Screening Room

Screening Room

Play It Again, Denzel: Keeping Alive the Traditions of Yesterday's Stars

By Frank Pittman

January/February 2008

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…

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