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Come on oeuvre: which actor has the best filmography?

In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it

Figuring out which actor has the most flawless filmography seems at first like a twisty trivia game. This is not simply a question of who is the greatest, most successful performer; Oscars or box office alone can’t help here, and career longevity is a disadvantage (more time to flop).

Actors we associate with greatness can fall by the wayside immediately. Robert De Niro has blotted his copybook with too many stinkers such as Last Vegas, Little Fockers and The Intern. Poor early choices by Denzel Washington (Carbon Copy, Heart Condition), not to mention his recent weakness for vigilante movies, are enough to cancel out Malcolm X. Marlon Brando can be dismissed with five words: The Island of Dr Moreau. And Meryl Streep? A lifetime of prestige and prizes negated by The Prom.

A strong contender for the title of best filmography must be John Cazale. The sad-eyed theatre actor was a contemporary of Al Pacino (who called him “my acting partner … my older brother”) and ex-boyfriend of Streep. Cazale has only five film credits to his name but he is astonishing in each of them. Three are masterpieces (the first two Godfather movies, Dog Day Afternoon). The remaining two (The Conversation, The Deer Hunter) are flawed but magnificent. All were nominated for best picture Oscars, with the two Godfathers and The Deer Hunter going so far as to win. How’s that for a strike rate? Admit it: you knew it was him, Fredo.

Heavyweight contender … John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon.
Heavyweight contender … John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon. Photograph: Warner Bros/Allstar

See what a blast this is for movie nerds? Someone needs to turn this into a board game. And then it hits you. The reason why this would never sell becomes clear: it involves morbidly compiling lists of fine, judicious performers who all perished far too soon (Cazale died of cancer in 1978 at the age of 42). Before long, you are scouring film history for ever-younger examples of talent meeting tragedy. There is Françoise Dorléac, sister of Catherine Deneuve, who made outstanding films with Truffaut, Polanski and Jacques Demy before dying aged 25 (car crash). James Dean, gone after just three movies (another car crash). Philippe Marlaud, who acted for two French masters, Maurice Pialat and Éric Rohmer, before his death at 22 (his tent caught fire). Suddenly, the fun game of deduction has turned into the Oscars’ In Memoriam section.

One way to rescue it from the doldrums is to disqualify anyone who died before reaching their half-century. That allows for actors who stayed mainly in theatre, choosing the occasional film with the utmost care, such as Paul Scofield, who made each movie count (they included A Man for All Seasons, Henry V, Utz and Quiz Show).

In this non-morbid version, the money would be on Linda Manz, the brilliant young star of Days of Heaven, The Wanderers and Out of the Blue, who gave up acting in the 1980s to start a family, returned for cameos in the 90s (David Fincher’s The Game and Harmony Korine’s Gummo), then vanished again. She died in 2020 at 58.

“Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse” was a line (borrowed from the novelist Willard Motley) that gained traction in the wake of James Dean’s demise. I propose a new one: Work infrequently, choose wisely, and never say “yes” to a Dirty Grandpa.

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