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Are Movie Stars Still Necessary?

Why aren’t actors like Jon Bernthal, Oscar Isaac, and Walton Goggins “the biggest movie stars in the world right now?” This question surfaced on social media, sparking a comparison of their talents to legends like Robert De Niro and his peers in the 1970s.

Hollywood has experienced various transformations since the early days of cinema. However, it is only recently that the concept of stardom has suffered a noticeable decline as a cultural force. Yet, this question prompts deeper reflection. What might we be missing out on when the actors we admire are not recognized as the world’s biggest movie stars? What might these actors themselves be missing out on?

Perhaps audiences are yearning for a simpler time when even the concept of stardom seemed more straightforward. How does a famous actor differ from a movie star, anyway? It often involves an aura that builds around a performer who has achieved a certain level of commercial and artistic success. It also pertains to their persona — an engaging force of nature both on and off the screen.

Fame has its perks. For instance, Kevin Bacon shared in an interview with Vanity Fair that he attempted to blend in anonymously but found it disappointing: “People were kind of pushing past me, not being nice. Nobody said, ‘I love you.’ I had to wait in line to, I don’t know, buy a coffee or whatever. I was like, ‘This sucks. I want to go back to being famous.’” However, even Bacon is not considered a global movie star.

There is a significant gap between being recognizable and well-liked and being a star who is the primary reason audiences go to a movie. Actors like Bernthal, Isaac, and Goggins have all achieved success across various professional metrics. How much more stardom do they need? They seem to be doing well, with ample opportunities, nominations, and financial stability. Maybe it’s better for actors, as individuals, not to bear the heavy title of Movie Star.

In any case, the importance of cinema has diminished. Films no longer hold our attention as they once did. If an actor’s stardom is still assessed by ticket sales, it’s worth considering which movies were once top earners. In the ’70s, not only did popcorn films make money, but so did movies that offered more than spectacle. Films like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “A Star is Born,” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” were among the top earners, offering room for actors to truly showcase their talents. It’s difficult to imagine a film about divorce and single parenthood topping the box office today.

Recently, Hollywood has worked to reduce the power once held by movie stars, focusing instead on intellectual properties and the franchise-ification of known titles. However, this approach has its limits. Nowadays, those same industry executives are trying to leverage existing stars like Will Smith, Tom Cruise, and Denzel Washington, yet they struggle to create a sustainable system for newer, younger talents. Consider Glen Powell’s efforts; it’s clearly challenging. This struggle isn’t new; non-white actors have faced similar frustrations for years.

“Maybe this is controversial but I don’t think we live in a very glamorous era,” Izzy Custodio said in a recent video for her YouTube channel, Be Kind Rewind, which examines Hollywood history. The lack of glamour extends to surprising subjects, including Miss Piggy. Custodio describes her as “the ultimate reflection of Hollywood ambition, obsession, and glamour run rampant.” While some aspects of her character are timeless, adapting her to the current era is challenging because many references that made her initially resonate no longer hold relevance.

This weekend, HBO is premiering a documentary about Faye Dunaway that touches on some of these elusive qualities. “Faye is perhaps someone I have created,” Dunaway states, referring to herself in the third person. “It’s a persona that is very much related to my work, specific to my career — that’s the actress, I suppose.”

We rarely hear stars talk about how they navigate this psychologically. Everyone has a public self, but for celebrities, this is an exaggerated and intense performance in itself. Dunaway also mentions that in many of her films, clothes have made statements. This element also seems to be lacking today. She recalls her chemistry with Steve McQueen in the 1968 film “The Thomas Crown Affair.” McQueen, she says, had a persona that often defined him more than his acting skills.

Dunaway refers to a larger-than-life quality, which once had a literal meaning: projected on a massive film screen, movie stars seemed larger than life. Today, we mostly watch them on TV screens and iPads, shrinking them back to size.

In the 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard,” Norma Desmond, an aging silent film star, tells a screenwriter who initially does not recognize her, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” A great line, though proven wrong well into the 21st century.

If Hollywood struggles to cultivate new stars, AI companies are eager to take advantage by resurrecting old stars — from Judy Garland to James Dean to Burt Reynolds. The possibilities are endless, and frankly, a bit creepy.

“They took the idols and smashed them,” goes another line from “Sunset Boulevard.” “And who’ve we got now? Some nobodies.”

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.

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