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America's Sweetheart is an official title that has been held by 2793 different women of various nationalities since 1914.
edit Mary Pickford
The original "America's sweetheart" was Canadian actress Mary Pickford. As a child, Mary specialized in silent pictures to promote the adage "children should be seen and not heard." By 1914, she had become an international phenomenon: not only was she known as "America's Sweetheart" in Hollywood, she also became famous back home as "Canada's Sweetheart" and internationally as "The World's Sweetheart." Pretty soon she had earned fame as "France's Sweetheart," "Japan's Sweetheart," "The Sweetheart of The United Kingdom," and so on. In Soviet Russia, Mary Pickford sweethearted YOU!! (and you liked it, didn't you?)
The first American America's Sweetheart starred in motion picture roles from a very early age. Unlike Mary, Shirley acted in movies with sound, illustrating the truth that "children are noisy brats, get over it." Her movies included Stand Up and Jeer!, Heart Transplant, and That Reagan Girl (starring with Ronald Reagan). In the 1960's, Temple ran for congress as a Republican supporting the Vietnam War, which earned her the new title "America's Redneck." Her ability to tap-dance to various politicians' tunes, to sing the song of whomever was in power, to act out whatever scenario was required, led to political appointments as ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. Shirley plans to reclaim her sweetheart title in a 2012 film comeback for her 84th birthday, declaring "if Betty White can still be America's Sweetheart, so can I!"
Judy began her ascent to sweetheartdom at the age of 13, when she sang "You Made Me Love You" for Clark Gable at his birthday party (which, despite his claims of innocence, led to accusations in the media that Clark had imposed his irresistible charm on a minor). Indeed, Judy did learn a thing or two about sweetiness from Mr. Gable, which ultimately vaulted her to #1 on the Sweetheart charts in 1939. This time Judy sweethearted America with "Over the Rainbow" and the impossible-to-resist line that still makes us all swoon to this day: "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto." A charming 17-year-old does a road trip with three actors too brainless, heartless, and spineless to make a single move on her - nope, it ain't Kansas, that's for sure.
The debate as to what constituted a "sweetheart" heated up in the 50's, with "innocent" factions still supporting the prototypes of Temple and Garland, while others preferred more -- "guilty" types. But if Marilyn Monroe could not be all of America's sweetheart, at least she could well-loved by its baseball star, its playwright, and its president. Marilyn never missed a photo op, even if sometimes all she had on was "the radio". A movie star who never really ever got her own blonde jokes, Marilyn became a highly talented actress. No, really. Look in the mirror and seductively sing yourself "Happy Birthday." It's just not the same, is it?
edit Annette Funicello
Annette saw how Shirley Temple had started so young to get an "in" to being the next America's Sweetheart - clearly if everyone falls in love with you as a cute little child you have an advantage. So little A-N-N-E-T-T-E began her career on the M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E show. Y? Because she knew we'd like her. And because she knew as the years passed, the average American male letch would be holding back the hormones, waiting for the 18th birthday when it would become acceptable to enjoy her beach movies with Frankie Avalon. After all, being a "sweetheart" can have subtle intonations that, well, aren't so sweet.
edit Meg Ryan
Then there was Meg, who charmed us all in When Harry Met Sally... as the prim and proper, adorable college girl who could smile coyly, scrunch her eyebrows endearingly, and fake orgasms convincingly (it was the 80's, after all - even for sweethearts). Meg was such a hit that she got typecast in several more films as the all-American forlorn, lovestruck sweetie - cumulating in Sleepless in Seattle, where she not only had the adoration of male viewers but also the envy of women who yearned to play opposite Tom Hanks in a tearjerker romance.
Tonya was an official America's Sweetheart for 65 hours, 16 minutes, at which point her crown was revoked in favour of a new title: America's Most Wanted. Soon triple axel combinations were replaced with flying body slams as Harding began a new career as a sumo mud wrestler, earning her international acclaim as Hokkaido's Bitch.
edit Nancy Kerrigan
The downtrodden Kerrigan with the damaged knee provided Americans with a suitable replacement for Harding: a victim-heroine ice princess who would persevere against all odds to become world champion - though the storybook ending was ruined by a second-place finish, tarnishing the perfect princess image (after all, even with their sweethearts, Americans expect to win). But Kerrigan had an out - everyone could blame the judging - and so she recaptured even more tragically the image of the downtrodden victim.
But the sweetest sweetheart of them all wasn't even a woman. After decades of secretly desiring the sweet, innocent-with-a-touch-of-non-innocence image of Sweetheart after Sweetheart, America's women finally had one they could publicly admire, and they revelled in him. His role as a cute little man-as-boy in Big provided women an accepted way to desire boys in men's clothing. They adored the all-American nice-guy-war-hero with a soft touch on his trigger in Saving Private Ryan. He played the heroic astronaut, the adorable chocolate-munching Forrest Gump, the AIDS-stricken gay man that no woman could ever have but all wanted. But the Sweetheartest movie of all time, opposite a female American Sweetheart - oh, it's just too much - was Sleepless in Seattle. Hanks epitomized the female fantasy of the - sniff - "sensitive man" sex symbol and thus left his female Sweetheart counterparts in the dust.