Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) (© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment) (IMDB)

Star Studies Geeks and the Spellbinding Power of Celebrity

For the right onscreen personality, we're all "Beatlemaniacs". What do movie stars have that we don't?

It’s 1951, and Marlon Brando has just strolled onto the set of a crummy New Orleans apartment to do a scene with Vivien Leigh in front of the rolling cameras. You watch him say the lines, watch his face change and his hands move, and a new sensation wriggles around in your belly. There’s something about him. Something potent and electrifying that you can’t name. He’s a star, and you want to watch him. You want to be him, maybe — or be in his bed.

Perhaps it’s Angelina Jolie who floats your boat, or Ryan Gosling. You can’t say why, but you love to see their movies, to scroll through fancy studio stills of them on the Internet. Even those who examine culture with a critical eye have favorite stars, whether or not they’d actually buy a tabloid mag when someone in particular is on the cover. It’s related to the guilty pleasure somehow: the guilty gaze. We should be wiser than the crowd, shouldn’t invest in celebrity culture and instead stand back to analyze and interpret. But for the right personality, we’re all Beatlemaniacs, completely undone in the presence of that certain something.

Star studies, a subspecialty in film scholarship, is sort of a philosophical, highbrow version of reading Us Weekly and People: an examination of the interaction between us normies and the people we watch on screens large and small. What do we see, what do we love, when we watch Humphrey Bogart? How did he create fame out of who and what he is and does, and how is that fame different than what, say, Meryl Streep sets forth? What do they have in common? What’s the purpose of their fame in the lives of their fans, and what’s the metaphysical role that a beloved actor plays in a film? Take Jack Nicholson, for instance – for decades, he’s been playing tiny variations on the role of Jack Nicholson. That’s what audiences like about him, whereas we want other actors to play actual parts with distinct and discrete characteristics. What’s up with that? Star studies geeks have engaged with puzzles like these as vividly as any nun has considered God.

And for nuns and monks of cinema, Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame (Anchor, 2013), is a scriptural marvel. It’s a history of American stardom written by Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr, but it’s also an extended meditation on celebrity, on identity, on where the two cross and chemically react. It’s a wending way that traces what’s happened over the course of the century that cinema has existed to get us where we are now. It’s enormously fun to read, too.

Although Burr doesn’t offer many concrete answers to star studies inquiries in Gods Like Us, he provides an awful lot of material to work with when kneading through the subject. He also dances and twirls through the history of movie stardom, telling the tale with wit and colloquial language and with a genuine sense of the fun of it all. Crucially, he helps to clarify the reason that movie stars are so fascinating to sophisticated audiences who should know better than to be ensorcelled by a pretty face.

[T]hese are human beings whose flaws we in the audience suspect and ignore, torn as we are between venerating the larger projection and wanting to pull down the screen… The ongoing mistake of the moviegoing public is to confuse the two and to ascribe great psycho-mythic power where there is usually only very good playacting. This is the mistake that fuels fan mail, Web shrines, and celebrity stalkers alike — that the star is exactly who we see — and it masks the ignored but necessary pleasures of the ordinary.

Yet for the viewer in the know, the viewer who is aware of stars’ humanity but is nevertheless bewitched, it’s the tension inherent there that keeps us in the audience. Here’s a young lady named Jean Harlow:

Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight (1933) (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images – © 2012 Getty Images) (IMDB)

Pictures like this, of classical Hollywood glamour, offer the impression of immortal creatures sculpted from clay and silver nitrate, rather than humans born and painted and frozen into a state of beauty by a photographer’s camera. Harlow’s body was of flesh, we know, because it failed her and she died. She had a life not inherently unlike any woman’s, in that she laughed and slept and read books and made love and ate food and excreted it. But the glory and power in this picture belies those incontrovertible facts about her.

The clash between these two identities, between Harlow as goddess and Harlow as human, is part of what mesmerizes, whether the picture is of Harlow or Clark Gable or Joan Crawford or Bogart. We know, as we know that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas, that they were human, but look at Gable:

Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind (1939) (IMDB)

He makes the sun seem to be nothing more scientific than a star.

This underlying awareness of stars’ humanity is what keeps the thoughtful audience going back to the movies, back to the tabloids, back to glossy coffee-table books that display the miracle of retouching more than anything else. Their larger-than-life quality is what’s so magnificent about movie stars, and it’s a quality no sensible fan would trade for a glimpse of the real human. The pictures can’t be real, but the people depicted are. Intelligent consumers can no longer fall for the lie of stars’ immortality, and that is what allows stars to maintain their power in pictures decades after their names have faded.

Although its title, Gods Like Us, expresses the precise nature of this tension, Burr’s book goes much deeper. The final chapter asks challenging questions about the mirrors in which we now largely reside, about what the century-long culture of celebrity has wrought.

And what does it do to us to live from childhood in this warm and enveloping culture of Narcissus, one in which the real world — the one you can walk out into and smell and taste and touch — becomes less important than the endless self-images we invent in the effort to locate our actual selves?
. . .
The unhooking of persona from identity in the digital age represents an ultimate Warholization, with our various manufactured online selves just a piece of the mirror into which we peek. …[This] calls into question that singular root-file identity itself.

The piquant relationship between movie stars (human) and their personas (immortal), and the strange divide between public persona and genuine identity, are the twin engines of Burr’s book. He argues that ordinary folk have used celebrities’ public personas to construct their own identities for as long as there have been celebrities (i.e., since 1909). This is not an inherently harmful practice, but it can veer into troubling alleys, as perennial fan stalking stories testify.

Since fame has never been closer at hand than at present, with the relatively new and universally accessible platforms of reality TV and viral popularity, the definition and the meaning of fame have mutated more rapidly in the recent past than ever before – even into strange shapes that the more old-fashioned among us no longer find pleasing. Burr does not judge this kind of stardom, he merely examines it. For those of us who can’t look away from the sun, his careful study is exactly the kind of guilty gaze we need.