Hit formula: Shoot what you know

Times Staff Writer

Hollywood is awfully good at making movies about celebrity because celebrity is one thing the studio system understands inside out. Whether the films are about movie stars, politicians or plain people caught in the glare of the spotlight, fame (and its complications) remains among cinema’s most potent sources for material.

Here, in alphabetical order, are 10 of the best films on the subject:

“The Barefoot Contessa”



What becoming a major Hollywood luminary did to a beautiful dancer. Ava Gardner in the role of her career (Humphrey Bogart isn’t bad either) and writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz at the top of his form.

“The Big Knife”


Jack Palance sizzles as a movie star tormented by his celebrity while Rod Steiger out-Steigers himself as the studio chief from hell.


“A Face in the Crowd”


Elia Kazan’s timeless meditation on celebrity and power presents Andy Griffith as a country singer who comes out of nowhere to take a place on the national stage.

“General Della Rovere”



Not a Hollywood film at all, but such a deft meditation on celebrity by the great Italian director Roberto Rossellini that it has to be included here. A con man is sent to prison to pose as a resistance leader, and finds himself taking on some of the leader’s characteristics. A fascinating study in human nature.

“The Great McGinty”



Let writer-director Preston Sturges tell you how Brian Donlevy’s McGinty makes the round trip from bum to governor to bum again. Only in America.

“Nothing Sacred”


A cynical newspaper reporter (is there any other kind?) makes a celebrity out of a woman (Carole Lombard) who is supposed to be dying but isn’t. Screwball comedy at its screwiest.


“Show People”


Silent star Marion Davies was never lovelier or funnier than in this film, where she plays an eager young girl who wants success in Hollywood at any cost. A great behind-the-scenes look at the movies before sound came in.

“A Star Is Born”


No matter which version you pick -- 1937’s with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, 1954’s with Judy Garland and James Mason, or 1976’s with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson -- this is a classic story of celebrity’s toll.

“Sunset Boulevard”


When a writer who wants to be famous (William Holden) falls in with a faded star who thinks she’s still big (Gloria Swanson), the results are memorable and tragic, in inimitable Billy Wilder style.


“Sweet Smell of Success”


Burt Lancaster is superb as an all-powerful Broadway newspaper columnist, and Tony Curtis is just as good as the press agent who’ll do almost anything to get his items placed. Some things never change.

-- Kenneth Turan