Selfies, Jennifer Lawrence and the modern movie star

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.

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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.” 

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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.

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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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