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The Death of the Movie Star

LIANE HANSEN, host: Tonight's Academy Award show is not expected to rank high in the TV ratings. Although Brokeback Mountain has become a cultural phenomenon, none of the nominated films was a huge hit. It also appears that today's stars aren't as fascinating as they once were. NPR's Kim Masters explains.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

If you think they don't make them like they used to, you could be right.

(Soundbite of Casablanca)

Mr. HUMPHREY BOGART (As Rick Blaine): What's that you're playing?

Mr. DOOLEY WILSON (As Sam): Oh, just a little something of my own.

Mr. BOGART: Oh, stop it, you know what I want to hear.

Mr. WILSON: No, I don't.

Mr. BOGART: You played it for her and you can play it for me.

Mr. WILSON: Well, I don't think I can remember...

Mr. BOGART: If she can stand it, I can. Play it.

MASTERS: Humphrey Bogart wasn't a conventional beauty perhaps and in Casablanca he wasn't even that young; but he was a movie star. Today those are rare. On the surface, at least, stars would appear to be as alluring as ever. At last fall's premier of Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, a small movie about a girl and her horse, the paparazzi showed up as usual frantically pursuing shots of Kris Kristofferson and Elizabeth Shue.

(Soundbite of paparazzi)

MASTERS: But in Hollywood, many industry professionals are painfully aware that few of today's famous actors are real stars, stars who can draw an audience to the theater just because they're in a film. David Thompson, a film critic and author of an upcoming book on Nicole Kidman, says the nature of stardom is hardly what it was when the public embraced actors as if they were creatures from a different world.

Mr. DAVID THOMPSON (Film Critic and Author): It's that notion that these people really are somehow more blessed, not just more beautiful but more blessed, and that they exist on some plane between ours and that of the gods.

MASTERS: Terry Press, a veteran studio marketing executive, says stardom is what happens when the public invests in an actor emotionally. And that comes about when the star has a clear persona that coincides, at least generally, with the roles he plays.

Ms. TERRY PRESS (Veteran Studio Marketing Executive): The roles that George Clooney has played on film mirror what you think of George Clooney, to a certain extent, in life: drop dead handsome, sense of humor about himself, sense of humor about his situation, and yet, has a really prominent core of integrity that is unshakable.

MASTERS: In a recent interview with Tavis Smiley on PBS, Harrison Ford said he understands that.

Mr. HARRISON FORD (Actor): You want to reach people on an emotional level, and when you do over a long period of time, you develop a kind of friendship.

MASTERS: Ford's 2002 movie K-19 was a flop, and the actor said he didn't think the movie was at fault.

Mr. FORD: I think it was just a rejection of me in that part.

MASTERS: For the most part, David Thompson says, stars today lack the authority and confidence exuded by giants like Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne. That aura was easier to achieve, he thinks, when the studio system was there to shape and protect the actors' image. In those days, he says, stars were burnished in the very way they were filmed.

Mr. THOMPSON: There was love and there was adoration and worship in the way they were photographed. Now movies are shy of repeating that look. We don't give people the full photographic treatment anymore because it looks and feels a little bit fake.

MASTERS: And without the studio system, power has shifted.

Mr. THOMPSON: Actors today have this huge extra responsibility of having to pick their own parts. And I don't think many of them have got the training for it or the experience for it, and therefore they pick a lot of bad parts.

MASTERS: Yes, actors have agents who are supposed to guide them, but the loyalty between agent and client is hardly what it used to be. Agents are constantly trying to poach each other's clients and clients can be lured away by promises of better parts and more money. David Thompson says that makes it hard for an agent to urge an actor to take a creative risk or to turn down a big paycheck.

Mr. THOMPSON: The agents want to make a big deal, you know, and they don't build people in the same way. They will go for those big salaries if they're offered.

MASTERS: Terry Press says one of today's few remaining movie stars is a living illustration of the benefits of loyalty.

Ms. PRESS: Johnny Depp has had the same agent since he started. That is a relationship that has been mutually rewarding, but it involves the investment of time. And she had to be unafraid that he was going to leave her.

MASTERS: Even with good career guidance, today's actors are far more exposed than their counterparts were in the Golden Age of movies. Press says publicists can no longer maintain control of an image in an era of tabloids and celebrity weeklies.

Ms. PRESS: If Cary Grant and Randolph Scott were living today, there would be no chance at anyone would believe that they were just two incredibly handsome friends sharing a Malibu house.

MASTERS: At this point, Press says, many actors actually feel squeamish about trying to play the movie star game. They are far different from stars who understood their power and used it.

Ms. PRESS: I have watched Warren Beatty, for example, just be one kind of person talking, you know, to me and then walk into a room and it is like someone flipped on a switch. So he knows exactly how to be Warren Beatty, and that's something younger stars could really learn.

MASTERS: In fairness to those younger stars, Press says the studios, in hot pursuit of young audiences, are not necessarily making films calculated to create lasting relationships with actors.

Ms. PRESS: All of these movies where the superhero is the star, people are focused on the character, not on who's actually playing the character.

MASTERS: David Thompson adds that broader changes, the advent of video games, the Internet and dozens of cable channels have also made it difficult for a true star to emerge.

Mr. THOMPSON: I think it has to do where movies sit in our culture. They don't hold that dominant position any longer.

MASTERS: In more innocent days, Thompson thinks, stars were more alluring because the movies were intoxicating.

Mr. THOMPSON: The movies, once upon a time, for most people, they had a tremendous erotic kick. We went to the movies to get ready for our sex lives. Sex lives have become so available now, so easy to get hold of that we don't need the fantasy anymore.

MASTERS: So maybe Norma Desmond was onto something all those years ago on Sunset Boulevard. The pictures did get smaller and then the stars began to fade away. Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kim Masters
Kim Masters covers the business of entertainment for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She joined NPR in 2003.