Sometimes when I can't sleep I run through lists of my "desert island movies," or the ten movies I would most prefer to have with me on a desert island (provided there was also a DVD player, flatscreen TV and electricity). It's an interesting game, because you get deeply into questions of what is good versus what is enjoyable. For example, Joel and Ethan Coen's new No Country for Old Men may be their best film, but it's not as much fun as Fargo or The Big Lebowski. The other night, I started playing another game: desert island movie star. If you could take the entire filmography of a single movie star to a desert island, whose would it be? (For the purposes of this column, I'm sticking to my usual realm: actors appearing in movies currently playing on 400 screens or less. Otherwise we could continue to play on into the length of a book.)
British actors are always a good choice, because they generally have a kind of old-fashioned work ethic; they're more interested in being a good worker than in crafting a certain type of career, so you've got more to choose from. Take Michael Caine, currently in Sleuth (7 screens). He's a double Oscar winner, but he's made a ton of movies worth looking at a second time, notably The Prestige, Batman Begins, Children of Men, The Man Who Would Be King, Hannah and Her Sisters, Get Carter and Dressed to Kill. On the downside, you'd also be stuck with stagnant award-winners like The Cider House Rules, as well as turkeys like Jaws: The Revenge and On Deadly Ground and Bewitched. But at least you'd have more than 100 to choose from.
Whatever one has to say about Scarlett Johansson -- currently in The Nanny Diaries (212 screens) -- she has chosen some absolutely wonderful films. The quality would be high, but there'd be very few to choose from: Ghost World, Lost in Translation, The Prestige, Match Point, The Man Who Wasn't There, Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Black Dahlia. Sooner or later, though, I'd feel the urge to watch Home Alone 3, just because I hadn't seen it yet, and then I might have to throw myself from the highest coconut tree.
Tommy Lee Jones -- currently in In the Valley of Elah (8 screens), as well as No Country for Old Men -- is another good one, mainly because he has developed a consistent character and onscreen personality over the years, like John Wayne. He's unreadable, intelligent, relentless and a little sad, and it would be interesting to follow his evolution over the years. There's a bunch of movies here, both good and/or fun: Under Siege, The Fugitive, Cobb, Men in Black, Small Soldiers, Space Cowboys, Rules of Engagement, The Hunted, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and A Prairie Home Companion. I could even look once more at Nate and Hayes, a 1980s comic action film that I enjoyed as a kid. Hopefully I could avoid Man of the House and Men in Black II as long as possible. John Cusack, seen in Martian Child (111 screens), is another with a consistent screen persona whose filmography would make an interesting desert island pastime.
Jones' Elah co-star, Charlize Theron, fares less well. She began her career as a stereotypical skinny, pretty blonde (almost indistinguishable from Gretchen Mol), making a series of mostly uninteresting films. I could probably watch The Devil's Advocate, The Yards, Reindeer Games or The Curse of the Jade Scorpion once apiece, but I doubt they'd hold up to years of desert island isolation. Since she won her Oscar for Monster, she has been making more Oscar-type movies, none of which holds any interest past the awards show itself. (North Country anyone?) Her only really fun movie, full of crisp energy, is The Italian Job, but that's not enough for my island. (I should point out here that this little game makes it painfully clear how bad roles for actresses continue to be.)
George Clooney had a similar, inauspicious start, transitioning from his hit TV show "ER" into a string of bad movies, including the notorious Batman & Robin. But he turned a corner with Out of Sight (and cemented a working relationship with Steven Soderbergh that has stretched over nearly a dozen movies). I'd gladly have The Thin Red Line, Three Kings, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Ocean's films, Solaris, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; Good Night, and Good Luck and Michael Clayton (301 screens) on my island. (Not to mention the South Park movie and From Dusk Till Dawn.)
Philip Seymour Hoffman, of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (260 screens) has certainly been in a good number of great movies, and he's definitely one of the greatest actors alive, but his best skill is livening up bad movies, and no one wants bad movies (including, yes, Patch Adams) on their desert island. Cate Blanchett, currently in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (77 screens) and I'm Not There (130 screens) is equally skilled, perhaps a candidate for the best actress working today, but her relatively small filmography is littered with an inordinate amount of WWII films and costume dramas; she needs more fun in her life.
Finally, and let's get down to brass tacks here: choosing Harrison Ford would net you a bunch of awful films, but also the original three Star Wars films, all the Indiana Jones films and Blade Runner: The Final Cut (11 screens), not to mention American Graffiti, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. Throw in a few underrated items and/or guilty pleasures like Witness, Frantic, The Fugitive, Air Force One, K-19: The Widowmaker, Hollywood Homicide, and perhaps even Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (if you want to count an uncredited bit part). Now we've got ourselves an island.