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Gods Like Us
On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame
By Ty Burr
earliest movies came out of Edison's Kinetoscope, a boxy single-viewer peepshow - you cranked a small mechanical arm and looked through a slot to see a brief scene. Filmed boxing matches which they sold to peepshow parlours at $22.50 per round. Customers then paid a dime to watch each of six rounds, moving from machine to machine until the final knockout - an early version of pay-to-view.
Admit it. You idolize George Clooney and know he'd be your close friend, or at least a good drinking buddy - if only you'd ever met. And that mass schadenfreude the culture indulges in whenever Lindsay Lohan crashes another car - isn't that comforting? Stars may be rich or beautiful, but we get to feel sane in comparison.
In Gods Like Us, a penetrating, lively cultural history of movie stardom, Ty Burr doesn't lose sight of those and other paradoxes as he examines the idolatry and the illusion of intimacy, the worship and the resentment, the willed belief in an image we secretly know to be a mask. That unwavering focus on our push-pull relationship with screen icons from the days of silent films through cellphones, and a sophisticated sense of how films both reflect and shape culture, add freshness to what sounds like a worn-out topic.
I might have liked this book just for the dead-on way it defines Tom Cruise's persona: "maximum charisma with minimum depth." Burr, a film critic for The Boston Globe and a former writer for Entertainment Weekly, has a witty, readable style, but don't let that pop facade fool you. There is substance here, as he dissects how each period in American history finds or creates stars to serve its needs.
Back in 1910, the now forgotten Florence Lawrence was at the center of the first movie-related street crowd, as fans tore at her clothes trying to get near her during a personal appearance in St. Louis. They had only recently learned her name, because in the earliest days actors weren't credited on-screen. Soon those unknowable figures became familiar, as the screen magnified the country's desires and ambitions. In the '30s and '40s, Bette Davis showed women that they could be strong-willed, Ava Gardner that it was O.K. to be blatantly sexy. Clark Gable, at the height of his stardom during the Depression, gave audiences an image of unquestioned masculine swagger, confidence and virility at a time when so many unemployed men may have felt emasculated.
The culture always outgrows its idols, though. In the '60s and '70s, the old movie-star model - a steady, studio-crafted persona carried through film after film - gave way to a natural approach, which, Burr carefully notes, is merely the illusion of naturalness. Dustin Hoffman embodied this new "dialectic in star culture," reconciling art and celebrity. Was he really an ordinary schlub or expertly acting like one?
A book of such scope is bound to have some bare patches. Burr's detour into music, with Elvis and the Beatles, seems necessary - movie fame isn't self-contained - yet skimpy. He might have said much more about politics, beyond a glancing mention that one Hollywood actor parlayed celebrity into the presidency of the United States.
But heading toward the present, Burr shrewdly discerns how stardom changed with television and video, as the celebrities got closer to home, closer to our size. Today, as movie stars flash across cellphone screens, "they are finally much smaller than we are." When anyone with a cheap camera and Internet access can be a YouTube star, fame itself becomes devalued. If we feel drawn to Clooney in the old paradoxical way, it's because he follows the archaic Cary Grant model: a consistent personality no matter the film.
What does this mean for us? I think Burr overstates his case in saying that America once found stable identities in stars and that losing this "luxurious fantasy of the fixed self" leaves us adrift. But it's the mark of a valuable, provocative book that it can make us laugh, think and argue about the starry contradictions that are so profound a part of our lives, whether we like to acknowledge their importance or not.
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