Every decade has its breakout performance, its teen idol, its “it girl” - but what makes “it” stars, and how much of a role do fans play compared to the industry itself? Here are our top picks of every decade’s charismatic, breakthrough actors and actresses from the last 60 years and why they shined.
Breakout role: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Age at breakout: 27
The "it" factor: At the height of the pin-up era, Marilyn Monroe brought sex appeal to the big screen with a mix of sultriness and a coy innocence that made her charming to both men and women, the epitome of the saying “men wanted her and women wanted to be her.” Monroe’s early life was riddled with troubles, yet she rose from living in foster homes to stardom, but she didn’t simply rely on her pin-up status to make her way. Her work ethic was unstoppable, averaging over two movies a year over the course of her 15-year-long career.
Breakout role: The Miracle Worker
Age at breakout: 16
The "it" factor: Patty Duke went from fighting for her name on a stage marquee to being the youngest person to win Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards in 1962. Her career exploded at that moment, and two years later, the 18 year old actress was playing both lead roles on her own TV show as twins. Duke repeated the tradition of young starlets venturing into music, with two Top 40 hits in 1965, and appeared on several variety shows to sing. Despite personal complications with bipolar disorder and films that didn’t hold up at the box office, Duke remained in high demand through the 60’s and 70’s, the darling of comedy in Hollywood.
Breakout role: The Partridge Family
Age at breakout: 20
The "it" factor: David Cassidy landed the role of Keith Partridge because his actress stepmother led the series as the Partridge matriarch, and his androgynous features made producers think that he’d become a teen heartthrob. They were right, of course, but it wasn’t until Cassidy was given the chance to use his own voice on the show when singing “I Think I Love You” - which became a smash hit - earning him masses of screaming fans.
Cassidy’s career skyrocketed with the success of the show, and he found even more fame overseas, with tours back home and around the world selling out one after the other. Despite a horrific moment in 1974, when one of Cassidy’s teenage fans was trampled to death by her peers, Cassidy continued to pursue his musical career and found success all the way through the 90’s.
Breakout role: Risky Business
Age at breakout: 21
The "it" factor: While Tom Cruise’s debut was a supporting role in 1981’s Endless Love, and a notable turn in The Outsiders, it was his lead role in Risky Business that propelled him to stardom, followed quickly by his next big movie - Top Gun. He quickly became arguably the biggest movie star in the world, and held that title through the 80s and into the 90s.
Cruise dominated box offices and headlines for years with the Mission: Impossible franchise, Jerry Maguire, and Interview with the Vampire, among other roles that were almost always guaranteed hits. Despite any controversy regarding his personal life, Cruise kept a consistent work schedule and continues to be in headlines over 30 years after his major debut.
Breakout role: Thelma & Louise
Age at breakout: 28
The "it" factor: While in a supporting role, Pitt stole the show as the charming and enthusiastic companion J.D. in Thelma & Louise. But Pitt was more than his considerable sex appeal, combining his looks with his serious acting chops and smart career choices, which granted him a gigantic fan base. Like many A-list stars before him, Pitt filled his work schedule to remain regularly in the public eye, making him an unforgettable hero and heartthrob.
Breakout role: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Age at breakout: 11
The "it" factor: Radcliffe drew the approval and love of million of Harry Potter fans for resembling the young wizard and growing the character into a real person on the big screen. But despite his huge fanbase, when Radcliffe first broke onto the scene, there was almost a decade when no other director could work with him and his other young co-stars due to the demands of filming the Harry Potter franchise. Still, when he did make the jump to other projects, he transitioned easily.
Along with maintaining a slew of critically acclaimed films and a Broadway presence, Radcliffe has held the love of his fans and the media due to his progressive thinking, manners and overall charm in interviews.
Breakout role: Winter's Bone
Age at breakout: 20
The "it" factor: Early in her career, Lawrence had a starring role on The Bill Engvall Show for three seasons, but it was her impactful, breakout role in Winter’s Bone that made her a commodity in Hollywood, not only for her talent, but for her persona. From tripping during an awards ceremony to fangirling over her favorite stars while being interviewed on the red carpet, Lawrence’s awkward, fun-loving personality completely endeared her to an almost boundless audience.
Lawrence smartly rode that success to a meteoric upward trajectory. Balancing huge blockbuster roles, such as Mystique in the rebooted X-Men franchise and Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games franchise, along with Oscar bait films won Lawrence her first Best Actress Academy Award at age 22. Her career hasn’t stopped since then, and Lawrence continues to be one of the most sought-after actresses in all of Hollywood.