GQ picked the top ten greatest actors of our generation in its March 2005 issue. The list included the following actors: Johnny Depp, Clive Owen, Don Cheadle, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Nicolas Cage, Benicio Del Toro, John C. Reilly, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Jim Carrey.
Their top 10 list is a forward-looking one. While some of these actors already have a substantial and well-known body of work, many of them do not. So it seems that GQ was listing the actors it feels have potential to become the new Hanks, DeNiro, Pacino, Nicholson, Hoffman, Hackman, etc. They will have big shoes to fill.
I am not familiar with the work of some of these actors-- Del Toro, Owen, Bernal, Cheadle-- so I won't comment on them.
I think there are two kinds of great actors: first, those with great charisma and a powerful on-screen persona; these actors do best playing characters that display their special, innate star quality. Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, John Travolta, Richard Gere, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are contemporary actors in this category. Many of yesterday's stars were in this category as well-- Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Clark Gable. This is not to say that this type of actor can't, or never plays against type--but mostly, we are drawn to them by their "star" quality--a certain strength of personality that comes through in every role they play.
Then there are those great actors who have the ability to transform themselves from one role to the next: DeNiro, Hoffman, Penn, Hanks, Spacey, Macy, Day Lewis, Norton, Malkovich and Crowe are among these. Occasionally, a great actor comes along who has both of these qualities--along with great personal charisma, an ability to transform himself--Marlon Brando-- for example. But most actors seem to excel in one or the other of these categories.
From GQ's top 10 list, I agree that Cage, DiCaprio, Depp, Crowe, Carrey and Reilly are extremely talented actors whose best work lies ahead. And although all of these actors convey strong on-screen personalities, the body of work of this group seems, as a whole, more character-based.
Besides talent, is physical beauty also required in becoming a great actor? With enough talent, many actors in Hollywood history became matinee idols without necessarily being extraordinarily physically attractive-- actors such as Cagney, Bogart, Stewart. But yesterday's leading men also included many who were amazingly handsome-- Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, to name a few. But none of these actors was dependent upon looks alone in their success. In today's Hollywood, there is a broader range of looks considered handsome. Thus actors with great ability can become stars without "matinee idol" looks. It does seem however that the box-office "superstars" tend to be those with great physical attractiveless--Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise.
In my opinion, there are other actors that might be added to the list of great actors in the new generation:
I think Edward Norton has yet to receive his due. Jamie Foxx gave an incredible performance in Ray but will need the right roles to continue displaying that same level of ability. Tobey McGuire is a very good, sensitive actor but it remains to be seen whether he can portray darker, more passionate types. Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to have both great sensitivity and range. Samuel L. Jackson is always very interesting to watch. Matt Damon has great intelligence but seems very self-effacing for an actor--needs a breakout performance. Hugh Jackman is someone to watch--with his looks and talent he could become a very big star. Ben Affleck needs to a bit more choosy with his roles. In "The Passion", Jim Caviezel gave a beautiful performance playing Jesus Christ-- a role that many actors before him could not pull off. Though the movie was flawed, Mr. Caviezel's performance conveyed both the tenderness and the strength of Christ.
So I look forward to the next generation of actors, though I wouldn't write off people like Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Sean Penn-- who are still at the top of their game. And I think Tom Cruise is underrated--the quality of his body of work demonstrates growth as an actor and thoughtfulness in role selection. We may see him pick up an Oscar some time soon.
It's also interesting to note that actors once considered hot prospects: Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon, John Cusack, Rob Lowe, among others, have done fine work but have not necessarily reached the top echelon. This just demonstrates the role that good fortune (divine intervention, from my perspective) as well as talent, plays in all of this.