Movie Stars: Issues, Questions, Variables–Theory and Practice

Research in Progress (March 31, 2021)

How do we define movie stars?  It’s an issue that I have been dealing (and struggling) with over the past three decades or so, ever since I made a commitment to become a film scholar and critic.

Here is an attempt at a framework for a comparative study of movie stars:

Elements/Components of Stardom (in alphabetical order):


Actor (Screen Collaborators, frequent screen men or screen ladies)

Awards (Oscar, Guild Awards)

Box-Office (Bankability)




Decade (historical era)





Life after Stardom


Look (physical attributes)

Luck (accidents, fate, the right star at the right time)

Peer Recognition


Publicity (Scandals, extra-curriculum activities)




James Baldwin:

“That the movie star is an ‘escape’ personality indicates one of the irreducible dangers to which the moviegoer is exposed: the danger of surrendering to the corroboration of one’s fantasies as they are thrown back from the screen.”


Does the star possess mass appeal? does the star exude charisma that can cross over different generations and cultures?

Who are the star’s followers and loyal viewers, in terms of age, race, or gender?


The sum total of actor’s physical, mental, emotional characteristics–their force of personality (even when they play weak or morally ambiguous roles).

The Camera can reveal deep aspects of personality.

Robert Towne has observed:

“Stars do it by being photographed.  Great actors have features that are ruthlessly efficient.

A fine actor on screen conveys a staggering amount of information even before he ever opens his mouth (quoted in Peacock, p. 184).

Texts and Persona

Texts as cinematic narratives built around the appearance of a popular actor, who trails behind him a long-accumulating stream of expectations and connotations.

How an actor’s performance creates meaning in the context of film’s narrative and cinematic discourse?

Films that are important in a star’s career, roles that either stretch him/her beyond his fixed persona, or may not be permitted to, by audiences and industry. (Bingham, Masculinity, 19)

Screen Image:

Does the star have an established screen image and who is responsible for the origins and maintenance of that image?

Screen Role:

Which particular films and screen role have catapulted the actors to major stardom?

Is the star associated with a specific kind of screen roles?


Is the star associated with a articular genre?

It’s easier to determine in the case of Fred Astaire and, for that matter, Esther Williams

Talents and Skills:

What kind of talents and skills the star possess?

Is the talent real or fabricated?

Directors Role in Making and Shaping Stars

The role of great (auteur) directors in shaping the careers and specific screen images of stars?

How specific directors have built specific stars?

John Ford-John Wayne

Michael Curtis-Errol Flynn

Phrased differently, how important were directors such as Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, and George Stevens in making a star out of jean Arthur and promoting her career?

Would Jean Arthur have become a star had she not worked with Capra, Hawks, Ford, or DeMille?

In contrast, though Norman Taurog directed 8 movies with Elvis Presley, he, as a director, did not play any role in Presley’s career.