Why We Love The Movie Star

For more than 100 years we have been enthralled by stars of the big screen, from Mary Pickford and Vivien Leigh to John Wayne and Andy Serkis. In this extract from his new history of the film star, Show People, Michael Newton explores our enduring and complicated love affair with fame, glamour and the cinematic image.


Since the beginnings of film-star culture, the star has become in potential a scandal, someone to be built up and then pulled down. Love quickly hardens into hate. The uniqueness they sell readily metamorphoses into hubris. Ultimately what do we want from the star, what role do they play for us among our public dreams, our private fantasies?

Fame proves transient; stars are soon forgotten. It is no longer a given that the cinema of the past will survive into a future beguiled by other more compulsive forms of virtual world, or in a society that finds the values of old films to be wanting, or regrets the shabby lives, or the privileged gender or ethnicity of those who made them. Yet despite their apparent fading, still they endure, a continuing pervasive presence in the cultures that first celebrated them. As in Johann Peter Hebel’s story ‘An Unexpected Reunion’ (‘Unverhofftes Wiedersehen’) of 1811, where an old woman encounters her long-dead love, embalmed still in all the beauty of his youth by the salt mines in Falun, cinema disinters the youth, the beauty of the past. Every film preserves a person as once did those salt mines. The star remains vivid there, even as we age. Loving the 1970s David Bowie and Audrey Hepburn of the 1950s and ’60s in my youth, they were once much older than I, then the same age, and now rather younger. The stars are caught in the dynamic stasis of those performances even as I, their viewer, find myself transformed by time.

Show People hopes to be an extended critical meditation on the film star, carried out by means of 40 separate essays covering 50 different stars. Each essay acts as an individual case history, examining the work and presence of many different actors from across the world. The book explores the film star as a type, a concept and a phenomenon. It does not attempt to provide an overview of film stardom as such, and still less an exhaustive account of all the myriad stars. It builds up a picture of film stardom from individuals and through responses to individual films. It aims not just at elucidating through practical examples the workings of the star industry, but also at illuminating what moves us in a film, in an actor’s performance. Its ultimate subject is cinephilia, that antiquated ardour.

Mary Pickford, from Show People

Above: Mary Pickford before the looking glass, 1920, photographed by Alfred Cheney Johnston.

The book may consider the actor as auteur, the author of the film, but more than this it is concerned with our relationship with the film star as the source of our fondness for films. I would bring into the discussion of cinema what it means to fall in love with a film, with a film star, and to be sympathetic to the meanings that such devotion creates. I want to explore the strange ecstasy of watching. The book’s subject and its motivation takes in the relationship between ‘the star’ and ‘the fan’, the writer of this book being only a self-conscious, if wide-eyed version of the latter. People on screen move us. And the person that engages us is both the part played, the character in the story, and the man or woman playing them.

In cinema these two personae entangle themselves. The star’s primacy over the role they possess has been long noted in cinema studies. The art historian Erwin Panofsky persuasively argues that in cinema the character is the actor, and the actor is synonymous with the character. The role lives and dies with that actor, that star; many people may play Hamlet, but, as Citizen Kane shows us, only Orson Welles ever owned a sledge named Rosebud. It is Welles who moves us, as presently embodied in the fiction of the dynamically beleaguered self he plays. It is in part this interest, this residual feeling regarding the actor themselves that is the basis of what I want to set out in these interconnected essays. I hope to articulate, as well as I can, as honestly, the impact particular people make on screen, their capacity to stir us, to make us think, to open up a possibility and to clarify a corner of the world.

As there is no possibility of being complete, Show People deals with only a selection of the most influential and important film stars of the last hundred years. It unavoidably leaves out many names; however, I believe that the women and men included here are exemplary when it comes to considering what stardom and the idea of the person has meant on screen. Though, perhaps inevitably, the book is largely American in focus, I have attempted to pay some attention to the ways in which stardom has existed worldwide: in Europe, in Taiwan and Hong Kong, in Japan and in India. In addition, this book especially focuses on those films that have taken the star and the meanings of acting as their subject, those times where stars appear in films that consciously advance an argument about what stardom is. It hopes to be a purposefully eclectic and even fragmented book, advancing its hypotheses on the sly and in relation to specific moments or films, a volume for dipping into, a world of cinema discovered.

Above: Charlie Chaplin, Walworth, London 1889.

In the culture of the last hundred years film stars have played many roles. They are the person as a product; they express a fantasy of wealth, glamour and importance; they are, as in Brad Pitt’s memorable reported formula about himself, ‘the void that fills the void’. In this book I want to explore the premise that film is not primarily the artistic expression of a writer or a director, but rather a vehicle for its stars. While necessarily aware, of course, of the cultural context of film and the workings of the star industry, this book is more concerned with the films themselves considered as works of art, and with the lives and the presence of those in them. I consider what films themselves have told us about ‘stars’ and about the person. In cinema, we enter into another’s point of view, ‘substituting, as it were, the eye of the beholder for the consciousness of the character’. This marks a transition to an understanding of the person through ‘the surface of things’, ‘a place where to see was to know’. Later in my book, I’ll quote Sidney Poitier saying that he wanted to make films where people left the cinema feeling life and human beings are worthwhile. That’s the immodest aim of my book too, and also involves the hope that the reader may feel that cinema is worthwhile too, with some at least of its value springing from the person of the star.

– Michael Newton

Michael Newton teaches literature and film at Leiden University. He is the author of numerous popular books on film and cultural history and his latest book, Show People: A History of the Film Star, is available to order from our online shop.