A star is an individual who is highly celebrated and deemed exceptional in a particular field or profession. The term has most commonly been associated with performers in popular media such as music, television, and, particularly, cinema. Stardom is closely linked to fame and celebrity, and these terms are often used interchangeably. The term “star,” which can be both noun (“a star”) and verb (“to star in”) originated in the popular American press of the early nineteenth century in relation to the expanding coverage of public figures and human interest stories. Articles in the so-called “penny press” about popular performers of stage and vaudeville had the effect of expanding public interest in the names and qualities of these recognizable individuals. The film scholar Richard DeCordova (1990) has demonstrated that the institution of cinema was important to the expansion of stardom at the start of the twentieth century. He identifies an emergence of interest in “picture personalities,” and the subsequent naming of performers on screen and in film studio publicity material, as crucial in the development of the Hollywood film industry and its star system.
It is often claimed that a publicity stunt in 1910 by the film studio IMP marked the start of the Hollywood star system. A false story about the death of popular actress Florence Lawrence was placed in the news press; the studio then denounced the article, drawing attention to her as their new star. Although revisionist historians have challenged the accuracy of these accounts, they acknowledge the emergence of a popular discourse on stardom by the 1910s. The circulation of stories about performers published during the late 1910s led to increased interest in the off-screen lives of leading actors, and by 1919 the Hollywood star system was sufficiently well established that a small group of powerful stars were able to found their own studio (United Artists). From this period until the 1950s it was commonplace for major Hollywood studios to sign named actors to long-term (usually seven-year) contracts, and the film industry promoted the circulation of famous performers – stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, James Stewart, and many more – consolidating Hollywood’s status as a globally dominant cinema. From the 1950s, spiraling costs and the popularity of television and other leisure activities brought an end to the long-term contract star system. Contemporary stars are self-employed, represented by powerful talent agencies, and hired on a per-project basis. By the start of the twenty-first century, major “A-list” Hollywood stars were able to earn upward of US$20 million per film plus gross profit participation, consolidating perceptions of the exclusivity of stardom. Stars remain important to the industrial function of the entertainment media as they offset risk by guaranteeing recognition (and audiences) for the products in which they appear.
Although Hollywood cinema is often viewed as a paradigmatic site of film stardom, other countries have their own star systems. Each has its own hierarchy of film, television, music, and sports stars, which have national if not always global appeal and recognition. British cinema, for instance, developed a distinctive film star system by drawing from theatre and music hall, promoting performers such as Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, and Diana Dors to popular stardom. Similarly, in France performers such as Max Linder, Brigitte Bardot, and Gérard Depardieu garnered star recognition. However, many European actors either moved to or worked in Hollywood to become global stars, for example Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, and Anthony Hopkins.
Asian cinema offers some notable exceptions to this trend, maintaining distinctive and widely popular star systems. The popular Indian film industry promotes stars such as Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai to global audiences, while both Chinese and Hong Kong cinema have stars that are also popular worldwide, such as Jet Li and Jackie Chan.
Outside of cinema, national star systems operate across various media. For example, television, popular music, and sports all maintain distinctive hierarchical forms of stardom. Although it has been argued that cinema offers the primary site for stardom, many of the most popular global stars are drawn from these other areas. Pop stars such as Michael Jackson, Bono, and Madonna and sports stars such as David Beckham, Muhammad Ali, and Tiger Woods are individuals celebrated not only for their achievements but also for their personal lives, and the stories that surround them are circulated through the mass media to an interested public.
Scholarly interest in stars has proliferated since Richard Dyer’s book Stars (1979), which argued that film stars could be understood as clusters of signs, or “star images,” that conduct ideological work by signifying cultural ideals, such as those connoting glamour, desirability, or beauty. However, work on celebrity pre-dates Dyer, such as the writing of social theorists Leo Lowenthal (1961) and Daniel Boorstin (1961). Boorstin famously argued that celebrity achieved through the mass media represented an artificial, manufactured fame; he called the celebrity a “human pseudo-event.” He contrasted this unfavorably with heroism: fame earned by (what he saw as) admirable skills or qualities. More recent research has illuminated the historical development of celebrity (Braudy 1997; Marshall 1997) as well as specific forms of film stardom (Gledhill 1991; Willis 2004). Writing on fan culture has also extended consideration of stardom by examining the forms of engagement audiences have with stars (Jenkins 1992; Gamson 1994; Stacey 1994). Current scholarly work on stardom and celebrity draws from a wide range of disciplines, and examines stars and their audiences in a variety of different media. Most approaches agree, however, that although stardom pre-dates modern communication technologies, the rise of the mass media facilitated a dramatic expansion of the sites and ways in which famous individuals can be consumed by audiences.
- Boorstin, D. (1961). The image: A guide to pseudo-events in America. London: Penguin.
- Braudy, L. (1997). The frenzy of renown: Fame and its history. New York: Vintage Books.
- DeCordova, R. (1990). Picture personalities: The emergence of the star system in America. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
- Dyer, R. (1979). Stars. London: British Film Institute. (Rev. edn 1998).
- Gamson, J. (1994). Claims to fame: Celebrity in contemporary America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Gledhill, C. (ed.) (1991). Stardom: Industry of desire. London: Routledge.
- Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual poachers: Television fans and participatory culture. London: Routledge.
- Lowenthal, L. (1961). The triumph of mass idols. In Literature, Popular Culture and Society. Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books, pp. 109–140. (Original work published 1944).
- Marshall, P. D. (1997). Celebrity and power: Fame in contemporary culture. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.
- Stacey, J. (1994). Star gazing: Hollywood cinema and female spectatorship. London: Routledge.
- Willis, A. (ed.) (2004). Film stars: Hollywood and beyond. Manchester: Manchester University Press.