But I don't like icons.
There's something that has to happen to make an icon that doesn't sit right with me. There's a touch of the caricature in that process, which over time becomes parody; like the “Bogey” phenomenon, or the mild drag queen flair of Marylin Monroe. It starts to bleed into the work over time, and it, for me at least, spoils my enjoyment. Wayne is great, but the silly “duh-huh” comical bar-fighty vibe dims my admiration. He's on my list because he has to be, but he's not at the top.
On top of that, his films are great! Tall, long in the face and with sharp, eagle-type eyes, his version of the cowboy has a bit more of the dusty trail than most. There's a real cowboy behind that movie man, and it works to his advantage; in an era that includes so many famous faces, Tim McCoy has certainly come by his spot honestly.
Toss in a warm delivery and a palatable level of control and confidence, and you get the kind of western that is really quite thrilling and fun to watch.
I'm always excited to find a "new" Johnny Mack Brown picture!
To me, he's the pre-”John Wayne” John Wayne. He was big, tough, rugged, and all the other manly superlatives that one normally associates with the Duke, but with that sort of dime-novel/pulp fiction vibe that made those early westerns so worth watching. He certainly was a tough character; I watch a Buck Jones western waiting eagerly for Buck to pop some scoundrel in the jaw, gun them down in a showdown, or chase them down in the obligatory horse scene, dispensing Justice as well as any screen cowboy. Buck, more than any actor other than Tom Mix, is the emblem of that age; his is the name that jumps out each time that I think of those days.
Trained in the era of silent film, William Boyd is skilled in acting with his presence alone. If you watch him stand, or turn, how he tilts his head, and the way he glances across the room, you can see very subtle expression in even the most meager of cowboy genre pictures. If one wants to understand him as a cowboy star, then watching his non-western silents will really open the eyes.
William Boyd is the man!
Audie Murphy: mild-mannered titan.
That's the Tom Mix anima; pretty much everything he touched is pure gold. Manly and tall, with a cool brow and an easy strength, Mix is one of those guys that, when he walks into a room with a dozen gunfighters, with square shoulders and a mild smile, you believe that it's all going to be A-OK.
Tom Mix is just plain great...when I think of the huge percentage of his 200+ films that are lost, it really burns my eyes.
I like that someone like Stewart can pull off “rugged” as well as he does his more well-expected persona. To me it calls B.S. on those who refer to people like, say, Tom Hanks, as “the new Jimmy Stewart”.
James Stewart well deserves his spot in the film history books and certainly on this humble list.
Peck is brilliant, 100% of the time.
Woman: what's your name?
Ladd: They call me Choya.
Woman: That's Spanish for “cactus”; why do they call you that?
Ladd: Ever try to pick one?
That spells Ladd's cowboy out perfectly. He moves like a solid, well-oiled machine, and when he draws a weapon, it's amazing. Such speed and tight reflexes. Witness the scene in SHANE when the little boy startles him; Ladd spins around faster than most actors can think! Take that and the mass fistfight in BRANDED, add that to a credible Spartan attitude and an incredible posture on horseback, with deep intensity and a real humanity, and you have a western winner, in my book. He's another that looks like a city boy (I think of him as Phillip Marlowe with a colt .45), but reads like a cowhand all the way. Incredible!
End of list!
One day I'll make a “top eleven-to-twenty” list, which could be very fun, and would probably be much more difficult! Until that time, if anyone wants to call me crazy, or call me deluded for leaving out their faves, or for not giving their guy his due, feel free to comment.
As a crazy person myself, I love to hear a good cowboy-oriented rant.