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Death of the movie star

Issued: 2018-03-12

6:00 AM PDT 3/12/2018 by Stephen Galloway

In 1993, John Travolta’s career was teetering on the brink. The actor, who’d become a superstar with Saturday Night Fever and then added to his luster with Grease, had all but ceased to matter as a cultural force. True, he could still deliver the occasional hit, such as Look Who’s Talking, but at the domestic and foreign box office he was a has-been, someone largely remembered for a white sharkskin suit and a few fabulous dance moves.

Hollywood had effectively written him off, perhaps unconvinced he was all that big a star to begin with. But one director, who was just beginning to make his name, had faith, and when he came to make his second feature, he chose Travolta for the most important role. That director, of course, was Quentin Tarantino; the feature was 1994’s Pulp Fiction; and with it, Travolta was back on top, raking in $20 million per movie and sealing his place in the pantheon.

It isn’t easy being a star, as Jennifer Lawrence must have thought when Red Sparrow opened to a humble $16.9 million first weekend earlier this month. You’re on a perpetual roller-coaster ride, knowing each time you’re up, the law of gravity says you’re going to crash back down. Stars live in constant fear that everything they have, they’ll soon lose — the perks, the privileges, the private planes. Directors secretly resent their clout, executives question their monetary value and pundits (like me) wonder whether many deserve to be called stars at all.

Most “stars” aren’t stars; they’re really actors, comfortable slipping into other people’s skins, with hard-to-seize personalities, and ideas and emotions that change with their moods and the times. Every now and again they land the kind of role that defines them, and then get mistaken for the character they’ve played, often to their surprise as much as anyone else’s. Because the person they’re playing isn’t them. Gary Oldman’s a perfectly pleasant human being, but God knows he isn’t Churchill any more than he was Sid Vicious.

Real stars, like Lawrence, are different. They may happen to be good actors (increasingly, we want our real stars to be able to act), but that’s not their essential ingredient. Through some mysterious alchemy that no one’s ever quite explained, they allow us to identify in a heightened way with a complete stranger; they allow us to see the world more intimately and empathetically than we ever would on our own.

When Jack Nicholson plays Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, we feel we’ve inhabited the soul of a borderline personality, the kind of man we might have no patience for in real life. When Bette Davis embodies a woman who shoots her lover in The Letter, we’re on her side of the equation, not the law’s. When Clint Eastwood pulls out a gun and offer someone a chance to “Go ahead, make my day” in Sudden Impact, we’re almost ready to pull out a gun ourselves, even if we believe in gun control.

Just as great stars somehow merge their personalities with the roles they play, they allow us to merge our personalities with theirs. That identification expands our thinking, our understanding, our view of life itself. Watching Lawrence play a woman with mental health issues in Silver Linings Playbook puts us in the heart and soul of a woman battling that sort of illness, just as watching Al Pacino become The Godfather helps us understand how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

There’ve been very few great stars in the history of film. Sure, there’ve been actors and actresses who happened to become well known, and starlets (male and female) who’ve been molded and groomed enough to briefly blaze on the silver screen. But the John Waynes, Greta Garbos and Humphrey Bogarts are few and far between; the ones (like Travolta) who last for more than a few flickering seconds, who mingle with our hopes and fears, who become as real to us as life itself, are rare, with no more than a handful in any one era.

There’s certainly been a fair share to have emerged in my time covering Hollywood. Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Tom Hanks — they’re all major forces who transcend their eras and the people they play. Few of them are as compelling offscreen as on; how, in real life, could they possibly equal their impact in scenes that condense powerful emotions into the space of a few minutes? Some, in fact, are way different than you might think; as director Robert Ellis Miller (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter) observed, the greatest myth in Hollywood is that the camera never lies.

But they’re the essence of what’s special in film. The history of Hollywood is the history of the movie star; what would motion pictures be without stars, and what would society itself be, without the gift they bring of allowing us to transcend ourselves and enter another’s mind and being?


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