Why are famous actors called stars

The broad use of the word “star” to indicate a leader among us dates back, Peter Davis, a theater historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me, to the Middle Ages. Chaucer, who was also the first recorded user of the word “celebrity” and one of the first to use the word “famous,” also hinted at the lexical convergence of the human and the celestial: In The House of Fame, Chaucer’s dreamer worries that he might find himself “stellified.” “O God Who made nature,” the dreamer thinks, “am I to die in no other way? Will Jove transform me into a star?”

Chaucer, Dean Swinford points out in his book Through the Daemon’s Gate, was recalling Ovid’s notion of metamorphosis—the idea that humans could be transformed, in this case, into the shiny stuff of constellations. Chaucer’s words also carried architectural implications that would likely have been apparent to his audiences: “Fixing with stars,” Swinford points out, “implies the creation of a mosaic-like decoration of the interior of a cathedral.” The building was an intentional mimicry of the sky, and an unintentional anticipation of Hollywood’s own kind of firmament: It presented stars as a constellation of gleaming lights, always above.

The US Weeklyfied version of stellification is in many ways a direct descendant of Chaucer’s: It emphasizes the role of the celebrity as a body both distant and accessible, gleaming and sparkling and yet reassuringly omnipresent. Stars have long suggested a kind of order—and orientation—within chaotic human lives. They have long hinted that there is something bigger, something beyond, something more.

Little surprise, then, that—especially as the world of science became more familiar with the workings of celestial bodies—the world of the theater seized on their symbolism. Molière, Peter Davis told me, made Chaucerian use of the personified “star”: In School for Wives, in 1662, Horace describes Agnes as “this young star of love, adorned by so many charms.” Shakespeare, too, neatly anticipated Hollywood’s blending of the personal and the celestial in both his plays and his poems. “We make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars,” Edmund laments in King Lear, “as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion.” Love, too, in Shakespeare’s mind, makes its highest sense as a heavenly force, reassuring in its constancy: In “Sonnet 116,” the bard finds love to be “...an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken; / It is the star to every wand’ring bark, / Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”

It was in this context, Davis explains, that the notion of the human star came to refer, in particular, to the decidedly grounded firmament of the theater—and to the decidedly human person of the actor. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first reference to a “star” of the stage came in 1751, with the Bays in Council announcing, “You may Shine the brightest Theatric Star, that ever enliven’d of charm’d an Audience.” Around the same time, in 1761, the book Historical Theatres of London & Dublin noted of an apparently Meryl Streepian actor named Garrick: “That Luminary soon after became a Star of the first Magnitude.” Garrick would appear again in 1765, in an extremely effusive article written about him in The Gentleman’s and London Magazine: “The rumor of this bright star appearing in the East flew with the rapidity of lightening through the town, and drew all the theatrical Magi thither to pay their devotions to his new-born son of genius….”