The Fault Is Not In Our Stars, But In Ourselves.
I recently had a discussion with a friend, on a subject discussed quite a bit in recent years among cinephiles or movie geeks or whatever we people who prefer to spend our time in dark rooms watching shadows flicker on screens prefer to call ourselves. My friend, with the heavy sigh of the no longer young, asked “What the hell happened to movie stars?” and proceeded to run down a number of current Hollywood A-listers. I mostly listened and made occasional non-verbal “I’m listening” noises, because I didn’t agree but also didn’t have a fully-formed rebuttal at hand. Later, I remembered there was a movie with Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, and John Boyega coming out in a few days, about which I’d seen a total of three ads, and which I had to Google just now to remember it was called The Circle. At that point, an idea began to take shape: it’s not the stars’ fault, it’s the studios’.
Almost as soon as there was cinema, there were stars. In 1895, the Biograph Company was founded. The first American film studio, it had a two decade run of success, mostly producing short films. They had a policy of not crediting actors, lest those actors become so famous that they could demand extra wages, but this policy was thwarted through the popularity of Florence Lawrence, known initially only as the Biograph Girl, but whose charismatic screen presence nonetheless made her a star, anonymous to the public but still possessed of sufficient leverage to demand double Biograph’s standard pay. When her contract with Biograph expired, Carl Laemmle signed Lawrence to his new company (which would eventually become Universal Pictures) and staged a publicity stunt whose end result was the public revelation of Lawrence’s name, at a time when movie actors not also famous on the stage had no names.
In the following decades, movie studios adopted the practice of creating stars, taking raw talents, pretty faces, and nimble dancers and putting them through what amounted to movie star finishing school, often changing their names, and then signing them to exclusive contracts and casting them in carefully selected roles. (Some parts of this process were skipped in some cases, but the end result was the same: a studio-molded star.) The publicity departments of studios then carefully managed the images of their stars, making sure no inconvenient stories about this one being gay or that one being overly fond of heroin could take too firm a hold. This arrangement being overly favorable to the studios at the expense of actors’ creative and personal freedom, it eventually broke down, bringing an end to the classical era of the Hollywood studio system. (There’s a parallel story here about how this whole thing was only possible due to the economic state of the U.S. for these decades, better told by a better-read person than me; I can give you aesthetics, not so much academics.)
This is, to keep from getting lost down the various detours that presented themselves in the above historical recap, a story about marketing. The beginning, in the middle of the relative anarchy of 1970s Hollywood, of the blockbuster era proved to be the end of centering marketing solely around the stars. Norma Desmond’s line in Sunset Boulevard, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” was thirty years ahead of its time; the true devaluation of faces in the American cinema began with the elevation of special effects maximalism, which in another thirty years would fully become the dominant mode in commercial American filmmaking: from Avatar on, special effects, now made almost entirely in computers, had become the foundation of Hollywood movies, and the main focus of marketing.
Movie stars do still exist. One need only look to Bollywood, where the Three Khans era, commenced in the early 1990s, still flourishes. Every (well, seemingly every) Diwali, Shah Rukh Khan rules the box office. Every (again, seemingly ever) Eid, Salman Khan reigns. Whenever Aamir Khan is done being a perfectionist, his latest comes out and similarly dominates. The leading actresses need only first names: Aishwarya, Madhuri, Rani, Kareena (or Bebo), Priyanka, Deepika. Even there, as Bollywood studios look to expand their presence in the global market, and find their aesthetic and creative process drifting toward the Hollywood-set norm, the industry is facing a self-imposed star drought: the Three Khans are all in their 50s, but no young ascendants appear fully ready to take their place.
This, if you’ll hold my beer while I risk being reductive, is entirely the studios’ fault. The process of harnessing actors’ charisma and building a sustainable process by which casual moviegoers will see an ad and say “ah, there’s a new [name of actor] movie coming out this weekend, let’s go see it!” takes not only a great deal of effort and resources on the part of studios, it requires an infrastructure that simply no longer exists. While there’s no way to march back through the looking glass and re-establish the classical Hollywood system, because the world is simply not the same place it was sixty years ago, it would behoove the industry as a whole to figure out a way to better market their creative talent. It’s not enough to simply say, “here is an actor who was in another movie you liked.” The thing is to make the prospective audience care.
I propose what I admit might be a dumb idea, one borrowed from professional soccer: youth academies for actors, underwritten by the major studios, in which promising talents learn how to be stars. The reason this might be a dumb idea is that such a system could easily, through inertia, strip the students of their idiosyncrasies, and thereby diminish the brightness with which they shine. But, if it worked, it would be a way to raise interest in new faces. By this or whatever means, movie studios need to figure out some way to re-learn how to sell their stars. The whole reason we in the audience love them is, while they may be prettier, cooler, and more talented than we are, there still remains a human connection between us. Spectacle is fine. Humanity is what sustains art.