The Corner

Film & TV

Happy 80th Birthday to America’s Greatest Living Movie Star

Harrison Ford attends the premiere of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in Los Angeles, Calif., December 16, 2019. (Phil McCarten/Reuters)

Last month marked the 80th birthday of the greatest living rock star. Today marks the same milestone for our greatest living movie star: Harrison Ford.

Oh, sure, you could make the case for the Everyman actor Tom Hanks, or for a more chameleon-like performer such as Robert DeNiro or Meryl Streep. But there is more to being a Movie Star than being an actor, and besides that, there is a pretty good case to be made that even Hanks, even DeNiro — even compelling movie stars such as Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise — have not made quite as many iconic films and created quite as many indelible characters as Ford. Maybe the only living Hollywood figure bigger than Ford — the only one who would clearly surpass him in the “if he died, he’d be the anchor of the Oscar montage” test — is Steven Spielberg.

Of course, I’m biased: I have seen more than two dozen of his movies, more than those of any other star, and having been five years old when Star Wars came out, I was in the heart of the generation that grew up wanting to be Han Solo and Indiana Jones. But even if he’s not No. 1, Ford is unquestionably in the pantheon of the greatest movie stars in history. Ford could have done little after his breakout role in Star Wars and its original two sequels, and he’d still be at least as iconic as Mark Hamill. He followed that up with Raiders of the Lost Ark, turning Indiana Jones into a second career-making, trilogy-spawning character, one that was just as identifiably Harrison Ford, yet distinct from Han Solo: an adventurous rogue, but one with a scholarly side. He took over the Jack Ryan character from Alec Baldwin in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. He brought Scott Turow’s best novel to the screen in the morally tangled Presumed Innocent, and memorably rebooted a classic Sixties TV character in The Fugitive. If the space opera of Star Wars invented modern science-fiction blockbusters, Blade Runner invented the dystopian sci-fi film, with Ford as its harrowed protagonist — then, Ford took basically the same big-city detective character into the opposite situation in Witness. Romantic comedy? He co-starred in Working Girl, as the foil who allows Melanie Griffith to shine, and stepped into Humphrey Bogart’s shoes in a remake of Sabrina. He plausibly played the president as an authority figure and an action hero in Air Force One. He had small roles in big pictures early in his career (Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, American Graffiti) and has done memorable turns as a major supporting player late (42, in which he played Branch Rickey, and Ender’s Game). And he’s stretched out his acting muscles at times, too, in films such as Regarding Henry and What Lies Beneath. Even returning late in life to revive his original characters amid shambolic scripts and ill-considered stunts, he brought gravitas and wry humor to lines like “It belongs in a museum!” and “That’s not how the Force works!”

The fact that Ford is only a month younger than Paul McCartney — who was a household name 13 years before Star Wars — is a reminder of something striking: He turned 35 not long after his breakout role hit theaters. Ford is four months older than Joe Biden, who was elected to the United States Senate five years before Star Wars. He spent a decade as a struggling actor, supporting himself working as a carpenter and other jobs, before he hit it big. As a result, his career as a star has always been grounded in realism, mature confidence, and a certain world-weariness that sometimes comes off as cynicism and sometimes as exasperation. Offscreen, he can be blunt and cranky, but also, as a pilot, just as daring as his characters. Doing his own stunts in Raiders, he had to outrun a 300-pound boulder that could have crushed him — for three takes in a row. Never tell him the odds.

Star Wars in particular doesn’t work without the grounding that Ford’s humor and swagger brought to the film, a leavening presence that was badly missing in the prequels. Hamill memorably imitated Ford’s grasp of what Star Wars was all about:

Ford’s superpower has always been that he doesn’t have a superpower. He may look great in a white tuxedo, but there is an old-fashioned lunch-pail masculinity to his screen presence. Han Solo didn’t carry a lightsaber or use the Force. Indiana Jones could approach the supernatural with reverence, but he couldn’t command it, and he was terrified of snakes. Deckard was a man against superhuman machines. Ford did a lot of his own stunts not only because he had the physical guts and athleticism to do them, but because his characters didn’t do things that a normal man couldn’t match. He was well-built but never had the gym-ripped physique of a Schwarzenegger or a Rambo-era Stallone; he looked like what he was, a guy who built his muscles doing hard work. Over and over in his action scenes, Ford’s characters got beat up, battered, and left for dead, or managed to escape through wit, daring, and luck — all of which made us care more about his heroes because we could see them pay the physical toll of heroism. The most characteristic of his scenes is when, as a bruised Indiana Jones getting bandaged by Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood, he at first protests that “I don’t need any help,” then tells her, “it’s not the years, it’s mileage” — then, when he finally accepts help, uses it to get her to kiss him until a damaged Indy dozes off:

Real heroes aren’t Superman. They get cut, and they bleed, and they keep going. Thanks for sharing the mileage with us.