question of the day: What makes a movie star a movie star, and has this changed over the Hollywood century?

Cary Grant George Clooney

The other day I came across a fascinating and infuriating essay by Dave Beauchene at PopTometry entitled “The Academy Awards’ False Sense of Amazing.” It starts off like this:

The days of performers being obviously way, way more talented than you or anyone you’ve met, are a vague and distant memory.

Wow. I don’t know who Beauchene is hanging out with, but I certainly don’t feel this way. I know a lot of really smart, talented people, and I immodestly consider myself a smart, talented person, but I suspect that most of the people I know could not do what, say, George Clooney or Cate Blanchett do.

Beauchene has a comeback:

Success in Hollywood has always been the result of luck and connection. Of course it has. But it was also about what you could actually do, at one point in time. Now it’s just the theory of what actors can do; the opinion that George Clooney acted well in Up in The Air -which isn’t much different from the theory that Cary Grant was good in Bringing Up Baby. The only difference – and luckily, it’s a major one – is that if someone watched a collection of clips from Grant’s career, and a collection of clip’s from Clooney’s, what they’d probably intuit is that Grant could do things they could not, while Clooney merely did things they did not.

I couldn’t disagree more. I love Cary Grant, just as I love George Clooney, but I don’t think we’d see an enormous difference in the quality and the in wow-ness of what they did if we compared their careers side by side. It takes special talent to be able to act on camera, which is a wholly unnatural situation, but what’s more, to be irresistibly watchable on camera — as both Grant and Clooney are — requires an unpindownable spark. It’s something that can’t be faked, and it can’t be learned. Either an actor has it, or he or she doesn’t. Plenty of really excellent actors don’t have that: we call them character actors. They’re wonderful, and they’re certainly essential to telling fully rounded stories onscreen, but they lack that ineffable movie star It.

Beauchene is, I think, wrong here:

We can make this much less abstract. We can identify, for instance, that Hollywood no longer has a working class – that there’s no market for performers who can do things people can pretty plainly agree are amazing or shoddy. It’s hard to imagine, for example, vastly differing opinions on Chico Marx’s ability to play piano; he was very apparently amazing, because watching him play actually was amazing, because it actually left people “amazed”, and not just with the conscious opinion that the playing should amaze.

Of course Hollywood has a working class: they are the character actors. They are very very good as actors. We don’t see people like Chico Marx on movie screens these days — people who do things other than create characters in stories — because “variety” moved to TV, and then sort of disappeared altogether until reality TV popped up again. Today, our Chico Marxes are the likes of Susan Boyle.

What appears to have prompted this essay is that Beauchene isn’t onboard with the praise for Drive:

There’s been a serious commotion this year over Ryan Gosling’s performance in “Drive”, a performance that science may technically be able to verify does not exist, but somehow a horde of critics and professional audience members claim brilliance. I’m not saying it sucked (although I do pretty much think that) or that no one should enjoy it. I’m questioning if a performance like that really can do it so unanimously for people. Or rather, so explicitly, to the extent of the same percentages of people objectively recognizing it’s as good a piece of acting as Jackie Chan’s stunts are good stunts, or Gene Kelly and Donald O’Conner’s Linguistic Coach dance scene was a good dance scene or, or, or? Really? Really? Really? You’re not bluffing even just a little bit…?

So, Beauchene appears to be saying, Movie stars should only be movie stars if there can be unanimous agreement on their objectively superior talent. What’s more, this was once true, and has been lost.

I couldn’t disagree more.

What do you think? What makes a movie star a movie star, and has this changed over the Hollywood century?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

share and enjoy
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll measure. If you’re not a spammer or a troll, your comment will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately.
notify of
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments