Where Have All The Cowboys Gone: The Last True Movie Star

Elmo Lincoln was born Otto Elmo Linkenhelt in Rochester Indiana in 1889. He went on to play the screens first Tarzan in 1918. Legend has it that Lincoln’s agent was a crafty marketeer. When he went to negotiate the renewal of Lincoln’s contract with the head of the National movie Corporation of America he made sure that he positioned Lincoln under the executive’s window. When the negotiations reached an impasse, the wily agent rose to his feet and went to the window. This was a signal to Lincoln to start walking across the street slowly, dropping a mass of dimes out of holes cut into the pockets of the coat he was wearing. Given that the value of a dime in 1919 was far more than it is today a throng of children and young women began to follow Lincoln in earnest.

When the crowd grew to a respectable size and was surrounding Lincoln, the agent beckoned the studio head to the window. He pointed out the throng that Lincoln amassed as a testament to his popularity. The studio head was more than impressed. Lincoln received his pay raise.

The star system was born. The star system was the method of creating, promoting and exploiting stars in Hollywood movies. Movie studios would select promising young actors and glamorize and create personas for them, often inventing new names and even new backgrounds. It prospered and grew, putting out names like Cary Grant, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and so many more. Even after the collapse of the studio system, the movie stars still maintained their draw and the impact they had on this industry continued.

I would make the argument that it was about 20 years ago in 1997 that the decline of movie stars became evident. We, as a movie going public are no longer going to see movies for their stars; we go to see movies because of their link to a franchise, their source material, directors, or critic reviews. There has been too much disclosure regarding personal viewpoints or lifestyle that are off putting to the movie going public, too many scandals and the internet has brought sex tapes and racist rants into homes, and many want no part of it. Out of the phoenix of dying celebrity the foul bird of the Kardashians have arisen to shake off the last vestiges of the public being enamored with celebrities.

Tied to the decline of the screen celebrity was the shifting of what a hero was. Previous to the Reagan era, if the word hero was mentioned then images of John Wayne, or a model of personal sacrifice was mentioned. After the Reagan era, celebrity had more to do with the acquisition of personal wealth than it had to do with your character or integrity.

Yesterday it was announced that the truly last movie star, Burt Reynolds, passed away. Reynolds throughout his career made movies whose box office totaled $2 billion dollars and his passing saw many reflect on his career and the industry which saw his rise to the top of the movie business. For five years running Reynolds was the number one grossing star on the planet.

At the peak of his career, Reynolds was one of the most bankable actors in the movie industry, reeling off a series of box office smashes until a career downturn in the mid-1980s. He rebounded in 1997 with a nomination for a best supporting actor Academy Award for Boogie Nights and won an Emmy Award for his role in the 1990-1994 TV series Evening Shade.

With his trademark mustache, rugged looks, and macho aura, he was a leading male sex symbol of the 1970’s. He appeared famously naked reclining on a bearskin rug with his arm strategically positioned for the sake of modesty in a centerfold in Cosmopolitan in 1972.

Reynolds thought director John Boorman’s Oscar-nominated 1972 Deliverance was his best movie and said he regretted that the hoopla from his Cosmopolitan appearance detracted from the movie that made him a star. He played tough-guy Lewis Medlock opposite Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox in the chilling tale of a canoe trip gone bad in rural Georgia.

He starred in dozens of movies, also including White Lightning (1973), W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1975) , Hustle (1975), Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon (1976) and Semi-Tough(1977). As previously mentioned He was the top money-making star at the box office in an annual poll of movie exhibitors 1978 through 1982.

Many of his movies were set in the South. He often played a lovable rascal who outwits local authorities as in director Hal Needham’s 1977 crowd-pleasing action comedy Smokey and the Bandit, co-starring his then girlfriend Sally Field and Jackie Gleason, and its two sequels. It was the Needham directed movies, Smokey and the Bandits and Hooper which seems to have left an idelible impact on the American movie going public. Moviegoers related to these character and aspired to be like the screen persona he exuded. At the core of his stardom, was a deep affinity to the audience he served.

Has celebrity status gone away ? I would say for the pre-Millennial generation who have been repeatedly disappointed yes it has . As for the the Millennial and Gen Z’s, the screen does not hold sway in terms of celebrity their focus has turned on the rising stars of social media. Now many in the mental health community feel that our increasing dependence on social media isn’t doing us any favors, it is where the new celebrities are rising from. Some of the highest-earning social media stars make upwards of $16 million annually, just by posting content online.

Kayla Itsines, an online fitness guru on Instagram, takes in $17 million per year and Youtube game reviewer Daniel Middleton takes in $17 million per year based on his 17.5 million subscribers. It is a different world…but like the movies, they too are finding out that the social media idols have chinks in their armor.

We are so very lucky that movies last. We will always have John Wayned clutching his left side as he exits a door in THE SEARCHERS, Ursuala Andress rising out of the surf in DR. NO and Burt Reynolds grinning across the south in a black Trans Am in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT.

He truly was the last true movie star