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What is a Matinee Idol?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A matinee idol is a movie star who is greatly admired by his fans. This term is used exclusively for male actors, and it prevailed from the 1930s to the 1960s. Many matinee idols continue to be admired, thanks to their classic good looks, and sometimes surprisingly good acting skills. While this term is not largely used anymore, some people have pushed for a revival of the classic term, arguing that it is a very apt description for some movie stars.

Matinees are, of course, afternoon performances, and they tend to be less expensive than evening shows. The term “matinee idol” carries some pejorative implications, as it suggests that the actor appeals to the less cultured afternoon crowd, along with teens, who may not be able to afford evening shows. When an actor is called a matinee idol, it means that he has been selected on the basis of sheer good looks, rather than skill, and the term is sometimes derisively applied to good looking actors without talent in the modern era. This is somewhat unfair, as some matinee idols were also very good actors.

Some famous examples of matinee idols include Clark Gable, Rock Hudson, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman, and Rudolph Valentino. All of these stars had huge followings during their acting days, commanding legions of fans who were sometimes quite manic. Many of these fans were teens, which may explain why the term “teen idol” has supplanted “matinee idol” to describe actors in this class. In any case, despite being associated with cheap productions, a matinee idol makes a great deal of money for his studio, thanks to fans who will insist on seeing every film he is featured in.

The frenzied adulation which accompanied appearances by some of history's more famous matinee idols is famous. Footage of film premiers with some of these stars depicts lines of screaming fans pushing to approach the theater and the subject of their adoration, and these fans bought up countless magazines, posters, and other promotional materials with their favorite stars on them.

This cinema slang term might seem a bit antiquated, especially since matinees are no longer discounted in many regions of the world. However, it is a fairly good way to describe people with careers which are based more on looks than talent, and you may hear it being applied in fields other than cinema. some musicians, for example, are dismissed as matinee idols, catering to the teen crowd in the hopes of selling numerous records.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By wavy58 — On Sep 18, 2011

My mother remembers hearing Clark Gable called a matinee idol. She was offended at the time. She and several of her friends followed him closely.

They were among the screaming and crying fans found at film premiers. They were also among the first in line at their local theater to see his new movies.

They swooned over him whenever they got together, and they had a huge poster of him in their tree house. They hated hearing their parents call him a matinee idol. They would vehemently argue with them about his acting talent, and they would burst into tears when anyone insulted him insistently.

By orangey03 — On Sep 17, 2011

I guess the term “matinee idol” is not as accurate today as it once was. All of the movie theaters in my area do still offer afternoon discounts, but they play the same movies that they show at night during the day, so it’s not considered a negative thing to have your movie shown earlier.

I’m sure that theaters do get more young visitors in the afternoon than at night, but this has to do more with their early bedtime than their preference for certain actors. The only movies that only get played at night are ones totally inappropriate for young viewers. Sometimes these will only play during the last time slot.

By kylee07drg — On Sep 17, 2011

Boy bands of past three decades were termed matinee idols. Their popularity was based on their looks, and though they all could dance very well, they couldn’t all carry a tune beautifully. They tended to have charisma, though, and that counted a lot.

Often, the lead singer of the boy band had the best voice. For him, being viewed as a matinee idol might not have been fair. However, he was a part of a group whose members could not all sing so well. They got stuck doing backup vocals, but their faces still got plastered prominently on every poster and magazine page.

By cloudel — On Sep 17, 2011

When it comes to modern musicians, teens have several matinee idols to follow at the moment. However, instead of buying magazines and merchandise, they can simply follow them online and subscribe to an email list to keep updated on them.

It is obvious to adults with no drawing toward the looks of young teens that the talent is generally lacking. We often wonder how they can possibly be allowed to put out albums. Well, the business is based on sales, like any other business. It no longer matters if a person can really sing as long as they look good in front of a microphone to the increasingly younger audience who supports them.

By John57 — On Sep 16, 2011

It will be interesting to see if a lot of the young matinee idols that we have today are able to stay famous for very long.

I am often amazed at the popularity of some of the young actors and singers because I don't think they are really that talented.

Good looks can take you a long ways, but if you want to stay famous I think you have to have quite a bit of talent to go along with those good looks.

By bagley79 — On Sep 16, 2011

I find it interesting that Paul Newman was considered a matinee idol. I know that he was considered a very handsome man, but felt he was also a very good actor.

Whatever it was that made him famous, he was able to remain that way for a long time. Even after he no longer continued to act, he found ways to be in the media and keep his presence known.

I think it takes much more than good looks to be able to remain famous for such a long period of time. Maybe it was because he stayed involved in several other endeavors besides acting that helped him remain so well known.

By Moldova — On Sep 15, 2011

@Cupcake15 - This happens in the music industry as well. Many of these new music artists are singing along to a formula that is very predictable and does not require much talent. The record labels are really banking on the commercial appeal that the singer will have based on their physical image.

I think that after a while these people become a one hit wonder because people want more substance in their music and look for artists with more talent over the long haul. Unless these artists are smart business people like Madonna or Jennifer Lopez who have managed a long term musical career because of their marketing efforts and business acumen most artists without talent will only succeed for a few years at best.

By cupcake15 — On Sep 14, 2011

@SurfNTurf -I think that people today are too quick to create matinee idols out of people that they see on television. Many reality stars fall into this camp. If you think about Kim Kardashian, what exactly is her talent?

Many people idolize her and hang on her every word because she is now a household name due to her reality show. A few years ago no one knew who she was and now the media is obsessing over her engagement as well as her wedding.

Her image is everywhere and many people idolize her for some reason. She is a beautiful girl that began a career in modeling, but again I think that she is a classic matinee idol because she really has no real talent other than having a pretty face and looking good on television. It is amazing that this girl is earning about $15 million dollars a year because of her looks.

By surfNturf — On Sep 14, 2011

There are a lot of modern day matinee idols. Some of these people are Hollywood actors that got a lucky break because of their rugged good looks. When you think of Brad Pitt and George Clooney the first thing that comes to mind is how good looking these men are.

In fact that is what they are famous for, not for their acting abilities. Whether they like it or not, it is difficult for people to view these actors as nothing more than a pretty face.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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