Review: Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, by Ty Burr

gods-like-us>>Published: September 2012

>>Finally got around to it: August 2013

Pickford opened the patio door in her nightgown one morning to find a wall of applauding British fans. At a garden party, a seething crowd pulled her out of her car while Fairbanks and the police fought them off; in photos, Mary is clearly terrified. “I touched her dress!” shouted one fan, and again we see the restless throng convulsively ripping something it loves into a million souvenirs. The couple took to seeing the sights of Europe by moonlight.

What the public was saying as it threatened to adore Mary to death was simple: You belong to us. The gods are owned by those who worship them. The dream is not the property of the figures in the dream but of the person having the dream. Zukor understood that. It was the democracy of the new movie stardom, and it was tyrannical. In the end, Mary and Doug reigned for sixteen years from their Hollywood mansion, Pickfair (what else could they call it?), divorcing sadly but without much fanfare in the sound era. They drifted apart, as kings and queens do when they understand that their subjects need them more than they need each other.

***

Depending on whom you ask, the word “celebrity” denotes either a movie star who lives a life of envy and privilege (earned or unearned), an actor or actress (or musician, artist, writer, etc.) who spent years busting their ass in pitiless roles waiting for their one-in-a-million big break, or an unsympathetic four-letter word decrying a culture wasted on the unmitigated worship of vapid, false, pretty-looking idols.

As a child of the movies (ie: someone who has spent far more hours than is probably sensible watching and re-watching the films in his collection, pulling them apart and picking at the chewy depths), I’ve always been a little divided on the concept—respecting the art and the artist when warranted, turning my nose up at the imitators and wannabes searching for their fifteen minutes as they hope to stretch it into an entire career of posing on red carpets and making ludicrous amounts of money. Celebrity is a label not unlike most vocations; where it differs, and what Ty Burr points out in his almost-but-not-quite-academic dissection of the culture surrounding the term, is not just in the financial windfall afforded to most celebrities, but in the degree of social awareness and obsession that comes part and parcel. Because being a celebrity isn’t just a career path, it’s a 24/7 mind-body association that for better or worse disrupts the rest of the world.

In Gods Like Us, Burr, a film critic with The Boston Globe, takes on the concept of celebrity—the lives of some of the more well known (and a few of the more obscure but still important) and their status as gods within our society—from an anthropological standpoint, charting the development of celebrity culture from its earliest days alongside the birth of the film industry through to the current generation of self-made YouTube stars.

Beginning with the origins of film and the studio system, Burr looks at the silent era and the first filmed images, and how, in no time at all, the people on screen became, in concert or not with their ambitions, icons of the changing structure of entertainment. The first few chapters of the book detail the beginnings of this iconographic association, and as illustrated in the quote at the start of this review, the unexpected public fervour that quickly developed alongside it. Burr briskly moves through the silent era and the rise of the studios to the talkies, the emergent fantasies revolving around star envy and how they went from being emergent to manicured, before introducing us to Brando and the breakthrough of stars not wishing to conform or bend to the wills of the studios. Personalities emerge unexpectedly, are quickly taken control of and carefully crafted to fit existing studios’ ideals, only to be upset yet again by a generational shift—it’s a continued narrative within the industry, one that sees studios forever losing ground and attempting to regain control over their self-styled deities.

The introduction of television and the rise of rock and roll added another wrinkle to the culture (or cult) of celebrity, by bringing the celebrities out from the theatres and into people’s homes. Couple this with the counterculture movements of the sixties and seventies, the at-long-last rise of the African American movie star, and the emergence of Andy Warhol as an identifiable celebrity in yet another corner of the entertainment world (with so much of his art and persona based on/critiquing/aping the film world in some fashion) and the notion of celebrity, still revolving around the film world as Earth to the Sun, was changed yet again. By the time the new millennium rolled around, celebrity had been redefined for the umpteenth time to include, quite literally, an individual’s fifteen minutes (or seconds) on the Internet where they became world-renowned (or notorious, as the case may be) for doing something amazing, awkward, intelligent, or earth-shatteringly stupid and posting it online for all to see, and often without a hint of embarrassment.

Beyond simply being an origin story for celebrity culture, Burr’s book is a fairly alarming but not at all surprising indictment of our need to constantly invent for ourselves new beings of worship. Without ever expressly doing so, his argument ties neatly into the criticisms many atheists have of religion as being an artifice dedicated to the creation of a non-existent supreme being or beings so that we on this tiny rock in the middle of a vast and seemingly unending universe don’t have to feel so gloriously alone. Celebrities are tastemakers and trendsetters to hitch our cultural wagons to in order to have decided for us what to wear, how to act, how to think about politics and the world around us. As Burr explores via the current explosion of self-made Internet celebrities, the tone and tenor of the conversation has shifted; while the large booming voices from above still linger and offer their opinions on our day-to-day lives (whether intentional or not), smaller, more isolated voices are now being heard with sometimes equal volume, also spreading their influential thoughts and opinions with the world, and in some cases affecting real change.

Conversely, we have a new type of celebrity, the Felicia Days and Joseph Gordon-Levitts of the world, who understand the privilege they have and the social lottery they’ve won through a mix of hard work and perseverance and being in the right place at the right time, and want to use their position to interact positively with their fans—to in some ways break down the previously omnipresent walls that existed between the average individual and their twenty-million-a-picture icons and to show that hey, we may make a lot more money than you and you know our names, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t want to know yours. Providing, that is, you’re not a stalker or an obsessed fan with thoughts of keeping your favourite star locked in a sex room of your own design.

As Burr points out near the end of the book, our tabloid desire to live vicariously through our icons is what’s spawned this unquenchable desire to throw up every part of our lives on the Internet, to see if anything sticks, to see if we too can win the cultural jackpot and become the next Justin Bieber, rising to stardom from Internet obscurity without all that messy going out into the world and working your ass off in auditions or doing gigs for next to nothing in dive bars across the continent. The tragedy of this is that it’s the notion of celebrity, of each of us becoming individualized gods with wealth and visibility beyond containment, that has pushed so many to be all that they can be, and not necessarily the urge to create, to put forth an artistic stamp on the world.

Gods Like Us is a fascinating look at the industry(ies) that created the very idea of celebrity, how stars have turned that world on its head and claimed their fame for their very own, and the rationality we’ve lost as a species as a result of the lust for power and fame that many are unable or unwilling to quench. The book isn’t a film theory text but a narrative, anthropological glimpse into the culture and social contracts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and how, in the absence of kings and queens and emperors ruling the world, we have created them for ourselves.

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