Movie Stars: Role’s the Thing? Social Determinants of Movie Stardom

There are diverse, controversial views about the crucial determinants for achieving stardom because the issue has not been studied systematically.

I propose to distinguish analytically among four attributes: physical appearance, youth, acting talent, and screen image. Is it possible to characterize America’s movie stars in terms of physical looks?  How important are attractive looks for male versus female stars?  Do movie stars have to be young?  How important are acting talent and acting skills for movie stardom?

Actors Vs. Stars

A distinction will be made between being performers who are actors and those who are stars. These are two different statuses, which involve different duties and privileges and lead to different career patterns.

Longevity, or durability, particularly in such unstable and volatile industry as film, is considered to be the ultimate test of stardom because it indicates the continuity of stars’ appeal for large audiences.    Addressing itself to the question of why certain film players (and not others) have become popular stars, and why certain stars (and not others) have achieved commercial durability, there is need to situate the appeal of movie stars in the specificities of the historical conditions and ideologies of their times.

Stars as Folk Heroes and Heroines

We suggest that the long-enduring stars, men and women, have possessed a relevant screen image, which consisted of specific screen roles played over a prolonged period of time.  Indeed, the most popular stars are no longer actors playing parts in movies, but folk heroes and heroines, functioning as role models for the movie-going public.  Movie stars struck responsive chords in large audiences because they function as political, cultural, and psychological role models, embodying qualities which are collectively deemed as relevant, relatable, and desirable.

The acting of these stars seldom shows on the big screen.  Many of them succeed in persuading the public that there is no real distinction between their lives on screen and off.  These stars (John Wayne, Cary Grant, Clark Gable and, at present, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds) have effectively integrated their film roles into their “real-life” personalities to the point where the two seem to merge.

Longevity of Male Vs. Female Stars

The differential longevity of movie stars is a variable that depends on the relevancy of the social and ideological statements that they make in their choice of particular screen roles.  The most durable stars have made statements that go beyond their specific historical and ideological times.  For example, the fact that John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood have been the most durable stars in American film history means that what they have signified in their films was considered meaningful for several generations of filmgoers–despite changes in the country’s ideology and social structure.  By contrast, stars who had survived for a short period of time, might have lost their appeal because their statements became irrelevant and out of date.

In general, the shorter longevity of female stars, compared with that of men, indicates an important trend: there have been more significant changes in women’s positions in society than in those occupied by men.  Indeed, the screen image of Clint Eastwood is not all that different from that of John Wayne or Gary Cooper, and Burt Reynolds is accepted by the public despite his conscious imitation of the screen persona of Clark Gable and Cary Grant.  By contrast, female stars such as Sally Field, Meryl Streep, Sissy Spacek, Diane Keaton, and Jessica Lange, have differed radically in their screen images from those of their predecessors in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.