Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame

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9780307390844: Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame
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With 8 Pages of Black-and-White Photographs

In this captivating history of stardom, Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr traces our obsession with fame from the dawn of cinema through the age of the Internet. Why do we obsess over the individuals we come to call stars? How has both the image of stardom and our stars' images changed over the past hundred years? What does celebrity mean if people can now become famous simply for being famous? With brilliant insight and entertaining examples, Burr reveals the blessings and the curses of celebrity for the star and the stargazer alike. From Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, to Archie Leach (a.k.a. Cary Grant), Tom Cruise, and Julia Roberts, to such no-cal stars of today as the Kardashians and the new online celebrity, Gods Like Us is a journey through the fame game at its flashiest, most indulgent, occasionally most tragic, and ultimately it's most culturally revealing.

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About the Author:

Ty Burr is the film critic for The Boston Globe. For more than a decade he wrote about movies for Entertainment Weekly, and he has also served in the film acquisitions department of HBO. He estimates that after thirty years of serious movie-watching, he has seen on the order of 10,680 films. On a good day, he remembers 7,000 of them.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction: The Faces in the Mirror

What are the stars really like?
 
That question is not the subject of this book. The subject of this book is why we ask the question in the first place.
 
Still, people want to know. In my day job, I’m a professional film critic for a major metropolitan daily newspaper and throughout the 1990s I wrote reviews and articles for a national weekly entertainment magazine. Over the years, I’ve interviewed a number of actors and directors, ingénues and legends, and often the first question I’m asked by people is just that: What are they really like?
 
The answers always disappoint. Always. They range from “Pretty much what you see on the screen” to “Not all that interesting sometimes” to “Pleasantly professional” to an unspoken “Why do you care?” When pressed (and I’m usually pressed), I’ll allow that Keira Knightley and I had a lovely chat once and Lauren Bacall was nastier than she needed to be to a young reporter just starting out. That Laura Linney seemed graciously guarded, Steve Carell centered and sincere, Kevin Spacey cagey and smart. I once took the young Elijah Wood to a Hollywood burger joint while interviewing him for the magazine. He was a kid who really liked that burger, no more and no less.
 
They are, in short, working actors, life-sized and fallible. There is no mystery here. But this is not what you want to hear, is it? If there’s nothing genuinely special about movie stars, why do we give them our money? Why do we pay for cheaper and cheaper substitutes—reality stars, hotel heiresses, the Kardashians? Are we interested in the actual person behind the star facade, or just desperate to believe the magic has a basis in reality?
 
In truth, the relationship between persona and person can be problematic. Of all the celebrity encounters I’ve experienced, the one that sticks with me is the briefest, most random, possibly the saddest. Early one morning, many years ago, I came out of my apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and got ready to go for a run. As I breathed the spring air, the door to the adjoining building opened and another jogger emerged. We started stretching our hamstrings side by side, and I glanced over and acknowledged the other man with a friendly nod.
 
Three almost invisible things happened in rapid succession. First, he nodded back with a pleasant smile. Second, I realized that he was Robin Williams. Third, he realized that I realized he was Robin Williams, and his eyes went dead. Not just dead: empty. It was as if the storefront to his face had been shuttered, cutting off any possibility of interaction. There -wasn’t anything rude about this, and I respected his privacy, honoring the code observed by all New Yorkers who know they can potentially cross paths with an A-list name at any corner deli. Or was it his celebrity I was respecting? Whichever, a very small moment of human connection between two people had been squelched by the appearance of a third, not-quite-real person: the movie star. The second I recognized who the other jogger was, his persona got in the way. I -couldn’t not see him as “Robin Williams.” And he knew it.
 
This happens dozens of times in any well-known person’s day. It’s why Williams’s eyes shut down so completely; it’s why I left him alone and went for my run. I felt bad for the man, even if I hadn’t actually done anything. Because people do, in fact, do things. Think of all those fans who meet movie stars and insist on being photographed with them, the snapshot serving as both proof and relic. Think, too, of the man who shot and killed John Lennon but made sure to get his autograph first.
 
Why a history of movie stardom? To celebrate, interrogate, and marvel over where we’ve been, and to weigh where we are now. As the twenty-first century settles into its second decade, we are more than ever a culture that worships images and shrinks from realities. Once those images were graven; now they are projected, broadcast, podcast, blogged, and streamed. There is not a public space that doesn’t have a screen to distract us from our lives, nor is there a corner of our private existence that doesn’t offer an interface, wireless or not, with the Omniverse, that roiling sea of infotainment we jack into from multiple access points a hundred times a day. The Omniverse isn’t real, but it’s never turned off. You can’t touch it, but you can’t escape from it. And its most common unit of exchange, the thing that attracts so many people in the hopes of becoming it, is celebrity. Famous people. Stars.
 
Or what we’ve traditionally called stars, which traditionally arose from a place called the movies. As originally conceived during the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, movie stars were bigger and more beautiful than they are now, domestic gods who looked like us but with our imperfections removed (or, in some cases, gorgeously heightened). Our feelings about them were mixed. We wanted to be these people, and we were jealous of them too. We paid to see them in the stories the movie factories packaged for us, but we were just as fascinated—more fascinated, really—with the stories we believed happened offscreen, to the people the stars seemed to be.
 
Not many of us remember those days. Moreover, few are interested in connecting the dots between what we want from movie stars now and what we wanted from them then—and the “then” before that, and the “then” before that, all the way back to the first flickering images in Thomas Edison’s laboratory. The desires have changed, but so has the intensity. Mass media fame, a cultural concept that arose a century ago as a side effect of a new technology called moving pictures, now not only drives the popular culture of America (and, by extension, much of the world), but has become for many people a central goal and measure of self-worth.
 
When we were content to gaze up at movie stars on a screen that seemed bigger than life, the exchange was fairly simple. We paid money to watch our daily dilemmas acted out on a dreamlike stage, with ourselves recast as people who were prettier, smarter, tougher, or just not as scared. The stories illustrated the dangers of ambition, the ecstasies of falling in love, the sheer delight of song and dance. Because certain people embodied uniquely charismatic variations on how to react in certain situations—Bogart’s street smarts, Kate Hepburn’s gumption, Jimmy Stewart’s bruised decency, Bette Davis’s refusal ever to budge—we wanted to see them over and over again.
 
We wanted to be them. Why else would women have bought knockoffs of Joan Crawford’s white organdy dress in -1932’s Letty Lynton (half a million sold through Macy’s) or men have chosen to go without an undershirt like Clark Gable in 1934’s It Happened One Night? On an even deeper level, we also burned with resentment at the stars’ presumption to set themselves up as gods when our egos told us we were the ones deserving of attention. Behind every adoring fan letter is the urge to murder and replace. An image that reoccurs time and again in the pages that follow is that of a star out in public, surrounded by a mob that grabs and tears, ripping off buttons, chunks of clothing, as if to simultaneously absorb and obliterate the object of affection. There is love there and also a powerful, inarticulate rage. We want the stars, but we want what they have even more.
 
The strange part is that we got it, and the book in your hands hopes to show how that happened. The history of modern stardom isn’t just a roll call of icons but a narrative of how those icons affected the people and society that watched them, what psychic and cultural needs each star answered, and how that has changed over time. It’s an -ever--evolving story of industrial consolidation intertwined with technological advancement, each wondrous new machine bringing the dream tantalizingly closer to the control of the dreamers—to us.
 
The early cinema, for instance, allowed audiences to see actors close up, which rendered them both more specific and more archetypal than the players of the stage. The arrival of sound then let us hear the new stars’ voices. Radio brought those voices into our homes; TV brought the rest of the performer, repackaged for fresh rules of engagement. Home video let us own the stars and watch them when we wanted; video cameras allowed us to play at being stars ourselves. The Internet has merely completed the process by providing an instant worldwide distribution and exhibition platform for our new star-selves, however many of them we want to manufacture.
 
In addition, an extremely profit-driven group of entertainment conglomerates now keeps the popular culture rapt in a feedback loop of movie stars, TV stars, pop stars, rap stars, tweener stars, reality stars, and Internet stars, all mutable, all modeling ways in which consumers can alter their own homemade identities for maximum appeal to friends and strangers. The revolution is complete. One hundred years ago, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and a handful of others became the very first living human beings to be simultaneously recognizable to, in theory, everyone on earth. Today, a twelve-year-old child can achieve the same status with an afternoon, a digital camera, and a YouTube account. We have built the mirror we always dreamed about, and we cannot look away.
 
Part of the original impulse behind this book was to fashion a memorial for the old ways—for a cultural coin that had such worth for so long and that still retains value. The classic star system—as created by the Hollywood studios in the teens and twenties and sustained through the 1960s and, although much diminished, into the present day—was modern humanity’s Rorschach test. We looked at those inkblots on the screen and saw what we needed: proof of discrete, individual, desirable human types. The system evolved, with stars falling away and new ones rising as necessary to the cultural demands of the time. Marlon Brando would have been unthinkable before World War II, and yet postwar Hollywood would be unthinkable without him. Each era has its own yearnings, pop star responses, and technological developments that change how the machine works, and each is a further step toward where we are now.
 
Where are we now? A way station, I believe, on the way to someplace very different, more truthful in some aspects, profoundly less so in others. A century of mass media and the concept of “stardom” have changed human society in ways we can barely encompass, but the one constant has been an urge -toward personal fulfillment and freedom of identity that would have seemed perverse, if not sacrilegious, to our grandparents’ grandparents.
 
Centuries ago, the common man’s worth was marked primarily by duty—how hard he worked and how hard he prayed. The notion of “ego,” of something unique within each individual person that needed to be expressed, was alien. What stars there were tended to be generals and kings, religious leaders and charlatans, and you didn’t aspire to be like them. You simply followed where they led, or you kept your head down and worked the farm.
 
The movies helped change that. (All votes for movable type, the Enlightenment, the decline of the agrarian state, Sigmund Freud, and the rise of constitutional self-government will be counted.) The new medium tricked us, though, because it turned flesh-and-blood actors into dreamlike phantoms writ large on a wall. They didn’t speak at first, either, so you could impose upon them any voice, any meaning, you wished. The stars thus became better versions of ourselves, idealized role models who literally acted out the things we wanted to do but -didn’t dare. If they died, as Cagney always seemed to, we still got safely up and went home.
 
Somewhere along the line, after many decades, we learned not to trust these role models anymore. Technology is inextricable in this, because each new medium effectively disproves the one preceding it. TV is somehow “better” than the movies, video and cable are “better” than network TV, the Internet is “better” than five hundred channels of Comcast. “Better” means less restricted in location and time, more portable, and more directly serving the immediate needs of you and me. We plug into star culture and its discontents on our cell phones now. The latest slice of the Lindsay Lohan/Mel Gibson/Charlie Sheen Meltdown Show is right there any time we want it.
 
When a specific medium is put out to pasture, so are its most representative figures, as the stars of the silent era would be the first to tell you. At the same time, that primal ache has never gone away. If anything, it has gotten stronger, because each wave of technology doesn’t always make our lives better. Busier, yes, and faster. More than anything else, it just brings us closer to the mirror in which we reflect ourselves to the world. We still each in our own way ache to be somebody, to make our mark, to stand out from the crowd, to be seen. Otherwise, who are we? What’s life for? Uniqueness of identity is the promise movie stars hold out to us; if they’re able to separate themselves from the swarm of humanity, so might we.
 
I wonder what Marlene Dietrich would make of all this. There was a woman who knew from desire and who trusted a cameraman to keep her secret—that the magnificently shadowed creature of all those early-’30s classics was an ordinary German girl with bedroom eyes. Or the other Hollywood gods—what would they think? Archie Leach and Ruby Stevens, Frances Gumm and Marion Morrison and Norma Jean Mortenson.
 
Who? Well, yes, you know them as Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck, Judy Garland and John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe. Those original names were left in the closet, along with Roy Scherer’s—excuse me, Rock Hudson’s—homosexuality. Entire pasts were abridged or erased because they didn’t jibe with the luxuriant beauty onscreen, the gorgeous lie. The movie moguls kept the secrets, and the press played along because they understood that, really, we didn’t want to know.
 
With some exceptions, though, the mystery that surrounded movie stars for the better part of a century is now highly suspect. Indeed, many pop consumers consider it their duty to pull down the idols and pass their dirty secrets around the Web. How can we trust Tom Cruise the movie star when we can Google the “real” one bouncing on Oprah’s couch? We now have as much control over the idea of celebrity as the studio publicity departments once did, and is it any wonder that movie stars are ruthlessly mocked while our own sweet selves are headlining on YouTube?
 
Is this something like revenge? Or is it just the evolution of a species gradually conditioned to narcissism? For a century we accepted stardom as a blessing visited on those more gifted than we, a state of grace to which you and I in our drabness could not, and should not, aspire. We knew our place, and it was in the fifth row of the Bijou, worshiping as MGM chief Louis B. Mayer handed out the communion wafers. In 1919, when Chaplin and Pickford joined with Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith in creating United Artists, the first movie studio run by...

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Book Description Anchor Books, United States, 2013. Paperback. Condition: New. Language: English. Brand new Book. With 8 Pages of Black-and-White PhotographsIn this captivating history of stardom, Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr traces our obsession with fame from the dawn of cinema through the age of the Internet. Why do we obsess over the individuals we come to call stars? How has both the image of stardom and our stars' images changed over the past hundred years? What does celebrity mean if people can now become famous simply for being famous? With brilliant insight and entertaining examples, Burr reveals the blessings and the curses of celebrity for the star and the stargazer alike. From Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, to Archie Leach (a.k.a. Cary Grant), Tom Cruise, and Julia Roberts, to such no-cal stars of today as the Kardashians and the new online celebrity, Gods Like Us is a journey through the fame game at its flashiest, most indulgent, occasionally most tragic, and ultimately it's most culturally revealing. Seller Inventory # AAS9780307390844

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