There are many stars in Hollywood, but only a select few get the honor of being known as decade-defining actors.
From Jack Nicholson’s wide range of eternal outsiders throughout the 1970s to the 1940s leading lady Katharine Hepburn, these actors have an uncanny way of not only performing but completely becoming their characters. A skill that sets them apart from the rest in Tinsel Town.
Katharine Hepburn: 1940s
Katharine Hepburn was the leading lady in the 1940s. Starring in a wide range of genres, Hepburn’s strong-willed, spirited, and independent personality helped her become one of the greatest stars of classic Hollywood cinema.
In a career spanning over 60 years, Hepburn made history by earning four Academy Awards for Best Actress. These were for her performances in Morning Glory, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in the Winter, and On Golden Pond.
Marlon Brando: 1950s
People were hard-pressed to see a marquee not marketing towards a new Marlon Brando film in the 1950s. Throughout the decade, the method actor received praise from both critics and viewers alike, on top of numerous accolades, including two Academy Awards.
Some of his more well-known films of the decade include A Streetcar Named Desire, Julius Caesar, and On the Waterfront.
Humphrey Bogart: 1940s
Humphrey Bogart might have started as a stage actor on Broadway, but when he hit the silver screen in the 1940s, people couldn’t get enough of his cynical characters, who ultimately turned out to have noble intentions.
From Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon to To Have and Have Not and Key Largo, Bogart cemented himself as one of the best male performers of Classical Hollywood cinema.
Cary Grant: 1930s
With his light-hearted acting style that resulted in some incredible comedic timing, Cary Grant led 1930s cinema as the leading man on the silver screen.
Starring in films with some huge names of the era, including Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart, Grant bounced off their expertise in features such as The Philadelphia Story and became one of the defining actors of the decade.
Meryl Streep: 1970s
Considered by many to be the best actress of her generation, it isn’t easy to place Meryl Streep into one specific decade. Even so, her work in the 1970s was some of her best, earning her first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Kramer vs. Kramer.
From there, Streep went on to earn a record 21 Academy Award nominations, winning three, and 32 Golden Globe nominations, winning eight.
Charlie Chaplin: 1920s
Arguably one of the most influential people in cinematic history, Charlie Chaplin first made a name for himself during the silent film era of the 1920s with his character The Tramp.
A perfectionist, Chaplin directed, composed the music, edited, and produced a vast majority of his films. All while starring in critically acclaimed features, such as The Kid, A Woman in Paris, and The Circus.
Daniel Day-Lewis: 1990s
A “cinematic chameleon,” Daniel Day-Lewis is often described as the greatest actor of his generation. Able to embody a wide range of onscreen characters, Day-Lewis brought Nathaniel “Hawkeye” Poe to life in The Last of the Mohicans, Gerry in In the Name of the Father, and Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence.
Day-Lewis won the Academy Award for Best Actor for all three of those performances, making him the first to win three in the category.
Leonardo DiCaprio: 2000s
Academy Award-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio might have had some iconic films in the 1990s, but his defining era wasn’t until the 2000s. That decade, he starred in critically acclaimed films such as The Departed, Catch Me If You Can, and Gangs of New York.
His talent has been utilized in more than one biopic and period piece, showcasing his wide range and ability to embody a wide variety of personas.
Judy Garland: 1940s
A dramatic actor and musical performer, Judy Garland gained international stardom throughout the 1940s for iconic performances such as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
With a career spanning 45 years, Garland became a true force in Hollywood, starring in more than one critically acclaimed film, thanks to her status as a “triple threat.”
Jack Nicholson: 1970s
Typically playing the eternal outsider and drifter, Jack Nicholson has made a career making people feel uncomfortable watching his performances. Even so, his rebel characters are some of the most well-known in cinema.
With 12 Academy Award nominations, the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest star is the most-nominated male in the Academy’s history.
Al Pacino: 1970s
During the 1970s, the names Al Pacino and Michael Corleone went hand in hand. The Academy Award-winning actor played the role of Don Corleone, head of the Corleone Crime Family, in The Godfather Part I and II.
Pacino took Hollywood by storm in his breakthrough role, becoming one of the lead actors in the mobster and crime genres.
Sidney Poitier: 1960s
Director Martin Scorsese might have described Sidney Poitier best, saying, “He had a vocal precision and physical power and grace that at moments seemed almost supernatural.”
Throughout the 1960s, Poitier pushed boundaries with his performances, starring in numerous critically acclaimed films such as In the Heat of the Night. His delivery won Poitier an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Marilyn Monroe: 1950s
One of the greatest onscreen legends during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe has remained a cultural icon years later.
By the time 1953 rolled around, Monroe was one of the most marketable people in Hollywood, thanks to her performances in films such as Monkey Business, Clash By Night, and Don’t Bother to Knock.
James Stewart: 1940s
James Stewart embodied the “American Ideal,” the quintessential American family man who epitomized honor, integrity, and freedom when he was on the silver screen. One of the leading actors throughout the 1940s, Stewart starred in critically acclaimed films such as The Philadelphia Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
A five-time Academy Award-nominated actor, Stewart earned his first and only Best Actor Award for the former film.
Clint Eastwood: 1960s
Synonymous with the Spaghetti Western genre, Clint Eastwood rose to fame with his role as the Man with No Name in The Dollars Trilogy. The epitome of masculinity onscreen, Eastwood became a cultural icon for his performances.
While he never won an Academy Award for his acting, Eastwood proved to be an expert behind the camera, winning four Academy Awards, two for Best Picture and two for Best Director.
Robert De Niro: 1970s
Robert De Niro first gained recognition as a baseball player in Bang the Drum Slowly. Soon, he found stardom, playing the roles of corrupt mobsters in films like The Godfather Part II and vigilante outcasts in features such as Taxi Driver.
Working with director Martin Scorsese, De Niro has been a part of some of the finest works in cinema, earning him two Academy Awards.
Harrison Ford: 1980s
Becoming the archaeologist and explorer Indiana Jones and smuggler Han Solo cemented Harrison Ford as one of the defining actors of the 1980s. Both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars became cultural phenomena, with Ford as the face of both franchises.
A fierce actor, Ford has collaborated with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ridley Scott.
Robert Redford: 1970s
Portraying the outlaw Harry Longabaugh, aka the Sundance Kid, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid shot Robert Redford into stardom upon its release in 1969. The following decade would prove to be one of the actor’s best, showcasing his suave and yet tough-guy persona on the silver screen.
Redford was nominated for four Academy Awards throughout his long career, winning one for Best Director for Ordinary People.
John Wayne: 1960s
There is no discussing John Wayne without noting his contributions to Western and war films.
While his career began in the era of silent films, Wayne flourished once the 1950s and 1960s hit, becoming an international sensation for his work in True Grit, The Longest Day, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Johnny Depp: 1990s
A true chameleon on the silver screen, actor Johnny Depp began working with legendary director Tim Burton to create some of the most iconic and artsy movies of the 1990s. Some of the titles include Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, and Ed Wood.
An eccentric force onscreen, Depp continued to work with Burton throughout the 2000s and 2010s, shooting him into mainstream fame.