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Stars' ranking really rankles

A list that claims to name the 50 greatest movie stars will be released today by the American Film Institute, in anticipation of its three-hour CBS special tonight, "AFI's 100 Years . . . 100 Stars."

Forgive me if I do not applaud. While I can understand the interest in the AFI's earlier list of "The 100 Greatest American Films," however odd and skewed it might have been, I draw the line at a ranking of human beings.

Any group that believes it can take a vote and decide if John Wayne should rank higher than Spencer Tracy has no understanding of movies, no understanding of acting and no common sense. When I learned that Vegas oddsmakers offered even money on Katharine Hepburn's chances of placing first among the women, my skin crawled.

Actors can be good, even great. They can be mediocre, even bad. They can, I suppose, be ranked in a way - by a director preferring one to another, for example. But a movie star by definition is one of a kind. Stars pass beyond ordinary categories and create a new category of their own, containing one person. That is what makes them stars.

Should Katharine Hepburn rank "higher" than Bette Davis? Who's better - James Stewart, or James Cagney? This is insanity.

How was this nutty enterprise conducted? The American Film Institute drew up a list of 500 potential "greatest stars," using whatever arcane and occult methods it has devised (I picture Shirley MacLaine down in the basement with a crystal ball, or Bruce Willis picking names from a bowl). These names were then mailed out to an arbitrary list of film actors and technicians, historians, critics and other "cultural leaders," who were asked to select the 25 "greatest" males and females (no category for Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, although Miss Piggy will appear on the TV special). I received a ballot, which still may be buried on my desk somewhere unless I remembered to throw it out.

The 500 finalists were limited to those who debuted in or before 1950, or those who debuted later, but have died. The TV program title refers to "100 stars" because 50 living stars will appear on the show to welcome the immortals into the Pantheon. (There may be some overlap. Shirley Temple Black, who will host the special, also is nominated; would you guess that her chances of being selected are excellent?)

Lists of celebrities are of course a wonderful device for TV shows, newspaper stories, magazine articles and whatnot. They provide a convenient method for cannibalizing the entertainment value of famous people without having to pay them, or do any reporting, research or thinking. Their value, if any, depends on who draws them up. Certainly the AFI's list of 100 great films encouraged some people to rent those titles, and it claims that its No. 1 film, "Citizen Kane," had its rentals increase by "more than 1,600 percent."

The primary purpose of the AFI lists is to raise money. The TV special is a revenue spinner, and then there are tie-ins with video stores, a special label sticker for videocassettes and discs, and various other promotions. The AFI does many worthy things, but this trivialization of our movie heritage is not one of them.

Because the lists are destined for commercial use, of course the finalists are skewed. The "great films" list included no documentaries or experimental films, for example, and few silent films. So inept were the voters that they succeeded in including no title by Buster Keaton, arguably the greatest actor-director in American film. Also no Garbo, no Astaire and Rogers. Where did they find these voters?

Tonight, we will see what actors they come up with. I predict that silent stars will again be underrepresented; while we will get a pious nod for Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Lillian Gish and (perhaps) Keaton and Fairbanks Sr., there will be no room for Lon Chaney or Louise Brooks. Among sound stars, look for Bob Hope but not W.C. Fields, and draw your own conclusions. Will Robert Mitchum make it? If he doesn't, they should declare a mistrial.

There must be a better way for the AFI to raise money. If I were one of the stars picked to co-host tonight's special (the list includes Alec Baldwin, Mike Myers, Billy Bob Thornton and Cher), I'd mail in a check and spare myself the embarrassment.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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