Ever wonder why political pollsters ask us which candidate we would most like to have a beer with? Which one best understands “people like me”? Which one is like me? Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr explains why in his new book: Americans are so haunted by the tension between fame and anonymity that we are not fully functional unless we can identify with somebody who is well known.
Our nervous condition began almost exactly 100 years ago, when the early nickelodeon viewing machines grew into what became reverently known as “the movies.” Burr calls the early silent films “the first global delivery system for fame,” which worked so well that Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford “became the very first living human beings to be simultaneously recognizable to, in theory, everyone on earth.”
What made the movies such a powerful force was the sheer size of the images they projected. People had seen players and mummers before, but not even the best seats at the theater could bring stage actors up so close and so huge. The looming omnipresence of screen actors made movies “modern humanity’s Rorschach test” that showed us what we wanted to see: universally acknowledged examples of desirable human types on which to model ourselves.
It was the worst possible time for a national makeover. The frontier had closed, the rural enclaves were emptying, and the cities were filling up with displaced people whose mental stability depended on finding a new set of behavioral standards to replace the old moral order they had lost. They did not find it. Captives of the movies, they exchanged character for ego, which had never even existed in the masses before, and made it their driving force. In search of self-esteem, personal fulfillment, and proof of their individual uniqueness, they tried to be somebody else. They imitated the stars, strove to look like them, to behave like them, and, when sound came in, to talk like them.
Even, in the Fifties, Brando. Though he was new and threatening, completely unlike the dashing cavaliers and polished urbanites that pre-WWII audiences were used to, they identified with what they heard about him. He didn’t try, didn’t memorize, didn’t care about diction; he wasn’t acting, he was just being himself, he was spontaneous — he just was. This, says Burr, was exactly what fame junkies want to hear — “that you could just get up there, be yourself, and greatness would shine through.” Like sweat stains on a T-shirt.
Nor were audiences put off by the Schlub period of the mid-Sixties when “leading men looked like your cousin Melvin.” Dustin Hoffman beat back tall-dark-and-handsome for short and nerdy in The Graduate and Donald Sutherland won one for tall and gawky in Klute at the precise moment when movies dovetailed with the counterculture’s demand for “authenticity.” For the vast legions of Cousin Melvins who had despaired of somebody to identify with, it doesn’t get any better than this.
A star who frustrates fame junkies is Meryl Streep. How can you identify with a woman who plays Margaret Thatcher one day and Julia Child the next? And looks exactly like both of them? And sounds exactly like both of them? Burr calls her a “changeling” who serves “the role rather than refashioning it to serve a star persona,” an actress who brushes close to impersonation, as when she portrayed an Australian mother in 1988’s A Cry in the Dark and inadvertently provoked audience mirth with her impassioned line, “The dingo’s got my baby!” “[She] didn’t seem to realize it was silly even as she nailed the accent,” writes Burr. Her problem, as he sees it, is that she lacks conflicts, agony, and sex appeal. “Offscreen, she seemed rather happily dull, which on some level was another betrayal of why we go to the movies.”
In Burr’s opinion, only two stars have successfully defied all attempts to identify with them. One is Jodie Foster, whom he credits for her refusal to become a public figure after John Hinckley brought her name into his attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981, and again after she became the victim of a stalker. She could have juiced up the fame junkies with tell-all books and endless TV interviews about who she “really is” and how she “really feels,” but “she has scrupulously avoided being seen as a sex object or even a romantic object on film and in public. Foster has carved out a niche as a perceived class act. . . . Her ‘classiness’ is her ticket to privacy.”
The other star to successfully deflect the fame junkies is Shirley Temple. The reason is obvious: Fame junkies want to be the person they identify with. Adult women sought out Shirley’s father and begged him to impregnate them, but they wanted to be Shirley’s mother, not Shirley. She quit the movies in time to avoid adult stardom, and the results, says Burr, were stupendous: “As a child and an adult, she seems to have been wholly lacking in neuroses.” He’s right. Her later years saw no midlife crisis, no toy boys, just diplomatic appointments and the unmistakable image of a Republican matron.
At his best Ty Burr begs to be underlined, as in his assessment of Clara Bow’s impromptu blend of the Charleston and the Shimmy Shake: “She behaved vertically the way women weren’t even supposed to behave horizontally.” At other times, however, he falls into the trap of the movie buff in the process of becoming a cultural historian, intent on being the writer who comes up with the one thing that hasn’t been said about Charlie Chaplin yet, a descriptive assessment so perfect that no one else will ever need — or dare — to analyze the Little Tramp again. Burr’s stabs at hosannas and panegyrics are stale and irritating, e.g., “durability of art,” “part of the common cultural consciousness,” and — the oldest chestnut in the basket — “poignancy.” (He does it again when he discusses Marilyn Monroe, avoiding only “quality of vulnerability.”)
At one point, he slips into the lofty incoherence of the faculty lounge: “Elvis was the wild, classless idealism of the New England Transcendentalists, of Walt Whitman’s ‘barbaric yawp,’ laid onto vinyl. . . . Abandon. That was the idea that Elvis carried like a hip-pumping bacterium into the host culture’s DNA.” I wish I could stop here but there’s something even worse: He describes Fred Astaire as an “Art Deco swizzle stick.”
He also asks too many rhetorical questions — one whole paragraph consists of nothing else — an unfailing sign of a writer looking for a place to land. This is precisely what Burr needs, because the book is far too long, not only covering movies and television but containing detailed chapters titled “Corporate Stars” and “Pixel Persona: Stardom in the Internet Age.”
We are in the latter already. Stardom, says Burr, is now available to “any child with a digital camera and a YouTube account.” Yes, indeed, and the same thing is happening in every cultural field as well as in our public schools: If everybody is a valedictorian, nobody is a valedictorian. You could write a whole book about this and call it “Equality Strikes Again.”
That said, Gods Like Us — or half of it — is still a fun read. Enjoy the good parts and skip the rest.
– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.