It would be fascinating to attend negotiations that lead to billing order in a movie when the stars are of equal or almost equal stature. It is not entirely necessary to be a fly on the wall. There are clues in the poster art as well as in the trajectory of careers. Being an Academy Award winner was sometimes a plus but did not always guarantee top billing.
It is said that William Holden thought he was something of a fraud, a guy who lucked into movies. Yet he won an Academy Award for 1953’s Stalag 17 and his resume is strong. His billing history is intriguing. A contemporary of Glenn Ford, Holden and Ford switched billing priority in their two westerns. In 1941’s Texas it was Holden, Claire Trevor, and Ford. In 1948’s The Man from Colorado Ford took first spot on the poster.
It’s a tad surprising that after his 1953 Oscar he did not get billed over Grace Kelly in The Country Girl, which opened in L.A. and New York in December, 1954 but went into general release in May, 1955 after Kelly won a Best Actress Academy Award. Bing Crosby got top billing because he had an Oscar for Going My Way (1944) and because he was, well, the legendary Bing Crosby.
In 1954 Holden again took third billing in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina behind Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, two other Academy Award winners.
Move forward to 1964’s Paris When It Sizzles, a middling comedy. Holden reteams with Hepburn but he gets left-hand billing over Audrey. Their careers at this point were quite similar: some hits, some misses. Could this billing reversal have stemmed from The Bridge on the River Kwai, the multi-Academy Award-winning 1957 film for which Holden took a percentage and made a fortune?
The award for self-effacement must go to Robert Mitchum, whose motto is generally considered, “Baby, I don’t care.” He took third billing behind Loretta Young and William Holden in the frontier drama, Rachel and the Stranger (1948). In the fifties and sixties Mitchum found working with Deborah Kerr a delight and was happy to give her billing over himself in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, The Sundowners and The Grass is Greener.
Critical opinion has it that either Steve McQueen or Lee Marvin were most representative of the sixties, but Sidney Poitier must be accorded accolades for a decade of many important and entertaining films in various genres. Poitier won a Best Actor Academy Award for 1963’s Lilies of the Field yet this did not translate into billing above Richard Widmark in 1964’s Viking saga, The Long Ships. Nor did he jump over Widmark in 1965’s The Bedford Incident. This is a special relationship, however. When Poitier came to Hollywood from the Bahamas for No Way Out (1950) he was welcomed into Widmark’s home. It is perhaps indicative of James Garner’s standing in the mid-sixties that he got star billing over Poitier in Duel at Diablo (1966).
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas made 7 films together, starting with 1957’s Gunfight at the OK Corral. Lancaster was always first billed, even in Seven Days in May (1964) in which Douglas had the key role of the colonel who realizes that Lancaster’s general is going to implement a coup and must put the kibosh on it.
Clawing to the Summit
Steve McQueen had a small part as a delinquent in 1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me, which starred Paul Newman as boxer Rocky Graziano. Newman never looked back on his leading man career while McQueen served an apprenticeship on TV’s Wanted: Dead or Alive and in small roles in such films as Never So Few. He starred in The Blob, but who knew what that would become? In 1960’s The Magnificent Seven he tried to upstage Yul Brynner by constantly fiddling with his hat. The breakthrough was 1963’s The Great Escape. It must have seemed that he’d always follow Newman.
The annual Quigley Poll of boxoffice popularity tracks the McQueen/Newman career arc: 1967 (McQueen #10, Newman #3), 1968 (McQueen #7, Newman #2), 1969 (McQueen #3, Newman #1), 1970 (McQueen #3, Newman #1), 1971 (McQueen #4, Newman #3), 1972 (McQueen #8, Newman #7), 1973 (McQueen #3, Newman #7), 1974 (McQueen #5, Newman #3), 1975 (McQueen #9, Newman #5).
Redemption of a sort occurred with 1974’s The Towering Inferno. McQueen had the left-hand slot, with Newman to his right—but a smidgen higher, followed by William Holden and Faye Dunaway.
Jeff Chandler and Jack Palance
Jeff Chandler was a lieutenant in World War II who helped wrest back control of the Aleutian Islands from the Japanese. After the war he found himself crooning and playing leading men for Universal. Unfortunately, Chandler died after a botched back operation in 1962. Notable for this analysis is that he played the noble Roman Flavius in The Sign of the Pagan (1954). His nemesis was Attila, who was portrayed by Jack Palance, another war vet. In 1958 they again shared time in Ten Seconds to Hell, a saga of two former German soldiers now defusing unexploded bombs. Chandler was top billed in each of these films.
Jack Palance and Lee Marvin
Lee Marvin was another World War II vet who caught the acting bug. Ahead of him at mid-century was Palance, the first to achieve postwar film success in such movies as Panic in the Streets (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), and The Big Knife (1955).
In 1956’s Attack, Palance is Lieutenant Costa, at odds with the cowardly Captain (Eddie Albert) while Marvin is a Colonel intent on achieving political success when the conflict is over. Forward to 1970’s Monte Walsh. Screen time and billing has been reversed. Marvin is Walsh, Palance his sometimes partner. Marvin had won an Academy Award for 1965’s Cat Ballou and had ascended into the firmament and made excellent films for a time: The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen, and Point Blank. Poor choices thereafter tarnished his status. Palance outlived him and won a Supporting Actor Academy Award for his crusty cowpoke in City Slickers (1991). Both Marvin and Palance had “the look.” They were not your typical tall, dark and handsome Hollywood heart throbs but they had gravitas. (There’s an article to be written on the myth of the TD&H guys. More often than not our legends of classic Hollywood were not of that ilk. Think Cagney, Bogart, Robinson, Muni, Tracy.)
Lee Marvin and Paul Newman
Pocket Money (1972) was a plot-thin but major movie Marvin did with another star: Paul Newman. Who got top billing? Marvin had an Oscar but Newman had nominations and had been a leading man almost from day one. The poster features Newman’s name on the left, Marvin’s slightly raised on the right.
Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson
Both Bronson and Marvin had appeared in uncredited small roles in the Gary Cooper service comedy You’re in the Navy Now (1951), and throughout the 1950s both built impressive character actor resumes, often as gunslingers and gangsters. In 1967 both appeared in the massive hit, The Dirty Dozen. Marvin was riding high on his Academy Award for 1965’s Cat Ballou and led the crew.
By 1981’s Death Hunt the Marvin-Bronson ranking was reversed. Bronson had developed an international following and made it big in the States with Death Wish (1974).
Marvin’s career, on the other hand, had tailed off through a myriad of poor choices. In the Death Hunt poster Bronson gets the left-hand spot but Marvin is a smidgen higher on the right.
Actors vs. Actresses
When it came to men and women, more often than not it was the actor who got top billing. Opposite instances include Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and The Sundowners.
Audrey Hepburn got star billing over Fred Astaire in 1957’s Funny Face. The reasons are probably her Oscar and Astaire’s self-effacement as well as his being perhaps considered on a downward trajectory.
It is curious that Doris Day did not get star billing over Rock Hudson in 1964’s Send Me No Flowers. Their prior two films together were Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961). For reference see the Quigley Poll: 1959 (Hudson #1, Day #4), 1960 (Day #1, Hudson #2), 1961 (Hudson #2, Day #3), 1962 (Day #1, Hudson #2), 1963 (Day #1, Hudson #3), 1964 (Day #1, Hudson #3), 1965 (Day #3)
What happened when two actresses of equal magnitude got together? Take those grand dames of Hollywood, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Who would have thought back in the thirties and forties that these future Academy Award winners would deign to confront each other on screen. After all, who would be top ranked on the poster? But the pairing came to pass with the 1962 shocker, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Perhaps it was Davis’ two Oscars to Crawford’s one that gave Davis the preferred left-hand spot.
It’s a no-brainer that Meryl Streep would have star-billing in The Hours (2002). She had a Supporting Actress Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and a Best Actress Oscar for Sophie’s Choice (1982). Julianne Moore placed second on the poster with Nicole Kidman third. Note, however, that Moore is between and behind the other two. (Kidman would win Best Actress for the film.)
All Star Casts
An all-star cast film, especially a prestigious one like 1962’s The Longest Day in which most everyone had equal time, called for alphabetization.
What a Way to Go! (1964) is an interesting study. Bespeaking Shirley MacLaine’s status, she got to lord it over six leading men. Most astonishing, perhaps, is that Robert Mitchum had first billing among the men. (Remember, he never cared.) Those men were Paul Newman, Dean Martin, Gene Kelly, Bob Cummings, and Dick Van Dyke.
The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964). One of the ads featured a double column, those performers on the left being Ingrid Bergman, Alain Delon and Jeanne Moreau. On the right were Rex Harrison, George C. Scott and Omar Sharif. “And Shirley MacLaine” was centered below. In another poster with portraits of the cast MacLaine gets top left.
Casino Royale (1967). (“CASINO ROYALE Is Too Much…For One James Bond!”) The order: Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, David Niven, Woody Allen, Joanna Pettet, Orson Welles, Daliah Lavi, Deborah Kerr, William Holden, Charles Boyer, Jean-Paul Belmondo, George Raft, John Huston, Terence Cooper, Barbara Bouchet. The first five had the most to do. Some, like Holden, were seemingly there on a lark. (The film was a satire on spy films but in retrospect shows us something about the sixties.)
One of the more intriguing all-star movie posters is Steel Magnolia (1989). It features the six female leads standing, in this order: Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Daryl Hannah, and Dolly Parton. But as far as their names go, Sally Field is first, followed by Parton, MacLaine, Hannah, Dukakis, Roberts. The story does revolve around Field and Roberts, the latter just starting on her big screen, leading lady career.
A more recent curiosity as far as billing is concerned is 1995’s HEAT, the epic crime film from director Michael Mann. Although they’d been in The Godfather, Part II, this was the first time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro faced each other on screen. Pacino got left-hand poster billing despite De Niro having won a Supporting Oscar for The Godfather, Part II (1974) and a Best Actor Academy Award for Raging Bull (1980). Pacino’s Best Actor Oscar hadn’t come until 1992’s Scent of a Woman. Nomination-wise, their resume was quite similar.
One can make many connections and draw plenty of conclusions about star billing based on movie posters and/or some knowledge of the stars’ careers. For fun, guess what determined billing order for such movies as Ocean’s 11, The Departed, and Last Vegas. Why was James Stewart’s name above John Wayne’s in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance poster (1962)? Why was John Wayne’s name ahead of Henry Fonda in 1948’s Fort Apache? Why was Richard Widmark’s name ahead of Fonda in 1959’s Warlock? Why was Dustin Hoffman’s name above and as large as the title of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)?