John Nolte (nee Dirty Harry) of the conservative film site Big Hollywood recently posted a piece decrying the assertion that colour film is the main reason behind the dearth of quality movie stars among today's celebrities. To sum it up, the theory states that colour made the stars look too human, and thus brought them down to Earth, and ruined stardom. Nolte refutes the argument by showing select clips of many classic actors, maintaining their star status in colour films like The Quiet Man and Rear Window.
Now some think that the main reason today's stars don't shine as bright as those in the past is that not only are only the old stars good movies remembered, they were "hyper-idealized" through a false image presenting them as more heroic, romantic, suave, or just plain nicer than they actually were.
Now both assertions are true, to a point, but there's some nuance to them, especially when it comes to the role of the image in a star's career.
Back in the olden days of Hollywood stars did have carefully constructed images, and those images were constructed by the studios they were contracted too. Because back then actors were viewed as entertainers, and since it was the job of the entertainer to win over audiences, a carefully constructed image was needed. This image was needed to not only appeal to the audience, and some were pretty dead on the money, like Jimmy Stewart as the likable decent middle-American everyman, but also as a form of protection. You see, Jimmy Stewart-types are pretty rare in the real world, and even rarer in Hollywood, and the simple fact is that actors with a penchant for snorting cocaine off the buttocks of underage transvestite prostitutes while lying on a bed made of hundred dollar bills don't really connect emotionally with the general public. So you have to create an image for the public.
Yes, the image is a lie, but like most good stories, it's a lie meant to entertain the audience. Because to be blunt: assholes aren't really very entertaining, unless they're falling flat on their face in a big burst of schadenfreude.
However, things started to change. The power of the studios began to wane, stars began to strike out on their own, and forge their own images. This also coincided with the emergence of method actors, which elevated the actor's opinion of himself from being an entertainer, to an artiste gifted with unusually keen insight into the human condition. So the image many actors pursued was in imitation of Marlon Brando, the rebellious eccentric, who claims to exist above the fray of Hollywood, and looks down on industry with contempt.
This got worse in the 60s and 70s, where actors took to the spirit of rebellion, and ran with it like an ADD child hopped up sugar. What were they rebelling against? Good taste definitely, judging by the clothes, and anything else they could get.
This meshed perfectly with the rising tabloid culture that fed on celebrity scandal, which the celebrities gleefully supplied.
But by the time the 2000s rolled along, the "rebels" of the 60s and 70s, were the elder statesmen of the industry, and had been the dominant players in the business side since at least the 1980s. While the image of being a rebel was still desirable in Hollywood, there wasn't anything left in Hollywood to rebel against. That is, except for the audience.
So the status quo shaking rebel, morphed into the obnoxious self-important asshole, eschewing the lives of quiet desperation lived by the great unwashed, in favour of a life of loud and obnoxious self inflation. And with a 24/7/365 tabloid news cycle, there was a bottomless chum-bucket that needed filling, and the celebrities were eager to try. Because a mindset became formed in Hollywood that said it didn't really matter if anyone was willing to pay to see you in a movie to get you work in Hollywood, what really mattered was how much attention you got from the paparazzi and tabloid media.
It's not an exactly accurate mindset, just ask Lindsey Lohan how her career is going, but it's still a powerful one.
To sum up, in the old days: images were created to hide the somewhat asshole natures of certain movie stars, but nowadays, asshole has become the desired image of movie stars.
And that's just one of the reasons why today's movie stars don't really shine as bright as the old ones.