Battle in Print: Film stars: from icons to role models

Nathalie Rothschild


The Golden Age of Hollywood evokes nostalgic images of a time when film stars were larger-than-life characters whose on-screen presence was breathtaking and awe-inspiring; a time when the film studio was were dreams were made, and the cinema a place where people shared them. At the heyday of the film industry, movies were ‘magic’, and actors on the big screen were named ‘stars’ to suggest their otherworldly, unreachable character. This was a period where black and white silent film turned into colour and synchronised sound, and when new genres - from screwball comedies to westerns and films noirs - evolved. Considering the relative novelty of the film industry, the exclusivity of the technology and inaccessibility of actors at the time, it is perhaps not surprising that cinema audiences back then were easily enchanted, surprised and dazzled.

Today, there are plenty of celebrities around, some with looks matching the great stars of the Golden Age, yet it is difficult to think of one that will become an eternal icon or define our era. When the star system emerged in Hollywood, actors’ images were carefully crafted by the studios they belonged to. They created distinct personas for actors, sometimes giving them new names and even new life stories. What the audience knew about the stars was what the studio wanted them to know. Today, studios still invest in stars and the two parties still seem to have a tense relationship, jostling over profits, how the stars should behave in public and what direction their careers should take. But what has fundamentally changed in celebrity culture is that now celebrities are encouraged to reveal as much as possible about their personal lives in order to retain the spotlight.

Celebrities who ‘tell all’, as many do, leave little room for fans to fantasise about them or to project their dreams onto their images. The more familiar celebrities become, the less suggestive they are of otherworldliness. It seems that to be an icon, a certain air of mystique must be upheld.

Today’s celebrities are continuously demystified, deglamourised and, at times, humiliated in public. This is partly down to the aggressiveness of magazines and websites dedicated to celebrity gossip, but is also encouraged by studios and celebrities themselves. Not only do agents and publicists push celebrities into the public eye, encouraging them to share the sometimes gory details of their private lives, but celebrities also aggrandise their own importance. The ‘Hollywood actor with a mission’ is becoming a more familiar figure, as celebrities lead off-screen campaigns on everything from ending poverty to saving the planet.

The fact that celebrities and studios can no longer easily seduce us points to a growing sophistication and savviness amongst cinema audiences. Yet today another form of celebrity culture prevails. On the one hand, news about celebrities - their addictions, marriages and divorces - is an increasingly familiar feature, not just of tabloids and gossip mags, but also of mainstream news. On the other hand, film stars and other celebrities increasingly use their fame to support and lead high profile campaigns on everything from education to foreign policy and climate change. Many of today’s celebrities, rather than upholding an air of haughtiness, have chosen to ‘come down to earth’ to fashion themselves as role models.

Since 9/11 in particular, it has often been said that Hollywood has had a ‘political awakening’. In recent years, films about the War on Terror, climate change and crises in the Middle East have become blockbuster successes and won accolades at international film festivals and the Academy Awards. But the thought of Hollywood once evoked images of glamour, intrigue and drama rather than social and political predicaments. At the heyday of the film industry what happened in Tinseltown was, at least for anyone not part of this weird and wonderful world, the stuff of dreams. Now, it seems it’s the stuff of the news.

The ‘campaign flick’: a new genre?

In recent years, films coming out of the US self-consciously tackle Big Issues and try to deliver a Message, and most have real-world campaigns attached to them. The ‘campaign flick’ is a growing new genre of earnest film.

Leonardo DiCaprio is an actor who has dabbled with both drama and factual campaign flicks. The trailer for his documentary The 11th Hour opens with dramatic shots of hurricanes and floods sweeping away men, women, children, cars and houses. Newsreaders speak of communities in the grip of unmitigated catastrophe before Leo, the hero, appears on screen. Standing at the top of an impressive valley, he tells us that ‘we face a convergence of crises’. He speaks of scientific proof and the need for our ‘pivotal generation’ to create a ‘sustainable world’. This is not the kind of talk normally expected from a Hollywood beau or action movie hero.

In Blood Diamond, set against the backdrop of Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s, DiCaprio plays Danny Archer, an ex-mercenary from Zimbabwe. The film ends by highlighting a real-life policy initiative - the 2003 Kimberly Process, designed to certify the origin of diamonds from sources that are free of conflict. Viewers are urged to use their consumer power to stop the trade in ‘conflict diamonds’.

Whatever happened to going to movies to escape the everyday trudge, to get a glimpse into other worlds and experience something larger than life? Of course films can be more than simplistic stories of romance, heroes and villains. As with other art forms, film, when at its finest, can challenge our ideas and fine-tune our aesthetic sensibilities. Films can invoke self-scrutiny and reflection and even inspire us to think, feel and behave differently. The idea that filmmaking and film watching can, and should, aspire to be more than mindless escapism is certainly worth defending.

The new heroes and villains

So is Hollywood’s political turn a sign that film stars have become more sophisticated and less shallow? Has the film industry undergone some serious self-scrutiny and decided it’s irresponsible to pump out blockbusters without changing the world in the process? In fact, while the increasingly popular campaign films pass themselves off as worldly, socially conscious and even radical, the directors and actors who produce them show less interest in unsettling our perceptions than in convincing us of the urgency of their messages by hammering them in with stark contrasts of Good v Evil. In such films, NGO workers, human rights campaigners and adventurous journalists are likely to be the heroes, while big business, the US government and terrorists are the villains.

Rather than representing a new, radical or sophisticated cinematic turn, today’s issue-led films are more like the cowboys and Indians films of yesteryear. In their caricatured portrayal of good and evil, they often come off as sanctimonious, preachy, moralistic and patronising.

These films’ stars are frequently not satisfied with on-screen crusades, but take their campaigns into the real world too. The idea that films and actors can be a force for good and a vehicle for change is intrinsic to today’s do-gooding celebrity culture. Though the ‘cult of celebrity’ is bound up with the history of cinema, and especially with Hollywood, in recent times it has reshaped not just the film industry and the cinema-going experience, but also public life and the political sphere. DiCaprio and others really believe that stardom confers the international authority to tell people and governments how to behave.

From politics with a vision to celebrity campaigns with a mission

Many actors have moved from the big screen to political seats of power in the past: Ronald Reagan, Shirley Temple and Arnold Schwarzenegger are three well-known examples. But it is more common for today’s film stars not to change careers, but to transform themselves into celebrity role models, starring in issue-led films and heading real-life ‘awareness-raising’ campaigns on everything from ‘humanitarian intervention’ to fighting corruption.

Where it once may have seemed embarrassing when film and rock stars pronounced on political questions, today social campaigners and politicians go out of their way to get celebrities to lend credibility to their causes. Al Gore’s Live Earth campaign is a case in point. After Gore’s power point presentation on the effects of climate change was turned into the blockbuster documentary An Inconvenient Truth, he sought extra credence for his cause through supporting Live Earth, the celebrity-studded jamboree for action on global lifestyle changes and curbing consumption.

Today, celebrity-led campaigns can wield a high degree of authority, and the fact that politicians are desperate to be associated with, and endorse, big spectacles like Live Earth and Live 8, shows that film stars and other celebrities are able to shape public life and debate to unprecedented degrees. This exposes a profound shift in political life itself - not just a new trend in Hollywood.

Like celebrities, politicians increasingly engage in issue-led campaigns rather than framing their policy decisions in the context of wider ideologies. And, unable to excite great interest or capture the imagination of the public, political leaders often hide behind celebrity culture. In the past year, issues ranging from the future of Africa to how to tackle climate change have been sparked and spearheaded not by politicians with a vision, but celebrities with a mission.

Politicians cheered the celebrities of the Make Poverty History campaign when they took it upon themselves to ‘represent Africa’ and they even welcomed ageing rock stars Bono and Bob Geldof to speak for the ‘voiceless’ poor at the 2006 G8 summit. More recently, a string of music and film celebrities have lent their support to Global Cool, a new campaign to tackle climate change. While serious political life is hollowed out, celebrity culture seeps in to fill the gap.

In the process, the idea of the film star changes too. Today’s big screen idols fashion themselves not so much as unreachable stars as on-the-ground heroes. The glamour of the movie stars of old was premised on the image of belonging to an otherworldly sphere shrouded in myths. Celebrities today have replaced that otherworldly character with a keenness to show that they care about the real world, and some use their celebrity status to interfere with how it is governed. Film stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Kiefer Sutherland seem just as eager to parade in front of news cameras as they are to act in front of movie cameras.

So does this mean film stars today are more down to earth, responsible role models in touch with reality? By taking it upon themselves to speak for the poor, urge international bodies to intervene in foreign conflicts and give the rest of us holier-than-thou lectures on lifestyle change, they appear curiously detached from us ‘ordinary people’ amongst whom they don’t bother to seek legitimacy before speaking on our behalf.

Fallen stars

In a sense it would seem more likely that film stars who actively try to be role models and shape social and political trends should have more lasting influence than glamorous stars like Marilyn Monroe or Cary Grant who stuck to making their impression on the big screen and, when off it, moving in secluded circles. Yet it is hard to think of an actor today who will have as lasting an influence. Plenty of today’s actors have the looks, but simply lack that awe-inspiring and monumental impact of film heavies like Marlon Brando or James Dean. The myth such actors were shrouded in helped them achieve their iconic status.

When actors today use their celebrity status to promote a political cause, some of that mystical and magic quality disappears. Of course actors supporting charities and social causes is not a new phenomenon. Even some of the older generation, iconic film stars, have used their celebrity status to help promote various causes and organisations. Audrey Hepburn, for instance, was named an official spokesperson for Unicef in 1988, and in 1993, the year of her death, her son accepted a posthumous award at the Oscars in recognition of her humanitarian efforts. Yet it is notable, in Hepburn’s case, that her charitable involvements came after she had made a mark as a film and style icon. Getting involved with charity was part of her withdrawing from the public eye, not something she did while she was still in the limelight as a Hollywood starlet.

Of course it is easy to fall into a rose-tinted nostalgic longing for the Golden Age, but simply lamenting the loss of the glamour and ‘magic’ of the movies would also be to ignore the vulgarity of that culture. Adoring and imitating stars is still a teen pastime, but it’s not something a mature cinema audience, or a mature society, should aspire to.

Also, hankering for a myth-laden past doesn’t help our understanding of how new, inspiring heroes can be forged in our anti-heroic age. Even Superman is not much of a hero anymore. Bryan Singer, the director of the 2006 film Superman Returns, said that ‘Superman has always reflected the times’.  Well, Singer’s Man of Steel seemed mostly preoccupied with personal, romantic dilemmas and failed to single-handedly rescue the world. The citizens of Metropolis asked if he still stands for ‘truth, justice and all that stuff’, as ‘the American way’ is not something Hollywood is overly keen to promote these days.

In terms of more human characters, today those who are, or champion, the down to earth, plain or the victimised are more likely to be the heroes. The audience, Hollywood seems to believe, wants to see characters on the big screen who they can either pity or realistically be like. Contrast RenŽe Zellweger’s everygirl Bridget Jones with Audrey Hepburn’s stunning Holly Golightly, for instance. Bridget may be endearing, but Holly is dazzling.

So what about the campaign flicks or ethical action movies? Surely by championing various humanitarian causes the stars of such movies come across as heroic and extraordinary? It is true that Western characters in such films are portrayed as active agents who can make a change, yet those whose cause they supposedly champion are mostly portrayed as passive victims. Likewise, many of the real world campaigns championed by today’s celebrity role models propagate a victimised, disempowered view of people in the developing world and elsewhere.

Today, as film stars ‘go political’, often taking their Message off-screen, and as information about their personal lives seeps into an increasingly depoliticised public sphere, celebrity culture is both more influential and less inspiring than ever. The rise of the campaign flick hero and the ubiquity of celebrity culture has had a dampening effect on how political messages are delivered - both on the big screen and in the real world.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked-online and a member of the Battle of Ideas committee. She is UK correspondent for Judisk Krönika - the Swedish Jewish chronicle - and has contributed to a range of publications in the UK and abroad, including Comment is Free, Ordfront and Hindustan Times. Nathalie has also worked on documentary film production with WORLDwrite in London and with Media Channel and Global Vision in New York.

 Festival Buzz

Fora TV logo Each to his iPod or Great Music For All

Each to his iPod or Great Music For All [Opens in new window]

"The Battle of Ideas is like a huge intellectual fair where a bewildering number of thinkers set out their stalls."
Julian Baggini, editor, The Philosophers' Magazine