Selfies, Jennifer Lawrence and the modern movie star

Feature Ryan Lambie 30 Jun 2014 - 05:59

The movie star isn't a thing of the past - it's just a changing phenomenon in the face of the web, Ryan writes...

Taken at this year’s Academy Awards, a photograph of a huddled group of Hollywood actors quickly became the most shared image in social media’s short history. In this single shot - taken by Bradley Cooper and posted by Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres, who are surrounded by such familiar faces as Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt, we get a glimpse of how the modern movie star has changed in the past 20 years.

The movie star phenomenon began in the early 20th century, when actors such as Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin became famous enough to secure ticket sales by themselves. Hollywood studios initially resisted the rising phenomenon of the movie star with all the strength they could muster; with stardom came a demand for things like higher salaries, better working conditions and, in time, a cut of a movie’s profits.

The first true Hollywood movie star is officially Florence Lawrence, who broke through the anonymity of actors in early American movies to become the first publically named performer. In the years that followed, movies began to be sold on those star names, with the higher salaries demanded by the most famous actors and actresses offset by the devotion of their audiences; a name like Clarke Gable or Jean Harlow above your picture’s title pretty much ensured a healthy turn-out at the box office. 

An entire industry rose up around movie stardom in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Magazines such as Glamour (originally called Glamour Of Hollywood) carried glossy photos of Hollywood stars, while trade papers printed what stories they could about their professional and private lives.

The stars of the mid-to-late 20th century carried with them a mythical air; not only did they look more beautiful and composed than ordinary mortals, but they also lived the kind of lives most members of the public could only dream of. The mystique was perpetuated by Hollywood studios, who sold their movies on the unattainable beauty of their actors and actresses. Newspapers may have been addicted to salacious stories about movie stars, but rare instances aside, the most famous actors lived in their own, apparently impenetrable sphere of expensive restaurants and luxury goods.

Until at least the 1980s, the star phenomenon continued. Actors like Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep carried the kind of profile and fan following that could pretty much guarantee a lucrative opening weekend and, particularly in Streep’s case, ensure critical acclaim at the same time.

Even here, however, there were signs that things were changing. Some of the biggest hits of the 70s and 80s had made a fortune without a big-name star on their posters: neither Jaws nor Star Wars had a major star attached, and neither did some of the biggest hits of the 80s: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial made $435m, and its major selling point wasn't a square-jawed actor, but a little alien from outer space.

By the start of the new millennium, the sure-fire allure of the traditional Hollywood star was beginning to decline - a trend that has continued right up to the present. There’s no better way of plotting the trajectory of the movie star than by looking at the career of Tom Cruise. A star name pretty much guaranteed to sell a picture for much of the past three decades, more recent years have seen many of Cruise's films struggle at the box office, particularly in the US - his only truly reliable franchise being Mission: Impossible. This decline culminated with Edge Of Tomorrow, a high-concept summer film which, despite hugely positive reviews, was kept from the top spot in America by the romantic drama, The Fault In Our Stars.

So what happened? An article written by Amy Nicholson for LA Weekly might have the answer. In the early days of YouTube, a clip of Cruise jumping up and down on a couch on the Oprah Winfrey show became one of the first viral videos on the web. In reality, Nicholson continues, Cruise hadn’t really jumped up and down on the couch at all - it was a kind of mass misconception, oft-repeated but non-existent:

"It is Oprah who seeds the idea that he should stand on [the couch]," Nicholson wrote. "She thanks Cruise for attending her recent Legends Ball, where she honored Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. 'I turned and looked at one point and you were standing in the chair going, 'Yes! Yes!'' she gushes to Cruise. 'I loved that enthusiasm.' Minutes later, he stands on the couch for a second, and after she and the audience cheer that, he does it again [...] All told, Cruise on the couch — the key image of what the gossip blogs deemed his meltdown — is less than three seconds of airtime." 

The image of Cruise as a secretive and perhaps somewhat strange individual began to stick as the Oprah footage was shared around the world, and the actor hasn’t shaken it since. Cruise had long been reluctant to make TV appearances and interviews, and this constantly shared clip - one that probably would have vanished without into the TV archives without trace at any point before 2005 - informed the public’s perception of Cruise for years afterwards.

The current thinking is that movie stars are an old phenomenon: things have gone full circle, and like the early days of cinema, Hollywood no longer needs stars to sell movies. Instead, brands and familiar characters sell: superheroes from popular comics, sequels or remakes of old movies and TV shows. Yet the movie star arguably exists in a modified form - a post-YouTube, post-TMZ movie star version 2.0.

The defining example is surely Jennifer Lawrence. Having been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Winter’s Bone, she became the lynchpin in Gary Ross's adaptation of The Hunger Games. Look again at the film, and how so much of the story is told by her facial expressions. Many of the most dramatic scenes hinge on close-ups of Lawrence’s face.

Outside the film itself, Lawrence’s fame exploded. Here was a young actress who didn’t try to disappear behind the mystique of an Old Hollywood movie star. She photobombed. She took selfies. She made goofy comments in interviews, which became shared excitedly on the web. The world, it seemed, immediately took Lawrence to its heart. By comparison, an actress like Anne Hathaway, who looked so beautiful on red carpets but seemed icily remote in her Oscar speeches and interviews, suddenly seemed distant and impossible to engage with. 

Far from a remote and unfamiliar goddess, Lawrence seems like an ordinary young woman, someone approachable and friendly. She may be in hit movies, and she may get to wear expensive dresses for awards bashes, but she seems recognisably like us: clumsy, quirky, fallible. In an era where we're used to sharing information about ourselves online, it seems that the kind of actors the public most warms to are the ones that appear candid and somehow unedited; the mystique of the old Hollywood movie star now seems, by contrast, too cold, too inauthentic and too calculated.

Interestingly, The Hunger Games' plot deals with the topic of living in a media spotlight. In it, Lawrence's character, Katniss, learns to adapt to having herself filmed and studied by an unseen audience. She modulates her behaviour to win the favour of her growing army of fans, without whom she can't hope to survive the brutality of the title's bloodthirsty televised battle. Now, this isn't to say that Lawrence is consciously manipulating her public image any more than we would; rather, she's grown up with an awareness of social media and gossip websites.

Modern Hollywood movie stars are no longer godlike beings on which we can pin our hopes and fantasies. They are people much like ourselves, or ourselves as we might have been had the gods of fate and genetics played us a better hand. Channing Tatum has movie star good looks, yet he openly admits to his failings in interviews: speaking to GQ magazine in May, for example, jokingly described himself as a "high-functioning alcoholic".

The technology to take a selfie existed long before 2014, yet it was only this year that a group of Hollywood actors finally decided to take one. This image, arguably, symbolises the arrival of a new, social-media savvy breed of movie star - from Florence Lawrence in Old Hollywood, to Jennifer Lawrence in the Hollywood of the 21st century.

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And there are still kids starving around the world.

And my car wouldn't start this morning!

Is this article saying that Hollywood star power ain't what it used to be or is it saying that Jennifer Lawrence is leading the vanguard of a new type of Hollywood actor - one that is more 'relateable' and 'hip'; less precious & pretentious? If that's what you're saying then I disagree. My evidence? When I saw her in over-hyped snoozefest 'American Hustle', her brooklyn accent and loud performance screamed 'take me seriously' so based on that performance, I would put her in the 'calculating', old school 'light me, like me, love me' bracket.

This is a really interesting topic - do we still have films that a producer can say 'this is a Will Smith vehicle' and people will flock to the cinema? For the most part not so much but for a lot of Hollywood A-Listers the actual 6 months or so actually MAKING the film is secondary to the hype, marketing and tie-ins for the film, the sort of post-production work of getting your name on TMZ or Hollywood Reporter or such has in recent years has become a much larger part of being a film star than actually starring in the film. Again nothing wrong with that - if you are investing 20 million dollars into something or somebody you want them to work for their money but when the hype, the celebrity or the post-party, marketing rubbish 'becomes' the film then you need to worry, essentially when the red carpet outside becomes more important than the thing you are plugging inside.

From Lawrence to Lawrence ... Nice!

A subject that warrants deeper analysis, methinks.

Back in the days of the studio system - entire fake life-stories were created for stars by their studios, and maintained carefully by their PR departments. It was all nonsense, of course, but it was nonsense the audience wanted to believe. In the 20s, 30s and 40s, times of privation and misery the likes of which we can (thankfully) barely conceive, people *needed* to know that there was some glamour left in the world. Movie stars filled that need.

Seems to me that, these days, social media is doing a similar thing - in reverse. In a cynical, post-modern age, where a twisted version of the American Dream has percolated through even our society ... (thank-you, Mr. Cowell) ... we aspire to (or are resentful of) glamour. Either way, it's important that we think of stars as being nothing special - only famous. A lot of stars maintain a staff of people who create their social media presence for them ... And create the illusion that they are just 'normal' people when, in reality, their lives and their jobs are about as far from the reality of their audience's as possible.

Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines

Bradley Cooper takes the selfie, Ellen posts it, a bunch of actors are in it but, somehow, it all becomes about Jennifer Lawrence just because she was in the picture?!

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn't exist and the greatest trick Jennifer Lawrence ever pulled was making people think she's anything other than the usual, run of the mill, celeb. Although, I am sure more credit goes to her PR machine.

I prefer 'icily remote' to the blatantly attention-seeking. There's an inverse correlation between the amount of selfies someone takes and how likeable I find them.

Twitter could have done with a mention - stars can send the most banal and "reassuring" messages instantly to thousands of followers.
They've never before seemed more like "mates", eg Ellen Page recently told her followers "let's get Alia Shawkat to join twitter", like they're all a bunch of friends.

It kinda works...

+1

The modern Will Smith vehicle is a Trabant, with his ego in the passenger seat and his kid in the back getting carsick.

It's quite an interesting topic really and one that's probably more open to interpretation than just "Selfies = relatable." Going back to Jennifer Lawrence, I think she's popular for very good reasons; she looks great (but in a way that girls can easily achieve if they wish), she's a good role model (ambitious and self-reliant) and quite importantly, she makes good films and takes quite varied roles. I can respect that more so than those mannequins from Essex or the Kardashians. And besides, has Anne Hathaway really done anything outside of the Rom Com/princess comfort zone? Scarlett Johansson sometimes comes across as a diva but I think at least her film career has been quite varied.

I don't really care much for Twitter so I like celebrities based on their work more than anything. I don't like Tom Cruise as I find his films very samey ever since the 80s, but I can't deny that he was really good in Collateral. Nothing changes between his cookie-cutter heroes. Brad Pitt pretty much only does "Brad Pitt vehicles" these days but his earlier stuff is fantastic - Fight Club, Se7en, Twelve Monkeys; all great performances and all very different. The guy wasn't afraid to take a risk or make himself look bad.

AND PROM IS IN THREE HOURS!!!!!!!

I've seen a few Jennifer Lawrence interviews and I like how she doesn't take herself too seriously, someone who can 'act' on screen and be real in real life. Charlize Theron has some funny stuff out there too. Also I never understand why people have such a downer on Tom Cruise, I really like the guy, he makes good movies and his religious beliefs neither affect or influence me so good on him. I have to admit it must be tough being so famous and so constantly aware of stepping over the line in case it damages your credibility...we should accept actors warts and all not put them on a pedestal and expect them to live virtuous lives.

Dennis Davies , stop writing nonsense . Anne Hathaway is a triple threat talent that is beyond rom-com/princess roles . Plus, she is a critically-acclaim stage , television , and film actress. Jennifer Lawrence is not a triple threat talent , nor can she act on stage ( the trust test of acting ability ) . I'm just not a fan of Lawrence's frozen facial expression ( she seems to only have one or two facial expressions ) , her bad line deliveries , and her difficulty expressing genuine emotion with her eyes . The poor girl is not trained , and it always shows in her acting . Recently , she was completely lost and struggling in XMEN : Days of Future Past ( again she acted with the same frozen facial expression , no emotion with her eyes , and wooden line delivery ) . What made matters worst , she was acting opposite some of the best classically trained / theater actors that made her acting even more dreadful . Jennifer has had the best PR since Julia Roberts - another mediocre actress that is overpraised because people like her sunny disposition .
P.S. , Ryan Lambie , why do you and others continue to compare Anne Hathaway to Jennifer Lawrence ? Why pit these ladies against each other ? J-Law is no the gold standard for young actresses , especially not in the acting department . I've seen some of Anne Hathaway's interviews and award speeches, and she comes across as genuine , warm, easy-going , and professional. Give her credit for not dumbing herself down like many of these young female celebs .

Are you Ann Hathaway's agent?

Umadbro?

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