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Lead roles only


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There is a select group of movie stars that have played mostly lead roles. This is not an easy thing to do in Hollywood.

 

1. Even if an actor or actress is the lead star in their debut film, chances are that such star power will eventually diminish. It happened to Joan Crawford who found herself fourth-billed in Fox's THE BEST OF EVERYTHING and fourth-billed in THE CARETAKERS for UA. Marlon Brando took lesser roles in later years. Recently, it has happened to Barbra Streisand (she is eighth-billed in next year's LITTLE FOCKERS).

 

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2. We may see an actor who achieves top billing fairly early and does keep it till the end of their film career. However, they may have toiled in lesser roles at the beginning. Norma Shearer was uncredited in a few of her early films. Clark Gable spent six years doing uncredited parts while trying to break in. Hedy Lamarr had small parts (and a different name) in her first few European films. Bing Crosby was fifth-billed in his motion picture debut.

 

Rock Hudson played bit parts at first. So did James Dean (in FIXED BAYONETS). Humphrey Bogart spent several years moving up the ranks. Paul Newman was luckier: he started as fourth-billed in THE SILVER CHALICE (not the lead, but not too bad either). Once these guys reached the top, they stayed there...but not all their films consist of them in starring roles.

 

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I am going to pick a group of actors who really did start at the top and stayed there:

 

*Barbara Stanwyck*...she had one silent as a dancer (it's a lost film)...but her first dramatic role was in THE LOCKED DOOR in 1929. She was the leading lady of that picture. With the exception of WALK ON THE WILD SIDE (1962) where she is fifth-billed but still manages to steal the picture, she is the leading actress in all of her sound films (including the one with Elvis LOL). Also, she plays the female lead in all of her telefilms and television series. For 57 years, she played and stayed at the top. No wonder they gave her an honorary Oscar. If that isn't lifetime achievement, I don't know what is.

 

*Spencer Tracy*...he did a few short subject films at the beginning, but when he began making features, he was immediately top billed. He never left this lofty perch. He always had top billing, even near the end, when he was costarring with Frank Sinatra and Sidney Poitier.

 

*Shirley Booth*...she was top billed in all four of her films. (She had a cameo in an all-star revue, but that doesn't count. LOL)

 

*Geraldine Page*...she was often nominated for supporting actress Oscars, but she played the lead female role in her films. Eventually, sweet justice prevailed and she won the Oscar as Best Actress for THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, a late career role where she was again top billed.

 

*Burt Lancaster*...He definitely did not work his way up. He started with lead roles and that is where he stayed. From THE KILLERS to ROCKET GIBRALTAR, Burt always played the lead. Even in an ensemble picture like THE CASSANDRA CROSSING, he is top-billed. (A rare exception is the extended cameo he did in FIELD OF DREAMS.)

 

*Luise Rainer*...in her native Germany, this two-time Oscar winner was always top-billed. All of her MGM films cast her in the lead. She was the female Spencer Tracy. Years later, she was lured out of retirement to do an extended cameo...but that was a special circumstance.

 

*Greer Garson*...another MGM leading lady...with the possible exception of GOODBYE MR. CHIPS (where she is basically supporting Robert Donat) and her cameo in PEPE, she is a headliner in all of her pictures.

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