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Friday, May 28, 1999 Published at 17:26 GMT 18:26 UK

Hollywood's controversial list

Screen greats Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby

By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook.

The American Film Institute is about to ignite a heated debate by boldly naming what it believes are the 50 greatest US screen legends of the century.

All will be revealed in a heavily promoted TV programme to be broadcast on 15 June when, in an act of glittering Hollywood symmetry, 50 contemporary stars will participate in a special tribute to honour the 50 selected legends.

This "AFI 100 Years....100 Stars" event has already set off a controversy similar to one that erupted last year when the AFI named the 100 best American movies of all time.

[ image: Citizen Kane fever ruled after it won best movie last year]
Citizen Kane fever ruled after it won best movie last year
Then there was criticism over how it had come to omit the silent films of Buster Keaton or the dance movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Cynics said the list was merely a publicity stunt designed to boost video rentals of selected films.

According to one video trade association, rentals of the number one film, Citizen Kane, soared by 1,600% in the wake of the top 100 film list being unveiled.

The AFI has determined who becomes one of the 50 screen legends of the century by its own house rules.

It was deemed that only those actors and actresses whose screen careers began in or before 1950 would be considered.

The only exception is for those who made a debut after 1950 and subsequently died leaving a completed body of work. That means James Dean and John Belushi are eligible, but Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are not.

By taking today's stars out of the running, the AFI insulates itself from criticism that their poll is merely a publicity gimmick to boost the business fortunes of a few top actors and their associates.

[ image: Bill Clinton: Voting]
Bill Clinton: Voting
The AFI says film archivists drew up a list of 250 eligible actors and 250 eligible actresses and sent these names out on a ballot to some 1,800 film industry professionals, historians and writers to vote on.

The AFI cast the net quite wide because they also invited President Bill Clinton, and Vice-President Al Gore to participate, presumably because they are the nation's leaders, not noted film aficionados.

All the jurors were then asked to select from the 500 names just 25 women and 25 men with the most screen legend status.

They were instructed to judge each actor by criteria that included star quality, craft, legacy, and popularity over time.

It is probably safe to assume that those Hollywood greats commonly referred to by their last names will be on the list. This means Garbo, Bogart, Chaplin and Gable could well be chosen. Other than that it is a mystery.

[ image: Bogart: A favourite for the list]
Bogart: A favourite for the list
The list of nominees contains a preponderance of actors who made their screen debut more than 80 years ago, reflecting a deliberate attempt by the AFI to ensure that the industry's early pioneers are not forgotten.

This AFI choice of top 50 screen legends will no doubt dominate newspaper editorials and radio and TV talk shows in the coming days.

It will cater to an unhealthy thirst we have for lists of all sorts, whether it is the top 100 books ever written, or the week's top selling videos or movies.

As Tom Pollock, AFI board chairman, has noted, the purpose is "to get people talking about our national movie heritage, rather than merely a discussion of box office grosses".

Or, to put it another way, he is saying we will get them to focus on our list for a few days rather than someone else's.

Although the AFI's efforts may spark some interest in screen legends from the past, I wonder how much it really will do to foster any real understanding of the value of America's glorious movie culture.

[ image: Julia Roberts: Too young for an honour]
Julia Roberts: Too young for an honour
The truth of the matter is that the AFI list remains in essence a publicity gimmick to focus attention, and viewers, on the much trumpeted TV show which will reveal the names of the top 50 legends.

The purpose of this programme, and other related efforts, is to bring revenue to the AFI, a non-profit entity committed to advancing and preserving film.

In recent years the organisation has suffered a major reduction in funding from the government.

So, in other words, to preserve America's movie heritage in the face of government cutbacks, one of the country's pre-eminent film preservation organisations is engaging in a publicity stunt that panders to a celebrity culture obsessed with ranking people, places and things into a neat list.

I admit the whole endeavour is somewhat absurd - but I, for one, cannot wait to see who gets selected.

The most excitement, and debate, is likely to be generated by the actor and actress who emerge at the top of the list as the number one screen legends of the century. My vote goes to Charlie Chaplin and Katharine Hepburn.

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