Stars Aren’t Always Born…Sometimes They’re Made

(In today’s post: I muse about the subjective nature of charisma, the sometimes artificial roots of stardom, George Clooney, Peter Mooney, the Camelot TV series, a wholly imaginary man named Bernard Fumplestick…and the Catch 22 it all poses for Canadian actors)

What is the appeal certain actors hold for us? Why do we respond to some and not others? And I don’t mean the collective “us”, I mean the individual…us. Um, okay, that doesn’t make sense, but you know what I mean.

I mean that people (as individuals) will fixate on certain actors, and when they do, they assume it’s an “objective” preference…and they can’t understand that others might not share their taste. I’ve seen people wax on about some actor or actress, citing how talented they are, how charismatic, and how beautiful, and why-oh-why can’t producers see that? All this for an actor I might consider a middling talent with little presence and as attractive as a brick wall. (Heck, I’ve seen performers who are successful, who are embraced by the press…who leave me completely underwhelmed!)

And which comes first? Do we find an actor attractive and so we convince ourselves they are talented? Or do we genuinely think they are talented and that’s what causes us to find them attractive? And just what the heck is “charisma” anyway? Is charisma just sex appeal when talking about the same gender as ourselves?

Sometimes is it merely that familiarity breeds, not contempt, but the opposite — respect? The actor becomes a welcome familiar face, like going to a party and being happy to see someone you know in a sea of strangers, even if you previously weren’t that close. I can watch a movie or TV show with a mix of familiar and unfamiliar faces and often the familiar faces make the best impression (at least initially)…yet then I’ll talk to someone else who watched the same thing, but was familiar/unfamiliar with different actors than was I. And to them it was the actors they already knew who gave the best performances. Each of us would’ve sworn we were being objective…but clearly our pre-existing familiarity with certain actors was a factor.

And when someone really digs an actor we don’t particularly have any interest in, we can regard that adulation with a certain condescension — you’re letting your fanboy/girl enthusiasm carry you away, we say. Yet the business is built a lot on the notion of actors — on stardom.

That’s why stars get paid big bucks, and why their names often lead the titles, and their faces are featured on the posters. We are supposed to be into the actors. Indeed, we often colloquially refer to movies by their stars. “Did you see the new Johnny Depp movie?“, “Nyah — I caught the Jennifer Anniston comedy instead.”

But even with the stardom enjoyed by the biggest actors — how much is it truly organic? Are they really that talented, that beautiful, that charismatic? Or have we just convinced ourselves they are — or been convinced?

How many actors have struggled for years, languishing in B-movies and forgettable roles, then they luck into a role in a movie that becomes a box office hit and suddenly…they are a star, and ever after they are heralded as a box office draw? So this year they are embraced as inarguably a charismatic, talented star…when last year they were a bland nobody? And the irony might be that breakthrough role only came to them because three other actors were offered it first but turned it down.

George Clooney is regarded as one of the biggest stars in the world…but consider his career. He had been floating about with a largely undistinguished career until landing a role on ER which made him, in his thirties, an “overnight” star and sex symbol! Instantly the Hollywood machine kicked into gear and he began starring in blockbuster after blockbuster…or rather, would be blockbuster after would be blockbuster. The movies weren’t actually doing very well (even Clooney has quipped that he almost killed the Batman franchise). But one kind of got the impression the brass in Hollywood were determined to make him a star…even if they had to bankrupt every studio in Hollywood to do it! Finally I think he landed a hit with Ocean’s Eleven and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. But even then, subsequently Clooney’s chosen to focus his energies on mainly “serious” movies, steering away from deliberate blockbusters in favour of movies that aren’t really intended to break records. He’s a big star in little movies.

So is Clooney a star thanks to undeniable talent and charisma…or because he had a lot of people pulling for him, giving him breaks and second chances a lot of actors could only imagine?

That’s the funny thing about “stardom”…it can involve a lot of factors only peripherally connected to actual talent or charisma or sex appeal. Getting an in with the right, the powerful talent agency can help your career in ways a portfolio of great theatre review clippings won’t. Landing a good part in a good movie that just lucks into being a big hit (or even a critical darling) can change the course of things to come. And as people have noted, stars are like the Alpha dog in the pack…they get first pick of the carcass. So if you are in a hit movie, you get first pick of the next crop of scripts. And if you weren’t in a hit movie…you only get the roles that were already turned down by the A-list actors. If you wonder why talented actors sometimes seem to appear in mediocre films, it’s often not because they didn’t know any better…it’s because that’s all that trickled down to their agent’s desk once the roles were picked over by the actors bigger and more famous than them.

And stars can be made as much as they spontaneously come into being. They are groomed and prepared by movers and shakers in their corner, whether it be powerful agents working for them, or producers or directors who genuinely believe in their talent and take them under their wing. Sometimes you’ll see movie trailers — or marquee posters — which will trumpet the stars in the movie and will proudly proclaim (something like): Al Pacino, Angelina Jolie, and Bernard Fumplestick in “Stars Aren’t Born!”

And for a moment you might think, uh, who’s Bernard Fumplestick? But then you shrug and assume they must be famous because they were billed with Pacino and Jolie. And even though you might not see the movie itself (maybe it bombed), the next time you see Fumplestick’s name you remember him (vaguely) as a star…when in fact “Stars Aren’t Born” was actually his first major role. But his agent (or a producer who had already signed him for another movie) pulled strings to get him billed prestigiously as part of a career building process.

Cynical? Not really. I’m not saying this is wrong (I’m certainly not saying George Clooney isn’t a fine actor and doesn’t deserve his success). But I am saying that, obviously, nothing is entirely objective. An actor you like I might think is mediocre, and vice versa. And stardom may well be a result of a lot of lucky breaks as much as any base talent and charisma.

Not only can we all point to minor actors who we wish got better roles in better vehicles, actors who we perk up whenever their name is in the guest cast list of a TV series and we appreciate the nuances and subtleties they bring to their delivery…equally there are famous movie stars who we blithely accept and go to their movies but, honestly, if we were really to ask ourselves whether they were great performers, if they really brought something to a scene that a dozen of other actors couldn’t have done better, we might be surprised at our answers. If we’re being honest with ourselves.

There was a film critic who once remarked cynically about a famous movie star: “Sometimes people get it into their heads that someone is a great actor…and it takes forever for them to get it out again.” (I’m being vague because right at the moment I haven’t been able to track it down to confirm my memory as to who said it about who).

All this kind of relates to my recurring theme about Canadian film/TV and Canadian pop culture.

As I’ve mentioned before, often in Canadian film and TV, lead roles don’t go to Canadian actors, but imported “stars”. But what makes this ironic from my point of view is that, because I watch a lot of Canadian productions, these days I often find I only can identify the imported American actor…because I have no idea who they are! I recognize the Canadian cast surrounding them, but the central, unknown face I can guess must be the supposed “celebrity” brought in. And this relates to my point about how our familiarity with an actor can influence our perception of them. Because in some cases (though certainly not all) I’ll see such actors and find they give mediocre performances that drag down the film. Yet then I’ll read some reviews on, say, the IMDB, where fans will gush about how brilliant the lead actor was and how they were so much better than the (to the poster) unknown Canadian cast surrounding them. And, of course, such posters are usually fans of the actor in question and remember them affectionately from whatever short lived TV series first brought them fame.

So who’s right and who is wrong? Well, obviously…it’s my blog, so I’m right. (Just kidding).

But just as I freely admit there are Canadian movies where the imported “star” is great and appealing and really makes the role, I can also point to plenty of others where the lead role went to some imported quasi-celebrity and watching the movie I can easily name five different Canadians who could’ve been cast instead and might actually have saved the production. But they weren’t cast because they weren’t famous enough, they weren’t enough of a “star”.

A funny little anecdote that comes to me involves the recent U.K./Canada TV series, Camelot. It was basically a U.K. production where, I think it’s safe to say, the Canadian actors were thrown in only grudgingly by the British producers to shut up their Canadian partners. Peter Mooney had the biggest part of any Canadian, cast as King Arthur’s brother Kay (and in Arthurian mythos, let’s just say Kay action figures would probably be the one’s still on the shelf on Christmas Eve). One can’t help thinking the British producers basically cast their token Canadian actor…in the role they didn’t figure was important. So then I thought it was funny to come upon an entire message board thread (at the IMDB) of viewers saying they felt Mooney would’ve made a better, more dynamic Arthur than the series’ star, Jamie Campbell Bower. Now, obviously — that doesn’t mean anything. Bower was cast because he embodied the vision of Arthur the filmmakers wanted to present, and he did what was required. Nor am I suggesting the series would have necessarily performed better with Mooney in the lead. What I am saying, given my recurring themes, is there’s an irony in Mooney being cast, presumably as part of a production quota, and wouldn’t have been considered at all otherwise because he was Canadian and not “famous”…and then at least some people (a large group or small) felt he basically stole the scenes from the star.

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5 Responses to Stars Aren’t Always Born…Sometimes They’re Made

  1. Allen says:

    Despite the fact that numbers prove that stars don’t really mean as much as we think, producers (especially independent ones) can’t get their movies financed and pre-sold in certain territories without having a “name” that means something. So it’s a bit of a catch-22.

    • Administrator says:

      ‘Course that’s a whole ‘nother topic for a post. I guess my point was simply to point out how artificial “stardom” can be…and even our responses to stars. With that said, casting is a crucial part of movie making. Even if a filmmaker is pressured to cast a 3rd rate star, it’s still their job to cast the right 3rd rate star. As a long time observer of Canadian film & TV it seems to me there are too many filmmakers who make mediocre films and then justify why it wasn’t their fault after the fact.

  2. Allen says:

    I was just trying to explain why when you watch a Canadian TV show you’ll often see Canadian stars who have “made it” in the US in starring roles even though they’re not necessarily the best casting choice. Just like they do with creatives, Canadian execs don’t view you as a success until you run south and do something meaningful (and i use that term very loosely) there.

    • Administrator says:

      I wouldn’t even mind that as much. It often seems to me that even when there are Canadians who are well known in Hollywood…they still end up playing support in Canadian productions to non-Canadian actors…if they get work at all. But obviously it depends on the production.

  3. Allen says:

    doesn’t really seem to be the case to me anymore though…