Playing to Type
Image: Wikimedia Commons

When we see Tom Hanks in a film, we think of him as a decent, honest everyman in part because we’ve seen him play decent, honest everymen in many other movies. Casting directors choose him in part for this reason — they know that the audience has established a sense of his persona from previous films, and that this affects their perception of him. We all know this; actors are hired deliberately to elicit these effects.

But a movie is fiction, and enjoying it requires restricting our attention to the fictional world in which it takes place. As experienced moviegoers, if we see the hero dangling from a cliff early in the film, we know that he’ll survive, but we repress this knowledge in order to enjoy the suspense that the filmmakers intend. We put our knowledge of movie lore on hold.

But isn’t this precisely the same sort of movie lore that we use when we let a star’s persona fill out the character he or she is playing?

“Why is it appropriate to put our knowledge of star personae to work when watching a movie, but not our knowledge of how popular plots go 99.9% of the time?” asks CUNY philosopher Noël Carroll. “Why is access to one kind of movie lore legitimate and access to the other kind not?”

(Noël Carroll, “The Problem With Movie Stars,” in his Minerva’s Night Out, 2013.)