Movies and Film: The Star System

The Star System

One of the most important, familiar, and controversial contributions of film to the long cultural history of acting is the star system. It is true that opera, theater, and other performing arts created international stars well before the advent of cinema. The Italian singers known as castrati dazzled the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century operatic world with their unparalleled vocal virtuosity, becoming heroes to the flocks of adoring fans who showed up at every performance to worship them.

Filmophile's Lexicon

The star system is the cinematic practice that fashions a select number of actresses and actors into box-office sensations by constantly giving them leading roles, which in turn inspires a massive fan base that perpetuates the system.

Second Take

One person can only travel so much. Once the faces and bodies of actors and actresses could be transferred to celluloid, packed into a crate, and shipped around the seven seas for projection to worldwide audiences, the nature and identity of the star were forever transformed.

The world's first bona fide movie star was Mary Pickford, who won the heart of D. W. Griffith in the early 1900s and, by the mid-1910s, was known the world over for her sweet disposition and the aura of innocence she projected onto the screen. Like all American film actors in the early years, Pickford wasn't known by name until years after her cinematic debut. By the time she started her own production company, The Mary Pickford Company, she was pulling in more than half a million a year in dozens of pictures that made her an international sensation.

The American star system is one of the most dominant shaping forces in contemporary moviedom. While studio heads still control the purse strings, individual stars can make or break a blockbuster deal with a single phone call. An ideal example of how the star system works can be found in the career of Harrison Ford, who got his big break (there's an understatement!) playing Han Solo in George Lucas's Star Wars (1977). Ford's swashbuckling space cowboy propelled him through the two sequels and directly into the Raiders of the Lost Ark series, by the end of which he was America's most popular and highly paid male lead whose presence in the credits continues, with a few scattered exceptions (for example, The Devil's Own, 1997), to guarantee a film's smashing success.

What makes the star system so fascinating, though, is that no matter what kinds of roles Ford plays—a Philadelphia cop (Witness, 1985), an American businessman abroad (Frantic, 1988), a CIA bureaucrat (Clear and Present Danger, 1994), a fugitive from the law (The Fugitive, 1993)—we'll always view his films through the original lens of his performances in Star Wars and the Indiana Jones series. This explains why the blockbuster Ford vehicle Air Force One (1997) worked so well: Even as the president of the United States, Harrison Ford will machine-gun and karate and commando his way out of any situation and save a planeload of loyal followers in the process.

Another crucial point to remember: The successful entry of any given actor or actress into the pantheon of American superstars often has nothing to do with his or her actual talent. Sometimes ambition, luck, looks, and persona can carry the day, and there are plenty of box-office sensations out there (we won't name names because we don't want to get sued!) who have displayed less skill in their entire careers than Laurence Olivier did in a single scene of Henry V (1944). Nevertheless, the star system is a bizarre, often disturbing, but probably permanent part of American and world cinema.

Director's Cut

The first American movie star to be known to the public by name was Florence Lawrence, who began her film career at Griffith's Biograph company, where she was known simply as "The Biograph Girl." In one of film history's greatest publicity stunts, Carl Laemmle, the head of a competing studio, circulated a fake story that was widely published in newspapers reporting the death of the actress known to the public as "The Biograph Girl." Once the "news" was out, Laemmle publicly denounced the lie that alleged enemies of his studio had been spreading around. As he proudly announced, Florence Lawrence, Biograph's former box office sensation, was alive and well, and working for him!

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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