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How To Use Movie Stars

May 16th, 2008

In my past few posts, I wrote about the misconceptions the blue suited penguins have about movie stars and why that has led so many to decry that the movie star is an endangered species worthy of federal protection. I also wrote about the actual financial impact movie stars have on movies. This leads me to today’s topic, how to properly use movie stars in your movie.

As you may already know, there is a difference between a movie star and an actor. A good actor is not necessarily a movie star. For example, character actor J. T. Walsh.

J.T. Walsh

And there are plenty of movie stars who can’t act. Case in point:

Vin Diesel Jennifer Lopez Jack Black

And once in a blue moon, you will come across that rarest breed, a movie star that can act.

Cary Grant

Now if you’re looking to do a small, intimate character study, a larger than life movie star in the lead role might be distracting from a creative or artistic point of view. For those roles, you’re better off casting a good character actor. And for big action extravaganzas you’re probably best off casting a movie star known for action. So what do you do with the movies in between? How do you best use movie stars to your advantage from a creative stand point?

I think Alfred Hitchcock had the right train of thought with regard to this aspect. Hitchcock knew how to use a movie star’s persona to expedite the storytelling process. What exactly do I mean? I’ll explain. Hitchcock made suspense thrillers and in these types of movies pacing is critical. If you were to cast an unknown character actor as the hero, the audience would need a reason to care about this character. You would have to spend time developing the character into one that the audience can sympathize with and root for. But this takes time. And in a movie where time and pacing is of the essence, too many scenes devoted to character development can slow down your thriller and bore your audience. But audiences already have a predisposition to like certain movie stars. By casting a movie star like Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart as the hero, Hitchcock could draw audiences into the story using the star power of his actor and therefore dispense with needless character development scenes. The actor’s persona provided a shorthand that Hitchcock used to his storytelling advantage.

A more contemporary example of this would be the casting of Harrison Ford as The Fugitive. Since audiences already know and like Harrison Ford, there was no need to develop the character of Richard Kimble. The director Andrew Davis could instead focus on the Kimble’s search for the one armed man who killed his wife and create a tense, suspense thriller. While the examples I’ve given for this have both been

The other way Hitchcock used movie stars to his advantage was by using the movie star’s persona to subvert an audience’s expectations and take the story in directions they might not expect. Take for instance the story of a man who might be plotting to kill his wife for the money. Ordinarily a movie like this might be too pedestrian to keep an audience’s attention even as a made-for-television movie. But cast Cary Grant as the potentially murderous husband and you’ll have audiences glued to their seats wondering whether or not he’s going to kill his wife. Suspicion was even nominated for Best Picture and earned a Best Actress Oscar for its female star Joan Fontaine.

Or take the story of a peeping tom who spends most of his time spying on his neighbor from his window. Not exactly a movie most people would see on a Saturday night. But cast Jimmy Stewart as the peeping tom and you have the classic Rear Window. By casting against type, Hitchcock was able to get audiences to watch a much darker movie than they might normally watch.

While the examples I have given have all been thrillers, this creative use of casting could apply to any genre. The casting of Drew Barrymore as the first victim in Scream is one example as is the casting of a fat Sylvester Stallone in Cop Land. As a filmmaker, you need to understand what each movie star brings to the table with their persona and the public’s perception of them. Follow Hitchcock’s example and use your movie star’s image to your best creative advantage.

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