Does the popularity of 3D films and the fashion for casting unknown actors spell the end of stardom? No—and here’s why notby Mark Cousins / February 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
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…