Hollywood makes movies, of course, but just as important — or maybe more so — it makes stars. But as
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.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
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
Q: For male audiences, the advent of
A: Yes, he was vital, he was alive, he was confident.
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,
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.
Q: That was also consonant with his screen persona.
A: Initially, people confused him with Stanley Kowalski (the character Brando played in
Q: Brando has his descendants onscreen as well, actors who borrowed some of his performance style —
A: Hoffman, after he became an overnight star in
Q: So it became more important, post-Brando, for stars to be chameleons, as opposed to playing variations of the same persona over and over again.
A: Brando was the fork in the road, which widens in the '60s, between being a movie star and an actor. Some managed to straddle both; others are just quintessential stars,
Q: Let's talk about
A: Even Katharine Hepburn at age 60, which Streep is now, didn't have the career that Streep has. In her roles in the '80s, she was the nun of great acting. You went to her movies to be enlightened, to be amazed by her performance technique, and to have a miserable time, because her movies were always about people suffering. We were amazed by her, but we kind of got burned out on her. And so she went off and made a lot of different kinds of movies — action movies like "The River Wild," comedies like "Death Becomes Her," and over time she learned to have fun in a role, to let the joy of what she does, her art, become part of her performance.
The key movie in her rebirth as a star was "The Devil Wears Prada," which drew a lot of younger viewers, especially young girls who went to the movie for
Q: So why do we pay attention to the private lives of stars?
A: The urge of the public to know the "reality" behind the personas of movie stars has always been there. Even in the early silent era, the studios received hundreds of letters from viewers wanting to know who was married to who. Of course, what people really wanted to know was who was having sex with who. The scandals of the '20s — the
Early on, the studios rigorously controlled the images of their stars, but in the post-war period you had a magazine called Confidential, the first tell-all, revealing secrets such as
Q: We're even obsessed with the private lives of Hollywood figures who haven't accomplished much — people like
A: Celebrity has jumped the track from the onscreen entertainment narrative to the offscreen entertainment narrative. The word "Kardashian" is almost an adjective meaning valueless celebrity. It's a new kind of stardom. And because it comes via "reality" TV, we feel it has a heightened authenticity and veracity, when in fact it's just being sold to us.
Q: Norma Desmond said it was the pictures that got small. But maybe it's also our expectations — our expectations of what constitutes stardom — that got small.
A: Well, we have so many different kinds of narrative that we have endless kinds of stars now. It used to be that there were movie stars, and that was it. Now we also have TV stars, we have reality stars, and we have hip-hop stars, and on and on. It's fragmented into endless niches, each of which has its own universe. And, of course, its own audiences.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the
"Gods Like Us"