The Death of the Movie Star
How Hollywood's power elite lost the plot
The very public transgressions of Lindsay Lohan, Tom Cruise and Mel gibsonmark the end of an era. Say goodbye to the last movie stars
By Mark Hooper
Published: 19 November 2006
It's been an extraordinary few months for Hollywood's A-list actors: embarrassing outbursts, drunken tirades and - here's the real issue - their films tanking spectacularly at the box office. Are we witnessing the last generation of true movie stars?
In a recently published biography of Jimmy Stewart, it emerged that - when he was just starting out, in the 1930s - his studio, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, deemed it necessary to scotch any rumours that the young actor might be gay. He was packed off, under the instruction of Louis B Mayer, to the private, studio-owned brothel located just off the MGM lot, with the following words ringing in his ears: "Get your ass over there and get those rocks off with at least two of those broads."
Ah, the golden age of Hollywood. When stars were stars - otherworldly and untouchable - and a selection of discreet broads were readily available to help a not-gay-anyway man to get his rocks off. It's a relief that Stewart and, most of all, Mayer are not alive today to witness the antics of the present crop of Hollywood's finest. What would they make of Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah's couch screaming, "Whaaooo!" What advice would they give "teen queen" Lindsay Lohan as she is drunkenly and very publicly scraped off the sidewalk, offering indecent photo opportunities to the expectant paparazzi? And you can be sure they would have an uncompromising view on Mel Gibson, who added to this summer's A-list implosion after his drunken, anti-Semitic and sexist remarks to police officers were leaked to the press.
But also, what are we - the people who pay their wages (well, £8 every so often, anyway) - to make of it? Hollywood has always been a strange place, but increasingly it seems to be out-and-out dysfunctional.
The isolated incidents with major stars hint at a much larger truth: the business of movie-making is undergoing a major shift, one that will be felt a long way from California.
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I've been bemoaning the death of the movie star for ages. Now I'm not the kind of guy who goes rushing to see a movie for the actors alone (unless of course, it's Maggie Smith). I go to films to see the quality of the work on all levels, not just acting. Yes there are actors I like more than others, but they are not the sole reason I go to movies. It takes more than that for me.
Here is the essay I wrote on the subject for my Film Theory and Criticism class:
FROM MARY PICKFORD TO PARIS HILTON
The Falling “Star” Mystique
The mystique of the movie star has been with us nearly as long as the movies themselves have. From Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino to Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, the stars have always been with us.
But what exactly makes a star? When does one cease to become a mere celebrity and attain the status of ‘star?’ Where is the line drawn?
In his book Film History: Theory and Practice, Robert C. Allen explores the idea of stardom. He quotes sociologist Edgar Morin as saying that “essential to the concept of stardom…is that the stars’ private livesmust be public (Allen, p. 607).”
Allen states that there are four categories for building a star - promotion, publicity, films, and criticism/commentary (Allen, p. 609). Studios promote their chosen stars, therefore creating their persona, stars vie for publicity in ways that are meant to appear accidental or non-manufactured, the films create a certain “type” for the star, and the critics begin defining the star through writings on their body of work.
As his example, Allen uses Joan Crawford, a star whose image was so manufactured by the public that even her name was chosen by a vote (it was originally Lucille Le Sueur). She was known as the indomitable woman, a modern independent female who held her own against the men at the expense of her love life, and Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), her comeback, Oscar-winning role, is the ultimate embodiment of that image.
For me, stars represent something larger than life. Although Allen is quite right in his essay, the term star “is so overused as to become almost meaningless (Allen, p. 606). Indeed, in an era where the term is used on people such as Paris Hilton, who have done so little to deserve the title, it is easy to see how flippantly it is used.
How can Hilton be even mentioned in the same breath as a Crawford or a Pickford, a Bogart or a Bergman, much less in the same league. What has Hilton done to deserve such attention? She certainly fits the star requirement that her private life be very public. She makes headline everywhere she goes…yet she does nothing, save for a much touted death scene in the remake of House of Wax, which most people went to see just to watch her die.
Stardom is all about presence. While Allen claims that acting ability is not always central to the makings of a star (since many stars, such as James Stewart and Humphrey Bogart were known for playing “types”) I don’t believe this to be true. While their versatility may not always be showcased, they must be extremely good at what they do. I don’t think much of John Wayne as an actor, but he fit into his niche well, and was rewarded with great popularity because of it.
It is true that stars must be larger than life. But they don’t have to be tabloid bait. To me that only lowers them in my eyes. Tom Cruise has become little more than a punchline, while Tom Hanks, George Clooney, and Julia Roberts maintain a certain amount of privacy in their roles as the modern stars. They must have a balance, a certain mystique about them. Richard Dyer describes it in his book Stars as a “structured polysemy…the finite multiplicity and affects they [stars] embody and the attempt so to structure them so that some meanings and affects are foregrounded and others masked or displaced (Allen, p. 607).”
In other words, a star must be exposed to the public, but not too exposed so as to become tiresome, which is Tom Cruise’s current problem. They create their persona, the exterior they show to the world, and thus become larger than live. Stars offer a mirror onto which audiences can project themselves, perhaps an ideal image of a human being, however detrimental thatmay be to society’s notion of self-image and worth.
I think the idea of a star is becoming more and more cloudy in today’s society. There are very few true stars left. In an era of instant celebrity, anybody can become famous. Now people are becoming famous before they do anything. They become famous, then get a film or singing career. The process has been reversed. Studios peddle product now. Not that they haven’t always, but so many Hollywood films are mere rehash – remakes and sequels ad nauseum. Stars, who could carry a film and whose very presence made the screen light up with mythic intensity – Bogart, Bergman, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Bette Davis…where are our modern day equivalents? Who of the new generation could possibly rise to rival them?
Audiences of today concern themselves with special effects and explosions, the actors are interchangeable and non-descript. They matter less than the what the computer can create to thrill the people.
And I find that sad. While I firmly believe that some of the best actors are some of the most underrated, those that could never be considered stars per se but are definitely the finest in their field. But there is something to be said for the stars. We need them I think, because they give us something to look up to, to admire, to aspire too.
They are called stars for a reason. Like their shining cousins in the sky, they offer windows into another world, a world of dreams and swirling images we see only at a distance on a canvas screen flickering in the dark. They seem so reachable yet always just beyond our grasp.
It’s an enduring fascination, and a mystery, that help make movies the magic that they are.