Who you callin’ legend?

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LAUREN BACALL once described as a ‘perfect combination of sultriness and savvy, steeliness and style to burn’, challenged a GMTV reporter who asked about her co-star in Birth, the ‘legend’ Nicole Kidman. “What is this ‘legend’?” she snapped. “She can’t be a legend. You have to be older.” Bacall, 82 in October, was named a living legend in 1999 by the American Film Institute.

So who is a legend? The term is difficult to define, being both qualitative and subjective. The American Film Institute’s criteria are:

• Star Quality: Charisma and unique personal characteristics that create a presence embraced by audiences as mythical.

• Craft: An ability to embody different characters through strong acting, and other creative methods.

• Legacy: A body of work that enriches American film heritage, inspiring artists and audiences.

• Popularity: Public following over time.

• Historical Context: World events, politics, and changing mores which influenced a legend’s status and career.

(It only considers stars whose debut was before 1950, or after 1950 where their death marked a completed body of work.)

Most of these criteria affect star image. But to understand that requires a look at the nature of film and the role of stars within it.


Narrative, or a story, is a fundamental way people make sense of the world. In films, we identify events in a plot and link them by cause and effect, time and space. We also infer events not shown. We imagine what might happen next. Watching a film is an ‘activity’.

Filmmakers keep the viewer engaged. For example, in a murder mystery or thriller, we have an effect – the murder – but information on the cause is delayed, creating suspense, uncertainty, and a host of uncomfortable emotions.

After Hannibal Lecter’s attack on his guards in The Silence of the Lambs, for example, a search raises the possibility that a body on top of a lift is Lecter. An extended suspense scene follows. Then we learn he escaped. Usually, the narrative develops to a climax, when the final resolution coincides with emotional satisfaction. Or perhaps not.

The Influence of Film

How far a film influences a viewer is often not realised. Peter Titterington, former Hollywood scriptwriter, says: “A truly great film can change your life. Film can access every level: conscious, subconscious, and unconscious. [The Silence of the Lambs] is a confrontation with some of the most horrifying aspects of modern existence. Films can open you up, make you vulnerable and do you damage.

“Once the film begins you are under control every second. The film is working on you on at least 15 levels. These levels are constructed in every second. Film is built shot by shot. It controls your understanding, your feelings, by information flow. Like musical rhythms, speed keeps you emotionally engaged.

“Narrative begins and you’re hooked. There is a central protagonist [actor]. You begin to identify. You enter a constructed world where everything means something in every second.

“You watch an average of 2000 shots per film. So, 2000 times the position of the camera and shot set-up will change. Every placement is a psychological control mechanism. With engagement/detachment, involvement/alienation – this is a constantly shifting arc of control. These shots are then edited in musical rhythms. They build the sound world on 24 levels. [This is not the sound on location.] What you hear in every microsecond is controlled.”

Star Image

In a film, the actor is key to all the narrative elements functioning. Performance is important in ‘carrying the narrative’, but the star image conveyed is much more complex. Richard Dyer, in his book Stars, argues that star image is fabricated. He says the film industry spends vast sums on publicity and promotion.

Devices used for publicity include: ‘discovery’ concocted by studio publicists, glamour pictures for the media, a rumoured romance with a well known star, or a rumoured starring role. Stories are also planted in national newspapers and magazines.

Once a star ‘makes it’, the ideological image projected is based on the American Dream: conspicuous consumption (lifestyle), success (especially wealth) and ordinariness (anyone can ‘make it’). But these values are paradoxical. The star system rewards talent and ‘specialness’. Lucky ‘breaks’ typify star careers, yet hard work is necessary.

The industry promotes cultural stereotypes. These are shared, easily grasped images of people in society, which help narrative involvement. For example, William Holden often played ‘Good Joe’: friendly, and easygoing. Clint Eastwood is the ‘Tough Guy’, one ‘who can’t be beat’. Marlon Brando was the ‘Rebel’.


Writing about Last Tango In Paris, Ann Kaplan says this film intended to question 50s American film style and the French New Wave. It distances the audience, but Brando’s acting ‘has the effect of drawing the audience in close to the character’. The Paul/Brando view comes to dominate the film. Brando as image and performer is so powerful that it was ‘logical for people to take Brando’s consciousness for the consciousness of the film’.

Brando used ‘Method acting’ or psychological realism. This is used to express emotions like torment and anguish, which are viewed as more ‘authentic’ than stable emotions.

Writer and broadcaster Jim Pines says: “In Lawrence Olivier’s Othello, Olivier resorts to gross stereotyping. Orson Welles made Othello a tormented soldier. If I had to say which one, I’d say Orson Welles. He is a legend.’

Talking about black actors, he says: “Harry Belafonte was not promoted as a star. Of the McCarthy era, Belafonte said: ‘In those days you weren’t sure why you didn’t get a job. Whether it was because you were black or because you were red.’

“Poitier didn’t play romantic parts. Belafonte could have done. In Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Poitier’s kiss is seen through the rear-view mirror of the cab. It could not be shown more directly. But Poitier was a clean-cut figure. He was not a sexual threat. He is still a legend. You can’t talk about those types of films without mentioning Poitier.”

So, even if one agrees with Dyer to some extent, it seems performance carries the day. But most are agreed that ‘legends’ have a mysterious quality. “What is it,” Pines asks, “when you walk into a room and everything stops? They have a kind of magic.” Bacall should know. She married Bogey and that really is the stuff of legend.