5 - 1
It was an amazing transition, if not a wholly unexpected one. When the Western went South as part of the cultural clime, this horse opera regular redirected his acting energies into other similarly styled genres. Yet he made his directorial debut with the taut, intense thriller Play Misty for Me, illustrating a desire to balance both the career highpoints of the past (High Plains Drifter) and more experimental fare (Bird). By the time the new millennium rolled around, he had an Oscar for Unforgiven and a string of successful turns behind the lens and at 82 he is still going strong.
He was a comedy writer and a stand-up comic. He had bit parts on TV before scripting a successful Broadway play. Then, he met Warren Beatty and began working on What’s New Pussycat? Fast forward a few years and Woody Allen was the king of cerebral, angst driven humor. Move ahead a bit more, and he was a true American auteur. Sure, his output of late can’t compare to his earlier, funnier films, but that was never the point with this career. Once he established his commercial credentials, Allen introduced, indirectly, a pre-video fanbase to the works of Fellini, Bergman, and other foreign favorites.
After a stint on radio and in the theater, the young maverick that all the media was talking about was given an unprecedented contract to make movies his way. The result? What many consider to be the greatest film in the history of the artform, a veiled biopic of the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst entitled Citizen Kane. Unfortunately, the tycoon’s empire decided to ruin Welles, and he was never the same afterward. While there are flashes of brilliance elsewhere in his uneven oeuvre, Kane is enough to make right thinking scholars Top 5. It’s the heart of modern moviemaking.
Sorry. We won’t divide them. We won’t play favorites. It’s like arguing the Three Stooges are better/worse than the Marx Brothers. They may be the apples and oranges of silent screen slapstick, but both of these pioneers cut their teeth as bit players for the turn of the century establishment before breaking out to become the icons of cinema’s infancy. If we had to argue, Keaton wins the slightest of victories. He was more inventive behind the lens. Sure, Chaplin had the more commercial career, but each contributed so much to the artform that it’s foolish to try and find a divide.
For sheer audacity and ambition, for setting the tenure of independent cinema primed for the postmodern era, no one can touch Cassavetes. This was a man so compelled to make movies that he would take whatever acting job he could get—no matter the project—simply to get money to make his next film. Working with his wife Gena Rowlands, he created the benchmark for what we call serious contemporary drama. He also argued that art only comes from sacrifice, and staying true to your own harsh vision of the world. A whole lineage of outsider auteurs owe him a toast.