When a new movie arrives, certainly much of what we experience is directly connected to what's on the screen--the unfolding of the story line and cavalcade of images and sound. But when we sit in the dark watching a Hollywood film featuring our favorite stars, there's also the undercurrent in our hearts and minds rooted in our personal history with the screen idols we know and love. We don't so much watch these larger-than-life heroes and heroines as get absorbed in them as they play out for us emotional possibilities we usually don't realize in our own lives. We return again and again to spend time with certain special performers, because they come to feel like an extension of ourselves. Through the years, our bond with them can act as a kind of drug that can make us feel larger, more adventurous, fuller than we are on our own.
As I was growing up, movie superstars seemed to embody simpler archetypes than those of today. There were warriors like John Wayne, virtuous father figures like Jimmy Stewart, sublime charmers like Cary Grant, and cynical antiheroes like Humphrey Bogart. In some ways, these traditions have continued. We've had warrior Sean Connery, good daddy Tom Hanks, beautiful Robert Redford, and cynical Jack Nicholson, who, whatever his role, always seems to know what evil lurks in the hearts of men. But in other ways, our screen world has changed dramatically.
It used to be that the stars played much the same character from movie to movie, each time offering us comforting echoes of an archetype or two, reassuring us of the continuity with the past. But increasingly, today's stars insist on playing roles outside their familiar repertoire. Perhaps they were influenced by the groundbreaking thrill of Marlon Brando's getting off his motorcycle, stuffing his cheeks with Kleenex, and romping around the garden with his grandchildren. In the recent Hollywood, we've all learned how much a screen idol who tries out a different kind of character can change the chemistry of a film. Some of this year's most provocative movies showed us this disorienting, but sometimes thrilling, screen chemistry at work.