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Jonathan Romney: Now we have only celebrities...

The death of Elizabeth Taylor ends the golden era of the 24-carat star

Elizabeth Taylor, we've read countless times this week, was "the last of the great Hollywood stars". True or not, let's say for argument's sake that Taylor's passing will mark the end of a certain kind of stardom – one embodying glamour, inaccessibility and, in her life off-screen, a heady dash of the novelistic.

Not that such extravagance and drama – in her case, the diamonds, the divorces, the extraordinarily ample persona that took in the extremes of sublime sophistication and strident trashiness – went out with Taylor in her prime. Right up to the present, countless celebrities have had lives easily as eventful, as loud, as theatrical; Anna Nicole Smith's life, after all, justified the writing of an opera.

But the notorious names of our day have rarely seemed to be fated to their successes and excesses in the way that Taylor was. Never underestimate the impression of destiny in the making of a star. Her life off-screen was the stuff of high fiction, somewhere between Madame Bovary and Harold Robbins. But she was also blessed with the authentic tinge of uniqueness that makes real screen stars – the sense that she and only she could have starred in both National Velvet and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Stardom is made by this impression of predestination, the sense of the perfect fit. Celebrity can be had by luck – by being in the right place at the right time, however briefly. But stardom implies the idea of someone inevitably coming to play the role that was always rightfully theirs. We feel that only Bogart could truly embody the noble-cynic gumshoe, only Dietrich the cosmopolitan vamp – and only George Best the self-destructive golden boy, only Madonna the material girl as post-feminist heroine.

Stardom today rarely carries the same sense of necessity as it did in Hollywood's Golden Age. Look at the big releases of this week and next. The thriller Limitless stars the likeable up-and-comer Bradley Cooper: he may yet become an authentic name attraction, but if he doesn't, Hollywood surely won't weep too long before sending for the next candidate. As for fantasy epic Sucker Punch, its cartoonish ingenue Emily Browning may just conceivably become famous, but that will only be a side effect of a product that's really about high concept and shifting computer games.

In many cases, what seemed only recently like cast-iron, fail-safe star quality has been startlingly devalued. Last year's big Tom Cruise vehicle Knight and Day looked like an anachronism before it opened, a far cry from the Mission: Impossible days before the actor sabotaged his charisma with manic chat-show antics.

In Hollywood, stars have undergone a progressive degradation from distant embodiments of mystery, glamour, superiority to mere household names, as blandly functional as Pepto-Bismol. The old stars seemed to be innately qualified for their roles on and off screen, even if you knew that deep down it was largely pretence. You believed John Wayne had knocked around on the prairies; that Bette Davis could sling barbed salon repartee with the best of them; and that Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner knew something about earthly desire that was still classified information in the Forties and Fifties.

That perfect fit between on- and off-screen selves was perhaps first eroded with the advent of the Fifties players for whom it was paramount to be seen as actors – Brando, Dean, Clift. The erosion continued through the De Niros and the Streeps, to the point where Hollywood stars insist on being seen – reasonably enough – as sober, dignified professionals. As a result, today stars are to the film industry what haute couture is to the fashion business. They don't necessarily sell at the box office, but they generate cachet, goodwill.

As for the occasional news that a "star is born", it means little in terms of screen aura, for new faces are spun into phenomena before they have the chance to become presences. It takes one impressive role, and a promising talent like Carey Mulligan is over-exposed as the New Thing – a model, a muse, a face you're weary of as soon as you've come to know it.

As the famous lose their halo of ineffability, they become public property without real value. The star is replaced by the celebrity. There is something to be said for the democratic value of unseating fame's once untouchable divinity, of the notion that any Joe Schmo can be a star. But that idea – polemically proposed by Andy Warhol, then by Seventies punk culture – was subsequently seized on with crushing literalness by the mainstream, resulting in the multitudes of ephemeral pseudo-stars born of reality TV, and the poison-chalice patronage of Simon Cowell.

Authenticity, by the way, doesn't come into the equation. People complain that stardom becomes meaningless when the X Factor simulates it with such obvious artifice; but it was ever so. Not a single obituary of Jane Russell, last month, did not hinge on her being launched as a ready-made sensation by the cleavage-fixated Howard Hughes.

Pop openly plays with stardom's provisional and artificial nature. Increasingly, its names have become names pure and simple, strong brands that don't actually need recognisable personalities behind them. The extreme version of this is Lady Gaga, about whose "real" self we know next to nothing: she's less a personality than a hugely versatile walking event, defined only by whatever lobster or beef ensemble she is wearing.

By contrast, in the less knowing realm of film, stars tend to take themselves at face value. They are required to appear socially responsible (if only by driving Priuses) and high-minded (if only in the awards season). No wonder that they tend to sabotage their prestige by making themselves either too accessible or too foolishly lofty, Tweeting obsessively like Demi Moore, or, like Gwyneth Paltrow, splurging sumptuous inanities – somewhere between Lady Bountiful and Mrs Dale's Diary – on her endlessly parodiable Goop website.

But these gaffes are the exceptions. The real enemy of contemporary stardom is an individual's inability to do or say anything really surprising without a publicist's supervision. The truly famous only get to open their mouths under the media equivalent of laboratory conditions, in TV studios and hotel-suite junkets. Old-school stars weren't necessarily required to say or do anything original – their roles did that for them – but before the iron curtain of PR control clamped down, there was at least the possibility that they'd expose themselves to off-duty scrutiny.

Bigger-than-life film stars still flourish in parts of the world – in South-East Asia, for example, where action artists still have the specialised prowess that once distinguished Hollywood's cowboy and comedy greats; and in Bollywood, where the biggest names still radiate an aura of luxury, drama, of the flamboyantly Olympian.

What makes these people stars, of course, is the primacy of what they do in front of the camera. That's why the Hollywood idols who still retain their sheen are those few whose screen-self eclipses whatever banal real-world dramas they provide for the gossip columns. That's why Brad, Angelina and that glacial hologram Nicole Kidman no longer convince, while those who do include George Clooney, the cheerfully protean Johnny Depp, the enduringly surprising Meryl Streep.

"The stars," critic Raymond Durgnat once put it, "are a reflection in which the public studies and adjusts its own image of itself...". But today, that image comes from the cheaper and more disposable mirror provided by celebs, whose adventures carry implicit moral lessons: lessons in fortitude, examples of bad etiquette, and a sense of "There but for the grace of God...". The speed with which such names are forgotten has a moral weight too: they remind us of that mediaeval notion, the Wheel of Fortune.

Whatever the vagaries of stardom, we are still magnetically attracted by talent and force of personality. Actors, singers, sportspeople who possess these qualities in the right combination will continue to become bona fide stars. The rest will have to trust in pushiness, and dumb luck. But the exalted likes of Elizabeth Taylor appear to become stars inevitably, through something loftier than just The Breaks – I'm talking about Destiny, no less. And our culture may not believe in that old-school concept quite enough for stardom to ever again mean what it once did.