Mark Harris offers his take on what makes a movie star and why Brad Pitt, Mickey Rourke, and Debra Winger fit the bill

By Mark Harris
January 02, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

Movie star: A different definition

To begin 2009, here’s a rescue mission: It is time to reclaim the term ”movie star.” For years, the label has been co-opted by those who believe a movie star is someone who can draw audiences to a movie that there’s no other compelling reason to see. This is certainly a definition of something (at least it explains Adam Sandler), but mostly it’s an excuse to beat up actors and, especially, actresses whose ambitions or talent exceed their financial clout.

I’d like to propose a less math-based definition: A movie star is someone whose past work enriches your experience of, and deepens your pleasure in, his or her present work. In other words, a movie star is someone whose baggage you want to carry.

And right now, screens are full of examples of why movie stars remain more essential than the industry would like to admit. Let’s start with what to me is the most haunting scene in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (mild spoiler ahead): It’s the shot in which Benjamin walks back into the life of the aging Daisy (Cate Blanchett) after a long absence, and the Brad Pitt we see appears to be the Brad Pitt we knew back in 1992 — the Brad Pitt of A River Runs Through It, prettier, blonder, more slender. Benjamin Button is a movie that plays with our perceptions of aging and the passage of time, and in this unnerving moment, it suddenly sucker punches us with our own mortality, with the undeniable news that 16 years have passed — for Pitt and for us. It’s an effect that even the greatest unknown actor couldn’t achieve. Only a star — someone we have watched age in real time as we have watched ourselves age — could make the theme resonate so deeply.

A movie star doesn’t have to be especially successful. Mickey Rourke has been one since he first showed up, murmurous, pompadoured, and insinuating, in Body Heat 27 years ago. His subsequent life as a train wreck didn’t change that. If you’re unconvinced, watch the first minutes of The Wrestler. The camera tracks Rourke, staying so tightly focused on his back that we crane our necks trying to peek at that ruined face. When he’s finally revealed, we stare at the busted nose and scar tissue and reconstructed cheekbones, to see if we can make out the guy we remember. And in that moment, we start investing in the story, because we believe viscerally that the pounding Rourke’s character has taken also resides in the marrow of every bad decision made by the man who’s portraying him — but talent still lives there too. What we know, or think we know, about Rourke gives The Wrestler the undertow of regret it needs.

Sometimes, the star is actually too big for the movie. I’m not a fan of Gran Torino, which seems less like a freestanding, credible story than a flimsy pretext for the estimable Clint Eastwood to continue a dialogue with his own past selves about solitude and martyrdom and toughness and misanthropy. If you’ve immersed yourself in Eastwood’s 40-year record of pondering these themes, this movie is a fascinating if problematic installment in Clint-as-metaphor. But if not, the spectacle of an actor-director who has made himself look like some insane, old sand monster from The Mummy rasping, ”Get off my lawn!” seems ludicrous.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that you don’t have to be the star to be a movie star. You’ll see no more glorious example than the great Debra Winger, who, from her first entrance as the not-as-warm-as-she-seems mother of the bride in Rachel Getting Married, shows how it’s done. (Why isn’t Winger being showered with awards? Probably because she does nothing actressy or self-flattering to detach herself from the ungiving character she’s playing; she simply discovers who this complicated woman is and inhabits her.) As superb as Winger is, there’s a bonus to her performance — the semi-sentimental thrill of watching the actress who starred in the mother of all mother-daughter movies, Terms of Endearment, take her position on the other side of the battle line 25 years later. Winger doesn’t trade on that history — it’s just there, adding a jolt to her scenes and reminding us that over time, real movie stars almost always reward our patience and faith. And it’s got nothing to do with this weekend’s grosses.