POSTED September 24 2012

The twilight of the movie star?

Sandra Bullock, movie star or reality star?

The best working definition of a movie star was advanced in 1957 by Edgar Morin, the French philosopher, in his book Les Stars. This is translated from the French, so cut M. Morin some slack:

“The star is a star because the technical system of film develops and excites a projection/identification that culminates in divinization precisely when focusing on what man knows to be the most affecting thing in the world: A beautiful human face.” In other words, as the beholder projects her own feelings upon an actor while identifying with the actor’s character, there is a moment of crystallization  — perhaps like beatification of a saint? — where the actor becomes a divine.

This process was born about a century ago, when the close-up on faces projected larger-than-life dazzled viewers at the nickelodeons. But when so many watch films on laptops and other devices that make the figures smaller-than-life, are audiences still transported by stars? That’s the question posed by Ty Burr in his book, Gods Like Us. (You can read my review in the NY Times here.)

One of Burr’s more provocative observations is about Sandra Bullock. No sooner did the popular comedienne reboot her image as a serious actress in The Blind Side, which earned her an Oscar, than the news about her husband’s infidelities hit the tabloids. Despite three movies, two hits and an Oscar  to her credit that year, she had successfully scaled Hollywood’s Olympus. But when it was revealed that her husband had been serially cheating on her,” observes Mr. Burr, “Bullock no longer functioned in the public fan sphere as a movie star, but a reality star.”

Is old-school stardom possible in the age of Twitter and TMZ? I’d argue yes, in the rare cases of figures, Justin Timberlake, say, whose faces are not on the covers of supermarket tabloids. You say?




  1. Vincent says:

    Movies these days aren’t designed to create stars, but to create franchises. It’s indicative of the current industry, where CGI is more important than human acting.

  2. Gary Kramer says:

    As with most things, I think it all comes down to Money. Most “stars” are measured by their ability to “open” a film. Yet more has been written lately about Tom Cruise’s divorce than the poor box office performance of ROCK OF AGES. Robert Pattison received more ink in the papers and online after Kristen Stewart cheated on him, but his excellent performance in COSMOPOLIS (and questionable work in the subpar BEL ALI) was only discussed by those few who saw those films. Is he still a star? Sure! There’s another TWILIGHT film coming out this year. As such, it will be interesting to see how Jennifer Lawrence fares since she’s fronted two #1 box office hits this year (HUNGER GAMES and this week’s HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET) with a third likely to come. Is she a movie star? The jury is, perhaps, still out. Because I don’t think we’ve read about her in the tabloids yet.

  3. Joe says:

    There are still film personalities who have Movie Star qualities, but for some reason or other, they’re not considered Movie Stars. Aaron Ekhart, for example. In the 1950s or ‘60s, he would have been major. Today, he’s simply a good, good-looking actor who occasionally – infrequently – gets a good role. Another is Zooey Deschanel who struggled in films for about a decade, going nowhere (despite her obvious charm and starlet looks), only to end up on a conventional sitcom, where her inherent cuteness will wear out its welcome in no time flat. The new “star,” I’m afraid, is someone like Lena Dunham who, for me, is like a 20something Maureen Stapleton. I guess the new Movie Star – the Movie Star for the new millennium – is a character actor.

    • Vincent says:

      The star-making machinery that we saw from the ’20s through the ’50s died with the end of the studio system. From MGM to Paramount to Warners to RKO, every studio promoted their roster of actors, and would build them vehicles that played up to their strengths. Some studios did it better than others; compare MGM’s machine-like approach to Garbo, Crawford, Gable, Powell and Loy, and so on, to Paramount, whose actress roster in the ’30s included Betty Grable, Ann Sheridan and Ida Lupino — all of whom found greater success elsewhere — while never quite knowing what to do with Carole Lombard (the closest she came to a classic at Paramount was “Hands Across The Table”). Today, studios distribute films, not manufacture stars.

  4. Barb Wertz says:

    I’m reminded of the famous line delivered by the character (based on Errol Flynn) that Peter O’Toole played in “My Favorite Year.” Faced with the prospect of appearing on live TV he exclaims, “I’m not an actor. I’m a movie star.”

    A fine actor (or actress) can be a star, but a star doesn’t necessarily have to be a fine actor. I can think of a number of stars who can’t play anything but themselves. On the other hand, there are actors who can play any role they’re thrown into but don’t have the certain whatever that makes them the object of general idolitry.

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