The death two weeks ago of Cary Grant, who was
equally at ease in dinner clothes, a Salvation Army uniform or a
solar toupee, was a page-one reminder that, unlike Grant, the
majority of today's real stars no longer have anything to do
with movies. here are a handful of film giants still going
strong - Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman, among others at the
moment - but the truly representative stars of our era belong to
They're another breed entirely, not necessarily
worse or better but decidedly different. They don't even have
to be actors anymore. They can be M.C.'s or reporters or even
political figures, but whatever their vocation, they're all just
folks - small enough to fit onto the home screen and mannerly enough
not to suggest with any seriousness that somewhere there's a better
life the viewer is missing.
They are the incomparable Johnny Carson, whose
longevity helps us believe in immortality, and Peter Jennings, for
whom there's no catastrophe so awful that he cannot find reassuring
words in which to report it. They are the relentless
celebrity-prober, Barbara Walters, and the earnestly responsible
(occasionally impatient) Phil Donahue, both of whom behave like city
cousins who haven't lost the common touch.
If they're not irredeemably lovable paragons,
like Bill Cosby, they're rogues who are irredeemably lovable in the
manner of Larry Hagman's J.R. Like Don Johnson of "Miami Vice"
and Tom Selleck of "Magnum, P.I.," some of these people initially
evoke the remote, too-perfect-to-be-true prototypes once associated
with Hollywood, though the context in which they appear has the
almost immediate effect of making them less mysterious than Crazy
Eddie or Mr. Clean.
are creatures of the microchip age that has revolutionized the way
we see the world, as well as the way we see our place in it.
In the heyday of movies, when we sat in the dark in a Moorish
picture palace, under stars fueled by Con Ed, we were always on the
outside looking in, like Stella Dallas standing in the rain,
watching the nobs inside as they dine off Crown Derby.
Today, every one
of us who owns a 21-inch screen is at the center of his own
universe, looking out, dining off what is, in effect, his own Crown
Derby, even if it happens to be a defrosted TV dinner. We are
the ones who count. If we don't like what we see, we change
Even though Cary
Grant hasn't appeared in a new film in 20 years, his death was a
shock, particularly to those millions of us who had never laid eyes
on the man himself, not even in a television interview. It was
not because we felt as if we'd lost a friend, as we might feel about
a television fixture like Mr. Carson.
To us, Cary
Grant had remained a character safely fixed in our imaginations, a
graceful composite - an accumulation, really - of all the roles he
played in films from "She Done Him Wrong" in 1933 through "That
Touch of Mink" nearly 30 years later. It's a reflection of the
nature of the kind of stardom he epitomized that the private
personality was not only mostly unknown, but also beside the point.
In this way, the
news of the "death" of Cary Grant was less like an obituary than a
report that his more than 70 films had suddenly ceased to exist,
which, of course, they haven't. As the man who was born Archie
Leach had become a star - a fictional character named Cary Grant -
the actor had come to be a representation of the sum of his films.
He was a star,
and real life, or what passes for it on television, had nothing to
do with it.
No two people
could easily agree on what, exactly, is meant by the term "star" in
connection with movies. Bankers would probably say that it's
anybody whose presence in a film guarantees a certain amount of
income at the box office, even if the film is a dud. I suppose
that the technical definition is anyone whose name appears above the
title. When the Zanucks, Mayers, Cohns and Warner brothers
were running things, everybody under contract was a star, only
some stars were more starlike than others.
To the members
of the public in those halcyon years, a star could be anyone who was
writing about in the fan magazines. In addition to Gable,
Grant, Garbo, Tracy, Crawford, Colbert, Davis, Astaire & Rogers,
Hepburn, Cooper and Cagney, performers on the comparatively modest
order of Carole Landis, Heather Angel, George Brent, Vera Hruba
Ralston, Margaret Lindsay, Ann Dvorak, Lyle Talbot and Gloria Jean
were identified as "stars."
had their own fan clubs. Some of them had talent. They
were a dime a dozen, and they were absolutely necessary to the
smooth functioning of the movie factories. An actor like
George Brent spent virtually his entire career playing "star" roles
in support of Bette Davis, helping to make her look good and never
getting in her way.
Among the first
stars to come along after World War II were Burt Lancaster and Kirk
Douglas. Their independence and comparative maturity - Mr.
Lancaster was 33 and Mr. Douglass 30 when they made their film
debuts in 1946 - fit no prewar pattern, but pointed the way for
another important group of actors who were to come a few years
Most of the
postwar crop of would-be stars were designed in the style of the
prewar holdovers. They were "discovered," signed (to
seven-year contracts with options entirely in the favor of the
employer), given new names and exercised in B-pictures until ready
for the A's. Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis made the grade.
Tab Hunter, Troy
Donahue and Sandra Dee appeared in a lot of movies, and with some
success, but they never quite became self-supporting. Their
careers had peaked by the time their studios - beset by the
competition from television (which was later to redefine stardom) -
went through their various reorganizations in the mid-and late
1960's. These were pretty people with no readily apparent
centers of gravity.
Some of them
retired. Some moved into television. Then as now,
television finds star quality in those who never made the big time
in Hollywood, as well as in those who have outlived their theatrical
neither the interest nor time for the job, it might be possible to
illustrate the differences between stardom in theatrical films and
television through a comparison of the careers of Elizabeth Taylor
and Joan Collins. The women are approximately the same age -
Miss Taylor is one year older. Their intelligences can't be
all that disparate. Yet Miss Taylor was and still is - even
when she doesn't appear in films - one of the great movie stars of
all time, while hard-working, indefatigable Miss Collins only
reached the top on the tube when she signed on to do the nighttime
soap called "Dynasty.")
happened that was very worrying to the old-timers when the studios
dismantled their star-manufacturing machines. Actors who
wanted to act more than they wanted to become stars began to show up
in movies. First Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, then Warren
Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino.
Hollywood wasn't ecstatic (except when their films made money).
These men didn't
dress properly - the way Cary Grant did. They mumbled.
They eschewed long-term contracts. Too ambitious to put up
with the limitations of the small screen, they were thought to be
too eccentric for the big one. Unlike the Grants, Gables and
Tracys, they weren't content to discover in their roles subtle
variations on a single recognizable movie-star personality.
When they worked, they reached and stretched and, eventually, each
became a certifiable star, though two or three, perhaps, more
certifiable than the others. One of these is Paul Newman, who,
compared to Cary Grant, is still just a kid. Yet he's been
making films since 1954, when he made his debut in "The Silver
Chalice," and hasn't stopped working since. The films have
been good and terrible, but the performances have never been less
than good and occasionally superb, as in his latest, Martin
Scorsese's "Color of Money."
prewar stars, exemplified by Mr. Newman, never enjoyed the kind of
studio-backed career momentum that would allow Grant to walk away
from a lousy film with his reputation intact. In the prewar
Hollywood in which a star like Grant would make two, three and
sometimes four films in a year, the memory of the flop release in
May could easily be erased by the hit release in September.
Mr. Newman and
his contemporaries have had to establish themselves not through
sheer numbers by through a certain consistent quality that, coupled
with an identifiable personality, paid off for a few. Mr.
Newman is a superb film actor, but in our collective consciousness
he's become a star, as representative of his time as Cary Grant was
of his, through the same sort of accumulation of memories of past
be the terrific payoff there is in his performance in "The Color of
Money" if we weren't seeing it not only as a followup to the
character he played in "The Hustler" in 1961, but also as an
extension of his work in such films as "Somebody Up There Likes Me,"
"Sweet Bird of Youth" and "Judge Roy Bean." Longevity in
itself has nothing to do with true film stardom. Talent is no
guarantee, either. There has to be a little of both, and a lot
of the sort of personality described as idiosyncratic. This is
what comes through in Mr. Newman's possibly Oscar-winning
performance in "The Color of Money."
It's also what
he shares with Cary Grant and Clint Eastwood, whose rise to true
movie stardom is the oddest of all. Mr. Eastwood has achieved
it through what looks, at first, like brute force but is actually a
triumph of an idiosyncratic, talented personality over
Here's an actor
who started out in B-pictures in the mid-1950's, graduated to a hit
television series ("Rawhide") a few years later, but only hit his
theatrical film stride after making movies, not in Hollywood, but in
Europe, where he starred in a series of exceptionally stylish
"spaghetti westerns" for Sergio Leone in the 1960's.
particular, quirky nature of his triumph is his latest film,
"Heartbreak Ridge," which he produced, directed and plays in, as an
ancient, supposedly over-the-hill Marine Corps sergeant. Only
a star could pull off what Mr. Eastwood does here: an
action-adventure film that has as its crowning sequence the
triumphant American invasion of Grenada in 1983.
actor-director with less wit and humor attempted this, the movie
might well have been laughed out of the theaters. "Heartbreak
Ridge" treats the "war" in Grenada as if it were the next best thing
to World War II and glories in it by saying, "At least, we won this
one." As it is, there are a number of unintentional laughs in
the final heroic confrontation. My favorite: a sequence in
which, on D-Day, the Marines scramble up a jungly hill, part of the
underbrush and discover a sign that reads "St. George's University
Ridge" is an entertaining film, not up to some of Mr. Eastwood's
others, including "The Gauntlet" and "Escape From Alcatraz."
It's principally distinguished by a performance that defines Mr.
Eastwood's star quality and the difference between theatrical film
stardom and most of the substitutes you see on the small screen,
where real life is so rigorously mimed.
At 56, Mr.
Eastwood doesn't look especially young, but neither does he look
old. Nor does he look preserved, or perhaps surgically
improved, like some of his contemporaries. He looks as if he'd
absorbed the years and turned them into guts and grit. Even
more important is the essential humor, which was masked by the
nihilism of the Leone films and is now overt.
something he shares with Cary Grant. His public personality is
bigger than life. It's difficult to imagine Clint Eastwood as
a television star today. It would take a half-dozen 21-inch
screens, one atop another, just to show him in full figure.