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New York Times, December 14, 1986, Section 2, p. 23

Charting Stars Across the Decades

by Vincent Canby
(submitted by Barry Martin - Thanks Barry!)


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 television.

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.

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Today's stars 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 channels.

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.

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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."

These "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 later.

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 film careers.

(Though I've 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.")

Something 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).

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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."

Unlike the 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 performances.

There couldn't 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 circumstances.

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.

Defining the 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.

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Had any 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 Medical School."

Yet "Heartbreak 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.

This is 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.


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