Back Pages: Boston Globe critic examines the rise of celebrity culture

burrThe American public’s obsession with famous people isn’t something new. But in the 21st century it’s become enormous. This desire to know all the exploits of performers fuels a 24/7 industry driven by media productions and magazines such as Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, People and Us. Even such ostensibly hard news programs as 60 Minutes and Nightline now incorporate celebrity segments, and the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and USA Today (among many other newspapers) have reporters on this beat.

Former Entertainment Weekly and current Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr examines this ongoing phenomenon in an informative new volume Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame (Pantheon). Burr’s book combines cinematic history with a detailed analysis that begins with Hollywood’s early years. He moves from the days of Nickelodeons to the birth of modern theaters. He spotlights breakthroughs in technology like cinemascope, highlights major personalities in various decades, then lastly arrives at current cineplexes. Along the way he also discusses the birth and rise of radio and TV, detailing their impact on the process, and the ways they affected and changed the direction of contemporary cinema. Burr even devotes a few pages to MTV, and the music video’s impact on the fame creation business.

godsAn epic step was the shift from the silent era to talkies. Audiences could now see and hear stars, and producers and directors started shaping projects that made actors and actresses enormously popular and influential. Unfortunately, several actors couldn’t make the transition due to meager voices, or an inability to handle greater demands for projecting a captivating personality. His portraits of Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin are quite instructive. Their once sizable hold on the public waned as a new generation of verbal and physical stars emerged.

This is also a tale about the triumph of image over substance, as well as a chronicle that shows American films and Hollywood studios steady growth into global entities. Whether it was gangster flicks or war movies, westerns, screwball comedies or tearjerker dramas, audiences not only identified with actors they saw on screen, they increasingly blurred the distinction between fantasy and reality. Burr argues legions of movie fans felt James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne were the characters they played, and lived vicariously through them. Fans increasingly sought more details about actors’ off-screen lives, and were unhappy if daily routines dispelled the studio myths.

His final chapters show how the Internet has forever altered the relationship between celebrities and audience. Instant fame is now available to anyone with a computer willing to be in a YouTube video. Consumers no longer meekly accept whatever they’re told about celebrities. They’re constantly seeking information about everything from contract negotiations to plots in upcoming films and TV shows. Unlike the lurid Confidential magazine of the ’50s and ’60s that printed scandalous material, but lacked the investigative muscle to back up their stories, TMZ, the National Enquirer and others utilize a network of sources and insiders who provide them with everything from mug shots to grand jury testimony.

As a result, public attitudes have hardened toward celebrities. Skeptics and cynics live for scenes like Tom Cruise’s sofa stomping incident on Oprah. Despite a lengthy list of profitable films and critically acclaimed performances, he’s never undone the damage from that segment. That’s because it went viral, and remains a cyberspace staple. No longer can studios, managers or PR consultants control the flow of information about stars, or sanitize their images. Now all they can do is hope celebrities are smart enough to minimize embarrassing public activities, and keep a close enough rein on their associates and entourages to limit the leaking of damaging photos, internal memos, and ugly phone messages.

Gods Like Us neither celebrates or demonizes America’s celebrity culture. Instead, it offers a graphic portrait of how it evolved and why it’s become so powerful.

Chapter Two
Though born in London, few American film critics or historians can rival David Thomson’s encyclopedic knowledge of the medium. His The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is now in its fifth printing. Among his other vital works Have You Seen?…..A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films rates among a handful of books that can serve as a definitive one volume movie guide.

bigscreenThomson’s newest work The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies (FSG) doesn’t contain much new material for those who’ve read his other authoritative books. But newcomers will discover what makes him so valuable over nearly 500 pages of reviews, commentary and essays. As usual, he’s all over the thematic map. Thomson covers blockbusters and art films, classics and recent works, documentaries and foreign films.

Personal favorites include his chapters on Howard Hawks, ’30s gangster films and “Silence or Sinatra.” The Sinatra essay evaluates Sinatra’s film work and concludes there’s more quantity than quality. But he also feels the great work more than compensates for the forgettable material. There are additional worthy chapters on Italian cinema and Renoir. Thompson also adds his take on the never-ending controversy in film circles regarding the importance of directors. Rather than attack or defend Andrew Sarris’ famous “auteur” theory, he bypasses it. Instead, his chapter views how the director’s role has evolved over decades. Thomson concludes current directors, with a few exceptions, don’t have the impact legendary ones did for reasons ranging from studio interference to the demands of actors and producers.

Thomson’s works aren’t for those with cursory interest in film. He’s writing for readers whose love of movies as an art form rivals his own. If you qualify on that score, you’ll thoroughly enjoy The Big Screen.

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.