A Star is Born

Sharon Stone did it in Basic Instinct. John Travolta did it in Saturday Night Fever and again in Pulp Fiction. Lana Turner did it before either of them in The Postman Always Rings Twice. We're talking about the magical collision of good casting, good acting and great luck known as the Hollywood Breakthrough.

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Clark Gable in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT

Wasn't it Joan Crawford who once defined Gable by saying, "You can hear his balls clang together when he walks"? For three decades Clark Gable pretty much epitomized spit-in-your-eye masculine swagger, charm, self-reliance, heroism and brute force on screen. But Gable did not claim his title of King of the Movies overnight. His path to breakthrough packs as much suspense, reversal of fortune and irony as a good old-fashioned Hollywood movie.

Gable didn't have much beyond musk to offer movies at first. A former handyman, lumberjack and telephone repairman, he looked thuggy in many of his earliest efforts, a leering, pomaded hustler on the grift. Darryl F. Zanuck himself turned down Gable's screen test, declaring, "His ears are too big. He looks like an ape." But Gable kept winning roles, women kept writing fan letters, and his screen temperature and prominence rose. He eventually turned up on the list of top 10 box-office attractions.

It was an accident--and not a pretty one--that led to Gable's going mondo. He killed a woman while driving drunk, and though MGM got him off the hook by having one of its executives take the blame (and the jail time), the studio punished Gable by lending him out to what was then a Poverty Row studio, Columbia, and a still-in-development director, Frank Capra, to star in what was perceived as just another screwball comedy, about a newspaper man hot on the trail of a runaway heiress. Nobody expected much from this project, least of all Gable or Claudette Colbert, his costar. The movie was It Happened One Night.

If Gable thought he was slumming, you'd never guess it watching him in what is now regarded as a Hollywood nonpareil. His flip, wise-guy dazzle and good ole regular-guy savvy set off sparks when rubbed against Colbert's wry, urban, pampered sophisticate. Gable's now-classic lesson to Colbert in hitching a car ride, not to mention his sexually revolutionary gesture of stripping off his shirt to reveal his bare chest, spotlighted him as one of the few male movie stars who could be aggressively sexy and unapologetically goofy in one fell swoop.

The movie Gable and Colbert didn't want to do won them both Academy Awards and was named best picture of the year. More than that, it was a gigantic breakthrough for Gable that confirmed his heartthrob status while winning ultimate respectability on the critical scale. Five years later, Gable didn't want to play Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, the movie that reinvented him for the '40s and '50s, nor did he go gently into playing the grizzled mustang rancher who finds redemption with Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, the 1961 picture that might have eased him into character roles had he not died of a heart attack before the film's release. Imagine what a magnificent Sam the Lion Gable might have made in The Last Picture Show, or how terrific he might have been as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. All that potential was put into motion in It Happened One Night, which crystallized the essence of Gable--tough, gallant, jaunty, racy and ball-clanging.

Tom Cruise in TOP GUN

Tom Cruise and his agent may well be knocking back flutes of champagne this minute in a toast to fate and themselves, since this is the 10th anniversary of Tom's ascension to superstar status--it was in May 1986 that the exceedingly well-crafted, boys-and-their-toys epic Top Gun was released in a blast of jet fuel and heavy breathing.

With 1983's smash hit Risky Business, Cruise had made his big entrance, the announcement that he was not just one of those boys in Taps ('81) or The Outsiders ('83); certainty not a dismissable side player as in 1981's Endless Love; and not the mere callow lad of Losin' It ('82) or All the Right Moves ('83). On the contrary, he was a guy who not only looked very good in underpants (which would help him get Top Gun), but had a far greater appetite and capacity for performance and for stardom than any of the previous films had displayed. That visceral desire, verging on screen into an edge of ruthlessness, but made attractive by the trademark Cruise grin, was a sight for the sore eyes of every power-player in Tinseltown. They know that all actors who become stars have to want stardom (actors like to kid themselves about this).

Making his final emergence all the more dramatic in retrospect, Cruise's next picture after Risky Business was a wretched bust--Ridley Scott's over-ambitious, disastrously inane Blade Runner follow-up, Legend. Cavorting with a unicorn as long-haired, adorable, youngster hero Jack would have been 179 degrees wrong for Cruise even if the movie hadn't been awful on its own. The next year, however, Top Gun, directed with Fate-inspired irony by Ridley Scott's brother, Tony, wiped Legend from memory.

Shorn, buffed-up, cocky, over-eager and able to sexualize everything within his range right down to the tarmac, Tom Cruise used Top Gun to strut out his own personal "need for speed." Cruise and Top Gun blew by the cinema snobs and went for the gut of sensation junkies across the planet. The film opened number one and went on to make kazillions of dollars.

Though texture has been added by each of Tom Cruise's succeeding performances, the boy-man cinema prince that Top Gun anointed in 1986 has remained intact--the father complex (usually overt, always a factor), the showy charm (watch Born on the Fourth of July to see how drab he is without it) and the narcissistic insensitivity that must be schooled by the right girl (even if it turns out to be Brad Pitt). The guy in the aviator shades and the flight jacket is the same guy you see in this summer's Mission: Impossible; he just hits his marks faster these days.

Marilyn Monroe in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES

Even 34 years after her death, Marylyn Monroe is so shimmering and recognizable an icon that it's tough to remember a time when Hollywood thought her just another bottle blonde with a righteous chassis. The platinum hair, the grave, husky baby's voice, the eyes she would close to half-mast then widen, the sinewy way her lips wound around words, the teasing wiggle of her lethal body--you'd think that stuff must have broken through the minute anyone in Hollywood Said eyes on it. But Monroe worked on it, from forgettable bits in late '40s movies and scene-stealing bits in '50s prestige items like All About Eve and The Asphalt Jungle, straight through to ingenue leads in Don't Bother to Knock, Clash by Night and Niagara. In truth, she wasn't always good back then. She managed to come on like a girl fully aware of her lock on any guy she wanted, but she often looked cranked-up and flustered--and oblivious to anyone else in a scene but herself.

All that was before moviemakers figured out that Marilyn Monroe in a Color-by-DeLuxe musical number was a force of nature. Everything came together for Monroe in 1953 with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Finally, the right role (the gorgeous, dumb-like-a-fox gold digger), the right director in the right mood (Howard Hawks at his most impeccably garish), the right costar (the strapping Jane Russell) and the right songs ("Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "A Little Girl From Little Rock") turned Monroe into the surest thing Hollywood has ever seen.

Betty Grable, one of the bigger, blander, better-paid blondes in movies, had been the studio's first choice for the role of Lorelei Lee on screen. But Grable's box office had slipped and, besides, she'd had it with playing sexy ditzes, so 20th Century Fox cast the younger, hungrier Monroe instead. And right from the movie's opening image, in which Monroe and Russell tear back a screamingly violet stage curtain and strut their wares in spray-on tight, red spangly gowns, Monroe was made. She came on like Tinker Bell in heat. For the first time, Monroe was a knockout in movies, all the more so for the hilarity she put into Lorelei's pursuit of millionaires of all ages. And the obvious respect and delight in which Monroe held her fellow mantrap Russell was another first for her, an important aspect of her triumph here.

Monroe's breakthrough is notable not just for its intensity, but for its downside: the movie that made her was also her eventual undoing. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes trapped her in amber. Spectacular and assured as she was in How to Marry a Millionaire, Some Like It Hot and Let's Make Love, she was confined to playing variations on a theme. She was touching and persuasive in Bus Stop and The Misfits, movies in which she was trying to break free, but Lorelei/Marilyn was such a powerful icon that there was not to be any escape from it. Monroe's sex-as-one-big-joke in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was so subversive and brilliant that she would never break out of her own breakthrough.

Successors like Madonna and Drew Barrymore, not to mention fabrications like Sheree North, Jayne Mansfield, Stella Stevens and Carroll Baker, have stolen and reworked what Monroe unleashed and became entangled in. But nobody since has been able to touch her, and though a breakthrough likes Monroe's are what many actors lives for, most of them are better off not achieving it quite this spectacularly.

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