Movie Stars: Theory and Research–Sociological Definitions

“You have to drag your weight at the box-office and be recognized wherever you go.”

“The star’s sincerity is a denial of a discrepancy between appearance and reality in the sphere of human relationships.”

“The star seems to be a guarantee of community in a world where it is lost.”

Hooray for Hollywood, where every office boy or young mechanic can be a panic with just a good-looking pan, and any shop girl can be a top girl, if she pleases the tired businessman (Song from the 1937 movie, Hollywood Hotel).

Stardom as a social phenomenon is neither exclusive to American society nor confined to the medium of film.  Showbusiness, the world of entertainment (theater, opera, ballet), has always been dominated by a small number of artists who assumed the best roles, commanded the public’s attention, and received astronomical fees for their services.

What is striking, however, about American film stardom is its extraordinary visibility and power.

Movie stardom, as an ideology and practice, has prevailed in Hollywood for over a century.  Indeed, despite structural changes in the film industry, most notably the demise of the studio system in the 1960s, and the decline in film production, the appeal and power of a few movie stars has remained one of the few permanent attributes of the American cinema.  Movie stardom, as it existed during the “Golden Age” of Hollywood (roughly from the 1920s to the late 1950s), no longer exists as a system that is created and manipulated by the studios. However, individual stars continue to exercise tremendous influence, in and outside the film industry.

One of the most prevalent perspectives in studying popular culture and film is the reflection theory.  French sociologist Edgar Morin (1960), in his “embourgeoisement theory,” describes a process of change in the social functions of movie stars. In his view, the change occurred in the beginning of the sound era, when stars were transformed from gods and goddesses, embodying society’s ideals, to identification figures, embodying society’s typical or ordinary behavior.

Orin Klapp (1962) has constructed a typology of stars in terms of their relationships with society’s norms, distinguishing among stars who reinforce social norms, stars who seduce, and those who transcend them.

Film theorist Parker Tyler (1970) claims that movie stars are the gods and goddesses of Hollywood, vestiges of the old Greek divinities, whose main function is to gratify the public’s deepest sexual and psychic needs in ways that modern religions fail to do.

Feminist film critic Molly Haskell (1974) describes stars as “the vessels of men’s and women’s fantasies,” and “the barometers of changing fashions.”  Female stars, according to Haskell, have “reflected, perpetuated, and in some respects offered innovations on the roles of women in society.”

British film critic Alexander Walker (1970) holds that “stars are the direct or indirect reflection of the needs, drives, and dreams of American society.”

Film historian Raymond Durgnat (1967) asserts that “the social history of a nation can be written in terms of its film stars,” because they are “a reflection in which the public studies and adjusts to its own image of itself.”

The problems in using the reflection perspective are theoretical as well as methodological.  The propositions of this theory have been stated in such general terms that it’s hard to answer such empirical questions as the functions of movie stars at a specific historical time (the role of movie stars during the Depression, compared with their functions during the Second World War, or at present). The theory’s assertions have been of speculative nature, describing the functions of some individual stars while excluding others.

Moreover, the few available typologies of movie stars (Klapp, 1962) have failed to state the criteria used in their constructions.  Nor have reflection theorists specified the social conditions under which film stars reflect, perpetuate, or innovate social norms–which are three completely different functions.  Some movie stars perform one function, whereas other perform all three functions, but at different phases of their careers or in different movies.