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Saturday, September 12, 2009

MENTAL MONTAGE: The Death of the Movie Star

As a student of history, I have gathered several tidbits of information, drawn many comparisons, and developed more than one theory about Hollywood life and how it reflects on life in general. Every once and awhile, I try to take the collage of thoughts I have accumulated and solidify them on paper. I can only hope that it makes sense. (Ever notice how thoughts, being wordless and intangible, make so much sense in your head, but never translate well once they leave the safety of your cranium)?

TOPIC: The Death of the Movie Star???

The way we look at movie stars has altered greatly over the years. In the early days of cinema, when the movie stars first came into existence, they were huge! Enormous!! Godlike!!! Suddenly, ordinary people were universally known. Their faces were as recognizable as any other national symbol-- the statue of liberty, the leaning tower of Pisa, the Great Wall of China. Before the movie star, the most popular and well known faces belonged to politicians. (Gross). Then, out of the silver glow of cinema emerged the first starlet: Florence Lawrence. Suddenly, film actors, whose names had been hidden from the public, lost their anonymity, and willingly entered the eschelons of the rich, famous, and adored. People no longer had to look up to fictional film, play, or book characters; they had real, flesh and blood heroes to emulate and admire. Strange how you don't realize how much you need something until suddenly it presents itself, then you have no idea how you ever survived without it: hello cell phones, ipods, and Google. People were ravenous, and they devoured film after film of their new favorite actors, furiously inhaled any article written about them, and nearly ravaged them when they made a public appearance. When Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks made their famous trip to England, they were nearly torn apart by fans. Like a wave crashing down, the masses grabbed ahold of the frightened Mary, who would have been pulled away from Doug had he not managed to lift her up on his shoulders and push her into their car.

No one seems to have this reaction today. Maybe it is just because I live in Hollywood, but when I see a random celeb I usually go, "Ooh, look who it is," then continue on with my business. Very few people do more than snap a shot with their camera phone or ask for an autograph. The smart ass may yell out a quip or two: "Hey, Shia! Where's Bumblebee?" But is there pandemonium??? No. Little girls may get a bit more ecstatic when they see Zac Efron pass by, but even the bigger stars of today, like George Clooney, evoke very little... excitement.

How did we arrive at this point? It seems we are apathetic about celebrity these days. I mean, "who are these movie stars, anyway? Nobodies who got lucky!" I think the majority of people carry an animosity toward celebrities as a whole. They have more money and privilege than the average citizen, and for what? That's why when a train wreck like Lindsay Lohan comes crashing into the public eye, we eat it up like fondue- celebrity shame on a stick. Where does the indifference, and even disdain, come from?

I think it began with the decade of scandal: the 1920s. During this era, the most beloved and most trusted celebrities started to betray us. The people with the most fame, the most glory, the most money, suddenly came tumbling down like asteroids, destroying the myth of Hollywood perfection in blow after apocolyptic blow (they don't call it Hollywood Babylon for nothing). First, Olive Thomas committed suicide, then Fatty Arbuckle "raped" Virginia Rappe, then William Desmond Taylor was murdered, then Wallace Reid died of a drug overdose. Then and then and then, ad nauseum. Mabel Normand went from being the queen of laughs to being the butt of the joke; Chaplin went from being the beloved Tramp to being the pedophile who married tramps... It was all gossip, and the majority of the scandals were completely false, but that didn't stop the public from sending innocent people to the publicity gallows. Careers were ruined, and because America felt deceived they ripped Hollwood a "new one," renounced its stars, and demanded clean cinema.

But, though we had anger at the stars who had "blown it," and wasted the privileged life they had been handed on a silver platter, we still needed our celebrities. So, when the big studios started paving the way in cinema, they gave us manufactured stars and starlets. The new nobodies were refined and polised until they shined: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth, and Errol Flynn. Even their pasts were reconstructed. Flynn had been a sanitation officer and copra trader, but his past career was listed as Cop. He was Australian, but his nationality was written as Irish. Great fictions, but he was made a REAL person, who had climbed his way up from obscurity, EARNING his right as a movie star. People responded with glee.

But, the press continued chipping away at each facade until the new movie stars were proven to be no more than mutton in sheep's clothing-- Lucille Le Seuer dressed as Joan Crawford. The gossip mags put an end to the new breed of celebrity, proving that even a deliberate lie, the manufactured celeb, would give way to truth, and thus scandal. Like, Fatty before him, Errol was labeled a rapist, Frances Farmer went to the mad house, yada yada yada. Despite the noble efforts of publicity men like Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling, the palace of dreams crumbled, and celebrities were magic no more. Never to rise again.

A lot of this has to do with the emergence of the Actor vs. the Movie Star. Marlon Brando knocked the star system off its pedestal, and the knickers off the ladies, when he roared to fame as the sultry and earthy Stanley in A Streetcare Named Desire. Along with fellow method actors Montgomery Clift and Maureen Stapleton, the next generation of would-be-movie-stars, shunned this superficial title and embraced the raw name "Actor!" They were real people, acting real on screen and off, with no pretense. It was new, and interesting, but also a little boring. Because these names insisted on rolling in the mud, there was nothing dirty to throw at them. When they screwed up, did drugs, had affairs... it was all in a day's work. We couldn't look up to them, because they were us. It left us nothing to aspire to.

Later, these names gave way to Pacino, Streep, De Niro and Keaton in the 70s. It was pretty much the same deal: art over artiface. Except for a brief blip in the '80s when Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise were on top of the world, things have remained unchanged. Today there are "celebrities"- which range anywhere from talentless reality dweebs like Spidey to fresh Hollywood hotties with (arguably) no talent like Megan Fox-- and then there are the thespians-- like Daniel Day Lewis and Cate Blanchette. There is mindless entertainment, and then there is the Oscar Nominated Drama. Artistic bigotry.

Strangely enough, this only represents that we have come full circle. When the first filmmakers were paving their way from New York to Hollywood, film actors were frowned upon. The theater was the avenue of the artist, and cinema was the dirt road of the whore. When a real, trained actress like Mary Pickford entered the screen, she elevated the status of film, and though fellow actress Mabel Normand was equally as popular, there was always a bias against her because she was untrained, and (gasp) a comedienne. Does this meant that the cycle will repeat itself? Will the star system return, or will there be a new breed of movie star born within the next few years?

As the country stumbles its way through the current financial dilemma, people seem to be getting tired of seeing the "nobodies" walking around with a lot of money. Do we ask for too much? We cut the hackneyed celebrity down and praise the true and deserving artist, but we still need the glamour. We like our stars looking wealthy and healthy; we need to live vicariously through them. The result is that we demand a star be a combo of both talent and fortune, but so as not to ruffle feathers, they must remain modest and humble in their fame. They must be charasmatic, but possess the ability to fly under the radar so as not to piss anyone off. Is this human even possible? The key is not to be flawless, but to be good at hiding your flaws, or to remain so likable that people forgive you for them. Many current stars possess this quality (Sandra Bullock,Drew Barrymore), yet they seem uninterested in fame so they have never been able to climb directly to the top as the celebrity supreme, or perhaps they are smart enough to know that a pedestal is not a good place to live. As time passes, the only thing certain is change. The question is, what will that look like?

Whatever the case, the transition of our movie stars has been quite the roller-coaster over the years. There is no telling where we will go, or if all has been lost now that people like Paris Hilton are famous simply for having Daddy's money. Was the integrity and intrigue we saw and connected to in the likes of Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert as much a myth as the "star quality" we have had shoved down our throats today, which we subsequently spit back out with a "blech?" Somehow I think not. But I am not hopeless. I feel there will be a resurgence. People need to believe; they need to relate to someone or something. The screen will flicker again with personalities that we can love. In the meantime, I suppose we will continue to entertain ourselves with tarring and feathering all the transient personages. 


  1. Wonderful post! This is something that I've wondered about, too, and I think you have the right idea. The public wants to have "screen idols," but when we think we've found them, we're dismayed to find that they're only human.

  2. Exactly. It is a complex topic, and one that reveals much about us as spectators, consumers, and people.

  3. A truly great article and you made some great points.

    The whole Fatty Arbuckle scandal always saddens me; Talk about a man who was unfairly accused.

    Have a great weekend,

  4. Hello MEREDITH!

    Brilliant blog, very interesting! Greetings from Spain! Good luck!

    Att. Mandra