I just read film critic Ty Burr's Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom And Modern Fame. It's fascinating to contemplate that the idea of movie stardom, which didn't exist a little over a century ago, has become part of our everyday lives, and also has changed through the years.
Soon there were major stars, creating a sort of worldwide celebrity that the world had never known. They were people who filled a niche that no one knew needed to be filled. So by 1920 the three biggest stars--Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks--were famous names, but also meant a specific character to the public, the little tramp, America's sweetheart and the great swashbuckler. No one had seen this sort of adoration. When young star Rudolph Valentino, who symbolied the Latin Lover, died in 1926, there were outpourings of grief that not even heads of state could expect.
There were also scandals, such as the rape accusations against Fatty Arbuckle. It destroyed his career, but the titillation and finger-wagging became as much as part of film fandom as idolization. Meanwhile, some of the new celebrities discovered there wasn't that much to being a star. Everyone believed things about them, but their lives were the same--they weren't those characters they portrayed up on the screen. And the fans would grow tired of them if they didn't watch out. Even before the silent era was over, some stars ended up dying by their own hand.
There were many major stars in the silent era--Gloria Swanson, Norma Talmadge, John Gilbert--but then sound came in and changed everything. It became more personal, even brought some stars down to earth, now that they could talk to us. The insinuating Mae West, the virile Clark Gable, the suave Cary Grant, the tough Jimmy Cagney. And moguls understood, in ways they hadn't always before, that running a studio meant creating and maintaining stars, including a solid publicity department.
The very idea of fame changed in the 50s and 60s and Elvis and then the Beatles came to the fore. (The book is mostly about movies, but Burr also discusses other types of fame--I think the book would be stronger if he stuck to the film world.) And as the old studio system died, and the Production Code jettisoned, the oldest rule of all--that stars had to be goodlooking--didn't even apply. Dustin Hoffman, in The Graduate--a role that almost went to pretty boy Robert Redford--became a representative of his generation. He'd go on to to a lengthy career as, essentially, a character actor who starred in films. Others would follow, combining the commitment (and antics) of Brando without the matinee idol looks--Pacino, Nicholson, Hackman, etc.
Burr goes on into the last twenty years, listing literally hundreds of stars and the movements they're part of, but I'm not sure if he, or anyone, has a clear enough perspective for fame in the internet era. But up until then, the books is a fascinating look at how movies (and to a lesser extent) other media consistently changed the very idea of fame in the last century.