100 years of movie stars: The action years

The stars of the 1970s and 1980s understood the allure of sex and violence. But they also knew how to perform, says Geoffrey Macnab
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The Independent Culture

Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, Lumet, Cimino, Peckinpah: the seismic shift in 1970s Hollywood was that the real stars were the directors.

In the wake of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), a new generation gatecrashed the studio system: freewheeling mavericks who wanted to make their movies on their own terms. As long as they turned a profit, the studio bosses tolerated them. The upside for the actors was that they were offered more challenging and offbeat roles. While the golden triumvirate of Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Steve McQueen provided continuity with the old-style star system, a new generation emerged. Jack Nicholson gave reckless, defiant character performances in films such as Five Easy Pieces (1970) and One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest (1975) – movies that today would be labelled as specialist, art-house fare – and became a huge star. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino pushed method-style intensity to new limits, while actors such as Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, who surely would have been "supporting players" in earlier times, became fully fledged stars.

Similarly, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Diane Keaton, Faye Dunaway and Meryl Streep all won Oscars: a sign that there were better, more provocative roles for such performers than there had been before.

But the great white shark in Spielberg's Jaws (1975) was a threat not just to swimmers on New England's beaches but to the star system as a whole. Jaws has a fair claim as the first summer tent pole movie – the big, high-concept picture driven by marketing that tried to make a killing over the opening weekend. It was followed by Stars Wars (1977), a film that revolutionised Hollywood's approach to marketing. Both films had strong actors (Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, et al), but stars weren't driving these movies. The failure of Heaven's Gate (1980), which helped to sink United Artists, wasn't just a blow for its director Michael Cimino but for the star system too. The movie was packed with A-list actors, but that didn't save it at the box-office.

Not for the first time, critics suggested that the age of the star was ending. Not for the last time, they were wrong. The breed merely adapted. John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978) was one of the most popular stars of the Seventies. The rise of Sylvester Stallone showed that audiences were still ready to root for the underdog. The boom in the video market helped create a new generation of action stars – Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren and others. Vigilante-style heroes were in vogue, from Charles Bronson to Clint Eastwood. Black American comedian Richard Pryor was hugely popular, both in filmed concerts of his performances and in his films with Gene Wilder. John Belushi and John Candy also had cult followings, while John Hughes's teen movies helped to create a new generation of teen stars. The Brat Pack and the young actors who appeared in Coppola's Rumblefish (1983) and The Outsiders (1983) included such names as Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Matt Damon, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn, Patrick Swayze, Kiefer Sutherland and Matthew Broderick. Who needed an old-style studio contract system when Hughes and Coppola were doing the studios' talent-finding work for them?