|Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca"|
But of course, who better understands cool than those who've never approached it? The epitome of cool is the ability to be and do those things the uncool can only dream of, while somehow maintaining a connection with them. For the cool to be cool, we have to recognize something of ourselves in them, something we can identify with, as they fight the fights we wish we could fight and conquer evil, corruption,and cultural biases. It's how they fight these fights, always looking good and "keeping their head when all about them are losing theirs" that makes the difference. Cool is a mirror that reflects back what we wish we were.
Cool is a combination of attitude, looks, demeanor, and behavior. It's charm. It's self confidence, it's intelligence, it's grace under pressure. It's iconoclasm and boldness, it's darkness and hidden tragedy, it's a sense of humor and a trace of vulnerability, it's mystery and enigma. It's toughness. It's sex appeal.
Cool is an invention of the 20th century, becoming prevalent in the developing art forms of film and popular music. It first came to prominence in the decadent days of excess of the roaring 20s, in the era of Prohibition, in the writing of F.Scott Fitzgerald and the jazz of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. It evolved in the 1930s to encompass the big band sounds of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey and the blues of Billie Holliday. In the 50s, cool exploded as a non-conformist reaction to the rigid conservatism of the time, with the jazz timed writing of Jack Kerouac and the beats, the music of Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and, of course, with the birth of rock and roll.
In film, an art form still in it's infancy, cool didn't take hold until the movies started talking, around 1930. At first cool was defined by the unflappable and suave personas of actors like Bing Crosby and Cary Grant. In the 40s, Humphrey Bogart redefined cool forever, adding toughness and danger and cynicism, and in the 50s, graduates of the Actors' Studio like Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Cliff added a heightened realism.
In Hollywood, cool, like most of the dialogue about anything, has historically been dominated by males. There have been many cool actresses over the years, like Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn, Faye Dunaway to Kate Winslet, who project beauty and independence, but, compared to men, women have rarely been given true opportunities to carry a film and to create an iconic image that transcends any one specific role.
Cool continues to change and evolve with the times and the culture. It'll always be a valuable part of us and will always give voice to the things we wish we could say.
Here is my list of the top ten "coolest" actors of all time:
10. Samuel L. Jackson (key films: Pulp Fiction, The Red Violin, Snakes on a Plane) From Pulp Fiction to Snakes on a Plane (testament to Jackson's skill in that he can remain cool in such a bad film), we have a hard time looking away whenever Samuel L. Jackson is on screen. He is often feared, and always respected. Nobody in the history of film has ever been as effective as Jackson in delivering F-Bombs. His performance in Pulp Fiction was the glue that held the film together. From discussing Quarter Pounders in Paris to grasping the metaphysical profundity in the diner scene, he is hyper aware and takes charge, just like when he had to get those m&^*&%%$(%# snakes off of that m&^*&$(% ing plane.
9. Johnny Depp (key films: Edward Scissorhands, Donnie Brasco, Dead Man) Johnny Depp is best known for his good looks. His enigmatic charm and the naked vulnerability that always lies just beneath the surface have made millions of women swoon, even in his collaborations with Tim Burton where he is so heavily made up he is barely recognizable. An accomplished actor, Depp, like most of the actors on this list, commands attention whenever he is on screen. Depp has intentionally chosen eccentric roles, refusing to be pigeon holed, and that in itself is pretty cool.
8. Paul Newman (Key films: Hud, The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Nobody's Fool) In the 1960s, Paul Newman starred in a series of character studies: Hud, The Hustler, Harper, Hombre and Cool Hand Luke, that challenged the definition of the conventional Hollywood hero. In Hud, he portrayed a monster, a sociopath who rejected the values of his decent, hard working father (Melvyn Douglas). Newman managed to make even such a reprehensible character attractive by making full use of his famous good looks and charm, and, by contrast, made the values of his father look rigid and square and old fashioned. Morality never had a tougher opponent. In Cool Hand Luke, he played a small time loser in a prison work camp who becomes the focal point for all the other prisoners' hopes and dreams. They saw in him what we saw: a good looking and funny guy, vulnerable and enigmatic but bold, willing to stand up to authority. These are traits that Newman brought to every role he played. He remained great until the end, delivering one of his best and coolest performances in the often overlooked 1994 film, Nobody's Fool.
7. Jack Nicholson (Key films: Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, A Few Good Men) Nicholson is cinema's great iconoclast, spending an entire career challenging and rebelling against authority. From the independent and self absorbed piano prodigy of Five Easy Pieces to the free spirit of McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next to his Bogart-esque turn as private detective Jake Giddes in Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Nicholson was always fearless in his willingness to challenge authority. He said the things we all wished we could say, and he was a powder keg, always on edge, ready to detonate at a moment's notice.
6. Steve McQueen (Key films: The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullit) Steve McQueen's coolness owed as much to Technicolor as anything, as his cool was projected through his piercing blue eyes, eyes that conveyed a depth of vision and self confidence. It was as if McQueen could always see more than we did, more than the other characters, and it's why he remained so calm and quiet. He used this calm confidence to great effect as the poker player in The Cincinnati Kid and the jet setting jewel thief in The Thomas Crown Affair, to the tough, world weary detective of Bullitt. An accomplished race car driver, he brought realism to two of the greatest chase scenes ever, the motorcycle scene in The Great Escape and the legendary car chase in Bullitt.
5. Montgomery Clift (Key films: Red River, From Here to Eternity, A Place in the Sun) A completely unique screen presence, Clift, unlike his great cool contemporaries, Marlon Brando and James Dean, achieved cool by being quiet. His most powerful moments are when he is reacting to something. One always gets the sense when watching Clift that there is something significant, something big and mysterious, going on behind those watery dark eyes. It's as if he always knows something that no one else knows, something mysterious, and he comes across as simultaneously fragile and vulnerable and tough and substantive. It's these enigmatic qualities that command the viewers attention every second he is on screen - you're afraid that if you blink, you'll miss something important being revealed.
4. James Dean (Key Films: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant) Dean, like Clift, seemed to always have secrets locked inside. Unlike Clift, you never knew when or how, but eventually, he'd explode. What made Dean so great and so unique is that nobody has ever been as cool when losing his cool. "You're tearing me apart," he screams in Rebel Without a Cause, giving voice to the restless rage that smoldered under the surface in the repressive and conforming times of the fifties.
2. Cary Grant (Key films: Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest) In the 1930s, with the world under the grips of the Great Depression and in the midst of uncertain and dangerous times, Cary Grant was steady and constant - good looking, unflappable, sophisticated, intelligent, funny, and more than anything, sure of himself. In films like Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, he defined suave and sophisticated without ever becoming stuffy or arrogant. He was always able to laugh at himself. Women swooned, while men wished they were him, in a career that spanned thirty years. He was still a heart throb leading man and adventure hero in 1950s films like Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest, which remains perhaps the coolest performance by any leading actor in an action-suspense film. In North by Northwest, he is so unflappable, so intelligent, so witty and funny, while remaining the every man caught up in a nightmare of mistaken identity. His genius is of course that he's not an every man, but rather he is the man every man secretly would like to be.