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The rise and rise of TV stars

The trajectory of stardom is shifting. Shows are travelling farther and wider than movies, and their leads are becoming stars faster than ever before

Regé-Jean Page in 'Bridgerton'
Regé-Jean Page in 'Bridgerton'

The British-Zimbabwean actor Regé-Jean Page will host the next episode of Saturday Night Live. Over the years, hosting SNL has been a coveted television distinction, where hosts first deliver a monologue and then appear in a series of skits alongside the SNL performers. The reins of the show have most often been handed to comedians (Alec Baldwin has hosted 17 times, Steve Martin 15) but movie stars eager to parody themselves have also made for memorable hosts: Tom Hanks hosted 10 times, Scarlett Johansson six times, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has hosted five times.

Traditionally, it takes a while to make the stage. Johansson, for instance, had already done Lost In Translation, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Girl With A Pearl Earring and Match Point before being called on to host for the first time in 2006. Page, in contrast, has only had one major success. It is, however, pretty damn major. He plays the Duke of Hastings in Netflix’s smash hit Bridgerton—a show that premiered less than two months ago and has already become one of the streaming service’s biggest hits.

Bridgerton is a Regency-era parody, and Page is its dashing, handsome (and occasionally unclothed) leading man. He has made a significant percentage of the world swoon and—as with all truly charismatic heroes today—those inevitable rumours about being cast as the next James Bond have begun to swirl around the young man, as they have around Daniel Kaluuya, Tom Hiddleston and Idris Elba. Again, like with SNL, these rumours have tended to surround actors with a more significant body of work.

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These are unusual waters for a relatively raw talent, though of course it can be argued that they shouldn’t be—that we should immediately shine the light brightest on those naturally suited and see how they rise, as opposed to their fumbling around for footholds for years (industry convention calls this “paying their dues”) in order to climb a world rife with gatekeepers. The other argument is that this has less to do with Page, and more with old gatekeepers, like Saturday Night Live. They only make one decent episode every few years (usually when Dave Chappelle shows up) and getting the buzzy, topical Bridgerton star makes sense. It makes them seem current.

It is apparent that the trajectory of stardom is shifting. Shows are travelling farther and wider—and with more immediacy—than movies, with worldwide audiences taking to them at the same time. Over the last 10 years, I (statistic-lessly) believe more TV shows and characters are being quoted—or turned into memes—than their big-screen equivalents. Walter White, Tyrion Lannister, Fleabag. These are the ones who have dominated our conversations. Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff seemed like a superhero afterthought in the Avengers movies but now, thanks to WandaVision, may well emerge as the most fascinating Avenger.

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The idea of a meme—where a picture is taken and given multiple random contexts, at will, like a shot of Leonardo DiCaprio laughing from Django Unchained being used to reflect the user smirking at anything—may seem trivial, but at a time when we are (rightfully) losing trust in film and television rating numbers, they resemble a metric for social engagement. Even those who haven’t watched the film or show in question are being made aware of the actors, the show, the moment—an odd kind of stardom is being spread through osmosis.

TV is better suited to this than movies because we are discovering these reaction shots and funny faces in relative real time across the world, and because it allows performers a more long-form canvas (i.e., more room to make faces, among other things) which, when used right, makes characters more memorable because of how long we live with them as an audience.

In the 2019 comedy Long Shot, Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron have a conversation about the massive gulf between television stardom and movie stardom. Theron’s character works as secretary of state to a president who used to be a TV star and wants to give up the presidency in order to try and make the segue into becoming a movie star. Rogen’s character is immediately sceptical. Only George Clooney, he says, has really made that leap. Someone suggests Jennifer Aniston, and Rogen’s character issues the unforgettable burn: “Just because you star in movies doesn’t mean you are a movie star.”

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Fair—though I believe that is as much a reference to Rogen’s own prolific career as Aniston’s. The question, however, is whether a superlative television performer even needs to be a movie star. It may be one of the many successful eventualities as an actor, but is that still the required endgame? The conversation belongs to the TV star. For now, Saturday Night Live needs Regé-Jean Page and not the other way around. Movies will come and go. The Duke abides.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

@rajasen

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    19.02.2021 | 09:00 AM IST
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