My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Charting the highs and lows of stardom from the silent idols to today's over-exposed pantheon of celebrities, film critic Ty Burr examines the cultural history of Hollywood fame.
As a longtime reader of Us Magazine along with other trashy entertainment news, one of my favorite pasttimes is learning the incredible history of celebrity. The scandals of today often pale in comparison with the hushed-up doings of the old studio stars like Clark Gable, Clara Bow, and Charlie Chaplin.
Celebrity studies (a fascinating new field that merges film/literary criticism with cultural history) examines the pleasure of watching beautiful and talented people enact fantasies that at once reflect and change our shared culture. Burr, a film critic for The Boston Globe, writes ably of the trends of Hollywood then and now. Even the most ardent buff will add unfamiliar titles to the list of films to see and find him or herself googling unfamiliar names to see the Julia Roberts and Harrison Fords of yesteryear.
If you read everything by academic Anne Helen Petersen (who writes classic celebrity biographies for The Hairpin as well as posting on her own blog, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, her Twitter account, and Facebook page), then you may recognize a few of Burr's anecdotes. His book is more than simple history, though: it's also criticism, and it's a pleasure to read Burr's insightful assessments and descriptions.
The stories are fantastic and sometimes unbelievable: for example, the casting of Scarlett O'Hara for the adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's blockbuster novel Gone With the Wind took a full two years and encompassed every star in Hollywood, even the ones that in retrospect make little sense: Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Paulette Goddard, and even a young Lucille Ball. Nationwide auditions were held, exciting a frenzy of speculation and amateur enthusiasm: one woman actually shipped herself into the producer's office in a crate to give him a surprise reading and bonus striptease. In the end, the most coveted role in Hollywood went to an unknown Englishwoman: Vivien Leigh (who at the time was quietly carrying on an adulterous affair with Laurence Olivier).
There are also anecdotes about an entire studio taking daily nooners; the way the studio system cold-bloodedly cultivated its stars (to the point of arranging a marriage for gay actor Rock Hudson); how silent film actors first discovered the crushing wheel of celebrity (Florence Lawrence's trajectory is familiarly tragic), and many memorable turns of phrase from Burr (John Wayne, he writes, emerges like a "Venus on the half-saddle").
Burr mentions stars of prestige and popularity, and various mixtures thereof. There are many eras to examine: the earliest silent films, the bumpy transition to talkies, the heyday of Old Hollywood glamor, the rise of the counterculture (embodied by Marlon Brando, arguably the best actor of all time), then TV, cable, VHS, MTV, indie films, the Internet, and dreaded "reality" television (ugh). Hollywood has always reflected the world around it: bloody wars, new technology, shifts in culture, and larger-than-life personalities show up in Tinseltown as in a funhouse mirror, history's players morphing in unexpected ways. It's fascinating for any student of contemporary culture or of American history.
|Marlon Brando, acting god|
For your next read, I definitely recommend picking up Anne Helen Petersen's book when it comes out: Scandals of Classic Hollywood. David Thomson has also written extensively on the history of films. With Netflix and the trusty Criterion Collection, even the oldest films hardly seem out of reach any more, so I highly recommend checking them out. A look through past Oscar Best Picture nominees provides a convenient list to start with (though the Academy often got it wrong in their choice of winners).
"When [director D.W. Griffith] tried [the closeup] out in a Biograph film his bosses were horrified. 'We pay for the whole actor, Mr. Griffith,' he was scolded. 'We want to see all of him.'" - 21
"The history of modern fame, from the first movies to today, is a struggle for control between the people who make the product and the people who buy it." - 84
"If anything, star singularities force a need for their persona into the culture rather than the other way around. There was no call for Fred Astaire before Fred Astaire existed. ... The young Katharine Hepburn seemed so eccentric to mainstream audiences that it took fifteen years for them to come around. Edward G. Robinson looked like a toad and was built for character parts and ethnic caricature, but he had the crude forward momentum of a sex symbol; he was a star because he acted like one." - 104
"The problem with gods who look and act like us is that they get old like us, at which point they cease to be gods. So we continually choose new ones as young and beautiful as we hope we are when we look in the mirror. Each freshly born divinity is a reflection of who we think we are at that moment in time and culture, or, more precisely, who we might want to be." - 143
"As always since the very invention of movie stars, these actors and their peers each embody an idea, a narrative whose potential energy is shaped by aspects of physical appearance, attitude, talent, and luck." - 321