100 years of movie stars: The age of rebellion

The post-war years saw film stars asserting their independence as never before, and acquiring a new, iconic status

To understand the changing nature of movie stardom in the 1950s and 1960s, you could do worse than start with Janet Leigh in the shower in that notorious scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960).

This was a film that Hitchcock shot very quickly with his television crew. It was considered a great risk for Hitchcock to kill off Leigh so early in the movie and to use such lurid violence. What the success of the film underlined, though, was the rapidly shifting relationship between audiences and movies, fans and stars.

We were in a new age of youth culture. In the 1950s, James Dean was credited with inventing the American teenager. Now stars were developing a wilfulness and independence that would have been unthinkable in the days of Irving Thalberg. It wasn't just the new "Method" actors such as Dean, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando who were shaking expectations about star behaviour. The old-timers were at it, too. John Wayne and James Stewart both began to play characters who were vindictive and worse. They also asked for new deals that would give them a share of the box office.

Old Hollywood was in decline - a process captured in Vincente Minnelli's Two Weeks In Another Town (1962), starring Kirk Douglas as a washed-up actor reduced to seeking roles in runaway productions in Italy, and in George Cukor's A Star Is Born (1954), in which the movie star, played by James Mason, is eventually driven to suicide. This sense of the instability of the old star system was heightened by many untimely deaths, such as James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.

Meanwhile, a new internationalism was rising. Brigitte Bardot and Jean-Paul Belmondo in France, Harriet Andersson in Sweden, and Anna Magnani and Marcello Mastroianni in Italy all demonstrated that it was quite possible to establish a reputation without having to decamp to Hollywood.

The studios, threatened by television, emphasised novelty and exploitation. Fox flaunted Monroe in big-screen CinemaScope spectacles such as Niagara (1953). Sword-and-sandal movies made a comeback - The Robe (1953), Ben-Hur (1959), The Ten Commandments (1956) - with stars such as Charlton Heston and armies of extras.

David Lean began to make his widescreen spectaculars. The irony, as Hitchcock understood, was that size didn't matter. Audiences flocked to see Psycho (1960) even if it was made with a television crew. And Leigh was provided with the iconic (albeit macabre) moment that all stars need to define themselves.

The star system didn't crumble. It became fragmented, contradictory and arguably more interesting. In Britain, the "chaps" who had dominated in the 1950s (Kenneth More, Jack Hawkins, Dirk Bogarde) were shunted aside by rougher, earthier actors such as Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole and Sean Connery. Similarly, actresses such as Julie Christie and Rita Tushingham had a spontaneity that old Rank stars such as Dinah Sheridan or Phyllis Calvert had lacked.

And, like every modern era, this one had its golden Hollywood couple, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor living out their own soap-opera saga of marriage and divorce always in the public eye. The fascination with them attested that, even in the era of Woodstock, Altamont, the Watts Riots and the Vietnam War, stars still mattered. They were still as cherished, and derided, as they ever had been before.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before