Just Who Is a Movie Star, Anyway?


[Editor’s Note: Yesterday, Angelica Jade Bastién argued that Hollywood just doesn’t make first-rate movie stars anymore – and that franchises and superhero movies are to blame. “But what about Kevin Hart?” we asked her, as we first read the piece. Today, she’s naming names and showing her work.]

There are of course exceptions to the claim that Hollywood isn’t producing verifiable stars these days. We have Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Hart, Melissa McCarthy and Dwayne Johnson — all profitable and charismatic. But it takes more than that to be a star with a lasting legacy.

Johnson is fun to watch and attractive. But in terms of a compelling persona that we see develop throughout his actual films – well, that has yet to come into focus.

Lawrence has proven to be one of the most popular American actresses working today, and she’s never dull, but she suggests a blonder remix of people we’ve seen before: part Julia Roberts American sweetheart with considerable hustle, a dash of 1990s Cameron Diaz’s Cool Girl aesthetics, with a little feminism-lite action heroine. I wonder, sometimes, whether she’s too interested in being liked to embrace the sort of contradictions necessary for stars to ingrain themselves in the cultural imagination for decades. The real test for Lawrence will be when she gets older. Her popularity is acutely linked to her youth. The public loves relatable, vaguely raunchy, beautiful white women — until they get into their thirties.

Hart is a bit more complicated. He’s part hyper-verbal pipsqueak and part romantic lead. But he hasn’t had an outright stellar role that adequately showcases these dueling personas or signals he fully understands this image in the first place.

Out of all these examples it’s McCarthy I’m not worried about. She has something no other actor does – and she knows it. She mixes great verbal skills and a sort of wild, even grotesque femininity, communicating a heightened version of what modern women have to work through. She’s like the female id unleashed. We need more stars that understand themselves the way she’s proven to.

What about longtime popular, well-selling figures like Vin Diesel? He represents a certain kind of bland action star who finds success in a franchise and holds onto it for dear life. Hollywood has always had actors like this who fill a specific void (think dancers like Eleanor Powell at MGM in the 1930s) or are all-purpose stars (like Dennis Morgan and Ann Sheridan at Warner Brothers in the 1940s). But they at least have actual personalities. Diesel is instead the photo negative of a star. He’s only what you make of him.