These days it comes as no surprise to associate a film’s merit to its leading actor or actress rather than the director or writer, but a century ago, as the medium of film began its ascent to become one of the worlds greatest art forms, this was not the case.
Up until around 1910, there was no star system in Hollywood, for as critic Jeremy G. Butler writes on the subject, “they viewed the actor, instead, as simply the body of work that held the character’s place on screen. It was the character’s position within a narrative structure that mattered, not the star’s embodiment of that character.” It is notable that up until these times, often an actor’s name was not even mentioned in a movie’s credits as their role in the production was considered so insignificant.
An example of one of the first major ‘stars’ to emerge from Hollywood in this early period, was Charlie Chaplin. The Circus was released in 1928 which once again showcased his character known as ‘The Tramp’, a persona who’s trials and tribulations people could relate to.
This was when film makers began to base their work around a star’s ‘persona’, and this included using an actor’s image to sell merchandise products and was the beginnings of film fanzines and the like. Magazines no longer merely based their stories around film summaries, but also started to run features on the off-screen lives of the actors, in publications such as The Motion Picture Story Magazine and Photoplay. In recent times, it is probably justifiable to say that the off-screen lives are now of more interest to the casual movie-goer than the performances themselves.
Hollywood actors and actresses are now such an important part of the media and press that they are as previously mentioned, now able to carry a motion picture on their own shoulders. Take Tom Cruise for example, he’s still one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood. It is fair to say that we would consider, or at least speak of Mission: Impossible as a “Tom Cruise film” rather than a Brian De Palma movie.
However, a figure in the acting world can only be considered a true star once they have established themselves in a number of diverse roles. Butler also comments, “If an actor is only known for his or her character – as with many soap opera actors – then he or she has no intertextuality and is not truly a star. A star must appear in numerous texts, which play off one another. Thus, one could say that a star is defined by his or her intertextuality, by the ability to correlate various media texts.”
Although we are used to seeing actors and actresses mentioned again and again in the press, there are few who we can definitely say are defined by their intertextuality. Recent, upcoming stars such as Seth Rogen and Michael Cera have built careers out of playing the same roles time in and time out. On the other hand, Johnny Depp has gone from one extreme to another, playing humorous characters such as Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Carribean franchise, to taking on more taxing and serious roles in film’s such as Blow and Public Enemies, to the extremely odd, as witnessed in Edward Scissorhands and his portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
It is these personas who continue to surprise and delight, who will remain as ‘stars’ in our minds long after they’re gone.
Sophie Stephenson is a 23-year-old student from Edinburgh, Scotland, currently studying a degree in English and Film. It is her ambition to pursue a career in film journalism, and she started her blog to enable people to read her writing. She has a keen interest in crime and fantasy films. For more information, visit Literally Geeking.
Who is your favorite Hollywood star and why? Let us know in the comments!