While cinema has always been the director’s medium, it is not the painter, but the so-called ‘paint’ that makes people flock; in other words, it has always been the actor that lured an audience into the movie theatre. And of course, it’s never just any ordinary actor, but, of course, a movie star. The simple question is: what makes a great star?
Unlike most buffs, I do not think box office success can necessarily be an indicator of movie superstardom. Looking back to classical Hollywood, Katharine Hepburn was often awarded the epithet of ‘box office poison’ and yet today she stands out as one of the most beloved actresses that have ever graced the silver screen. Likewise, Van Johnson and Gene Autry were both top draws during the 40s, but today their names are borderline forgotten.
To me, there is only one thing that a movie star must have: style. That’s it, really. They can be incompetent actors and dumber than a bag of rocks, (although they rarely ever are!) but as long as they have a unique, assertive style which they bring to their performance time and time again, a style which captures the imagination of an audience, they will ultimately succeed.
For if you have style, charisma and character will follow naturally. My point can be demonstrated by examining the very apparent style of Bette Davis, perhaps the biggest ‘movie star’ that Hollywood has ever seen. She spoke with a very unique inflection and had a terribly distinctive way of smoking a cigarette. Take away the cigarette though, and she still is Bette Davis. Why? Because the persona of Davis does not lie in a constant puff of smoke, but rather something deeper.
Whether she played a vulgar waitress or a virgin queen, Bette Davis brought to her role a deep intensity. And while each character stemmed from this innate theatricality, every character also had a uniqueness and an individuality to them, and this is at the heart of what style is. This is how we differentiate from a movie star and a movie actor. A movie star can be enormously talented, and most often they are, but no matter how technically brilliant their performance, a little part of their star identity must remain.
We see this in glamorously comical Cary Grant, the beautifully tragic Garbo, aw-shucks everyman Jimmy Stewart, among many others. To be quite frank, I don’t thing such a star exists today; simply because they are not made like they used to be, literally. It’s not just the fact that actors were shaped and molded, armed with lengthy scripts for their personal interviews and reality television appearances (although this perhaps played a big part).
With the rise of the Stanislavski Method came the dismissal of these once crucial qualities. Of course I do not think that realism is a bad thing, but I also hold fast to the belief that if I wanted to see exactly what the world was like, I would watch a documentary. Cinema is a way to view the world through the eyes of a director; it always has been. How a director would like to employ his actors is definitely up to him.
For the majority of the time though, I do believe that movies should always be just that little bit larger than life. I end with the immortal words of Norma Desmond. Who would have thought that this line would ring truer than it did over sixty years ago. ‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.’
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I agree with you about Bette Davis, the inflection in her voice was very distinctive. If you ever want to see a hidden gem of Miss Davis, try The Corn Is Green. Her voice is incredible in this film. She also has a bunch of fun with the actor Nigel Bruce in this movie. It was just great how they went back and forth in this picture with their two distinct voices.
I think that is why I love Old Hollywood so much. Everybody right down to the character actors/actresses had their unique personas and repertoires. Star power made many dull scripts quite enjoyable to watch. Today it is mostly cookie cutter stuff with rare exceptions.
Yes, Bette Davis really was one of the best; pretty much anything that came out of her mouth seemed like it would go down in film history!
There is something so fantastic about the classic movie stars —each role which they played was by no means a carbon copy of the last, but rather something which possessed their distinctive stylistic stamp. Writers and directors had it too, and sometimes I think this imperative just somehow got lost over the years.
By the way, all your lovely comments are very much appreciated.
Thanks for reading!