Stars

STAR PERFORMANCE

While film technique has undergone substantial revision throughout film history, narrative filmmaking has maintained certain basic conventions to center and emphasize the star performer. Leading roles, close-ups, backlighting, tracking shots, or character-related soundtrack melodies are just some of the narrative and aesthetic devices repeatedly used to isolate and focus on star performers on-screen. Despite historical differences between styles in filmmaking, the persistence of these devices for nearly a century has resulted in the establishment of widely instituted aesthetic conventions in star performance.

Between the star and the larger ensemble of actors making up the cast, a distinction can be drawn between what Richard Maltby (p. 381) describes as the "integrated" and "autonomous" qualities of performances witnessed in popular cinema. While performances by the majority of actors appearing in a star-driven feature film will remain submerged and integrated into the flow of the narrative, the presentational techniques of star performance give the stars greater autonomy by lifting them out of the general narrative to isolate and foreground their actions. When Kate Winslet is first introduced in Titanic (1997), she appears on the crowded pier in Southampton among the hordes waiting to board the ship. Centralized and tightened framing, combined with an overhead craning shot, costume, lighting, and a surge of the musical score, all serve to differentiate her from the supporting actors and extras. When Winslet's colead, Leonardo DiCaprio, is introduced, the camera lurks behind his head, immediately creating an enigma within the shot, and the following montage then picks him out from the three other card players he is seated with. It would be easy to believe this autonomous quality is a result of acting or star presence but it is entirely an effect of film technique.

Throughout film history, stars have become associated with particular breakthrough performances that made their reputations: Brigitte Bardot in Et Dieu … créa la femme ( … And God Created Woman , 1956), James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931), Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel (1930), Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (1990) are just a few examples of performances that could be regarded in this way. Such performances not only serve to give the star a widespread public profile but also become defining statements in that star's on-screen identity.

Where the entire construction of a film seems to rest upon the continuity of a star's established qualities, then it is appropriate to describe such films as "star vehicles," for they maximize exposure of the star's distinctive qualities. In the star vehicle, the continuities of a star's on-screen identity override the differences of character: whatever the particular role, in the films of Cameron Diaz or Brad Pitt, the central character always remains to some extent "Cameron Diaz" or "Brad Pitt." This is not to say that the star vehicle merely displays the "natural personality" of the star performer, for the on-screen identity of the star is as much a performed act as the individual roles he or she plays.

Star vehicles are frequently constructed in order for a star to demonstrate a particular feat or skill for which he or she is well known. After Elvis Presley's rapid rise to music stardom, the melodrama Love Me Tender (1956), set immediately after the end of the Civil War, may not have appeared the most obvious movie debut for him. However, despite its historical context, the film still plausibly integrated songs by Elvis into the narrative, and his subsequent roles in Loving You (1957) and Jailhouse Rock (1957) fully showcased his contemporary youth-orientated musical appeal. Similarly, after several decades working as a performer and director in Hong Kong cinema, Jackie Chan had acquired a reputation for his physical performances combining martial arts maneuvers with slapstick humor. This mixture of talents was subsequently foregrounded once Chan moved to Hollywood, as evident in Rush Hour (1998) and Shanghai Noon (2000). An Elvis song or Jackie Chan fight can therefore been seen as an example of the

Clint Eastwood brought his western persona to the role of Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971).
conscious organization of a film's narrative in order to reserve moments for the performance of the "star turn."

So resonant is the breakthrough performance or star vehicle that any departure from the roles played in those contexts is frequently judged through reference to the familiar type. Critical commentators regarded Jim Carrey's performances in The Majestic (2001) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) as straight roles aimed at transforming the comedy star's established on-screen identity. In these cases, Carrey's performances received a largely positive critical reception. However, in other cases, the continuity of a star's name may bring such a weight of expectations to a film that it becomes impossible for that star to break from type. For example, When Harry Met Sally (1989) provided Meg Ryan with a breakthrough role that associated her with the contemporary romantic comedy, resulting in further romantic roles in Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and French Kiss (1995). Through these roles, Ryan's name became so burdened with generic expectations and a particular character type that her appearance in the war drama Courage Under Fire (1996) received uniformly poor reviews, conditioned by the apparent implausibility of accepting Ryan in a combat drama. Continuity therefore builds but also restricts the on-screen identities of film stars, and star performance always rests on a delicate balance between the needs of continuity and the limitations of typecasting.

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