Critically identify and discuss how stars produce meaning

Stars are known to have two different personas: that of the on-screen, where they perform their job; and their off-screen existence which is made up primarily of their private life. The meaning that they produce is a combination of these two along with how they are presented through promotion, publicity and through all forms of media.

In the case of Brad Pitt, there is a definite distinction between his role as an actor and his off-screen life as a husband and everyday person. It must also be noted how his on-screen persona, and therefore his meaning as a star, has changed throughout his career: from being seen as simple a ‘body’ to being a highly respected actor.

His off-screen life has been a feature of tabloid papers and celebrity magazines since his marriage to Jennifer Aniston, and equally famous and beautiful actress. Whilst this has boosted both their profiles, Aniston’s acting career has floundered somewhat, whilst Pitt’s has flourished with increasingly challenging roles in some of Hollywood’s biggest films. This creates a difference in the meaning that these stars create.

Although the two are seemingly inseparable as a married couple, on-screen their careers are very detached. Pitt’s role in films has evolved, keeping in close proximity to the meaning produced by male stars. At the start of his career, in one of his first roles in Thelma and Louise (1991) we see Pitt being used as nothing more than an object of sexual desire for use by one of the main characters. This then continued to roles that required more acting, but where he was still used primarily for his looks, such as Legends of the Fall (1994). Now, however, we see Pitt taking roles where the character has a great deal more depth than before. Films such as Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999) have seen him move from simply a professional actor on to a performer who is highly respected in his field.

The modern-day Pitt can be seen to match with Naremore’s (1990) claim that ‘an actor’s presence in a film seems to correspond with his or her professional role’; as he can be seen to identify with a particular genre; the tense, intelligent thriller.

According to Dyer (1979) stars have ‘an existence in the world independent of their screen/”fiction” appearances’. This is true of Pitt, who has a definite split between his working job of a professional actor and his private life, where he still commands tabloid column inches because of his looks, lifestyle and choice of wife. Recent pictures from the set of his latest film Troy have focused more on how he looks in a pelmet skirt, rather than anything to do with the film’s story.

Pitt shows the criteria of many of the models of stardom. Tasker (1993) describes stars as ‘complex personas made up of far more that the texts in which they appear’. Pitt’s presence in everything from celebrity magazines (as a sex symbol) to Oscar nomination lists (as a respected actor) shows the difference between his personas.

This is in direct contrast to Ben Affleck, also considered to be a huge star. Affleck’s career exploded after his role in Good Will Hunting, which he co-wrote with childhood friend Matt Damon. However, since his engagement to Jennifer Lopez, one of the biggest stars in the world, he has lost a great deal of respect. The on/off status of their relationship has filled magazines and papers for the most part of the past year, recently resulting in the pair splitting from each other. The films that he has made during this time have been far below the standard of his earlier efforts, making him almost a laughing stock.

Pitt has maintained a quiet private life, shielded from the press, whilst also maintaining enough of a profile to still be considered interesting by the public. Rumours are beginning to circulate that he and Aniston will soon be trying for a baby, which will no doubt increase the interest, and closed nature of their off-screen lives.

According to Fiske (1992) stars produce meanings through their fans, as the audience will create their own meanings through social identities and experiences. A simple internet search will show the huge number of fan sites dedicated to Pitt. These are in a number of different languages and cover all different aspects of his career.

Having recently celebrated his 40th birthday, Pitt appears to be continuing to gain more critical acclaim for his roles, similar to Tom Cruise, who has moved away from the ‘chick flicks’ that made him a household name. Pitt has been banned from entering China because his role in the 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet. Both have matured into hardworking actors, powerful enough to pick-and-choose the roles they wish to play, usually in the biggest films around.

All this shows that Brad Pitt can be seen as what we would refer to as a star. He produces meaning through the characters that he portrays and the lifestyle that he exhibits. These show distinct and detached personas that exist completely separately. As a celebrity, he is seen as a sex symbol with a perfect celebrity marriage to a female sex symbol of similar status: together they are perfect fodder for celebrity magazines and tabloid newspapers. As an actor, he is a professional, respected performer who commands some of the most sought after roles in modern Hollywood.

He has evolved along with the role of a male star, through being simply ‘a body’, to a sexual character actor, through to a serious performer. The promotion of his films no longer relies on his looks, but now his talents as an actor. However, in the tabloids he is still portrayed as a sex symbol, even when he is attended premieres of his latest films, the focus of pictures and articles would appear to be his hair, rather than his acting; which shows how fickle and shallow-a-meaning we expect our stars to produce.