Heavens above – we all love stars

TV star Martine McCutcheon in the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, at the National Theatre.

TV star Martine McCutcheon in the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, at the National Theatre. She found eight shows a week demanding. - Credit: PA

With the BAFTAs this weekend, the Oscars just around the corner and with The Oliviers looming on the horizon, it seems that the world is jammed packed with acting royalty. The National Television Awards broadcast last week just underline the fact that star names sell tickets and boost ratings.

Keora Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham. It is more difficult now for an unknown to win a starring r

Keora Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham. It is more difficult now for an unknown to win a starring role in a feature film.

Movie stars were created at the very beginning of film – Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin were turned into global supertstars in a few short movies.

Keira Knightlkey in her break through role in Bend It Like Beckham. It is more difficult now for an

Keira Knightlkey in her break through role in Bend It Like Beckham. It is more difficult now for an unknown to find stardom in a film.

Star names, of course, were nothing new. The theatre had been creating stars for years people like David Garrick, Ellen Terry, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree had been packing them in for years. Even in Shakespeare’s day there had been stars – Richard Burbage, Ned Allen, Will Kemp had been pulling in audiences courtesy of their acting talents and their stage presence.

People pay to see their favourite actors and that is why the star system works. People relate to people. People like heroes and role models – also stars tend to be charismatic individuals that draw people’s attention.

Although a little bit of promotion never hurts – again this goes all the way back to Elizabethan England when Will Kemp gained fame for dancing from London to Norwich – one of the great things about star making is that the public actually decides who is a star and who is not.

Also stars come and go. In the 1970s Burt Reynolds was the biggest movie star on the planet but by the late 1980s he was working in TV and straight to video productions. His place was taken by Austrian muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger who through films like The Terminator, Total Recall, Predator, Commando and The Running Man proved himself to be a huge box office draw,

But, nothing is forever and a series of increasingly formulaic films like Last Action Hero, True Lies and End of Days and a need to be a family entertainer, which produced such cringe-making comedies as Twins and Jingle All The Way saw his star fall.

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But, sometimes stars can overcome a fall from grace. In the late 1930s Katharine Hepburn was famously dubbed “box office poison” after audiences stayed away in droves from such films as Sylvia Scarlet, Bringing Up Baby and Holiday.

In a surprisingly modern move, she took her career in own hands, went back to the theatre, had a huge Broadway hit with The Philadelphia Story and then returned in triumph to the big screen with the movie version of the stage show.

Her golden years partnered with Spencer Tracy then followed.

On this side of the Atlantic, Frankie Howerd weathered similar falls from favour. He came back several times – once in the mid-60s thanks to Peter Cook and the Establishment Club, then because of the success of Up Pompeii and then bizarrely his final rescue, in the 1980s, was effected by the nation’s students.

Howerd was such a unique and charismatic performer that he was always being rediscovered by a new audience.

So, if we all love star names, if I love star actors, then why am I becoming increasingly worried that theatre, films and television are becoming too dominated by star casting?

The problem is that not only has the nature of stardom changed – bizarrely, it is now harder to become a star.

In the past each arena of the arts had its own stars. Theatre had its big names, so did film and television. Now, the areas are increasingly starting to overlap. The result is we are seeing fewer people take on more roles.

In producers’ parlance fewer people today can “open” a movie, a West End show or launch a TV series.

This leads to miscasting. This is when the people bank-rolling a project demand the director cast “a name” – someone who will guarantee a successful opening rather than casting the best person for the job.

Watching Les Miserables is a quick demonstration that star names are not necessarily the right people for the roles. Even though they were all first class actors and despite the fact that Hugh Jackman is a trained song and dance man, none of the all-star cast could actually sing the songs.

The people who could were to be found in the tavern run by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. These were the West End actors who had been given cameos in the movie as a nod to the success of the show.

Yet, as good as these theatre actors are, no-one in today’s world would have risked a multi-million dollar movie by giving them the roles. Yet I have no doubt that they would been superb – having played the roles night after night on stage.

In the old days there was some movement between theatre and film. Today theatre stars inhabit a very closed world. An actor who prefers to work in the theatre is regarded with deep suspicion by our celebrity obsessed culture.

There are more opportunities for TV stars to make their mark in theatre these days because invariably they are the bankable names that the financiers like when casting their expensive West End extravaganzas.

In the old days theatre developed and brought on its own stars – as did film – you saw them first in smaller roles and then watched them become increasingly confident as they won larger parts.

This is how Ruthie Henshall and Kerry Ellis won their star roles – by starting off in the chorus or as understudies. The same is true with film actors. Every overnight success had a dozen forgotten walk-on parts or supporting roles which were conveniently wiped from history when they made it big.

Today stars are parachuted in, largely from TV, to take charge of an expensive theatre blockbuster without the necessary preparation for an eight shows a week run. There is a reason why theatre stars used to move slowly up the cast list because it takes times to develop the stamina to do an eight show week.

The collapse of Martine McCutcheon in My Fair Lady and the vocal trouble that Connie Fisher developed during the run of The Sound of Music is proof of the strains that a long West End run can provide.

Likewise, Hollywood is turning its back on tried and tested movie stars in favour of young TV talent to help boost their marketability. It’s the names on the poster rather than the story being told that sadly seems to count for more these days.

Today there is less of a chance for an unknown like Keira Knightley to land a starring role in Bend It Like Beckham and immediately be turned into a star. Today they are more likely to cast someone who already has a profile on television.

Yes, we need stars but we also need talent and a diverse range of stars to make sure we have the right stars in the right roles. At times you can’t escape the feeling that a star name is being cast because they will attract audiences and not because they are right for the role.

So as the awards are handed out this weekend and in the coming weeks let’s hope that we provide the opportunity for more stars to shine rather than just relying on the same few personalities to come up with the goods.

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