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
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The Independent Culture

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.