Could big-name actors and actresses of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s have made it in subsequent decades? Would Cary Grant or Gary Cooper or Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn would have been as big in movies if they’d been born, say, in 1950 or thereabouts? Would their temperaments and acting styles have meshed with the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and afterwards, or were “Cary Grant,” “Cary Cooper,” “Bette Davis” and “Katharine Hepburn” manifestations and brands that could only have been shaped and refined and taken flight in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s?
And what about the reverse? Could Reese Witherspoon or Adam Sandler or Owen Wilson or Seth Rogen have found some level of success in the old studio system?
The general across-the-board answer is no — old-time movie stars were obviously looser and more natural and low-key charismatic than theatrical actors of the early 20th and 19th Century, but there was also something classic and iconic about their personas as they acted in those often sentimental and sometimes dishonest big-studio programmers, and they were shaped by much tougher childhood experiences than actors of today. So it’s hard to imagine most of them fitting into today’s movie world. They’d be regarded as odd ducks who don’t get it.
And today’s better actors have the liberty of appearing in films that are far less pretentious and more-or-less realistically mannered, and are certainly less hokey than a good portion of the big-studio films, so it’s hard to imagine them fitting into the occasionally cornball dream-movie realms as envisioned and maintained by big-studio bosses like Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Samuel Goldwyn and Jack L. Warner. Plus dashing profiles and polished smoothie personas were much more valued (and prevalent) in the old days than today.
I could imagine Montgomery Clift fitting right into today’s realm, no problem. Or that of the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s. And young Marlon Brando, for sure. Grace Kelly, my lifelong concept of an eternal 10, could have easily made it in our world. All drop-dead beautiful actors with earnest conviction would have a shot in any time period, I would think.
But most actors are specific creations and reflections of the times they were brought up in and had to struggle in during their breaking-in period, particularly character actors. Rudolph Valentino would be a joke in 2011. He’d never make it.