialogue.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : March 9, 2014 3:42 pm

the two i’d pick for Karloff (beside the obvious Frankenstein and Bride of) would be his sinister Gray in the Body Snatcher,and the slightly less sinister and pathetic Sims in Bedlam…even Karloff acknowledged his films with Lewton revived and saved his career

Posted By Doug : March 9, 2014 7:16 pm

Richard Brandt-a while ago I purchased the “Torchy Blane” series and Jane Wyman has a small but cute role in the first film, “Smart Blonde” before she takes over the lead in the final movie, “Playing With Dynamite”.
I know that some don’t care for the Torchy films that didn’t star Glenda Farrell, but I thought that they were all right, just a different animal.
I liked Jane Wyman in “Magic Town” opposite Jimmy Stewart,though that movie is probably my least favorite of Stewart’s films.
Wyman had a good long career, and though she never reached the upper strata of stardom, she still did all right.

Posted By robbushblog : March 19, 2014 2:33 pm

This is too difficult for me to choose for certain actors, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne especially. Let me give it a try for a few others though:

Errol Flynn- The Adventures of Robin Hood, Dodge City and Objective Burma

Cary Grant- Only Angels Have Wings, Arsenic and Old Lace and North by Northwest

Tyrone Power- The mark of Zorro, Nightmare Alley and Witness for the Prosecution

John Garfield- Four Daughters, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Force of Evil

Marilyn Monroe- Niagara, The Seven Year Itch and The Misfits

Gary Cooper- Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, The Pride of the Yankees and High Noon

Grace Kelly- High Noon, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief

Ingrid Bergman- Casablanca, Gaslight and Murder On the Orient Express

Charlie Chaplin- The Gold Rush, City Lights and The Great Dictator

This is really difficult…..

Posted By swac44 : March 19, 2014 4:01 pm

Chaplin would be hard for me because of his early work in a substantial number of shorts for Keystone, Essanay and Mutual. Maybe he’d have to have a separate triangle of three shorts, marking his development as a filmmaker before he made features?

I’d go with One A.M., The Immigrant and The Kid. Or maybe Sunnyside. Or Shoulder Arms…dagnabit, too many titles!

Posted By Sandra Welter : March 29, 2014 1:00 am

I have thoroughly enjoyed this month with Mary Astor movies. Especially enjoyed “I Am A Thief”. What a different Mary Astor than I have ever seen, and Janet Leigh also played a wonderful part. The whole cast was excellent.

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