The 2nd Best Actor of All-Time: James Stewart

best film:  Vertigo. There are four Jimmy Stewart masterpiece films to choose from including It’s a Wonderful Life, Rear Window, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Vertigo.

Hitchcock’s Vertigo recently passed Citizen Kane on the Sight and Sound list of the best film of all-time. It stands at #8 on my list and a being this good (I think Stewart is phenomenal in it) in a top 10 film of all-time is clearly a major feather in the cap for Stewart. Rear Window and It’s a Wonderful Life are also in my 100 of all-time and star a devastatingly good Stewart. The real story with Stewart though may not be the four masterpieces (I’d sub in Mr.

Smith Goes to Washington in for Liberty Valance if I wanted to make a Mount Rushmore of Stewart performances)—it may in fact be the sheer volume and quality of films (and his performances in) that are very close to masterpiece status (“must-see” —films or top 5 of the year quality)—Stewart is even more loaded here with another 7 films. These films include the previously mentioned Mr. Smith, The Philadelphia Story, The Shop Around the Corner, Rope, Winchester 73’, Naked Spur, and Anatomy of a Murder. This gives Stewart 11 films that are top 5 of the year quality and the only one he’s not lead in is Rope.

best performance: Vertigo. This is a very tight two-horse race between Vertigo and It’s a Wonderful Life. If there are those who are dubious of Stewart’s loft placement on this list I’d ask them to pit any actor’s best one-two punch against Stewart’s here. Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson starts out rather harmless, like the majority of Stewart’s characters and certainly his on-screen persona, but he takes an obscure, twisted turn when it comes to his obsession with Kim Novak’s Judy Barton. It’s the monomaniacal—rather scary, edge that his previous work never had with the exception of his string of psychological westerns with Anthony Mann in the 1950’s.

It’s something Stewart hadn’t given us before and it makes for one of the most fascinating characters and performances in screen history.  His George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life is justifiably iconic, has scenes of darkness as well, and features Stewart at his pre-50’s/Hitchcock peak. It may be the best male performance of the entire 1940’s right there with anything by Bogart (dominant during a large stretch of the decade), the dueling performances by Clift and Wayne in Red River, Fonda in Grapes of Wrath.

stylistic innovations/traits: Stewart’s achievements and resume may outweigh his talent (I think Brando is undisputedly more talented) but I have no problem giving the edge to Stewart for basically outworking Brando (and most other actors) and there’s no doubt who’s filmography I would rather have on a desert island. Stewart has 30 archiveable films (with a 6 year gap during WWII)—a work ethic few leads could touch.

He’s lead in 24 those films. I think Stewart’s reputation and persona (that trademark voice) is mostly known now for his work with Capra and the squeaky-clean boy scout image in Mr. Smith, large sections of It’s a Wonderful Life (though I think most overlook the darker passages and surreal stretches in that film) and even the “I won’t use a gun, I’ll use the law”-side of his dueling lead with Wayne in Liberty Valance. His resume largely revolves around the 14 films he made with Capra (3), Hitchcock (4) and Anthony Mann (7). Many have seen and studied the first two (and the collaboration with Hitchcock (the best auteur of all-time) cannot be overstated or overemphasized) but few have dug into the 7 films with Anthony Manny from 1950-1955.

These westerns (5 of the 7 are westerns) were a new breed of western, gloomy, complex, and 4 are worthy of being in their respective year’s top 10. Stewart plays a bastard or a possessed fanatic in nearly every one of them and they give his filmography incredible depth and range.

directors worked with:Anthony Mann (7), Hitchcock, (4), Capra (3), and then once a piece with Preminger, Ford, Cukor, Lubitsch, DeMille, and Aldrich

Top 10 Performances:

  • Vertigo
  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Rear Window
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  • Anatomy of a Murder
  • The Shop Around the Corner
  • Winchester 73’
  • Naked Spur
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
  • The Philadelphia Story