Tony Earnshaw: The changes we have witnessed in cinema over the past decades

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Twenty years ago when I began reviewing films for the Yorkshire Post the summer’s big movies included Braveheart, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Waterworld and GoldenEye. The stars were Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner and Pierce Brosnan.

Flash forward two decades and our four leading men are heading towards their dotage. Gibson’s star in particular is spectacularly tarnished. Messrs Willis, Costner and Brosnan have seen their careers wax and wane. No longer A-listers, they have segued into character roles. And that’s just a snapshot of the changes we have witnessed since 1995.

Yet that is the nature of cinema, the great artform of the 20th century. Who in the 1960s remembered the icons of the 20s – stars like Norma Talmadge or Alice White?

Who today recalls the allure and charisma of Alan Ladd, Laurence Harvey or Lizabeth Scott? Certainly not modern audiences.

The movie business is a fickle one and audience tastes and memories are brief. Then, as now, stars are remembered and celebrated for perhaps a handful of roles and pictures. If the Fifties gave us the iconic image of Alan Ladd as a good-guy gunslinger, so the dawn of the new millennium presented the world with George Clooney.

In 1995 we had yet to witness the emergence of Heath Ledger. Now the passage of time reminds us of his tragic end and the loss his death represents to cinema. In 1997 Robin Williams was the popular winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Good Will Hunting. Who could have foreseen how his life would draw to its close?

Twenty years is an age in the movie industry. Stars are built and cast aside, franchises are born, billions of dollars are spent and, just occasionally, cinemagoers witness something special. But 20 years is also just the blink of an eye in the fast-moving and rapidly evolving world of entertainment. The trick is to cherish the great, the good, the glorious. Because while we delude ourselves that film stars are immortal it is really only a handful – a few hundred, perhaps – who live on in the collective memory.

Much has been written of the so-called “golden age of Hollywood” – the late 20s to the early 60s. But in truth we are all of us living through a golden age. The technical advances evident in today’s movies have never been seen before. Today’s filmmakers are breaking new ground, just like their forebears before them.

The next 20 years will usher in a host of new stars, fresh talent, innovation and invention. Some will continue to point to John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock as groundbreaking geniuses. Perhaps they were the signposts.

And yet we should all absorb the wonder of what is happening today. For cinema is a wonderful thing. Sometimes it takes 20 years – or 30, or 50 – to recognise that.