100 years of movie stars: The age of celebrity

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The Independent Culture

A century after the "birth" of the movie star, not much has changed in the public's relationship with its favourite film idols. We are as fascinated as ever by the huge salaries the top stars earn, by their private lives and by the scandals many still dutifully manage to get themselves entangled in.

If anything, this fascination has mushroomed. The paparazzi regularly photograph stars taking their trash out, emerging drunk from clubs or lying on beaches. There is no moment of their daily lives that is too trivial for the celebrity magazines to pore over. Stars' diets and religious beliefs are considered important talking-points - and if a star throws a phone or has sex with a prostitute, we want to know all about it, immediately. The paradox is self-evident. We're now in the YouTube era: the brave new age of talent shows. In theory, stardom has been democratised. It's available to all of us if we're desperate enough for it.

Meanwhile, the lines between movie stars, sports stars, pop stars and socialites have begun to blur. David Beckham, Princess Diana, Paris Hilton, Tiger Woods and Susan Boyle have all been treated by the media with a rapt and invasive curiosity that used to be reserved for film stars alone.

In the new digital era, we've been told that the computer-generated "virtual" movie star may soon eclipse the flesh-and-blood version. Avatar has broken box-office records without big names as audience-bait.

At the same time, stars still drive movies. The lead actors in big Hollywood still earn vast fortunes. Tom Cruise is rumoured to have made $100m from The War Of The Worlds alone. Star salaries may be coming down as budgets contract in the wake of the recession, but it is instructive to note the venerable Harrison Ford still reportedly earned more than $60m last year.

At the same time, we're as excited as ever by new stars. In the UK, the name that every producer currently wants in their movie is Carey Mulligan (the precocious young star of An Education). She is the latest in a long line of "next big things", some of whom turn out to be the cinematic equivalent of "one-hit wonders" and a few of whom do indeed go on to become huge popular favourites. It is unlikely that she will be the last.

The death of Heath Ledger in 2008 provoked an outpouring of grief that rekindled memories of the equally untimely death of Valentino more than 80 years earlier. Star types haven't changed so much, either. Johnny Depp, among the best-paid and best-loved movie idols of the moment, has a doe-eyed quality not so dissimilar to that of a silent-era favourite such as Richard Barthelmess. A hellraiser like Russell Crowe has plenty in common with his fellow Aussie (and predecessor as Robin Hood), Errol Flynn. Cate Blanchett has a hauteur that recalls Katharine Hepburn.

Most of the old disparities remain, too. Female stars still hardly ever receive anything like those $20m-plus pay-days given to their male counterparts who have appeared in the latest Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Stars still set up their own production companies and try to negotiate percentage points on their films - and they are still treated by the studios as hired hands. This, you can't help thinking, will always be the case. The wealth and power of individual stars is only ever provisional: scandal, box-office failure and the ravages of time will undermine the best of them. Yet stars as a breed remain for many of us the biggest incentive for seeing films. In 100 years' time, whatever the advances in technology, it's a fair bet that this will still be true. For better or worse, stars are here to stay.