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A star vehicle is a movie, play or television show produced mainly to enhance a star's career. The purpose of a star vehicle is to promote a performer in the hopes of launching a bankable star. A bankable star is a performer that compels people to see a film, play or television show because he or she is featured in the project.
A successful star vehicle shows the unique talents of the star being promoted. Sometimes a star vehicle is created to showcase a star from another genre entering a new genre. For example, many stand-up comedians had star vehicles created for them to help them move more easily into acting careers. The television program Seinfeld was created especially for stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld. It was a "show about nothing" because it showcased his unique comic style of remarking on the small details of life such as "re-gifting" and "big salads."
Hollywood has an an ever-evolving system of producing bankable stars through star vehicles. In the early days of Hollywood, the film studios had actors under contract such as Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe. They were given different signature hair styles and fashion looks to fit the image the studio wanted them to have and were given film after film as a star vehicle to show off that image. For example, The Wizard of Oz was a star vehicle designed to capture the expressive acting style and the amazing singing voice of Judy Garland and the film made her a huge star.
By the end of the 1960s, actors were able to become stars with the help of agents rather than being tied to a studio. Also, the more successful an actor became, the more he or she was able to self-promote via a star vehicle. For instance, the television show I Love Lucy was a star vehicle for both Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz.
Rather than the cool sophisticated image she had had when she was under studio contract, Ball created a new image for herself as a wacky redhead and she became a much bigger star than she had been under studio control. Arnaz's role as her Cuban bandleader husband perfectly showcased his own talents and the couple were able to promote their talents in I Love Lucy by creating their own production company called DesiLu.
A star vehicle can also help revive a fading career such as in the case of John Travolta. He had become famous in 1975 when he played Vinnie Barbarino in the television show Welcome Back Kotter, which was actually supposed to be a star vehicle for Gabe Kaplan. Travolta also had smaller theater roles on Broadway and then experienced gigantic success in 1977's hit film Saturday Night Fever as well as the hit musical Grease in 1978.
After two decades, Travolta's star understandably seemed to be fading as movie audience demographics were changing. However, Quentin Tarantino wrote the 1994 hit film Pulp Fiction and the main character, Vincent Vega, especially for Travolta. Pulp Fiction was a star vehicle that made Travolta into a bankable star for a whole new generation of movie goers.
I can't think of any good examples right now, but I'm sure there have been some movies that were intended to be star vehicles for certain actors, but the audiences really paid more attention to a different character. I'm sure that's a risk the movie studios have to be willing to take. They can hope that the movie puts their "big star" back in the spotlight, but audiences may not see it that way. The movie could easily flop at the box office because of all the hype about a comeback or an award-winning performance by a fading star.
I'd say the critically acclaimed movie "Birdman" is a star vehicle for Michael Keaton, even though there are several other well-known actors in it. Keaton virtually disappeared from the movie scene after starring in a lot of hit films, like "Batman" and "Beetlejuice". This movie is really a story about an actor who has gone through the same highs and lows as Keaton himself.
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