There’s an extra frisson of excitement to be found in what I call “launch pad” movies. This is not necessarily a movie star’s first film, but rather the one that propels him or her to that exalted status.
In these special outings, you can feel a certain electricity coming off the screen; it's as if the performer is announcing in a subliminal stage whisper: “I’ve arrived!”
Here are twenty key launch pad vehicles for some of my favorite stars, spanning eighty years of movie history.
The Movie: “The Blue Angel” (1930)
Star-to-be: Marlene Dietrich
Trajectory: Her turn as nightclub entertainer Lola Lola, whose wiles ruin the career of an aging professor, still stuns. Garbo’s first serious competitor was here to stay.
The Movie: "Captain Blood" (1935)
Star-to-be: Errol Flynn
Trajectory: Move over Douglas Fairbanks, here’s a new swordsman for a new age. Lucky for the unknown Errol that Robert Donat got sick and had to bow out.
The Movie: "Great Expectations" (1946)
Star-to-be: Alec Guinness
Trajectory: Here Alec plays John Mills’s sidekick. He’d go on to bigger and better roles, though he picked the right film to break out in.
The Movie: "Kiss of Death" (1947)
Star-to-be: Richard Widmark
Trajectory: He spooked audiences here as a stone killer with a maniacal giggle who pushes an old invalid down a flight of stairs. Yikes.
The Movie: "Roman Holiday" (1953)
Star-to-be: Audrey Hepburn
Trajectory: A princess plays a princess; strictly typecasting. But Miss Hepburn came out of nowhere to win an Oscar.
The Movie: "The Three Faces of Eve" (1957)
Star-to-be: Joanne Woodward
Trajectory: It wasn’t good enough for Joanne to play one character; as a victim of split personality, she had to play several. She scored in each.
The Movie: "Dr. No" (1962)
Star-to-be: Sean Connery
Trajectory: “Bond. James Bond.” Thus with three words did a strapping Scot achieve instant screen immortality.
The Movie: "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962)
Star-to-be: Peter O’Toole
Trajectory: Though at the time largely unknown, this impossibly charming Irishman took the part meant for Albert Finney and made it his own.
The Movie: "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967)
Star-to-be: Faye Dunaway
Trajectory: “We rob banks.” The way Faye Dunaway registered in this picture, I would have pulled a couple of heists with her myself.
The Movie: "The Graduate" (1967)
Star-to-be: Dustin Hoffman
Trajectory: Even playing a schlemiel, he had such incredible talent that he created a whole new breed of star. And here's to you, Mr. Braddock.
The Movie: "Easy Rider" (1969)
Star-to-be: Jack Nicholson
Trajectory: In a role meant for Rip Torn, this veteran struggling actor stole the movie, a surprise counter-culture hit. He stuck around long after.
The Movie: "The French Connection" (1971)
Star-to-be: Gene Hackman
Trajectory: For a while, director William Friedkin was floundering trying to find the right Popeye Doyle. With Hackman, he hit pay dirt.
The Movie: "The Last Picture Show" (1971)
Star-to-be: Jeff Bridges
Trajectory: Lloyd’s younger son injected pathos into the role of a dumb jock. That’s quite a feat. Great looking, sure — but this boy could act.
The Movie: "Carrie" (1976)
Star-to-be: Sissy Spacek
Trajectory: This diminutive, freckled young actress ended up scaring us so badly that we just had to make her a star. We’ll be nice from now on!
The Movie: "Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope" (1977)
Star-to-be: Harrison Ford
Trajectory: That crooked grin, those cynical wisecracks — you just had to love Han Solo. Sorry Luke, but you always seemed slightly wimpy to me.
The Movie: "Norma Rae" (1979)
Star-to-be: Sally Field
Trajectory: TV’s "Gidget" had graduated to Burt Reynolds movies (he was her BOYFRIEND!), but this part really clinched it for her.
The Movie: "The French Lieutenant’s Woman" (1981)
Star-to-be: Meryl Streep
Trajectory: This was Meryl's first real starring role, and she captivated. “Sophie’s Choice” the following year was the double whammy.
The Movie: "Pretty Woman" (1990)
Star-to-be: Julia Roberts
Trajectory: She charmed audiences (and Richard Gere) as the quirky hooker with a heart of gold. For the most part, she's charmed less since.
The Movie: "Out of Sight" (1998)
Star-to-be: George Clooney
Trajectory: I saw him in this, and thought: how is he not already a star? Well, he was, but on the small screen. Welcome to the big time, George.
The Movie: "Winter's Bone" (2010)
Star-to-be: Jennifer Lawrence
Trajectory: This gritty film was built around an astonishing young actress, whose character holds together her family during bleak times. For Lawrence, the past few years have been nothing but an upward trajectory.