It's easy to dismiss the upcoming "AFI's 100 Years . . . 100 Stars" as another tawdry attempt at self-promotion with the once august custodian of the film past attempting to turn history into product. I'll be watching the game--any game--Tuesday night when the thing unspools for three hours on CBS, a kind of mini-Oscars of historical revisionism.

But the event does have its uses. To be fair, it gets lots of old movies rented on video for a week or two. Kids who've never seen black-and-white before suddenly get a shot at it, and if they dismiss it, that's their problem, the little savages.

For another thing, amid all the hubbub and the hype about the show, it does provide an excuse to ruminate on the most mystical of all the movie qualities, to watch its play over the course of film history: Stardom. What is it? Who gets it? Who keeps it? Why do we care?

In its way, the American Film Institute is trying to examine these issues. Its anonymous scribes--in the handy-dandy booklet titled "AFI Legends Directory"--set forth the criteria of stardom: star quality, craft, legacy, popularity and historical context.

Of course you can throw out "craft" right away. It's pure bunkum. Some stars can actually act, but talent hardly seems a prerequisite. Of the great stars, almost none exhibited much of the versatility possessed by the great British stage performer who could be the noble Hamlet in 1948 and the ignoble Archie Rice 12 years later in "The Entertainer." Imagine, say, John Wayne as Hamlet and Archie Rice, and you get an image of such ridiculousness it boggles the imagination. At the same time, Laurence Olivier could have been a credible Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers": He had the gravity and the complexity behind his eyes, to say nothing of that hulking frame. Olivier was indisputably an actor, a great one. Yet Wayne was indisputably a great star, whereas Olivier never quite achieved that. For Wayne, being a star was effortless.

"Legacy," "popularity" and "historical context" are at least things that can be confirmed in any dictionary. Unfortunately, here they're meaningless. They're simply throat-clearing redundancies, since they're part of stardom, not the cause of it, or even a symptom of it.

That leaves "star quality," and the institute is onto something here, even if it isn't sure what. "An actor's charisma and unique personal characteristics that create a strong on-and-off-screen presence which is often embraced by audiences as a separate, mythic persona," writes someone who's spent too much time in graduate school. But despite the pseudo-academic guff ("mythic persona"), that at least gets at the essential magic of the issue, the itness of it. Itness? Does he mean "witness"? No, he means "itness," in the following sense: One of the very early stars, Clara Bow, was called the "It" Girl, which in its way was a sublime epiphany, because it describes the indescribable, which appears to be the essence of stardom.

That is, the almost magical union of charisma and facial structure and role that imprints itself in the imagination of large numbers of people and becomes more real than real. In some sense all the stars are it-girls and it-boys; they're the tribe of the it, for they share an incandescence that nobody can predict or hone, but that nevertheless is very real but so quicksilver it cannot be deconstructed.

It's not just beauty. That's what's so fabulously interesting about it. Beauty is common and usually cheap. There are many beautiful people in the world. Most local-market TV weather girls are beautiful, especially in the Midwest. But they will never be movie stars. Some great stars--Bogart for one, probably the greatest of them--could never be considered beautiful except in an antithetical way: He was so ugly he was beautiful.

For the purposes of this inquiry, let's look at seven male stars (because I don't know much about women), each drawn from a decade, each with that it-thing. And let's look at something special: the face. That's because Norma Desmond was wrong in "Sunset Boulevard" when she proclaimed of her silent brethren, "We had faces then." They always had faces, then as well as now, and whatever a star has, he has a face that says something that is uniquely expressive of some value of the times. Fascinatingly, these faces change, in bone structure, in hue, in shape. The architecture of the face is fascinating.

Look, to begin with, at one Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla, known to the world as Rudolph Valentino. To gaze upon that face today is to gaze into another realm, a lost world. With those dark eyes, those hawkish cheekbones, that brilliantined hair, he brought the suggestion of forbidden European sexuality to American women who had been instructed since birth in the worship of the Dudley Dorights of pulp entertainment, the foursquare Dink Stovers of Yale.

Valentino might have been one of the first times women said No to men's prevailing values, in thunder. Men didn't get it and still don't. Valentino wore makeup! He smoldered! He wore little rings! He knew how to tango! The Chicago Tribune, in the '20s a famous beacon of rectitude, opined in the aftermath of "Son of the Sheik": "When will we be rid of all these effeminate youths, pomaded, powdered, bejeweled and bedizened, in the image of Rudy--that painted pansy." The first issue: What does "bedizened" mean? The second: While it's easy to dismiss the reaction as homophobia, it's really quite something else. The hatred of Valentino has behind it a deeply rooted American male suspicion that men who got gals too easily had a kind of secret advantage because, at some level, they were already gals. There'd be no hemming and hawing with them; no aw-shucksing. They could talk color, eye makeup, the fall of the cloth, and they could actually listen to the stuff about her mother as if they cared, and from that point on, closing the deal was easy. The mystery of Valentino's face was its combination of strains of masculine and feminine in a society just beginning to notice them itself.

By the 1930s, that vision of male beauty had morphed into one of the dullest movie stars of all time, the little wooden man Robert Taylor (Spangler Arlington Brugh of Filley, Neb.). I love this guy because he is so lifeless and seems to have disappeared from the collective memory with a vengeance. He couldn't be a cult if he knew how to raise the dead! He was the man as object, at his best in '30s films as a callow, idealized little smurf, a small kewpie doll with a face so square and perfect it could have been designed by a computer, if they'd had computers in those days. In his later years, or when he grew a little scruff of whisker or washed the petroleum jelly out of his hair, Taylor could be interesting if conventionally, humorlessly masculine--he's even pretty good in 1943's "Bataan," where he goes down fighting the Japanese infantry as the camera memorably closes in on the muzzle flash of his machine gun. But the early roles ("Camille" and "Magnificent Obsession") are a continuation of the Valentino line of man as object of beauty. This seems to represent a theatrical bias toward the beautiful in feminine terms: beauty as perfection, as proportion, as delicacy, as opposed to the beauty in masculine terms, beauty as toughness, experience, wariness, courage. It also suggests the quiet war going on in movie culture as regards the male face.

And that argument was: beauty vs. interest. For it soon became obvious that motion picture stars didn't have to be merely beautiful, but that they did have to be interesting. You could pick any of a dozen late-'30s, early-'40s stars to make this point, from Cagney to Stewart to Spencer Tracy to John Garfield to Henry Fonda (with Errol Flynn, Alan Ladd and Cary Grant representing the other side), but I choose to go with Bogart.

Bogart. Bogart! BOGART! There will never be another, yet to look at him is in some sense not to get it. He had a rather large forehead, a rather small body, a receding hairline, unremarkable eyes, regular features except for a weirdly frozen upper lip. He could have been an encyclopedia salesman or a radio repairman. You couldn't find a less glamorous-looking fellow if you tried. Was it a matter of talent? Well, you can't really say that Bogart was a great actor, and in some roles he was simply awful (check him out as the bad guy in a Cagney western, "The Oklahoma Kid"). But the camera simply adored him. Somehow it brought all the ordinariness of those elements together into one extraordinary thing.

He also had a kind of body grace that was naturally masculine in his best roles. He looked good moving, he looked good smoking and he had great hands, biggish, square, veiny things, which the smoking emphasized. When he cupped his hand around a match to light a butt, he looked like Hercules performing all seven labors at once.

Meanwhile, the camera registered his lack of fear and his refusal to be easily influenced or impressed. There was somehow a kind of integrity in his face (which he could play against, by reducing his eyes to feral, terrified little orbs of pure paranoia, as in "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" or "The Caine Mutiny"). This is itness at its itest. Bogart is the it-man in spades.

So what Bogart seems to represent is a kind of return to masculine normalcy, away from the highly refined, highly aestheticized faces of the previous decades. The older he got, the lumpier, the wrinklier, the crustier, the saltier, the better he looked. He was beyond vanity, so removed from narcissism it hardly seemed to exist. And this of course meshed perfectly with the direction of American films in the '40s and '50s, which was away from gushy Hollywood fantasias and toward something more realistic, more familiar. Somehow Bogart took the movies off the stage and moved them into the alleys.

Then along came John Wayne, who moved them outdoors. Wayne had to wait to become a star, after getting a big role in 1929, when he was all beauty and no character. But by 1939, his face had toughened and weathered, his body mass had increased, his natural tendencies toward grouchiness, intolerance and impatience had become imprinted in his flesh, so he qualifies as the archetypal '50s movie star. There is actual empirical data behind this conclusion, because he dominated the box office in those days, and his greatest performance ("The Searchers") came in that era. But it was more than numbers. Somehow he expressed something about ourselves in a way that was infinitely pleasing. He won the war, now he was going to win the peace.

Somehow, he was beef. He was 100 percent Grade A U.S. Prime. His face was a steak, his body a whole side, his nose a kielbasa. His hands were the size of Whoppers. He was a composition in pure American protein, glistening with strength, vigor and the strength of bone and the flavor of fat. His face was gigantic but somehow pleasing in an open, square way. He never generated much sexual appeal, and he got the gals by treating them like one of the boys, but as a '50s icon, he stood totally for our own view of the nation and the culture. Big. Really, really big. Strong. Lumbering. ARGGGHHH, the stomping of a bull as it readies to charge, the slobbery drool, the acquisition of oxygen in those giant lungs, the narrowing and darkening of eyes, the dropping of the head behind the cowl of horn. That was Wayne: that huge face on that huge body with that slow way of talking, and that ability to absorb anger to a certain point, and then explode with righteous violence. I think it was the critic David Thomson who called him the crown prince of difficult men, and the face, especially, carried that message, devoid again of vanity or frill, incapable of femininity or sensitivity, its secrets locked stoically behind the eyes that narrowed suspiciously at the threat of menace. Didn't talk much. Didn't act much. But was there, and how.

Do you see it yet: It's a rhythm, the warp and woof of the face. We go from highly feminized "beautiful" men to highly masculinized "ugly" men. You could relate this to a number of factors. But the next twist actually falls outside the masculine-feminine into another dichotomy, which might be termed the ethnicization of the male star.

Certainly Sidney Poitier was the first of these. Profoundly gifted, Poitier became the first African American actor to become a major star for all Americans. In 1968 he was the leading box office star. But as gifted as he was, he was no Jackie Robinson. By that I mean he was a black man who made race irrelevant by his beauty, the openness of his face. For white Americans, he had that greatest of all kinds of beauty, a friendly beauty. He carried no message of fear or power or violence. He could never be a radical or a threat to the system or a panther; he was a kind of safe, sanitized African American that white Americans, frightened by black nationalism and the King assassination riots, could look upon for assurance. Again, these messages were carried in the peculiar architecture of his face, which either condemned him to or lifted him toward roles with high sentimental content, such as the police detective in "In the Heat of the Night" or the freelance construction man in "Lilies of the Field." Yet for blacks, he carried a message of power and strength and a possible secret meaning, suggesting the coming of change.

Something of the same was true of the '70s stars, of whom Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman are the exemplars. In an earlier age, Jacob Julius Garfinkle had to change his name to John Garfield, and Dino Crocetti to Dean Martin. But the disruptions of the late '60s ripped open the boundaries on male attractiveness and background. You didn't have to be a phony WASP to get by. Both men have prominent ethnic features, notably noses. Pacino has olive-toned skin and particularly those big, passionate eyes. He's cliche Italian and in an earlier era would have been consigned to playing Mafia goombahs in B-films, while Hoffman, under the name Jerry Stone, would have been the pawnshop owner, the math genius, the sleazy lawyer. Those days are gone forever, however and thankfully, and now heroes can come from anywhere and be anyone. If I don't miss my guess, Rupert Everett is about to become the first big openly gay star, for one thing.

The '80s and '90s have almost seemed to have cranked our taste in face into yet a new world. With notable exceptions like the plain Tom Hanks, the new stars all seem almost too beautiful. Tom Cruise is one, though he too has gotten more interesting as he's filled out and gotten more muscular. But in the '80s, he was almost an asexual icon of beauty. He had that prominent nose, those sharp little eyes, that thick neck. He was a clever boy, and could learn to juggle or tend bar or shoot pool if the role demanded it. But his very callowness seemed always to pair him with predatory women who seemed about to rip off his head with their teeth and then devour him, as the Cyclops did to Odysseus's men. He seemed like one of them, that is, rather than Odysseus himself. But other than beauty, this is what he offered: nothing. It was very strange. He was best in roles in which he played a slightly shady striver, as if again the camera were picking up on something in the soul rather than in the body--that emptiness of spirit. His cockiness--his best attribute--played best when he was young and dumb, as in "Top Gun" or "The Color of Money."

Another pretty one is Brad Pitt. He, too, is floating between masculine force and feminine beauty. You don't feel the heat of vanity off him that you do, say, from a Richard Gere or a Rob Lowe, and he seems to go to some length to fight his own good looks, as if they frighten him in some of the roles he's taken, as in "12 Monkeys." But the camera, which first discovered him in "Thelma & Louise," has no doubt about it: It likes what it sees. Look at some of the others of his ilk of impossibly beautiful combinations of male and female: Keanu Reeves, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp. Do any of them shave? I mean their faces, not their legs.

Taken together, these group offers a grim commentary on what masculinity in the movies in an era of political correctness has become. They represent some kind of androgynous fusion of masculine and feminine idealizations of beauty, an intermingling that some will see as healthy and others as tragic. That makes them perfect symbols of a confused age.

For that, in the end, is what the camera sees: What we want it to see.

CAPTION: Decade by decade, men with the magic touch: Tom Cruise is surrounded by, clockwise from top, Brad Pitt, Al Pacino, Rudolph Valentino, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Sidney Poitier and Robert Taylor.

CAPTION: Faces uniquely expressive of the times: John Wayne in "True Grit," Humphrey Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon" and Brad Pitt in "Legends of the Fall."