ANDY SCHMOOKLER - NVD

Schmookler

I love movies. They are my refuge during my workday — when I want to enter into a different space and lay down whatever burdens I’m caring. I maintain a rotating library of them on my DVR — a variety of films, so I can choose whatever flavor of experience suits my needs, whether a romance or a Western or a film from the Post-War Italian realists.

I can choose according to whether I’m in the mood to spend time with Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne, Audrey Hepburn, Denzel Washington or Tom Hanks (like in You’ve Got Mail).

Some movie stars have provided images that reside in my mind, like

• the image of Gregory Peck as the good man in To Kill a Mockingbird,

• of Gary Cooper as the steadfast hero in High Noon,

• the stunning Kim Novak in Vertigo,

• Jimmy Stewart with his earnest goodness in It’s a Wonderful Life,

Occasionally, I’ll read the biography of some movie star who’s touched me in some meaningful way. (The lives of movie stars, regrettably, are often less admirable than the impression they make from the screen.) I understand why a lot of people read People magazine.

It all makes me wonder: what is it about movie stars that leads people to feel an important connection with them? And what is it that movie stars have that enables them to achieve that status?

For starters, there’s the whole “you’re so beautiful, you could be a movie star” part of the picture.

Science has discovered that when we look upon a beautiful face, our brains release dopamine which registers in the reward system. We get genuine pleasure, in other words, from looking at beautiful people (especially those of the opposite sex). And most big movie stars are a pleasure to look at. (And looking at them is, of course, precisely what we do for the couple of hours the movie runs.)

But not every super-good-looking person gets to be a movie star, and it’s not just luck. Some people make us make you want to watch them not just because of their beauty but also because they’re doing something, or radiating something, we want to watch.

That brings me to John Wayne.

My mother, a theater person, didn’t think much of John Wayne as an “actor.” Her point was that he was no Lawrence Olivier because he’s always playing the same basic guy.

Her point is valid, as far as it goes. But it misses the way John Wayne was a fine actor: what John Wayne was good at was consistently giving the observer a meaningful glimpse into a particular kind of man. His whole manner — even just his body language — showed us who his character was.

That’s an important kind of truth, because most people, most of the time, are not displaying much of their inner reality. Their human reality is less than vivid to us because much of it is kept under wraps.

That’s what actors provide: a more vivid view of who their characters really are. The business of actors is, in part, showing what a lot of people in the real world keep hidden.

They are artists in that way (the actors’ artistry being augmented, of course, by the artistry of the script, the direction, the cinematography, etc.).

Each really big star, I expect, gives us a glimpse of humanity we experience as meaningful, like:

• What John Wayne abundantly provides -- whether he’s driving a herd of cattle up to the railroad, or leading a group of paratroopers on D-Day. And that’s a palpable feeling of a particular kind of human being-- a powerful, mostly decent man; a guy not to be messed with, who’d never take a bribe. (It takes a real actor to play that one part so compellingly.)

• Al Pacino has given us a greater variety of deep human portraits: a different guy from the Godfather to Serpico to Scent of a Woman. What is consistent from one Pacino role to another are his intensity and passion, whether he’s playing Jimmy Hoffa in the Irishman, or the L.A. cop in Insomnia. He shows us what a man is like when he’s a force of nature.

• Audrey Hepburn radiates such lovely sweetness of spirit whether she’s the Princess in Roman Holiday or the world’s champion blind lady in Wait Until Dark. A beauty with a gentle soul and a bright spark.

My son – an actor and director by training – says that one of the qualities of good actors is the “uniqueness” of how they embody their characters. Not a cookie-cutter version, but a more fully worked out embodiment.

And to those elements – displaying reality uniquely – many of the characters are people we find gratifying to identify with. We take pleasure in joining Harrison Ford – our hero – in throwing the terrorist leader off Air Force One, while yelling, “Get off my plane!”

So, we can develop a feeling of meaningful connection with movie stars because

• we enjoy identification with certain kinds of people (appealing, impressive), like John Wayne or Charlton Heston.

• we like being let in on more human reality than we generally get to see. (At least amid the safety of being an audience of a story. Sometimes “reality” is easier to take in when it isn’t real.) And

• we get pleasure from beauty – but especially human beauty.

Andy Schmookler is a prize-winning author. Many of his works can be found at www.ABetterHumanStory.org.