Great 19th Century novelists tended to be true believers in the saying Physiognomy Is Real, judging from how much verbiage they devoted to describing their characters’ looks. How accurate these old perceptions were I can’t say. But we still collectively have some of these ideas, even if we are not supposed to.
For example, the Movie Star vs. Rock Star polarity can be illustrated with famous actors. Tom Cruise’s square-jawed conventional handsomeness makes him an obvious prototype of movie star looks. And Cruise’s impressive competence at repeatedly delivering pretty good movies over an enormous span of time suggests that he really is as competent at his job (starring in movies that make at least $100 million) as he looks. I presume that Cruise is more or less the CEO of Tom Cruise movies, and he tends to deliver like a good CEO delivering another year of increased earnings per share.
In contrast, Johnny Depp, of the high cheekbones and delicate jaw, came to Hollywood in 1979 to be a rock star, a not unreasonable ambition due to how much he looked like numerous 1970s rock stars.
Rock stars tend to start as delicate, artistic, high-cheekboned, not terribly masculine heterosexuals who drive young girls wild. (How many burly rock singers have their been? The singer in Smashmouth, and probably some country rockers. But the classic rock band frontman is wiry.)
The youngest girls tend to go for the boy band practice boyfriend types like The Beatles in 1964, while the slightly older ones tend to go for the leering, concupiscent Rolling Stones in 1965 types. Tom Wolfe wrote in the mid-1960s about a Rolling Stone concert:
The five Rolling Stones, from England …, are modeled after The Beatles, only more lower class deformed. … The girls have Their Experience. They stand up on their seats. They begin to ululate, even between songs. The look on their faces! Rapturous agony! There, right up there, under the sulphur lights, that is them. God, they’re right there! Mick Jagger takes the microphone with his tabescent [emaciated] hands and puts his huge head against it, opens his giblet lips and begins to sing … with the voice of a bull Negro.
The classic rock star look is often a weird combination of pretty and grotesque, like Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.
But to be/stay a huge star, you need male fans. The young girl audience isn’t loyal. There is always somebody new. So rock stars often butch up their acts: Springsteen as working man, Petty as redneck, Strummer as Kiplingesque soldier of fortune.
Springsteen has admitted he isn’t much like his stage character. That his dad he’s playing.
To get back to the movie star-rock star distinction using actors … But music didn’t happen for Johnny Depp, while acting did. Eventually he got cast in the 21 Jump Street TV show, which attracted a lot of teenage girl fans. He turned out to be a surprisingly talented actor, who took on a weird range of parts, the opposite of Cruise in terms of career development.
But huge fame didn’t happen for him until The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise in which he played a pirate as an aging Rolling Stone, a creative leap in grasping the cultural continuity between the pseudo-aristocratic foppishness of both 17th pirates and 20th Centuries rock stars. Lately, however, Depp’s inspirations haven’t caught the public fancy and his star has dimmed.
Brad Pitt falls in-between Cruise and Depp on the handsome vs. pretty scale and also on the competent vs. artistic scale. Pitt has chosen a wide variety of roles, often playing against type, with some impressive successes (e.g., his lunatic in Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys), and others where it didn’t happen. This year, Quentin Tarantino created a role for Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that, presumably, Pitt could have played all along — Steve McQueen’s rightful heir — which Pitt knocked out of the park.
Once Upon a Time is an interesting reversal of the usual where a movie star takes a pay cut to subordinate himself to a famous director’s vision (e.g., Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut). Instead, Tarantino, as The World’s Greatest Fan, is subordinating his own (often distasteful) quirks to creating dream roles for movie stars.