Quick, come up with a short list of the finest screen actors working today.
Who did you come up with?
Chances are, names like Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Meryl Streep ranked pretty high.
Now try this. Come up with a list of the finest screen actors working in 1980.
Does the list look pretty similar?
Over the past couple of decades, there's been an odd sort of malaise infecting film audiences. Though there have been a few screen icons that have emerged - Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise and the like - there haven't really been any actors recognized as champions of their craft, as heirs apparent to the legacy of serious screen acting.
The question is, whose fault is that? Is it an audience that makes an actor an artist? Is it Hollywood's fault? Have studios stopped making the kind of movie that allows and actor the opportunity to truly excel?
I think, perhaps, there are a few fine performers who, despite never being mentioned in the same breath as Robert De Niro or Meryl Streep, have quietly cultivated the same sort of career as those stars whose talents have been trumpeted for the past 30 years. For instance:
RUSSELL CROWE: Though the star has courted controversy, there's not an actor alive who can so completely lose himself in the variety of roles Mr. Crowe has. Be it a hard-bitten cop in L.A. Confidential, an embittered middle manager in The Insider or a 19th century seafarer in Master and Commander, Mr. Crowe is an actor who, with great skill and style, understands the importance of serving the part.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: After a string of successful supporting parts, Mr. Hoffman has proved himself to be the kind of character actor who can carry a movie. His portrayal of diminutive Southern scribe Truman Capote in last year's Capote made audiences forget that Mr. Hoffman is neither diminutive nor from the South.
NATALIE PORTMAN: It is entirely possible that Ms. Portman's improbable beauty might work against her. So often seen as a sexy screen sweetheart, her nuanced performances in films such as Closer and Cold Mountain have shown her to be more than merely a pretty face. If she can only put those Star Wars films behind her, she should do just fine.
SCARLETT johansson: After aiding and abetting Bill Murray in the powerful Lost In Translation, Ms. Johansson has gone on to become Woody Allen's latest muse. Whether she'll follow in the footsteps of Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow remains to be seen, but for a very young actress this is a very strong start.
COLIN HANKS: Behold my sleeper pick. Sure, he's the scion of Hollywood heavyweight Tom Hanks, but his roles in the under-appreciated Orange County and the big-budget King Kong have shown him to be an actor with subtle skills that never seem to get lost against the biggest of backdrops. Mark my words on this one.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.