The Last Movie Star

September 29, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

With Paul Newman's death, they're almost all gone. By "they," I am referring to the movie stars - the legends of the silver screen whose images lit up the darkness for decades in movie palaces, drive-ins, and multiplexes across the country and around the world. Their names are legendary: Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Steve McQueen, Bette Davis, Marlon Brando, Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Gene Kelly, Paul Newman. There are, of course, many others, but a need for brevity demands that I stop somewhere. Newman's death is another reminder how few of these "great ones" remain among us, their memories living capsules to a fading era. Kirk Douglas, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Sidney Poitier… Are there others? (Of course, but not as many as you might think.)

We don't have movie stars anymore. At least not in the way there once were movie stars. Today, the biggest names in cinema are media stars. The mystique is gone. Film has become just another form of disposable entertainment. In 2008, we have Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, and countless here-today-gone-tomorrow flavors of the month. All are photogenic and capable, but none has the luminescence we associate with a true star. It's not their fault. Time moves on and eras change. Movies are not what they were in the '40s or '50s or '60s or even '70s. The capacity of a performer to become a star in the truest sense of the word no longer exists. People still love movies, but they don't treasure them the way they once did. Norma Desmond said it's the pictures that got small. Now, the magnitude of the stars has downsized to keep pace.

As an art form, cinema is young. At the time of my birth, in 1967, we were in the process of losing many of the greats of silent cinema. Now, some 40 years later, they are all dead. Gone also, and mostly during my lifetime, are most of the actors who defined the Golden Age. We have their performances, but there's still something a little sad about so many admired and beloved men and women slipping away. John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart, so indomitable on screen, were felled by cancer in real life. Newman, who was always more vulnerable and human on the screen than those two, has now joined their ranks, eliminated by the same killer. Yet we can still watch Cool Hand Luke or Casablanca or The Searchers. All it takes is a player, a DVD, and a TV set, and any of the great ones can visit our homes for the evening.

I wonder whether one of the key elements the separates the true movie stars from their dimmer counterparts of today is the black-and-white divide. Much has been written about how different the experience is of watching something in color versus black-and-white. The latter has a more dreamlike quality, imbuing what we watch with an "unreal" aspect, and maybe that's the missing ingredient - the secret herb consumed by the stars of the Golden Era but not by those who toil in Hollywood today. All of the greats spent at least a portion of their careers working in black-and-white, but many of today's biggest box office draws have never appeared in a black-and-white picture.

No one reading this column in 2008 will live long enough to find out whether the name of Hanks will rank alongside that of Newman in centuries to come. To the general population, Hanks is probably bigger than Newman now, and Clooney is certainly bigger than McQueen. But not to those who love and understand cinema. We can appreciate what today's actors bring to theaters, but it's not the same. Only time will tell whether the nostalgia of those who cherish movies in 50 years time will have the same reverence for 2008's crop of stars as I have for those of yesteryear.

When people refer to movie stars today, they talk about tabloid articles, baby photographs, TV appearances, and - most important of all - box office success. These are the crass, commercial means by which stardom is measured in 2008. Newman could never have competed in those arenas, nor would he have wanted to. The relationship between audiences and stars has markedly changed. Today, we like to see celebrities rise and fall - and the harder, the better. We build them up to tear them down. The great movie stars were beloved. Men wanted to be them; women wanted to … You know the saying.

This is not meant to be an obituary for Paul Newman. Rather, it's a commentary about what his passing represents. Others can write with greater eloquence and passion about the actor and his place in cinematic history. Like Mark Antony, I come not to praise this Ceasar, but to bury him. Newman the man is gone. Newman the movie star lives on, and will continue to live on long after my pen has fallen silent and the keyboards of my grandchildren's grandchildren have gathered dust.