Movie Stars: Approach, Concept, Definition of Stardom

Movie stardom involves at least one paradox: A star must die to the camera, so to speak, in order to be later reborn from it.

Movie stars are often referred to as “personality or persona actors.”

The word persona derives from the Latin word mask, and as the scholar Giannetti observed, “An actor’s public image is based on his or hers previous roles, often incorporating elements from his or hers actual off screen personality, and both events and scandals from their private lives.

In the old studio system, roughly through 1960s, the studios themselves created the stars through their publicity machine.  Now we the viewers wait for “a star to happen.”  As casting director Heidi Levitt noted, “It’s more of a free-for-all.”


A long-held belief in the Hollywood industry is that the camera “likes certain individuals and does not like others,” even though those others may be very good-looking in real life, off camera.

Prime example: Marilyn Monroe, who was highly photogenic and completely “natural” and “comfortable” in front of the camera.

Either you have it or you don’t

Lana Turner, an MGM star of the 1940s and 1950s, who was entirely created by the studio’s organization, once explains the basis of her stardom: “There were girls who were prettier, more intelligent, and just as talented. Why didn’t they make it? It’s a question of magic. You have it or you don’t, I guess, and the lucky ones have had it.”

Impossible to Define Precisely:

Richard Zanuck, head of Fox and major producer observed:

“Star quality is one of the most difficult things to describe. When someone who possesses this quality walks into a room, everyone else responds automatically, though no one can really define what they’re responding to.”

Zeitgeist and Ideology

Louis Menand:

“Stardom is the intersection of personality with history, a perfect congruence of the way the world happens to be and the star is.”

Every era has actors who accurately embody the culture taste of the times (the zeitgeist).

Stars project personified clues to the mid of values that the viewers hold at a particular time.

Personality stars convey ready-made ideology, a set of values associated  with the star because (and a result) of previous films and roles.

The persona often incorporates elements from the actual lives of the individual stars (Lana Turner is a good example).

John Wayne was associated with right wing ideology and politics both on screen and off; the two worlds merged.

Charisma: Magnetism

John Lahr: “Glamor agitates as it ravishes. It creates a climate of want.”

Star quality is therefore a most elusive term, having to do with that special magnetism that draws audiences to admiration. Often, that special quality is of an inherently sexual nature. But the exact nature of magnetism is hard to define.

What the great Columbia University sociologist Robert Merton has said about the social function of Kate Smith (who was not in the film industry) during WWII, could be applied to Hollywood movie stars: The star’s sincerity is a denial “of a discrepancy between appearance and reality in the sphere of human relationships.” In other words, “the star seems to be a guarantee of community in a world where it is lost.”

Charles Champlin, the former L.A. Times critic, has defined stars in terms of representation of lifestyles: “Every actor who becomes a star, and then a superstar, endures because he embodies better than anyone else a particular life-style”.

“He is a charismatic individual, vivid and unforgettable, and his is also a more general figure – a type – embodying a set of attributes and qualities which are the projection sof the audiences’s wishes and dreams.”

Stanley Kauffman, critic of the New Republic, has emphasized the relationship between the person (and personality) of the actor and his art form.  How a star persona becomes his own instrument.  He is like a violinist who can never change violins, like a novelist who must be personally acceptable to you before you can admire his books.  All actors capitalize on their looks as a charming setting for their talents.

The Time’s film critic, Richard Schickel, in his book about Bogart, quotes the 1940s movie star (“Casablanca”) as saying, “You have to drag your weight at the box-office and be recognized wherever you go.”






Updated: January 11, 2021