Does the popularity of 3D films and the fashion for casting unknown actors spell the end of stardom? No—and here’s why notby / February 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Clockwise from top left: Lawrence, Monroe, Brando, Valentine – faces we long to touch
The movie stars that we see on the big screen are portraits of human beings. The shock, if you meet an actor in real life, is that they’re not a portrait. You look for the brushstrokes, but there are none. Looking at a film star in real life is like seeing double. When Amitabh Bachchan—the most famous movie star in the world—walks into a room, you see a very tall, articulate Indian gentleman. But you also see someone made out of film-star hair, clothes and body language. And Bachchan seems to know that’s how it seems.
The phenomenon of these meta-people—these painted, de-framed, Jungian cash machines—is now exactly 100 years old. They feel bigger than life but their origins were small and grubby, lying in a publicity stunt thought up by Carl Laemmle, an eccentric film producer. In 1910, he started a false rumour that a Canadian actress, Florence Lawrence, had died in a streetcar accident. After the rumour had spread, he took out adverts in newspapers to prove that she was alive and well (and starring in a new film he was producing), consisting of a photograph of her under the headline “We Nail a Lie.” In the ensuing blaze of publicity, the first film star was born. By 1912, Lawrence was earning $80,000 a year. In 1938, aged 52, she committed suicide by eating ant poison. The system that made and broke her, and thousands of others, was tawdry indeed. Another greenhorn of those early years, Theodosia Goodman, hailed from Cincinnati. But the public was told that she was “born in the shadow of the Sphinx” and that her name was Theda Bara, an anagram of Arab Death.
Neither cynicism nor stardom are new, of course. Alexander the Great was a star, and so was Jesus Christ, and film stardom shared some of their traits. It psychologised the new medium of film, and it added jeopardy to an audience’s experience. If an unnamed film actress was in a burning building, that was bad. But if that actress was Florence Lawrence, pulses would race.
There’s a feeling in the film world that stardom is going out of fashion. Indie and realist directors these days often avoid stars. They feel that they are redolent of privilege or gloss; as nouvelle vague director François Truffaut put it in the 1960s, movie stars “affect too much the mise-en-scène,” as if their magnetic presence bends space and attention around them. The most lucrative film of 2009 was Paranormal Activity, which had no stars. Last year’s most acclaimed films—A Prophet and The White Ribbon—had none either and, as if to cock a snook at the notion of stardom, another 2009 standout, The Hurt Locker, cast Guy Pearce, only to blast him out of the picture in the first few scenes. The film magazine Sight & Sound recently ran an article on the death of stardom. And James Cameron’s Avatar has now become the biggest box-office hit in film history, with a cast led by the unfamous Anglo-Australian Sam Worthington.
Avatar, however, is a counter-argument for the idea that stardom is petering out. Rather than overwhelming its human players, Avatar’s digital 3D effects made me notice Sigourney Weaver’s breasts more than ever before, just as they brought to my attention the hairs on Sam Worthington’s arms. If digital 3D catches on—and the success of Avatar makes that likely—then, surely, cinema will become even more about bodies. The texture of skin. The touchability of real people. Like Baroque Catholic art, where you can see Christ sweat and bleed.
Add to 3D the growth of high-definition cinematography, which allows us to see actors’ pores and skin blemishes, and it becomes clear that technology is doubly driving cinema towards the “haptic”—that is, towards the illusion that we can actually touch the people on the screen.
Of course, the fact that film could be getting more bodily does not necessarily mean that stardom will revive. Yes, audiences want to touch stars like Marilyn Monroe or Colin Farrell—but they also see the little girl in her, the boy-bronco in him. The appeal is as much psychological as physical. The question, then, is whether films will become merely carnal—drawing them closer to pornography—or whether they will, as they did a century ago, give names, histories and thoughts to the bodies within them.
I believe the latter. As I argued here in April 2003, after seeing the first footage of the invasion of Iraq, an image doesn’t have an inner life—audiences will give it one. And when it comes to those portrait-humans up on the screen, I’d go further. We give them something of ourselves. We back them, like gamblers backing a horse. Sometimes too much so. People killed themselves when superstars like Rudolph Valentino or Chinese idol Ruan Lingyu died. In cinema’s unique apparatus, where bodies are, minds follow. And then comes money. And so the cycle repeats.