Flat White

How we lost our stars – and our beliefs

9 January 2020

5:00 AM

9 January 2020

5:00 AM

One of the most popular — and best-named books — ever written about Hollywood was Harold Robbins’s novel The Dream Merchants. Published in 1949, the novel dramatizes the struggle of a pioneer to create a film studio in early Hollywood. The title exactly captures the meaning and importance of Hollywood. Films dramatise or concretise, arguably better than any other art form, the potential of what men, women and life can be.

Film and television are collaborative art forms. While producers, directors, writers, cinematographers, and so on down the credits, all have important roles in creating the dreams and visions captured in a film or television show, I want to focus on the especially important role of actors. Actors are performance artists who create concrete, physical representations of individual men and women in action.

Actors bring fictional (and often real-life or historical) characters and their stories to life before our eyes and minds, but there is one specific type of actor that stands out from all others. The Star.

Let’s investigate the meaning and importance of the Star by focusing on what was the most popular film and television genre of them all. The Western.

John Wayne once noted how a star is more than a mere actor, “To stay a star, you have to bring along some of your own personality. Thousands of good actors can carry a scene, but a star has to carry the scene and still, without intruding, allow some of his character into it.”

Maureen O’Hara, Wayne’s friend and frequent costar, clarified the idea this way: “Every star has that certain something that stands out and compels us to notice them. As for me, I have always believed my most compelling quality to be my inner strength, something I am easily able to share with an audience.”

As Wayne and O’Hara indicated, a star has specific personal traits or qualities that are so strong in his or her screen persona that the star becomes an archetype or symbol of a type of person. For example, Sean Connery became an on-screen symbol of masculine danger and cool, Errol Flynn of roguish charm, Clark Gable of mischievous manliness. In Westerns, John Wayne became the symbol of rugged independence, Jimmy Stewart of decency, and Gary Cooper of the quiet, moral man.

On the female side, Greta Garbo became a symbol of exotic femininity, Katherine Hepburn of independence, Shirley Temple of benevolence and spunk, Marilyn Monroe of innocence, and Marlene Dietrich of confident, prowling sexuality and mystique. In westerns, Barbara Stanwyck represented the woman in charge, Maureen O’Hara feminine strength, and Vera Miles innocent beauty.

When “that certain something” that O’Hara cites is so defining and dramatic in some actors that the performer “leaps” from the screen and captivates us, he or she is said to have charisma. If the actor’s specific charismatic traits are desirable in a culture, that actor might become popular. He or she is now a Star.

Some stars become so popular that many people view them as national icons. Leslie Howard came to represent the elegant but strong Englishman, Maurice Chevalier the charming, urbane Frenchman, Paul Hogan the down-to-earth likeable Aussie.

Stars are not only popular, but many become role models; in our admiration we fashion ourselves after them.

But not all stars have traits we admire or emulate. Some popular actors express dominant traits that become archetypes of people we fear or loathe. Witness the power of such on-screen villains as Jack Palance, Peter Lorre, Lee Van Cleef, Christopher Lee and Dennis Hopper. To expand just one example: During his long career, Peter Lorre came to represent the slippery, untrustworthy sniveler, such as Ugarte in Casablanca. No one wants to be an Ugarte. Such actor/stars are warnings to us, cautionary tales of characters that we don’t want to be like.

Further, there are actors with popular on-screen personas who are not lead actors. They have careers as character actors whose dominant traits often amuse and intrigue us in art but would horrify us to experience in real life. For example, we watch transfixed such western character actors as Jack Elam, Dan Duryea, Andy Devine, and Gabby Hayes. Perhaps the greatest of them all was Walter Brennan, who made a long career of playing ornery, kvetching old men. (Was Walter Brennan ever young?) On TV, there was Ken Curtis as Festus Hagen in Gunsmoke, the grumpy hillbilly deputy; and Dennis Weaver as Chester, the annoying mediocrity but good soul and loyal deputy. We might be entertained by the traits and attitudes of such characters, but we don’t want to be like them.


Many western actors, especially in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, were such compelling and popular screen presences that they became symbols of the westerner. In the halcyon days of the classic western, 1939 to 1969, countless film fans identified with and were inspired by the gentlemanly authority of Randolph Scott, the quiet strength of Audie Murphy, the chiselled laconic force of Clint Eastwood, the toughness of Charles Bronson. We remember John Wayne’s walk, Jimmy Stewart’s stutter, and Clint Eastwood’s squint. These cowboy stars and their personas and trademarks were recognized and imitated around the world.

Ask many elderly non-Americans across the globe which Americans they love and admire and you will often hear the names Jimmy Stewart, Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. When Wayne died in 1979, a Japanese newspaper declared, “Mr America passes on.” Ronald Reagan, then on his way to the White House, remarked: “To those back home and others around the world he became a symbol of the determined American fighting man.” A year before Wayne’s death, Elizabeth Taylor testified to Congress that John Wayne “gave the whole world the image of what an American should be.” Film star John Wayne had become a symbol of America itself.

Marlon Brando insightfully remarked upon the power and importance of actors and stars when he stated: “I realised… that actors make a contribution to peoples’ lives, giving us a gift that you can’t buy. Something that they can imbue with power and beauty and magnificence.” Great actors and stars create characters that inspire us.

While directors are poets with pictures, actors are poets of action, like statues of (classic) art galleries come to life. Great actors and stars are a gift to our lives because they show us in three dimensions and action our potential as human beings, the greatest possibilities for our lives and selves, good or bad. Actors give us the palpable vision of what we can make ourselves.

Each of us, especially when young, looks into our self and glimpses, even if just emotionally, what we hope is our deepest and best self. But each of us when maturing needs a more perfect vision of our not yet fully developed or consistent self. So, we gaze longingly to the stars (and to books, and history and news reports) to find the role models of our best potential self.

We discover Sean Connery, John Wayne, or Katherine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and so on. And we develop within ourselves the dominant traits and ideals of the stars we identify with. Children wanted to be like the Lone Ranger or Shirley Temple. Adults wanted to be like John Wayne of Katherine Hepburn. Actors are the “medium” or form that show us these traits in action. Stars present them in dazzling clarity and light.

Movie star gazing was once a proper and rewarding exercise of the soul. It reflected a deep human need for art and its visions of people and life. Art has inspired and helped humans since a caveman first painted a heroic hunter on a cave wall.

Novelist and former screenwriter Ayn Rand once wrote that “The basic purpose of art is not to teach, but to show — to hold up to man a concretized image of his nature and his place in the universe.” Films “hold up” views of man and life in a vast range of positive and negative depictions, depending on the philosophy of the writer, producer, director, actor, and so on. How we the audience respond to art depends on our own philosophy, our own deeply held values and beliefs.

How people react to art can be greatly influenced by the period in which they live, by its dominant values and ideals that they absorb or embrace.

From the dawn of the Enlightenment to recent modern history, countless millions of individuals thirsted for art that reflected the sight of men and women of great virtue and courage. More specifically, these people wanted to experience stories of strong individuals standing resolutely alone making hard choices and then enacting them skillfully and successfully or, even more concretely, they desired to see champions in epic adventures overcoming terrible obstacles. They craved to see witty detectives defeating evil. They craved to see clever women outsmarting dishonest or ambivalent men. They were excited to see a judge of principle sentencing another judge who had compromised with evil. That is, they wanted heroes.

Since the first short reels were produced in the 1890s, American movies have dramatized heroes of many types across many genres: the police and private detective, the soldier, the explorer, the swashbuckler and costumed super hero, to name but a few. But even in a period that generally enshrined heroes, American silver screens did not portray every type of hero. There was never a great hero from or film about the American Revolution, and there have been few if any great biographical dramas about real-life creators like Frank Lloyd Wright, John D. Rockefeller and Cecil B. DeMille. How many business heroes have you seen on big or small screens? The portrayal of America’s greatest film heroes often fell to the American westerner.

The heroes of westerns were admired not because they were skilled killers or had immense physical strength. Western heroes were admired because of their virtues and ideals. They had principles. The western hero is an independent man or women with such virtues as integrity, competence, and courage. The western hero fights for the life-affirming values and ideals of justice, freedom, rights, and happiness. This American hero acts in a world where right and goodness win.

John Wayne stated many years ago that “Nobody should come to the movies unless he believes in heroes.” Westerns gave us American heroes and great lives that inspired millions of us. We saw Will Kane and reflected on his integrity. We watched Shane and appreciated benevolence, goodness and competence. We witnessed Ethan Edwards and were girded by his courage. We studied Mattie Ross and were motivated by her never wavering to act ethically in new and dangerous situations. We were inspired to act seeing the Magnificent Seven overcome great odds, Maverick outsmart malice, Matt Dillon stands resolutely against evil, the Wilder family build their farm and town.

These western heroes stood tall, and to look them in the eye we raised ourselves. In doing so, we made ourselves better people. All heroic and benevolent art can inspire, but westerns, have perhaps inspired us more than any other film genre.

But Hollywood has withered over the last five decades. The golden age of westerns ended in 1969 after the release of True Grit. Except for a few rare bursts of light, our screens today no longer explode with great heroes or shimmer with visions of great minded men and women.

Today, there are many good actors but very few stars. Angelina Jolie and Chris Hemsworth (and perhaps newcomer Gal Gadot) are exceptions. There are many reasons for the dimming of the films and stars of Hollywood: poor scripts, the tragic and naturalistic sensibility of modern stories, the malevolent philosophy of producers and directors, and the low tastes of many viewers, but actors themselves have also imploded.

Actors are no longer onscreen constellations of high values and virtues. We once had Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, Sidney Poitier, Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. The stars fell to earth.

The implosion of actors, screen stories and film heroes is a consequence of something much larger than just individual actors, writers or producers. Stories and actors reflect the culture that gives them birth and sustenance. Heroic, virtuous visions of life are not the philosophy or sensibility of our times.

Our current world extols the everyman, produces reality shows about mediocrities famous for being famous, and prefers to render ugly slices of “life.” In such a values desert, as the world got smaller the movies shrivelled and screen heroes shrank. (It really was “the pictures that got small.”) And the western and western heroes died.

The fundamental reason westerns perished was the reversal in the dominant intellectual values of America, the rejection of its founding ideals that gave birth to the Old West and to the art that recreated it. Reason was supplanted by mysticism and scepticism, self-interest by self-sacrifice, individualism by collectivism. Self-assurance was replaced by self-doubt, and hero worship by cynicism.

Classical westerns and great films generally will not be reborn until our culture has a renaissance, when the rational ideals and virtues that made the real west and inspired western movies are reborn. Then we will not be viewing flickerings on digital cave walls but will be looking up at giant shimmering screens in the heavens showing us visions of giant men and women. We will be experiencing “dreams” of life as it can and should be.

This great art form called film will truly inspire us to struggle to create better souls and lives. When Hollywood is run by Dream Merchants.

Scott McConnell is a writer/story consultant in Melbourne Australia and Los Angeles and the writer of the unproduced western screenplays My Father’s Son, The Two Cowboys and Dudageree.

(Very minor parts of this article were extracted from The Meaning of the Western, originally published in Quadrant.)

Illustration: Seven Arts Productions/United Artists/MGM.

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