Movie Stars: Talent–Detection, Trial and Error (Hit or Miss), Luck? Accident? Fate? Opportunity?

Research in progress: June 12, 2021.

Entry into the acting profession, and later on, achieving success, often demonstrate Carlyle‘s adage that, “fame is an accident, sometimes accompanied by talent.”

The problem with acting is that, unlike other profession, there is no precise definition of what acting talent is, nor how to assess or measure it. In acting, like in politics, the skills presumably necessary for professional success are less clear and less specific than in most professions.

Acting relies a great deal on visual appearance and being photogenous–whether the camera “likes” you or not–over which entrants have little control.  One can improve his/her visual looks, but it’s not a guarantee that the camera would catch and reflect it.

Then there’s the question of who has the authority to define talent, and who has the power to detect talent and encourage beginners to pursue their interest in acting.

Yet another problem derives from the fact that, ultimately, it’s the lay (large) public, not publicists, directors, or critics, that has the authority and power to make or break acting careers.

The mass public of viewers/spectators doesn’t constitute the competent audience (peers, supervisors) that prevails in other profession.  Peer review by way of peer recognition play no role in the acting profession, though it does count when it comes to evaluating and accepting actors into their significant professional associations, such as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and AFTRA.

To get work–get a part to play on stage or on screen–you need to convince a casting director or director, and here is where agents (who represent actors) come in as crucial mediators between individuals with raw or potential talent and agencies (producer, director) that would facilitate the development and public display of such talent.

But even that is not enough; it’s just the first and necessary step.  Once you get cast and play a part, critical response begins to play amore crucial role.

In light of this analysis, it’s perhaps easier to understand why many professional actors claim that they were” the right person at the right time and at the right place.”

One of Hollywood’s greatest icons, Jimmy Stewart, once summed up his successful career as, “If I had not been at some particular place, at some particular time, and some particular men had not say so-and-so, and I had not answered this-and-that, I’d still be hunting for a job in an architect’s office (Stewart began his studies in architecture at Yale University).

Similarly, Oscar winner Ray Milland observes in his 1974 memoirs:

“I’ve been in Hollywood forty-four years, and a star for almost 39 of them. And except for a few years at the beginning, fairly competent in my profession. Once or twice I was even called brilliant. Nut on those few occasions, it was simply a matter of opportunity. And if that last phrase isn’t quite clear, ask any actor to explain it. He will probably add that, if he had been given the same opportunities he wouldn’t be in the hole he is today, working for Universal.”

Bing Crosby viewed his success as the result of a long series of lucky accidents. He thereupon named his autobiography, Call Me Lucky, in which he related how he had been fortunate all of his life.

Most actors are aware of the crucial role that luck had played in their careers. and that their success cannot be taken for granted, and cannot last long.

Claudette Colbert‘s playwright friend, Anne Morrison, suggested  she become an actress and got her a three-line part in 1923, when she was 18. Before that, she had wanted to become a fashion designer. However, once she walked  on the stage, she knew that she never wanted  to do anything else.

Diahann Carroll, stage and screen actress, once summed up her career: “It’s all been great, but if it ends tomorrow, I’ll still have had a marvelous time (Look, May 22, 1962).

Like many other stars, Clint Eastwood harbors the belief that his next film may be his last, that his fame might suddenly vanish.” (Kaminsky).

Elizabeth Taylor has echoed that feeling: “When I start sliding down, which is the inevitable law of gravity, I’m going to quit” (The Films of Elizabeth Taylor, p. 34)

Oscar winner and multiple nominee Sissy Spacek holds that “you have to know your own talent, and keep plugging along, but a lot has to do with luck and timing, and you have to be able to deal with it emotionally.”

Spacek considers herself lucky, because “I’ve had  real strong family and lots of security and love to fall back on.” And “if it all ended tomorrow, I’d just do something else.” (Current Biography).

But because careers often depend on luck and opportunity, they might also generate perpetual fear.  Acting entails constant, almost inherent doubts, insecurities and anxieties.

Joan Fonatine has provided an alarming summation of her screen career in her autobiography: “Looking back on Hollywood, looking back at it even today. I realize  that one outstanding quality it possesses is not the lavishness, the perpetual sunshine, the golden opportunities, but fear.  Feat stalks the sound stages, the publicity departments, the executive offices. Since careers often begin by chance, by the hunch of a producer or casting director, a casual meeting with an agent or publicist, they can evaporate just as quixotically (Fontaine’s Memoir, p. 132)

Oscar nominee Nancy Kelly (The Bad Seed) has said: “All of us should realize that, when we are successful, we should thank our lucky stars.” (Pictorial Review, Sep 23, 1951.)

Jill Clayburgh took several theater classes at Sarah Lawrence College. She would perhaps not have been attracted  to the stage, if her roommate, an aspiring actress, had not persuaded her to become an apprentice in summer stock in Massachusetts.

The broader socio-political contexts also play a role.

Gregory Peck, Oscar winner and huge movie star, had attributed much of his great fortune to the shortage of make stars in Hollywood during WWII, 1941-1945. Suffering from a spinal injury made Peck ineligible to serve in the armed forces.  Peck also emphasized the role of luck and that there are many good actors “who were not lucky enough to get discovered.”

Dustin Hoffman made a reference to this in his speech when he received his first Best Actor Oscar, in 1980, for Kramer Vs. Kramer.

So many erroneous judgements occur in acting because of the aforementioned factors.

Many accomplished actors who got recognition by critics were discouraged  early on in their careers by various individuals.  And if were not for their determination, driving ambition, and belief in themselves, they would have quit acting long time ago.

Sir Alec Guinness studied with actress Martita Hunt, who told him after the first session that he “had no talent at all.” However, he insisted and continued to study for two more years at the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art.

In retrospect, very few people remember Martita Hunt, whereas Guinness went on to become one of the most acclaimed actors. Yet, at the time, Hunt was in a position of authority and power, and her judgment of his talent, and prospects to make it, were crucial and might have been fateful had he listened to her.

Sidney Poitier had been advised by knowledgeable people in the theater to get out of acting and look for another line of work.