Hollywood makes movies, of course, but just as important — or maybe more so — it makes stars. But as Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr argues in “Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame,” the manufacture and maintenance of stars has been neither a smooth process nor one that the studios have always been able to control. In the course of the past century, the stars themselves have exercised an ever-increasing autonomy in the creation of their own images, by means of both their onscreen performances and the conduct of their private lives offscreen. The celebrity news media, whose multitude of platforms now includes the Internet and the cable universe, play an ever more important role. So does the public, whose intense identification with stars has fed a voracious hunger for more and more information about them.
With awards season upon us, Printers Row Journal caught up with Burr in a phone chat about "Gods Like Us" and its take on how stardom has evolved from early Hollywood to the present. Here's an edited transcript.
Q: One of the surprises in "Gods Like Us" is that for the first 15 years or so of their existence, Hollywood studios didn't identify the actors in their movies at all.
A: Part of it was that the studios were afraid that if they named the actors, they'd have to pay them more. But mainly they just didn't get it — they didn't understand how intensely the audiences would identify with the performers. Over time, they started getting tons of mail from people begging to know who the actors were.
Q: That's the core theme of your book — how and why people identify so strongly with actors in movies. It's complicated.
A: In the early days, it had to do with the difference between the stage and film. In film, you seemed to be getting a greater reality, a more authentic kind of person onscreen. The camera brought you in closer. The stories were more domestic and real-world. And it was easy to identify with the people onscreen because they seemed to be registering emotion the way we feel we do in real life.
Q: Perhaps the first big transition in movies was from a bigger, stage-based performance style to a greater naturalism.
A: That happened in the early teens, when you got a new generation of actors in the movies who understood that a different set of rules for presentation were needed, that you didn't have to semaphore to the back of the balcony. The camera gave everybody in the audience the best seat in the house, and you could register emotion almost just by thinking it. When sound came in, that was a new tool to express emotion, and it made a lot of the silent actors look melodramatic and fake.
Q: In the first couple of decades of the movies, it was female stars who provoked the greatest interest from audiences, particularly women.
A: It had to do with women's roles in society. Movies for the female audience were a form of fantasy and role-playing and dreaming, a screen onto which they could project all these dramas of escape, of misbehaving. Women would go see a Bette Davis picture to see what she could get away with. Men didn't have those same needs, because they had greater freedom in society. It's also true, especially in the silent era, that it was all about show, how things looked. The costumes and the sets and the decor were even more important than they were in the sound era. And so it was a way to project fantasies about self-presentation and high living, which mattered more to women of the era than it did to men.
Q: For male audiences, the advent of Clark Gable as a role model was important during the Great Depression, a time when the poor economy was emasculating.
A: Yes, he was vital, he was alive, he was confident. Rudolph Valentino, by contrast, was adored by women and loathed by men. Jimmy Cagney was more admired by men as an action star than he was by women. Everybody pretty much agreed about Gable. He seemed like he was in control of the situation, at a time when very few people felt in control of the situation.
Q: He also had a great set of dentures.
A: Yes. And ears.
Q: Over time, we needed stars to be more and more "like us," even as they maintained their larger-than-life quality. In that sense, Marlon Brando was a very important figure.
A: He's a key figure not only in the evolution of film acting but also in the evolution of movie stardom. With Brando, for the first time, they became two separate things. He performed in a gut, instinctively realistic style that was very unpredictable. He seemed like he was being, not performing, and he made all the stars who preceded him look like they were performing, like they were faking it. In regards to movie stardom, Brando had no use for it. He thought it was ridiculous, a game for children. That, in turn, made him a bigger star than ever, I think to his great confusion. Clark Gable was delighted to be a star. Jimmy Stewart was delighted to be a star. Even Katharine Hepburn, who had a fairly prickly persona and was often at odds with the masses, understood what being a movie star was all about. Brando had no interest.
Q: That was also consonant with his screen persona.
A: Initially, people confused him with Stanley Kowalski (the character Brando played in "A Streetcar Named Desire"). They thought he was a gorilla, and couldn't understand why he would spurn stardom. And then they began to see that he was very thoughtful, that he was choosing this rebelliousness as a way to push back against the constraints of stardom. And a lot of actors started picking up on it, from James Dean and other young male stars of the '50s, on through Robert De Niro and Sean Penn and others.