10 Stars Who Would Turn 100 This Year & 10 Movies to Celebrate Them
It’s just a trip around the sun, but this year will mark the hundredth such cycle since the birth of ten big figures in the world of film. Some left us long ago, some just missed out on becoming centenarians, and one will celebrate the big milestone later this year. All of them created great works of art and entertainment. Here are ten works to remember them by, this year and every year.
1. Zero Mostel, actor. The Producers
- Birthday: February 28, 1915
- Died: September 8, 1977
- Highest-ranked film on Flickchart: The Producers, 417
Zero Mostel was born in New York City years before the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building went up. He studied to be a painter and became a professional art instructor thanks to the PWAP, one of the New Deal’s alphabet soup programs that put artists to work adorning public buildings. His passion, though, was for performance, and by the early 1940s he was doing standup in Manhattan nightclubs. Mostel took no pains to hide his leftist sentiments, and during the McCarthy era he refused to name names of real or rumored Communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He told the Congressman who interrogated him, “There is no crime in making anybody laugh.” He was blacklisted, but made a comeback on Broadway, originating the role of Jewish patriarch Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. At the close of the 1960s he headlined Mel Brooks’s movie The Producers alongside Gene Wilder. Rather than following the usual straight man-funnyman dynamic, Mostel and Wilder are both delightfully eccentric as the desperate creators of an intentional musical fiasco. Mostel’s last screen appearance was on TV’s The Muppet Show.
2. Alice Faye, actress and singer. In Old Chicago
- Birthday: May 15, 1915
- Died: May 9, 1998
- Highest-ranked film on Flickchart: Stowaway, 9123
Alice Faye was a triple threat: she sang, danced, and acted on stage, screen, and radio throughout the 1930s and 40s. She bore a striking resemblance to blonde bombshell Jean Harlow, who died tragically young in 1937. That year Faye stepped into what would have been Harlow’s role in the huge Daryl Zanuck production In Old Chicago, about the famous fire that destroyed that city in 1871. The film also stars Don Ameche and matinee idol Ty Power. Another of Faye’s claims to fame is the fact that she played Shirley Temple’s mother in several of the child star’s movies, and sang a tune that won Best Song at the Academy Awards for 1943. Like a lot of actresses in Hollywood in the mid to late 1940s, Faye chose to end her career while at the height of her popularity in order to focus on her family. Historian Elaine Tyler May’s book Homeward Bound discusses that telling trend in more detail.
3. Anthony Quinn, actor. The Guns of Navarone
- Birthday: April 21, 1915
- Died: June 3, 2001
- Highest-ranked film on Flickchart: Lawrence of Arabia, 145
One hundred years ago in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, Antonio Quinn Oaxaca entered the world. After the Mexican Revolution, in which Quinn’s half-Irish father is said to have ridden in the company of Pancho Villa, Quinn’s family moved to El Paso, Texas and then to Los Angeles. He was trained as an architect by Frank Lloyd Wright, but found he could make more money in Hollywood filling a variety of “ethnic” roles. He landed his first Oscar in 1952 for a supporting role in Viva Zapata!, but his most enduring works would come years later. His most famous is undoubtedly Lawrence of Arabia in which he plays the lusty, bombastic Arab leader Auda abu Tayi. But his most exciting individual performance may be in the uncompromising 1961 war picture The Guns of Navarone, in which he plays a Greek resistance leader on a dangerous sabotage mission. Though he’s billed below Gregory Peck and David Niven, Quinn is a crucial part of the movie’s muscular intensity. He and costar Irene Papas add romantic chemistry to the mix and would appear together again in 1964’s Zorba the Greek. In The Guns of Navarone, Quinn injects his own subtle visual cues independently of the director’s input: watch the way more and more of his red undershirt is revealed as the movie progresses, until finally he is sartorially distinct from his costars.
4. Orson Welles, actor and director. The Third Man
- Birthday: May 6, 1915
- Died: October 10, 1985
- Highest-ranked film on Flickchart: Citizen Kane, 25
There are two kinds of movie fans: those who think Citizen Kane is the best film ever made, and those who feel a little left out because they don’t. It’s not at the top of my Flickchart, but I certainly hold Citizen Kane in high regard. It’s the movie that shows why Orson Welles is probably the greatest actor/director combo in history, running the show behind the camera and stealing it in front. I’m even more intrigued, though, by his cameo in Carol Reed’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Third Man. Welles had recently left Hollywood for Europe, having divorced his second wife Rita Hayworth and fallen out with his production partners at RKO Pictures. In The Third Man he plays bitter American expatriate Harry Lime, and it’s easy to imagine that Lime’s cynicism is fueled by Welles’s own. He is riveting and chilling, and his few scenes in the film are among cinema’s most famous. The Third Man takes stock of Europe and America at a crossroads in history, and has much to say about the kinds of threats the world faces now that fascism is defeated. More than communism, the movie postulates, the greatest threat to peace may be rogue, amoral individuals motivated by avarice and delusions of grandeur. In this respect, and in its casting of Joseph Cotton as Welles’s more ethical counterpart, the movie has commonalities with Citizen Kane’s story about a yellow journalist turned self-serving politician. It also seems prophetic.
Welles died a legend at the age of 70, and his legend has only grown. A previously “lost” film of his is scheduled for release this year to mark his 100th birthday.
5. Herman Wouk, novelist. The Caine Mutiny
- Birthday: May 27, 1915
- Highest-ranked film on Flickchart: The Caine Mutiny, 1345
If there is such a thing as the Great American War Novel, Herman Wouk wrote two of them. The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978) are the two parts of his epic about a family forever changed by the Second World War. In the 1980s they were turned into two TV miniseries starring Robert Mitchum, but the first adaptation of a Herman Wouk war story had hit the big screen three decades earlier. The Caine Mutiny (1954) is based on Wouk’s 1951 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. Its story follows the basic pattern of Mutiny on the Bounty, with a seemingly-justified rebellion against a crazed captain followed by legal proceedings that make us question the mutineers. The movie gave Humphrey Bogart one of his most memorable roles, and features good turns from Fred MacMurray, Van Johnson, and José Ferrer.
Wouk, who enlisted in the Navy when World War II broke out, lives in Palm Springs, California and will turn 100 in May. Save the date for a rewatch or first-time viewing of this classic film, and in the meantime check out The Winds of War from your local library.
6. Ingrid Bergman, actress. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness
- Birthday: August 29, 1915
- Died: August 29, 1982
- Highest-ranked film on Flickchart: Casablanca, 14
Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman is another 1915 birth known almost as well today as she was during her lifetime. Her iconic performance Ilsa Lund in Casablanca and her collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock have kept her memory alive in the minds of classic film buffs and casual fans alike. But one interesting Bergman vehicle has been all but forgotten: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, a version of the life Gladys Aylward, a British missionary and social reformer who lived in China in the 1930s and 40s. China was a hot-button political issue in the United States during those decades and through the 1950s, and Chinese-inspired décor was almost commonplace in middle-class American homes. Hollywood rode and encouraged the bandwagon, releasing movies about China almost every year and paying big stars like Paul Muni, Katharine Hepburn, and Charlton Heston to headline them. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, 1958’s entry in this de facto genre of Oriental romanticism and pro-Nationalist propaganda, features longtime leading man Robert Donat in addition to Bergman, and fans of the James Bond franchise may recognize Curt Jurgens from The Spy Who Loved Me. But it is quite clearly Bergman’s movie, and that’s what makes it a good one to rediscover for her 100th birthday. Instead of being primarily a love interest, as she usually was earlier in her career, here Bergman plays a resolutely independent woman who quits her job as a maid, spends her entire savings to get to China, establishes an inn, learns the language, and takes to the hills to resist the invading Japanese. And though the real Aylward never married, have no fear: in the movie there’s plenty of romance along the way, too.
Bergman died on her birthday at the comparatively young age of 67, so on August 29 let The Inn of the Sixth Happiness help you celebrate her life and mark her passing.
7. Arthur Miller, playwright. The Crucible
- Birthday: October 17, 1915
- Died: February 10, 2005
- Highest-ranked film on Flickchart: The Misfits, 1528
Playwrights aren’t often famous in their own time, but Arthur Miller was an exception. His name was in common currency from the 1950s onward, if not for his plays like All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, then for his five-year marriage to Marilyn Monroe. Born in Harlem to Jewish parents, Miller, like many other left-leaning artists of the day, ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee when he declined to share the names of celebrities with communist sympathies. His subsequent play The Crucible, about the Salem witch trials, is probably the most well-known work created in response to the McCarthy era. The actor Daniel Day-Lewis appeared in a 1996 film version of the play and is married to Miller’s daughter from his third marriage.
8. Eli Wallach, actor. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
- Birthday: December 7, 1915
- Died: June 24, 2014
- Highest-ranked film on Flickchart: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, 21
Eli Wallach died in 2014 a year and a few months before his 100th birthday. He started out as a theater actor, and carried his flair for performance into the army in World War II when he entertained his fellow troops with a parody of Adolf Hitler. It’s easy to imagine what that might have looked like: Wallach was short and animated, with a broad, expressive face and wild eyes. He was an established character actor by the time he was saddled with the moniker “the Ugly” in Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western from 1966. Leone’s films owe a lot to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, and Wallach’s performance in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s favorite star Toshiro Mifune’s exaggerated antics. Wallach also appeared in The Magnificent Seven, a remake of a Kurosawa film, in a supporting role that was expanded from the original. One of my favorite of Wallach’s many film credits is his cameo in The Ghost Writer, which he filmed when he was in his mid-90s, but to see the energy he was capable of bringing to a role there’s no substitute for Leone’s masterpiece.
9. Frank Sinatra, actor and singer. The Manchurian Candidate
- Birthday: December 12, 1915
- Died: May 14, 1998
- Highest-ranked film on Flickchart: The Manchurian Candidate, 283
Ol’ Blue Eyes, the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra used acting to jump-start his flagging music career in the mid-1950s. To mark his 100th birthday this year you can’t go wrong with From Here to Eternity, for which he won an Oscar, or Guys and Dolls, where he gets to sing, but his acting is more essential to the success of 1962’s psychological thriller The Manchurian Candidate. In it he plays a sad, distracted Korean War vet who realizes that something is wrong with his old war buddy and other members of their unit. This was a bold film to make at what was arguably the peak of his career. Sinatra was palling around with President John F. Kennedy and leading the Rat Pack in more lighthearted movies, and The Manchurian Candidate is a dark film about a political assassination. If he considered it a gamble, it paid off: the film and his performance received positive reviews. It’s just one small part of his enormous legacy that includes over 50 movies and over 60 live and studio albums, but it’s a place to start.
10. Barbara Billingsley, actress. Airplane!
- Birthday: December 22, 1915
- Died: October 16, 2010
- Highest-ranked film on Flickchart: Airplane!, 203
Barbara Billingsley played June Cleaver, mother of moppet Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver on the TV show Leave it to Beaver that ran from 1957 to 1963. Few TV characters have so thoroughly become shorthand for a certain cultural type; people refer to “June Cleaver” not to reference the show, which often they have never seen, but to describe the largely illusory 1950s suburban ideal of a pearl-necklace-wearing, vacuum-pushing homemaker. The trope has been critiqued in the decades since, but it is a testament to Billingsley’s performance that she conveyed the character so clearly. And nobody had more fun playing with the persona than she herself: in the 1980 movie Airplane! Billingsley gets one of the biggest laughs by translating two black passengers’ subtitled slang. “Excuse me – I speak jive,” she politely offers, and proceeds to do so. That kind of joke has become hackneyed – think Alex Trebek deadpanning rap lyrics on Jeopardy! to the mild amusement of a forgiving studio audience – and is open to accusations of cultural appropriation, but if the gag ever worked, it worked for Barbara “June Cleaver” Billingsley. She lived to the ripe old age of 94.
Hundredth birthdays only come once, so don’t miss the chance to commemorate these ten celebrities’ magnificent lives and careers.