Modern-Gen Movie Stars Mt. Rushmore

When judging greatness, one of the things I like to do is to make a “Mt. Rushmore” of things, allowing for the categorization of greatness, rather than having to deal with ranking. Of course, all of this is subjective and is really done to foster discussion.  Please feel free to participate in the conversation!

Being on baby watch, we’ve been keeping a low profile and catching up on movies.  Today we watched Flight (which was a good – but not entertaining – movie), which spurned the following dinnertime conversation between Bethany and I: is Denzel Washington one of the greatest actors of the last generation?  After coming to the conclusion that he was, we then attempted to figure out which actors would be included with Denzel as one of the greatest, resulting in the Mt. Rushmore of actors below.

Criteria and Overall Impressions

  • We took the last 20 years into account, so a resume quasi-1993 and after
  • With one exception, we took all actors over 60 out of consideration (eliminating Morgan Freeman, Jack Nicolson and anyone who starred in Godfather)
  • Actors are permitted to start in TV, but must be primarily considered movie starts today
  • While relevant, awards are not the primary criteria.  We’re basically looking at star power, using the following scenario: Seeing a preview with this actor would give you reason enough to see the movie
  • We’re looking at the overall body of work, so while they may no longer be at the peak of their popularity, they’re still relevant today and have been for all of their career or the greater part of 20 years – whichever is greater.
  • To make the initial list we couldn’t look at our phones, if you have to dig into stats for the actor, then they’re not worth being on the list
  • They’ve starred in movies that for better or worse, have remained culturally relevant

Taking this criteria into account, we set out with our goal of making two Mt. Rushmore’s, consisting of 4 actors and 4 actresses.  Both were difficult in their own way.  For the men, it was extremely difficult drawing the line between the first tier and second tier.  For the women, it exposed a significant problem with the movie industry: it’s extremely difficult for an actress to have a long career.  Part of it has to do with the fact that Hollywood doesn’t know how to write modern middle-aged women.  Looking back on the last 20 years, most hot commodity actresses had careers like Runningbacks: Untouchable for a period of 3-5 years, then just fizzled out and haven’t done anything memorable recently.  Names that have come to mind include Cameron Diaz, Halle Berry, Natalie Portman, and Rachel McAdams, with the jury still out on relative newcomers like Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence. 

For better or worse, cinema reflects society’s values and even though we’ve made great strides in gender equality, people are not going to accept a version of Flight with the pilot being played by a woman, or a female version of Walter White or Don Draper.  To make matters worse, there seems to be a shortage of great roles for women older than 30 – at least until you reach the age to play an adult’s mother or grandmother.  It’s really sad when you think of it. Thus, I had a really hard time coming up with a 4th Actress Rushmore spot, and made the controversial move of giving it away to the men, who I couldn’t whittle from 5 to 4. I know it doesn’t make sense, but please make a case for another actress.

So without further ado, here are my Mt. Rushmore’s of modern movie starts:


Meryl Streep


Even though we’re not doing rankings, if we were: Meryl would top the list of actresses and probably lap anyone else.  She may be just over 60, but she’s the one for which I made an exception.  Her resume from the last 20 years is just that impressive.  She was huge before 1993 and since then added another 8 Oscars, winning one of them last year for The Iron Lady.

Strongest Movies: The Iron Lady, Julie & Julia, The Devil Wears Prada, Mama Mia! (plus a ton of other movies)
Movies That Potentially Hurt Her Chances (setting back her career): None

Julia Roberts


It could be argued that Julia peaked with Pretty Woman, but since 1993 has remained culturally relevant for the better parts of two decades.  She may make most her money on “chick flicks”, but those are usually the movies you have on your bookshelf.

Strongest Movies: Eat Pray Love, Charlie Wilson’s War, Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s 11
Movies That Potentially Hurt Her Chances: Ocean’s 12, Valentine’s Day

Sandra Bullock


I personally can’t stand her, but she has managed to stay relevant for the better part of 20 years, topping it off with her Oscar from the Blind Side.  She probably got a lot of sympathy mileage from the way she thanked her (unbeknownst at the time) cheating husband during her Oscar speech.

Strongest Movies: Speed, The Net,  Miss Congeniality, Crash (at the time), The Blind Side
Movies That Potentially Hurt Her Chances: Crash (in retrospect), Speed 2: Cruise Control


Tom Hanks


Although Tom’s been in relative obscurity playing Robert Langdon, Tom Hanks got so much mileage from the first half of this generation that he still doesn’t have to buy a beer ever again.

Strongest Movies: Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Toy Story, You’ve Got Mail, Charlie Wilson’s War, Saving Private Ryan, Road to Perdition, Cast Away, The Green Mile, Philadelphia
Movies That Potentially Hurt His Chances: The Da Vinci Code (but only because it’s controversial)

George Clooney


While Clooney spent the first part of this generation doing TV, he pretty much embodies the modern movie star. Out of anyone on this list, he’s probably the guy you could talk to over a beer (except for maybe Tom Hanks). When people dream about becoming cool movie stars, they think of George Clooney. Just get him on your top bill for your movie and it’ll be a hit.

Strongest Movies: Ocean’s 11, Up in the Air, Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, Three Kings, The Descendants
Movies That Potentially Hurt His Chances: Ocean’s 12, Spy Kids, Batman & Robin

Johnny Depp


Depp may owe the revitalization of his career to Pirates, but he’s taken advantage of every opportunity, to the point that you’ll be in the theater to see whatever he’s making, even if it’s utter crap.

Strongest Movies: Pirates of the Caribbean, The Tourist, The Rum Diary, Sweeney Todd, Don Juan DeMarco
Movies That Potentially Hurt His Chances: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows

Denzel Washington


Denzel can pretty much add credibility to any movie that you see.  Any time I see a trailer with him in it, my first thought is “Oh Denzel’s in it, so it has to be good”. Even if it’s not, you’ll usually end up saying that at least his performance was good.

Strongest Movies: American Gangster, Inside Man, Man on Fire, Training Day, Remember The Titans, The Hurricane, The Bone Collector, Courage Under Fire, Philadelphia, Crimson Tide
Movies That Potentially Hurt His Chances: The Book of Eli

Leonardo DiCaprio


When I was in high school, I hated Leonardo DiCaprio for subjecting all of us to Titanic, but dude was smart.  Making that date movie pretty much insured that he could star in any picture he wanted – and took that its fullest advantage, rattling off a resume that looks like a Greatest Hits album.

Strongest Movies: Django Unchained, Inception, Shutter Island, Blood Diamond, The Departed, The Aviator, Catch Me If You Can, Gangs of New York, The Beach, Titanic, Romeo + Juliet
Movies That Potentially Hurt His Chances: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (which made him a punch-line for Titanic-haters), The Man in the Iron Mask


So yes, my Mt. Rushmore stole an actress spot and gave it to an actor, but let me ask you this: which one of these five would you take off the list?  As far as actresses: who would you add? Would you have a different list all together? Let me know who would be on your Mt. Rushmore!