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Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame

By Ty Burr

Pantheon

413 pages, $28.95



By Jeff Simon

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

When he was still lucid and full of magisterial cynicism, Gore Vidal used to joke mordantly that he was a famous novelist in an era when such a thing had ceased to exist.

Think of this superb, indeed important, book as the sudden, wildly unexpected attainment of intellectual stardom by a humble movie critic in an era that is increasingly engaged in prohibiting movie critics from becoming any such thing.

Such, of course, was not the case in the lifetimes of those of us who well remember the armed verbal combat between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris and the profession-defining weekly syndicated TV pillow fight between Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (and, after Siskel's premature death from a brain tumor, Richard Roeper). All of it was played out against a background of Richard Schickel, Richard Corliss, Jay Cocks and David Ansen at the news magazines and occasional disquisitions by Susan Sontag in the New York Review of Books.

Siskel and Ebert's act may have been godawful, but it established genuine and indubitable prominence for the profession that couldn't have achieved the same thing any other way.

Here we have a deceptively great book by a formidable critic who has, up to now, been a kind of stealth bombardier in his profession. Until "Gods Like Us," Ty Burr was no one's idea of a star - a man who now shares film review duties at the Boston Globe, is a former video columnist at Entertainment Weekly and the author of the doubtlessly useful but decidedly less-than-exalted volumes "The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together."

All of it, it seems to me, goes to prove how very much intellectual stardom depends as much on geography, happenstance, will and occupational politics as on any abstract consideration of merit.

This is one of the great books of its kind you'll encounter. It is certainly one any interested 21st century reader ought to have on the subject.

No one would claim that related cogitations begin to have the presence they ought to have: Richard Schickel's "Intimate Strangers," and Leo Braudy's "The Frenzy of Renown" to name two (not to mention Clive James' TV show and subsequent book "Fame in the 20th Century.")

It is Burr's inclusive history of the stardom that movies ushered in, only to be succeeded by stardom on television, in popular music and through the Internet's virulent but instant obsolescence. It is Burr's tale of a concept - stardom - that has "changed human society in ways we can barely encompass" and which never existed before in quite the same way before there was a medium that could invent it out of almost nothing in the first era of truly mass media.

"For a century, we accepted stardom as a blessing visited on those more gifted than we, a state of grace to which you and I in our drabness could not, and should not, aspire." But "sometime in the past two decades, between video and pay cable and the rise of the World Wide Web, the walls were breached and the masses poured in. The asylum is now ours."

And Burr, quite brilliantly, is there to tell us exhaustively how it happened with all major figures suitably checked off and accounted for with proper, if capsule, analysis starting with Florence Lawrence, the "Biograph Girl" who was stolen by ur-film mogul Carl Laemmle to "build up his own business" and "drive crazy" the "solid American burghers of Vitagraph and Biograph." (It is no accident that Thomas Edison sneeringly referred to Laemmle and his mogul successors as "The Pants Pressers.")

Laemmle made her into a star with a spurious obituary, a correction in Billboard and then, in the March 5, 1910, issue of Moving Picture World, a full page ad. Laemmle, bless his commercial heart, "possessed two characteristics that his opposite numbers lacked . tastelessness and a willingness to exploit it."

The tale from there goes on to the silent film genius of Charlie Chaplin (the book's very epigraph is Chaplin telling an adoring mob of fans in Russia in 1925 "It's all - nothing! It's all a joke. It can all be explained, I tell you. It's all - nothing.") to the lions of the populist expansion in the first sound era of the '30s to the '40s and '50s (which ushered in TV and such), the decades of "The New Hollywood" and the mensches allowed in and the contemporary world of "corporate stars" and the "Pixel Persona."

Burr misses no one major that I can see. While any movie scholar - amateur or indentured - might have all manner of quarrels with his characterizations or judgments, it is likely that no one has ever been better in recounting the full sweep of what we've come to think of "stardom" in the world that movies created.

An example: to my way of thinking, Burr is far too inattentive to the astonishing pair of freakish '40s movies made by the era's great prettyboy Tyrone Power with director Edmund Goulding, -the adaptation of Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge," and especially the adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's "Nightmare Alley" (whose savage closing line "Mister, I was made for it" seems to me, for a star of Power's magnitude and studied blandness, an astonishment even greater than Brando's epochal contempt for the whole star apparatus a decade later).

It isn't only intelligent specificity that characterizes this book, it's the book's macroscopic sweep into our 21st century pathology of stardom as a near-universal yearning.

So many names, in fact, were poured into Burr's manuscipt that at least once you can find an instance of the book's editor not being able to keep up: Elvis Presley's movie "King Creole" is called "Kid Creole" both in the text and in the index.

It was almost unavoidable in a consideration as massive and complete and cunning as this.

Here, in a beleaguered survival era of film criticism, we have the ultimate decadence: a brilliant and even profound history of stardom for an era that doesn't begin to know how very badly it both wants and needs it.



Jeff Simon is The News' Arts and Books Editor.