Why Do We Call Celebrities “Stars”? An Investigation

It makes so much sense to refer to certain kinds of celebrities as “stars.” At their heights, those people inspire the rest of us. They shine, larger than life, above us, and around us. They suggest, in their insistent omnipresence, a certain order to the world. To see the stars—or, more specifically, to believe in them, taxonomically—is to endorse a notion that the people before us on our screens, far from us and yet so close, exist, as the author Jeanine Basinger puts it, “on some plane between ours and that of the gods.”

But: Why are they “stars,” specifically? Why is Hollywood’s Walk of Fame populated by pentagrams of pale pink, rather than some other arbitrary shape? Why is it “stars” who are, obviously and incorrectly, Just Like Us?

The answer has to do with Ovid. And Shakespeare. And Thomas Edison. And Mary Pickford. Stars are stars, certainly, because they sparkle and shine—because, even when they are bathed in the limelight, they seem to have an incandescence of their own. But they are “stars,” much more specifically, because they are part of Western culture’s longstanding tendency to associate the human with the heavenly. They are “stars” because their audiences want them—and in some sense need them—to be.

The broad use of the word “star” to indicate a leader among us dates back, Peter Davis, a theater historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me, to the Middle Ages. Chaucer, who was also the first recorded user of the word “celebrity” and one of the first to use the word “famous,” also hinted at the lexical convergence of the human and the celestial: In The House of Fame, Chaucer’s dreamer worries that he might find himself “stellified.” “O God Who made nature,” the dreamer thinks, “am I to die in no other way? Will Jove transform me into a star?”

Chaucer, Dean Swinford points out in his book Through the Daemon’s Gate, was recalling Ovid’s notion of metamorphosis—the idea that humans could be transformed, in this case, into the shiny stuff of constellations. Chaucer’s words also carried architectural implications that would likely have been apparent to his audiences: “Fixing with stars,” Swinford points out, “implies the creation of a mosaic-like decoration of the interior of a cathedral.” The building was an intentional mimicry of the sky, and an unintentional anticipation of Hollywood’s own kind of firmament: It presented stars as a constellation of gleaming lights, always above.

The US Weeklyfied version of stellification is in many ways a direct descendant of Chaucer’s: It emphasizes the role of the celebrity as a body both distant and accessible, gleaming and sparkling and yet reassuringly omnipresent. Stars have long suggested a kind of order—and orientation—within chaotic human lives. They have long hinted that there is something bigger, something beyond, something more.

Little surprise, then, that—especially as the world of science became more familiar with the workings of celestial bodies—the world of the theater seized on their symbolism. Molière, Peter Davis told me, made Chaucerian use of the personified “star”: In School for Wives, in 1662, Horace describes Agnes as “this young star of love, adorned by so many charms.” Shakespeare, too, neatly anticipated Hollywood’s blending of the personal and the celestial in both his plays and his poems. “We make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars,” Edmund laments in King Lear, “as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion.” Love, too, in Shakespeare’s mind, makes its highest sense as a heavenly force, reassuring in its constancy: In “Sonnet 116,” the bard finds love to be “…an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken; / It is the star to every wand’ring bark, / Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”

It was in this context, Davis explains, that the notion of the human star came to refer, in particular, to the decidedly grounded firmament of the theater—and to the decidedly human person of the actor. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first reference to a “star” of the stage came in 1751, with the Bays in Council announcing, “You may Shine the brightest Theatric Star, that ever enliven’d of charm’d an Audience.” Around the same time, in 1761, the book Historical Theatres of London & Dublin noted of an apparently Meryl Streepian actor named Garrick: “That Luminary soon after became a Star of the first Magnitude.” Garrick would appear again in 1765, in an extremely effusive article written about him in The Gentleman’s and London Magazine: “The rumor of this bright star appearing in the East flew with the rapidity of lightening through the town, and drew all the theatrical Magi thither to pay their devotions to his new-born son of genius….”

By the 1820s, it was common to refer to actors as “stars”—for purposes of salesmanship as much as anything else. Theater touring became popular during that time, in both England and America. British actors, in particular, Davis told me, were often promoted as “stars” for their tours in the U.S. as a way to ensure that large audiences would come to witness their performances. Actors like Edmund Kean, George Frederick Cooke, and Charles and Fanny Kemble were celestially sold to American audiences. Sometimes, Davis notes, the actors were considered to have passed their prime in Britain; they used their American tours to reboot their careers back home. It was fitting: Through the wily dynamics of public relations, “star,” in the U.S., was born.

The term carried through as theater acting gave way to movie acting—as silent films gave way to talkies. “The observable ‘glow’ of potential stardom was present from the very beginning of film history,” Jeanine Basinger notes in her book The Star Machine. But it also took hold, as with so much else in Hollywood history, fitfully. As Jan-Christopher Horak, the director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, told me, the earliest films didn’t name the actors who starred in them. That was in part because the actors, many of whom had been trained in the theater, were initially embarrassed to be putting their hard-won skills to the service of this strange new medium.

It was also, however, because of the mechanics of the medium itself. On film, Anne Helen Petersen suggests in her book Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama From the Golden Age of American Cinema, the Hollywood star was a function of technology as much as it was one of culture. As early cinema developed in the early 20th century, bulky and unwieldy cameras made it difficult for cinematographers to capture anything beyond full-length shots of actors. “Because viewers couldn’t see the actor’s face up close,” Petersen writes, “it was difficult to develop the feelings of admiration or affection we associate with film stars.” As cameras improved, though, close-ups became more common, emphasizing actors’ faces and humanity. As sound became part of the cinema experience, voices, too, substituted full personas for lurching images. The “picture personality” had arrived. The “star,” yet again, was born.

With that came the star system that would give structure to Hollywood for much of its young life. Mary Pickford, Horak notes, one of the first movie actors to be billed under her (stage) name, soon began making films under her own banner. Charlie Chaplin, long before Andy Warhol would ironize the term, became a superstar. The star itself, in the era of spotlights and marquis banners, soon became a metonym—a convenient and fitting way to describe the people who studded Hollywood’s new and expanding firmament. The term that had taken life in the age of Shakespeare and Molière and early romanticism—a time that would, in some places, find art becoming obsessed with the dignity of the individual and the fiery workings of the human soul—came alive yet again in the glow of the screen.

It may be quaint, today, to talk of “movie stars.” This is an age defined, after all, by that other Chaucerian term: the “celebrity.” It’s an age of actor-founded lifestyle brands and internet-famous felines and people starring in reality itself. But our current celebrities, too, suggest something similar to what “star” has long evoked: orientation, transcendence, a kind of union between mortals and the gods they have chosen for themselves. “Celebrity” comes from the Old French for “rite” or “ceremony”; it suggests that even the most frivolous of the famous are filling a role that is, in its way, profound. Stars—fusions of person and persona, of the fleshy human and the flinty image on the stage and screen—have long offered a kind of structure within the hectic hum of human lives. They have long promised that most basic and inspiring of things: that we can be something more than what we are. “I am big,” Norma Desmond, that fading star, insisted. “It’s the pictures that got small.”

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