How the Cult of the Movie Star is Killing the Movie Star

By  · Published on August 4th, 2010

It’s like he’s always been a part of our lives.

This is how Sandra Bullock described her new baby in an issue of People magazine that I spotted while attempting to mentally estimate how much my groceries were going to cost. The next aisle over, I could hear a woman and her husband offering up their opinion on the matter – which appeared at first glance as if it was based solely on the cover picture of Bullock, the most recent Academy Award Winning Best Actress, as she held up the 3 1/2 month old bundle of joy with a sweetly large smile on her face.

It’s a fascinating statement because it also applies to Bullock herself as well as all other movie stars. They are, and have always been, a part of our lives. We see them everywhere, and with our social media obsession we can even “friend” them on facebook or follow their twitter feeds to get even more of them.

There has already been a ton written about the death of the Movie Star. In fact, Landon Palmer wrote a Culture Warrior entry on the subject last year claiming that we saw a transition away from Movie Stars with the simultaneous decline of Tom Cruise’s career (based mostly on his public persona collapsing) and the rise of non-stars like Seth Rogen becoming the most bankable names.

I’d like to go a step further – since it seems well-documented that the Golden Age is over – and say that not only is the Movie Star dying, but that it was the cult surrounding the Movie Star, the public’s support of the concept that is actually killing it.

The Studio System Gives Birth to a Monster

In the completely unfilmable novel “Sunnyside,” author Glen David Gold fictionally recounts an actual event in early 20th century history in which Charlie Chaplin was the central focus of mass hysteria. Chaplin was one of the earliest Movie Stars – an honest national phenomenon that commanded what future generations would call Beatlemania-level attention. He was a cultural touchstone – like Johnny Carson would become years later – who everyone from every walk of life knew.

Beyond his own eccentricities, Chaplin was also a product of the studio system. It was that system – specifically the explicit ownership over stars – that prompted agents on behalf of the actors to create Picture Personalities as a part of the sales system to hook fans into theaters. That giant font announcing Will Smith’s name on the latest summer release was born with the birth of film when a studio could call an actor their own.

Perhaps now we would be a good time for me to define what I mean by Movie Star. There are two main elements. One involves the ability to be the name draw for a film. However, the second quality is something a little harder to pin down. The word “star” connotes an other-worldly aspect, a quality of being above, beyond and out of reach. That, I think, was paramount to the early birth of those cinema stars that became icons.

The 50s Brings More Paparazzi

In a parallel to the contemporary battle that Hollywood sees against television and other media, Hollywood found itself battling television during the small screen’s middle-American rise in the 1950s. An NPR profile on journalist Henry Scott scratches at the surface level of the man’s work as he investigated the growth of “Confidential,” a magazine that presented the sordid lives of the stars that Americans had grown to love.

The publication was a forerunner for the current deluge we find whenever we’re trying to place our food on the conveyor belt and resist buying a cheap Snickers bar. All of the tricks of the trade were in use there – blind items, suggestion as fact, the exposure of those having sex, doing drugs and facing problems they’d rather keep private.

“Confidential” wasn’t the birth of interest in the lives of the famous, but it struck a major blow to the formerly one-sided crafting of a persona that was handled by image-makers. It represented a money-making interest in destroying those pre-screened personal narratives and replacing them with rumors and sexual scandal.

Always a Part of Our Lives

The cry for information on famous people is nothing new. However, what was started back in the 1950s with “Confidential” has been extrapolated beyond comprehension by the amount of magazines willing to publish the material and the unprecedented access that fans have to information. “People” has a circulation of over 3.75 million. “Us Weekly” is over 1.85 million. Celebrity websites like TMZ have staggering numbers.

Any political poll worth it’s salt in the past four decades will probably include a question about presidential candidates “appearing presidential.” It’s, of course, a variable in the equation. It’s something intangible, a quality that people have difficulty defining but seem to know when they see it. The same could be said, I think, for Movie Stardom.

There are myriad reasons that the Movie Star has fallen out of fashion as of late. The most obvious is that there are more movies competing with one another and more stars – that leads to diminished returns when you hang your hat solely on a name to sell your product. However, I think there is something to be said about the diminishing of the Star quality as well. As people grew hungrier for information about movie stars, publications have had to expand what they write about. Now, instead of sex scandals and who’s secretly gay, we get sex scandals, who’s secretly gay, who has cellulite, who owns what kind of dogs, what people like to do on the weekends, and what’s in their fridge. All of this is accompanied by photos of them hanging around their house or dangling their newly adopted child precariously above their faces.

It’s the domestication of the movie star.

They are now overly accessible which makes them as earthbound as possible. There is unfortunately no evidence for it because it’s too soon to statistically call the ball game, but it certainly feel as if the age of the Movie Star is over. Box office takes are down for films like Knight and Day which would have made a killing off of Tom Cruise’s name alone in a different decade. Perhaps it’s a personal issue for one actor. Perhaps it’s that the studio system can’t seem to find the Next Tom Cruise. Perhaps the people are too intimate with the stars to be star-struck.

We’ve invaded celebrity life. Whereas once these people were untouchable, the sheer notion that we wanted to get closer to them has caused too much information to be shared, and now we’re like a cultural Icarus flying too close to the sun. Only it’s the sun that’s falling instead of us.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.