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The study of Stars is important for:

• FM2 – British and American Film Section A: Producers and
Audiences at AS
• The A2 coursework Small Scale Investigation where you might
choose to study the work of a particular star leaving his or her
distinctive mark on a body of film
• The final exam at the end of the A level FM4 – Film Issues and

This booklet will look at

• A bit of history
• Viewing stars as commodities or products of the film industry
• Understanding stars as having commercial value
• Seeing stars (!) as embodying certain social or cultural values and
ideological perspectives.

STARS : The Concept and The History of the star system

In the early days of Hollywood,

the studios were not keen on the
idea of ‘Stars’ – a star can
command huge salaries. The
moment you turn an actor into a
star you acknowledge that they
are a commercial asset to your
business and that their presence
is capable of attracting more
paying punters than might
otherwise come to see your film.
Today the star gets paid the
greatest part of a film’s budget.
Furthermore, it not unusual for
big name stars to receive the
script before a director is

chosen and the star will be asked which director they would like to work
with. Tom Cruise was paid $75 million for ‘Mission Impossible II’ (2000)

The very first Star is thought to have been Florence Lawrence,

sometimes known as ‘The Biograph Girl’ The picture on page 2 was a
publicity document showing the range of ‘poses’ she was able to offer…

Carl Laemmle was the first to recognise ‘star

power’. Some say he was the father of the star
system. He resented the power of The Motion
Picture Patent Company – MPPC and broke away to
set up his own Independent Moving Picture Company
1910 and later went on to found Universal Pictures.
He took Florence Lawrence who worked for the
production company, Biograph, hired her and
planted a newspaper story that she had been killed
in a car accident. When she made her next, much
publicised, appearance in St Louis, crowds of fans came to see her. The
story illustrated to Laemmle that stars could be made in the cinema.

Stars in the Studio Era

By 1930s, stars became contracted to a studio for seven years and during
that time they had to work long hours and their image was carefully
manufactured and controlled by studio image makers. The bosses
obviously wanted them to churn the same recipe
for success, but the stars
invariably wanted to try out new
roles. James Cagney and Bette
Davis of Warner Bros were in
constant battle with the studios
to try to get a greater range of

James Cagney There was also something called Bette Davis

‘The Suspension Clause’ in these
incredibly tight contracts. If a star refused to work, the time they spent
refusing to come on set was added to their 7 year contract! Eventually,
this clause was deemed illegal when the star, Olivia de Havilland
challenged the studio bosses. The next key moment for giving stars more
power came when James Stewart’s agent negotiated a proportion of box
office profits for a Western ‘Winchester ‘73’. It’s now common practice
for stars to have a percentage of box office takings. Tom Cruise took a
straight 20% of the profits for ‘War of the Worlds’ – (2005)
Around $30 million is an approximate fee for top male stars such as
Keanu Reeves or Tom Hanks. The highest paid female star is Julia
Roberts - $25 million. On the whole though, women get nowhere near as
much as their male colleagues. Bear in mind the average American movie
including marketing now costs $100 million.


1. Find a poster for a film that uses a star of your choice as its central
visual image. Analyse both the visual image itself and the overall layout of
the poster in relation to the star.

2. How does the title of the film combined with any words used to
describe the film relate to the public perception of the star in question?

Does it seem to be the sort of film in which most people would expect to
see this star?

How does the title and/or other words used reinforce (or contradict) the
notions people might have of this particular star?

3. How does the visual image of the star work to create meaning and
generate responses from us?

• Consider the posture or positioning of the body. Why has this

position been chosen? What does it suggest?
• How are other aspects of body language and facial expressions,
including eyes and mouth, working to create potential meanings?
• What effect does costume, hair... other props create?
• Think about the effect of the camera angle.
• What colours are used? Or is it in black and white? The effect?
• Lighting used and effect?

Stars as Cultural Products and Media Creations

A star is a media-constructed image.

Brad Pitt the actor has become a multi media presence within Western or
even Global culture. A star is created from a range of activities
• Obviously the succession of roles in films
• But also advertising
• Promotional work
• Media coverage
All these are part of the process in the construction of a star.
A star is NOT a person. It is a complex representation. – a cultural
As ‘spectators’ of Brad Pitt’s film we know his performances, the actor.
As his ‘fans’, we also know him as a star who appears in our newspapers,
film magazines, the DVD extras, and on TV. BUT we don’t know Brad Pitt,
the human being or the man.

The American comedian Rich Hall (who?) had this to say about
the plots of Tom Cruise films, and his star persona. Guess the
names of the films:

• “he’s a cocktail waiter, quite a good cocktail waiter, then

one day he has a crisis of confidence, he meets a
beautiful woman, falls in love and becomes an excellent
cocktail waiter…”

• “he’s a fighter pilot, quite a good fighter pilot, then one

day he has a crisis of confidence,; he meets a beautiful
woman, falls in love and becomes an excellent fighter

• “he’s a pool player, quite a good pool player, then one

day he has a crisis of confidence, he meets a beautiful
woman, falls in love and becomes an excellent pool

• “he’s a sports agent, quite a good sports agent, then one

day he has a crisis of confidence, he meets a beautiful
woman, falls in love and becomes an excellent sports

1. Choose one contemporary Hollywood star. Research the roles they
have played.
Is there any continuity between the roles? Do the characters have
similarities? Has the way the actor has played these roles shown
similar character traits? Which particular roles have created this
actor’s star image? What is distinctive about the way this actor is
shown in his or her films? Is there anything distinctive about the
delivery of lines, or about body language employed from film to film?

2. Collect as much information about you chosen star as you can from
newspapers, magazines, fanzines, industry-based web-sites, fan-
based web-sites, and books over a period of a month.
3. Examine your material carefully to see how the media has worked
to construct the star’s image. What are the key features of the
media image of your chosen star? How are words and photographs
used in the article to construct this image? How important to their
image as a star are their physical looks (physique, bodily
proportions, facial features, etc?) How important in the
construction of their star image are the attitudes and approaches
to life which the media ‘suggest’ they have? How important are
events in their personal life?
( As well as using this in preparation for FM2 exam at AS, all the
information you gather will be useful for your small scale research
project in A2 coursework too. Neat huh?)

Christine Gledhill argues that a star can be thought of as having four

distinct elements:
1. The real person
2. The characters/roles they play
3. The persona – a combination of the first two
4. The image that then circulates in secondary media
Source: Christine Gledhill (ed) “Stardom: Industry of Desire”

Brad Pitt: The components of a star

1. The real person

Although very handsome and successful we are also aware of Pitt as an
‘ordinary person’ striving to find satisfaction in his work and in his
personal life. Much of the coverage of Pitt focuses on his attempts to
gain credibility as an actor in such films as Se7en, Kalifornia, or Seven
Years in Tibet; his attempts to establish successful relationships,
especially with successful actresses, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer
Aniston, and Angelina Jolie; his being just an ‘ordinary guy’, as much of
the publicity for his time on set of British director Guy Richie’s
Snatch suggested.
His attempt to maintain his authenticity as an actor led to his, reputedly,
supporting DAVID Fincher’s determination to retain the desperately
bleak ending of Se7en in the face of pressure from the studio for a
happier ending.

2. The Roles
The key roles that have shaped audience’s perceptions of him have been
his supporting role in Thelma and Louise and his leads in Robert Redford’s
A River Runs Through it and Legends of the Fall . He played young men of
languid beauty and charm, at ease with themselves and, especially in the
latter roles, with the natural beauty of the American landscapes
surrounding them. This gentler side of his screen persona was also the
basis of his role as the rather passive Louis in Interview with a Vampire.

At times he has played against type, worried that he might be thought of

as no more than just eye-candy, most notably in Kalifornia where he plays
a serial killer, but also in his willingness to support the dark vision of
director David Fincher in Se7en and Fight Club.

By the time of Troy, playing the warrior Achilles, Pitt was attempting to
harden his image, in a mainstream ‘event’ movie in particular by becoming
more muscular in appearance.

3. Persona
The persona is a blending of role and the real person, and although still
dominated by his physical beauty it contains a certain earnestness and
seriousness in his choice of ‘difficult’ roles such as those in Se7en and
Seven Years in Tibet, and that of an IRA man in The Devil’s Own that
suggests some discomfort with how he is perceived. This accords with
decision to turn down the role of Neo in The Matrix. The role revitalised
Keanu Reeve’s career. In his choice of the role of Achilles in Troy,
however, he took on the straightforward role of a matinee idol action-

4. Image
Image is the set of values that that particular star has been thought to
embody or personify, chiming in some way with the mood of the times.
In this sense Brad Pitt became a star almost overnight with Thelma and
Louise when his charisma and sexual charm seemed to embody a new
mood in which men would need to work harder to attract and keep
women and women could be open and explicit about their sexual
fantasies. He has often seemed to be uncomfortable with this fantasy
element of his image, yet he can also reinforce it as he did with the
extended photo shoots of himself in W fashion magazine which included
shots of him naked. These shots were part of a publicity drive that
accompanied Fight Club, a film where his depiction of a man driven by
what he saw as a creeping feminising of modern culture angrily rejected
the ‘new man’ and re-stated a simple brute masculinity. The controversy
surrounding the film suggested this development of his image chimed
with the mood of the times.

Brad Pitt’s later roles have not quite caught the public mood as well as his
early appearances. He was not generally considered a success as Achilles
in Troy, described by reviewers as lacking charisma as a male hero, in
comparison to say, Russell Crowe in Gladiator. However, since Troy he has
reappeared at the top of ‘Sexiest Male in the World’ lists in women’s
magazines. Does his image still sit well with the times? What do you think
of his performance in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” for


Stars as commercial products

So, stars are not individuals, but ‘media constructs’ with a specific role to
play in the film industry.
We can view stars as being controlled by big business organisations and
therefore we can also view them as commodities being produced to create
profits as a result of consumers buying the image they embody. In
financial terms, a star represents to the studio a certain capital outlay
upon which a return is expected.
Stars are marketed in ways that deliberately emphasise certain features
of their constructed image in order to sell films. This marketing image
operates as a labelling mechanism suggesting a particular type of star-
related product. What this means is, if you go into a DVD rental shop or
walk past a cinema and see a certain star’s name on the shelf or poster,
you know what to expect if you hire the DVD or go to watch the film.
Bruce Willis guarantees something very different from Brad Pitt who in
turn guarantees something different from Tom Cruise or Jude Law.

Stars and Lifestyle Choices

As well as using stars to sell films and products, stars can be used to sell
lifestyle choices.

TASK - Research
Do stars influence the way in which ordinary people live their lives?
• Look back at some of the material you have collected on stars.
• How might any of this material suggest stars could be influencing
or attempting to influence the lives of people watching them or
reading about them?
• What sorts of choices could these images encourage people to
make about their own lives?

Today film stars have to compete with a wider range of ‘celebrities’ and
there is a greater number of media devoted to the life and loves of

Stars and the nature of their power

Although stars have influential power, that power is not limitless or

indeed everlasting. If a star loses the ’Midas touch’ of the ‘A’ list, they
can see their options for their next film project diminishing. The size and
site of the ‘soap box’ available to them, from which they might voice their
views on what they see as ‘worthy’ causes is a precise reflection of their
value as a commercial asset.

TASK – Research
Research the work of two recent stars, such as Sean Penn or Tim
Robbins, who have been politically outspoken and radical in their views.
• List the films they have worked on, outlining the storyline and any
messages you believe the audience is supposed to take away.
• How have your stars been presented/treated by the film industry
and the media?
• What projects or political issues have they been involved in outside
filmmaking and how have these things been presented in the media?
• For each of them defines what you see as their political stance
(200 words)
• Name two or three films for each in which you believe you can best
see their political stance embodied. Try to identify particular
strong scenes as evidence.

Stars as embodying social values

Each star has a particular relationship to film audiences. They are known
by the types of characters they portray and for the attitudes and values
their characters seem to embody. (For ‘fans’ that relationship might be
intensified.) Within certain films, stars might be said to endorse or
reject certain lifestyle choices. Since audiences consume stars for the
meanings they represent in their films and their lives displayed in the
wider media, this can be a way of making the public buy into specific
perceptions and outlooks. Basically, film has the power to influence the
way we live our lives and the way we view things.

Gender, Race and Stardom

Female stars from Marilyn Monroe to Jennifer Anniston are often

presented on and off screen in such a way as to reaffirm male ideas of
the sexual woman. Sometimes in the roles they play, they can be seen as
threatening or challenging male notions of sexuality and dominance. Men
may like to look at women in films in certain ways, but they might in
reality be rather threatened by the sexual power exuded by the very
personifications they desire to see.

Research the work of a contemporary female star.
♦ What sort of roles does she play?
♦ Is she strong, powerful and independent, or weak, manipulated and
at the mercy of others?
♦ What are the main themes and ideas to be found in her films?
♦ Define what you see as being her main type of role (200 words)
♦ Name 2 or 3 films in which you can see her playing this central type
of role.
♦ Try to identify particularly strong scenes as evidence.

Where would black stars fit into this pattern? Both female and black
actors have only a limited number of spots within the ‘A’ list of stars.
Does this simply reflect a social reality? Or does it perpetuate the values
of a male-dominated and racist society? It is important that we don’t
simply accept the phenomenon of ‘stars and stardom’. We should question
and explore how it has come into being and why it continues to be
important for cinema.

Stars and Ideology

Stars exist within an industry that is owned and controlled by certain

extremely powerful and vested interests. As a result stars have to adopt
attitudes and assumptions which support the status quo, if they want to
remain employed by the conglomerates and major film studios. Sometimes
stars challenge the status quo and ways of looking at the world, but to
what extent?

Below is a list of Top Paid Actors

Name Age Amount paid for one film

1. Will Ferrell - 38 - $40 million

2. Johnny Depp - 42 - $37 million
3. Ray Romano - 48 - $36.5 million
4. Will Smith - 37 - $35 million
5. Tobey Maguire - 30 - $32 million
6. Tom Cruise - 43 - $32 million
7. Denzel Washington - 51 - $30 million
8. Adam Sandler - 39 - $28 million
9. Matt Damon - 35 - $27 million
10. Brad Pitt - 42 - $25 million

1. Drew Barrymore - 31 - $22 million

2. Jennifer Aniston - 37 - $18.5 million
3. Jennifer Lopez - 36 - $17 million
4. Nicole Kidman - 38 - $14.5 million
5. Jennifer Garner - 33 - $14 million
6. Cameron Diaz - 33 $13 million
7. Naomi Watts - 37 - $11.5 million
8. Sandra Bullock - 41 $10.5 million
9. Patricia Heaton - 47 - $9 million
10. Julia Roberts - 38 - $8 million

Further Reading:
Richard Dyer (1986) “Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society” Pub,
Christine Gledhill (ed) (1991) “Stardom: The Industry of Desire” Pub,

Useful Websites:

Complete the tasks and collect all your work into a bound booklet.
Submit for rave reviews from your teacher.
Keep for revision and for A2 coursework next year!
Mrs Sims


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