“The star is not simply a performer, but a figure with particular associations of glamour and charisma.” (McDonald, 1995, p.80)
Similar to the auteur or genre, the name of a star brings with it expectations and associations in regards to cinema. Audiences find comfort in familiarity and an actor who a person is familiar with and admires may act as a vessel with which to ‘latch onto’ when experiencing or seeking out a film. A viewer may be attracted to a film because they admire the acting abilities of the star, or because they recognise the quality of his previous films. However, the admiration of a star goes beyond admiration of just his or her acting abilities. More so, it stems from the viewer’s ability to connect to, or idolise the star on a personal level, or the iconographic persona generated by the star.
“…audiences are motivated to go to see stars by the desire to complete the puzzle of the star’s image.” (McDonald, 1995, p.86)
Indeed, stars are often propelled to demi-god status and are seen as otherworldly beings who, through the vehicle of cinema, can directly affect our emotions, thoughts and desires. But rather than a piece of music, text, painting or even film directors themselves (which can all do the same thing) the star has a face and bodily presence that we can physically see, aspire to and be fascinated by. Humans naturally desire to connect with these powerful figures, understand them and transcend towards them, even in past civilizations where people would semi-worship the preacher as he could communicate with God. Audiences will continue to watch a star to try to understand, or simply be in awe of, their mystery.
In response to women’s reaction to Hollywood stars of the 1940s and 1950s, Jackie Stacey (1994) offered several ways in which a person may ‘interact’ with a star:
- ‘Devotion, ‘adoration’ and ‘worship’, simple admiration and awe of the star and their abilities which is rooted in ‘homoerotic attachments’.
– ‘Transcendence’, the desire to become the star.
- ‘Aspiration’ and ‘inspiration’, the using of the star as a role model to better oneself.
However, this does not necessarily explain why someone may respond to one star in one of these ways but not another, or why a star may appeal to one person, but not another. The ability to stir emotion in an audience is not always down to the ability to relate to the character of a film alone, but also the ability to relate to the actor portraying that character on a personal level (or at least the persona that we perceive)
It was suggested in class that this may explain the popularity and reasserted star status endowed upon Robert Downey Jr. since his troubles with substance abuse in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Indeed, in many of his later roles such as Tony Stark in Iron Man (Jon Favreau 2008), Paul Avery in Zodiak (David Fincher, 2007), and Harry Lockhart in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005) he portrays highly charismatic, although certainly flawed characters, often with alcohol abuse problems. If we sympathise and are inspired by the plight of the man Robert Downey Jr. then we may relate to and sympathise with the characters that mirror his own life. There is a sense of genuinity to the acting and an increased believability towards the characters. On the other hand, the characters may appear contrived or unlikeable if they were portrayed by a different actor, perhaps one who has a ‘clean-cut’ public image.
Star status may be generated not from insight into the actor’s personal life or personality but from the lack of such insight and the mystery and curiosity that this generates. As Paul McDonald notes, stars “seem to reveal the truths of their selves within a public forum”. In many cases, we have little information of the real person behind the star and celebrate them, not for the actor themselves but for the characters which they portray. An audience desires to understand the enigma which creates these celebrated characters.
What McDonald describes as “truths of themselves”, are in fact perceived truths and truths of a constructed perception of the star – an image – rather than personal truths. Rather than the star revealing them, it is the audience which creates ‘truths’, fabricates them. Humans naturally crave heroes, preachers and inspiration and will perceive and mould a star into what they want them to be. In the modern world, art and entertainment are the instant and accessible ways by which we can be directly affected emotionally and the faces and personalities which possess this power are the ones who are given ethereal status.
Paul McDonald, ‘Star studies’, in Joanne Hollows and Mark Joncovich, eds., Approaches to Popular Film (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), pp.79-97
Jackie Stacey, Star Gazing:Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship (London and New York: Routledge, 1994)
Extract from Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (London: Macmillan, 1986).